238. Engaged Teaching

The past two years have been challenging for teachers to navigate and be excited about. In this episode, Claire Howell Major joins us to discuss what it means to be an engaged teacher as well as practical resources to support teachers on their journey. Claire is a Professor of Higher Education in the Department of Educational Leadership Policy and Technology Studies at the University of Alabama. She is the author or co-author of several superb books and resources on teaching and learning.

Show Notes


John: The past two years have been challenging for teachers to navigate and be excited about. In this episode, we discuss what it means to be an engaged teacher as well as practical resources to support teachers on their journey.


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 Claire Howell Major. Claire is a Professor of Higher Education in the Department of Educational Leadership Policy and Technology Studies at the University of Alabama. She is the author or co-author of several superb books on teaching and learning. Welcome back, Claire.

Claire: Thanks, I’m delighted to be here, John and Rebecca. Thanks for having me again. My second time, so yay.

Rebecca: Love it!

John: We’re really happy to have you back again. And our teas today are… Claire, are you drinking tea?

Claire: I am not. I’m drinking water.

Rebecca: John. I have a supreme English breakfast today.

Claire: Nice. Good choice.

John: Supreme as in?

Rebecca: It’s supreme.

John: Okay, we’ll leave it at that, and I have an Irish breakfast today. So part of the same empire there.

Rebecca: Yeah… [LAUGHTER]

John: That supreme empire.

Rebecca: I was going to say, is it very supreme? [LAUGHTER]

John: It is just Twinings Irish breakfast.

Rebecca: So we’ve invited you here today to discuss Engaged Teaching: A Handbook for College Faculty, your newest book, co-authored with Elizabeth Barkley, and its relationship with the K. Patricia Cross Academy. Could you first tell us a little bit about the creation of the K. Patricia Cross Academy?

Claire: Sure Rebecca, I would be delighted to. The Cross Academy is a resource that Elizabeth and I developed, in part, to honor Pat Cross, and her many, many contributions to higher education. Pat had just an amazing career in higher education that started really in about the mid 50s. And she finished her work in the mid 90s. And she served in a ton of high level administrative positions: at Cornell, at Berkeley, and at Harvard. And these were really high level positions at a time where it was pretty difficult for women to get high level positions. And she just did an amazing job and was really respected for her work as an administrator, but also for her work as a researcher. And you probably know her Classroom Assessment Techniques with Tom Angelo. It’s a fabulous book that shares formative classroom assessment techniques, and it has been used far and wide. I use it myself on a regular basis, and it’s been around for a long time and is still just a great tool. In that book, Pat and Tom developed a format for the assessment techniques that Elizabeth, Pat, and I used when we co-authored our first book together, Collaborative Learning Techniques. And it also served as the model for several of our later books, including Student Engagement Techniques, Interactive Lecturing, and Learning Assessment Techniques. And those techniques became the basis and the foundation for the Cross Academy. So that’s where it came from, but in addition to honoring Pat for her work, we also wanted to share information with faculty. We wanted to make some of these techniques a lot more accessible, so people didn’t have to necessarily go buy a book. That they could go to an online resource and pull that information anytime, anywhere, and also for free. We just wanted an open resource that could help faculty, and help faculty in short chunks. Each of our videos is about two to three minutes, and so it’s not a huge investment of time to go watch two or three minutes of video to get a great technique that faculty can try out in their own courses, and hopefully find a good use for. So our purpose there was twofold, to honor Pat and her work and also to widely share information that her work was foundational for, and we developed it from there and wanted to share that information with others.

John: At the teaching center here, we shared many resources with our faculty during the course of the pandemic. But the one that was most appreciated by faculty, based on the number of responses, was the K. Patricia Cross Academy resources. People wrote back saying how very useful it was, and how they wished they had seen it earlier and it’s gotten a lot of really positive responses here on campus, and I’m sure everywhere.

Claire: Well, thank you for that, John. I’m just delighted to hear it. It just warms my heart to hear that your faculty have enjoyed it. We have had a lot of visitors to the site, over 200,000 at this point. So I do think we are accomplishing that goal of sharing information with faculty. And we’re always just delighted, and so pleased to hear that people are finding it useful. That they are using the techniques in their own classes… so, just great news.

John: There’s so many other resources out there that describe some of the techniques that you have there, but they’re usually text based with maybe some images, or there may be a YouTube video or there may be some handouts attached to the text and so forth. But what people seem to really appreciate with this, and what we really appreciate with this is… you’ve got all those resources together in a really nice efficient arrangement. And you’ve devised a site where it’s really easy to find this material. You have a number of ways of indexing it. Could you talk a little bit about the ways in which people can access the information on the site?

Claire: Sure, sure. The site currently consists of 50 main videos, and each video is focused on a single teaching technique. For example, quick writes, or digital stories, or case studies and so on, and all of these techniques can be sorted in several different ways. You can search by the activity type, is it an assessment technique? Or is it a group learning technique? You can sort by the problem that it solves, for example, are you having trouble with student engagement? Are you having trouble with student attention? You can sort that way, and you can sort by Dee Finks’ learning taxonomy. So is it for foundational knowledge you’re trying to use the technique for? Are you trying to help students develop higher-order thinking skills? Are you trying to help students learn how to learn? And so the site is sortable in all those different ways, but it’s not just those 50 techniques. Each of those 50 techniques also has an online version. So we developed 50 additional videos, where we say, “Okay, here’s what a jigsaw is,” in the main video. And then in the accompanying video for how to do it online, we would say, “Here’s how you do a jigsaw in an online course.” So we have 100 videos really, because each of the 50 has the online version. And in addition to the videos, because you know, I’m pretty much a text-based person. I love to read, I love to see things in writing, I love books, all of those things. But we also have the techniques in downloadable templates. So in addition to watching the video, you can download a written version that gives you the quick and dirty of: here’s how you do it… provides the rationale for it. It gives an example of how it’s done in practice, a lot of times those examples come from my courses or Elizabeth’s courses. But there’s also worksheets space for faculty to record their own answers. And we also have a blog on the Cross Academy site, which we call CrossCurrents. And the blog publishes monthly, and we have different write ups each month of things that are timely and topical for teaching. And so we might discuss blended learning, for example, in a video or a blog, or another blog might be: “here’s how you can get students to read for class.” So we have all those different features in the Academy.

Rebecca: I love that everything is so bite sized, so that you can curate your own kind of collection of things to share as well so easily because the examples aren’t embedded in other examples. Which is sometimes you know, you might have a video or a workshop on good techniques, but then they’re all in the same thing. You can kind of separate them out, which is really nice. [LAUGHTER]

Claire: Yes, thanks Rebecca. We think so too, and part of that is, we know how busy we are. I mean, gosh, right now especially, faculty are just overwhelmed with teaching, with research, with service, with whatever we’re doing. And it feels like now it’s even more so than, say, pre-pandemic, because there’s so much more emotional labor to engage in. And it’s just a lot of work. So how do you find time to work on your teaching, and that’s one of the things we wanted to do is make everything easily accessible, like I said, where you could learn something new in two to three minutes, or a five- or ten-minute read of a blog post or something like that. So the goal is to make it manageable, and very, very useful and very practical.

Rebecca: And such a great model for what we should be doing for our students.

John: One thing I do have to wonder, though, given what you just said about all the challenges that faculty are facing is… how you’ve been able to stay so incredibly productive with all of these books. I think you’ve written more really good books on teaching and learning than most faculty have ever read.

Claire: Well, thank you. I think that’s a compliment, [LAUGHTER] I’m gonna take it as one.

John: It is. I’m really amazed. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Please teach us the ways. [LAUGHTER]

Claire: I think there are maybe a couple of reasons for that. One, I have a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in English. So my background is in English, and in English you learn to write a lot and you learn to write quickly, right? [LAUGHTER] Or at least in my degree programs that was one of the features, but the other thing is that, maybe because of that degree is, I process by writing. I learn things by writing. It’s how I take in information and understand the world. So a lot of the books I’ve written and co-authored with Elizabeth and other people. You’ve met Todd, and Michael and some of the other folks that I’ve worked with, just wonderful, fabulous folks, but one of the things that I think I try to do is learn something. And when I’m learning something, I’m usually writing stuff down about it, and by the time I’ve written all the stuff down that I’ve learned, then I think, “Well, I can just share this with other people,” right? I’ve done all this work to try to understand something myself, to think through it. That’s something I can share with others, and that’s certainly how the first book that Elizabeth, Pat, and I developed together, the Collaborative Learning Techniques, came about. I was really struggling with collaborative learning. It is hard to do that well. But the benefits are worth it because the research is really clear on that. It helps students learn, it helps develop their learning outcomes, it helps them get along with each other, it helps increase understanding and awareness, it really benefits marginalized students, it benefits not marginalized students. I mean, the research is really clear that it is a fabulous technique. And so I just wanted to learn how to do it and learn how to do it well, and so I started digging into everything I could get my hands on, and trying to pull it together, and synthesizing it. And I talked with Pat Cross about it, and Pat said, “You know, we should use that classroom assessment technique format for this book. And by the way, Elizabeth Barkley is going to be writing this book with us,” and that’s how that got started. Anyway, I think that’s mainly it. It’s me trying to learn and I’m on a constant quest for trying to learn new things, and I just try to share that information when I can.

John: And we all benefit from that . Thank you.

Claire: Thank you.

Rebecca: So glad you’re so curious. [LAUGHTER]

Claire: Yeah, I guess so. I guess I’m curious or motivated by challenges that I’m facing. So either way, either way.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about how Engaged Teaching, your new book, relates to the Academy?

Claire: Yes. So I think there are a lot of different ways it relates, but I’ll say this, we wanted to write a foundational, or introductory book for college teaching. So one of the things I try to do in my work is, I’ve mentioned how busy faculty are, I want to put theory and research into the faculty’s hands in ways they can use it to improve their own teaching and learning. And those have been narrow slices, like collaborative learning, like learning assessment techniques, like interactive lecturing, some of those things are pretty focused. And so Elizabeth and I were talking about it, and we decided that it would be really useful to have a foundational text that does basically that. That draws together the theory and the research, but we’re both very, very practical people. We want things that help faculty in their day-to-day practices, that they can take away immediately and use something from. So we had the Cross Academy that have those takeaways. You can use this in your class tomorrow, watch this video, take it to your class tomorrow, or take it to your class in an hour. But we wanted to provide the theory and the research that supports that and some of the broader practical tips. So that’s kind of how it came into being. That we wanted this broader foundational book to give the techniques some context, and to give it some foundation and some grounding in the work. So they do talk to each other. Like I said, the book is the foundation, and the techniques are the very practical: “Here’s how you carry it out.” Although the book has that too, the practice parts, but it’s bigger practice, it’s more like a general tip. Whereas one of the tips might be, “Use small groups in your teaching,” and then the techniques are, “Hey, use a jigsaw,” or “Hey, try a think, pair, share.” So they are connected that way.

John: And you describe those linkages in the book and have a table of how those techniques tie back into the chapters to make it easier to do that cross referencing.

Claire: Yes, that’s right. And we mention the techniques within the chapters where we find them particularly relevant. Many of them can cut across a lot of different chapters. But if you’re reading the chapter on collaborative learning, we mentioned techniques that are on the Cross Academy site that are focused on group learning, and so forth.

John: The title of the book begins with “Engaged Teaching.” How do you define engaged teaching?

Claire: That’s a really good question and I think engaged teaching is a really interesting and important concept right now. You read things in The Chronicle of Higher Education… faculty are disengaged, students are disengaged, etc, etc… I’m not sure I believe that exactly. I know we’re tired, right? [LAUGHTER] I know that we’ve dealt with some things through the pandemic, and it’s taken a toll. But I think the engagement is still there, and I think to be really effective teachers starts with being an engaged teacher. One leads to the other. Being engaged can get you to be effective. So I think of engaged teaching as two things, it’s a foundation and also a process. And the foundation is an intellectual foundation. And that involves the knowing what, the knowing why, and the knowing how, and that’s how each of our chapters is structured. Every chapter you’ll read there’s a “what this topics’ about,” “why this topic is important” (largely drawing on the research), and then “how you can do this particular thing in practice.” So that’s the foundation, the intellectual part of that. And the process is implementing that in key areas of teaching and the key steps that we have to undergo. And that is developing our own knowledge. It means planning a course, it means creating a positive learning climate and choosing and using the appropriate instructional methods. And it also involves continual improvement of our teaching practice. So it’s going through each of those phases of teaching and thinking through the knowing what, the knowing why, and the knowing how.

Rebecca: When I think about engaged teaching, and as you’re describing things, Claire, I also think about reflective practice and how they’re tied together. And the idea that you have to observe what you’re doing to be fully engaged, or take time to reflect on that, to really dig into the research or to know what techniques you want to look into, or to recognize that you’re struggling with something.

Claire: Right, and I think that’s a key point. And I think the idea of reflective practice is kind of an overarching idea of the book. But we also have a chapter on that, on being a reflective teacher and using reflective practice in your teaching. So absolutely, they are definitely related.

John: For our listeners who have not yet picked up a copy of the book, could you provide an overview of the different sections of the book?

Claire: Sure, part one is about foundations of teaching and learning. And in that we start with engaged and effective teaching, and what engaged teaching means, and how that can lead you to effective teaching. We also think through pedagogical content knowledge, and that’s a specialized kind of knowledge that faculty have that no one else has and it’s really important to develop that, and we think about how to develop that. We also talk about student learning, which I think is really important and it’s something we don’t always have formal instruction on in our graduate programs, or prior to teaching our courses. But we think it’s really essential to understand what your views of learning are, and how students learn, and what can be challenges to student learning, and then how they can overcome those challenges. So it is a very foundational: “Here’s teacher knowledge, here’s student learning, and here’s some things you need to know.” Part two is about planning, and that involves thinking about learning goals, objectives and outcomes, everybody’s favorite, right? But those are more and more essential in today’s society [LAUGHTER] they say. We all have to usually do those for all kinds of reasons. For accreditation purposes, because we have to post our syllabi, and other things, and because it is just a good idea to do. The research shows that it helps improve student learning. If you have this kind of clear path laid out and know where you’re going, it helps you know how to get there. We also, in that section, talk about assessing and grading, and we talk about visual elements in teaching which is, I think, an under-thought-through aspect of teaching, but I think it is important to the planning process. And that could be from your syllabi to your slide decks to your online LMS or whatever. There’s a lot of visual content that we share with students that I think we can improve and really think through and do a good job on. Part three is about the learning climate. We think about student engagement and motivation. We talk about community and how to build community in classes, and we also think through and talk about how to promote equity and inclusion in teaching. Part four is about instructional methods, and we cover three big ones there: interactive lecturing, discussion, and then also collaborative learning. And then finally, in part five, we focus on improvement. And we talk about reflective teaching and assessing and evaluating student teaching from beyond student opinions of instruction, right? Some other ways to go about it. We do talk about student opinions of instruction and some of the challenges with those, and some of the benefits with those, but also thinking beyond that, and other ways to assess and evaluate teaching. And then our final chapter is on the scholarship of teaching and learning, and how we can go that extra step in collecting data, understanding data, and sharing that information with other people.

Rebecca: So basically, the textbook that none of us had when we started teaching. [LAUGHTER]

Claire: That was kind of the idea. Yeah, absolutely. I teach a course on college teaching, and this is what I would want my students to know.

John: And it’s everything from the basic theory of course design, implementation of the course, and looking back and seeing what worked, and what didn’t work, and what you could do better. It’s pretty much everything faculty need to do to become an effective teacher, or an engaged teacher.

Claire: Maybe not everything, but we definitely try to cast a wide net and cover a lot of important topics that we hope will benefit people from thinking through a little bit more.

Rebecca: I really love that this particular text includes an introduction to the scholarship of teaching and learning too, because it’s an area that many of us might want to engage in, but are never really exposed to necessarily, at least early on. You might stumble upon it [LAUGHTER] as opposed to it being like formally introduced.

Claire: Right, right, and there’s so much good work in that area. I mean, that field is really growing, and they’re just more and more articles being published, and I think it’s wonderful because so many times teaching is very isolated. We go behind our closed doors, or we sit behind our screens, and we teach our courses, and it stops there, and our students go out, and that’s wonderful, and carry on. But we may have faculty teaching the same courses at other institutions who never hear anything about what we’re doing, and if we can contribute to that knowledge then we can all get better. It helps us all level up just a little bit to be able to hear what other people are doing, and what’s working, or what’s not working, and to have that data I just think is really great. So I hope people will look at that and think, “Gosh, I could do this. I could go out and do an article on my teaching and share that with others.” I think that would be a fabulous, fabulous outcome.

Rebecca: Can you describe to our listeners, maybe a couple of your favorite teaching techniques or other nuggets from the book?

Claire: That is such a hard question, it’s like choosing your favorite child. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: All right, just an example, just an example, it doesn’t have to be your favorite. [LAUGHTER]

Claire: No, no, I’m gonna give you a couple. I have used, I believe, every single technique we have on the Cross Academy site, and so I have personally field tested them all, and I think Elizabeth has as well. And there are some ones that I turn to over and over and over again. Quick writes are one, I think background knowledge probe is another one, case studies I use quite often. There are two that I turn to, I would say, more often than others. And one is the digital story, and that’s where students create videos, and in these videos they describe how their own personal lives connect to the course content. And I like to use these early in a course to help students introduce themselves to each other, and also because it puts them in a mind frame of understanding, “Oh hey, I do have important knowledge and experience that relates to this course,” and that’s pretty good. And I have seen students just produce really, really wonderful, fabulous stories, and it’s really heartening. They share things and it’s just really powerful to see these. So I do love that one. Another one that I really love is a personal learning environment, and that’s where people have digital resources that they can use to learn more about their course content later on going forward. And it’s basically they create a concept map that’s got nodes and ties to the resources that they could use, and it could be people, it could be websites, it could be books, it could be journals that they’re going to consult going forward. But I often like to end a course by having them develop a PLE where they can say how they can continue to learn about the course content going forward. So those are two of my favorites, I think.

Rebecca: Those are good favorites. I like those two.

Claire: Yeah I like them, they’re good. And they work well both online and on site. So they’ve got some flexibility that way.

Rebecca: Just mentally noting like, “Yes, yes, that would be a really good way to end my class.”

Claire: Right?

Rebecca: Yes, maybe I should update my syllabus. [LAUGHTER] Re-writing the assignment in my head as we’re talking. [LAUGHTER]

Claire: Yeah, it’s one of my favorites, and they get really detailed with them. And they have all these mapping tools you can use like Popplet, or Buble.us, or whatever the newest programs are and they make just beautiful illustrations, and get really complicated maps, and do have very clear content sources that they can seek out in the future. And I think that’s great. And I love seeing the people that they choose. It’s really fun to see.

Rebecca: I imagine anything that doesn’t say “just Google it” sounds great. [LAUGHTER]

Claire: Yeah, although sometimes Google does pop up on one of the resources in the nodes. They do mention Google and that’s fair, right?

Rebecca: As long as it’s not the only node. [LAUGHTER]

Claire: No, it’s not. It’s never the only one. So I’m teaching this college teaching course, and I had them do a PLE for this course and they have all kinds of people who were out there talking about teaching. They have all kinds of books that we’ve discussed in class and journals that focus on college teaching, conferences that are related to college teaching. It’s really elaborate and intricate. I never really specify, you could specify how many nodes and ties they have to do, but I never do and they have not yet disappointed. They’re always really very thoughtful and well done, and really nicely mapped out resources.

Rebecca: I’m sure as the instructor that gets to look at all of them your own really expands. [LAUGHTER]

Claire: It does, right, right? Yeah, that’s a good point. They have great suggestions. They really do.

John: I really liked the way you described bringing students into the discussion though, by thinking about how it applies to their life and building the relevance and salience of the material, and then preparing them at the end to become lifelong learners. So you’re really bringing students into the conversation in the discipline in a way that a lot of classes don’t.

Claire: Right, yeah. I think it’s really important, and so I’m teaching this course that I’ve mentioned a couple of times now, online this semester. And students are really great and really open, and there are a few things that I’m doing there that I think are interesting. One of the things that I do is, instead of having them submit assignments, they submit everything through the discussion board, and so they all see each other’s PLEs, they all see each other’s digital stories. It’s sort of like a gallery approach to assignments and I love it, you know? And nobody’s complained about it yet. So I think that’s good. I will say I’m teaching graduate students, I might have a different approach if I were doing undergrad. But at the graduate level, they seem very willing to share their information with each other. And they always say that they learn from looking at each other’s posts, that they always think of things that they would not have thought about if they had just been submitting online. And so I do think it’s very important to have the conversation, and the students involved in the direction. Another thing I think is interesting is that I do a questions and comments section on each module. And that’s all it says, if you have any questions or comments, post. They have no reason to post there, and the first time I tried that I thought, “No one’s ever going to use this,” but they do. They get in there and they post, they post thoughts about readings, they post questions to each other, they respond to each other’s questions. And I don’t get very involved in that unless there’s a question that hasn’t been answered, then I’ll answer it. But mostly, that’s a self sustaining thing where students are just self managing the board and helping each other out and talking to each other without the instructor telling them to, and without a lot of monitoring, so that’s fun. So yeah, students are fabulous. I love involving them. I love hearing from them, and I love giving them a space where they can share and talk to each other.

John: And it sounds like they’re quite engaged.

Claire: They are, they’re great, they’re great.

John: The use of a discussion board for students submitting assignments reminds me of an earlier discussion we had on a podcast with Darina Slattery. She called the activity E-tivities, where all the work in her course… it was also, I believe, a graduate course in education…, was done through discussion board submissions. And she also described some of the benefits that students receive from sharing each other’s work and that collaborative environment. So it seems like a really good technique that I should try too. [LAUGHTER]

Claire: Right, It’s fabulous. I love it, I love it. I recently was revising my course with an instructional designer. He was like, “You know you’ve got all your assignments set up as discussion boards, right?” It’s like, “Yeah, yeah I know.” He’s like, “Do you think they’re going to be nervous about that?” I said, “Well, they don’t seem to be.” [LAUGHTER] They seem to be fine, just sharing away no one’s, like I said, ever really expressed discomfort either during the class, or through the SOI, it has only ever been very positive. I loved seeing what other people were doing, I learned from other people, it was great to be in that kind of dialogue with other people. And so it is an unusual approach, and I guess maybe it’s good to prepare people for it. But they seem to respond well, at least as far as I can tell.

John: But it’s also preparing people who are going to be teaching to work in an environment that’s collaborative so they’re not in their silos making the same mistakes that tens of thousands of people have made in the past, and being able to learn from each other and to share with each other. So, that seems like a really productive strategy.

Claire: It is a great strategy, at least for me and my students. I’m not saying it works in everybody’s class or for everybodys’ students, but it has been wonderful for me. The other thing I do in this course is that each week they create an assignment that’s called “create.” They have to create something, and it’s something for a final teaching dossier that they do. And so each week they produce something, like they might do a teaching philosophy, or they might outline a class session, or they might do something else. And one thing I’ve done this semester is ask them to offer each other improvements, right? Give everybody a constructive criticism. One compliment, one suggestion for making it even a tiny little bit better, because they then assemble all this work into a final portfolio. And so they’re helping each other out throughout the semester. I’m starting to see their portfolios come in, and it does make them stronger. They are doing really great work. They are all very constructive. They’re very kind to each other, and I had to nudge them a little bit at first and say, “No, you need to help them get it better, It will help their final grades if you can help them now.” And once they understood that they really locked into that and really started trying to help each other on their final projects, and that’s been really interesting and good to see as well.

Rebecca: I’ve been able to do something similar in using chat software. So right now I’m using Google Chat. But I’ve also used Slack to submit and share work.

Claire: Mmhmm.

Rebecca: And I find that my students are much more comfortable sharing in that environment where they can have written feedback and share written feedback, because they can contemplate what they say more carefully. And also, it makes a record of it, and they don’t lose it if we have a conversation about it. It’s like documented feedback. [LAUGHTER]

Claire: Yeah!

Rebecca: …or they can go back and reference, and those are things that students have said that they appreciate about an environment like that is that they’re nervous about speaking up about it, but they’re less nervous if they can plan a little bit more about how they approach it or talk about it in these chat environments. Which is funny because I think of chat as something being like, quick, [LAUGHTER] but they treat it more like a discussion board.

Claire: Right, right. Well, I’m doing it on the discussion board so I think it’s similar to what you’re doing. They do seem to appreciate it, they really do. And I think they’ve benefited from it, and I think through the process of offering constructive feedback, they see things they can improve in their own writing as well. So they’re helping somebody else out, and they’re helping themselves out, and I think that’s really fabulous, and it’s so exciting seeing their final projects come in, and how they have taken them and improved them over the semester. It’s really gratifying.

John: I’m having students do something similar, where they’re providing feedback on each other’s work. And in our last class meeting, one of the students said, “I wish the comments contained more constructive criticism.” And hearing it from another student, I think, has helped quite a bit in improving the quality of the feedback, because I asked them to provide constructive feedback to each other, but they were very reluctant to do that in the first round or two. But when other students are saying, “You know, I wish we could get more of this type of feedback.” They picked an example of that, and it seems to be making a difference.

Claire: Yeah, absolutely. It’s so gratifying. You’re just like, “Yeah, y’all are doing it, this is great.”

Rebecca: Along those lines, John, today in my class, we did an electronic whiteboard activity. I teach web design so we were critiquing a website. So I gave them a link to look at, and then to use sticky notes essentially to provide feedback. And then what I did was ask them, “Was this actionable feedback?” And then they were like, “No, not really. I don’t know what this means, I don’t know what this means.” It’s like, “Exactly,” [LAUGHTER] and I heard all kinds of clicks go on. So I think moving forward, as we moved on in the class period today, it was amazing how much better and more clear [LAUGHTER] the comments were, once they realized how vague they were when we took this thing that was outside of us to look at.

Claire: That’s great.

John: So now this book, Engaged Teaching, was written during a period of pandemic. And also I believe there’s been some developments on the K. Patricia Cross Academy during this period. Did the pandemic influence the development of these two projects?

Claire: That’s a great question, John. I think the answer is most certainly, yes. And on the Cross Academy side, I think it’s a very clear connection. We knew that we wanted to develop videos on how to do them online, eventually. So we had our 50 techniques, and we thought, “Yeah, you know what would be really good, and helpful and useful, is if we eventually, down the road sometime, created short videos on… here’s how you would do this online, either asynchronous or synchronous.” And we were kind of going along our merry way and the pandemic hit, and we realized that needed to happen a lot faster than we had originally planned. And so we sort of front loaded that, and got videos out really, really quickly, all things considered. And it was challenging because we do our filming in California, and we couldn’t travel. So there was no going there to do videos, we couldn’t be in a room with a bunch of other people trying to film those videos because, at that time, at least originally, we weren’t real sure how the spread was happening. And we didn’t know a lot about how to contain it, and I don’t think it would be great to be mask on those videos anyway. So we went to voiceovers and did a lot of work through voiceovers and accompanying footage through that, and so that shifted as well. I think as far as the book goes, I think it shifted our focus just a little bit to that concept engagement a little bit more, because we started to realize how important engagement is for faculty, for the life of faculty, for successful teaching, for all of those things. I think maybe initially it started out as the foundational textbook, and then I think we realized the importance of weaving the engagement piece through that, and thinking through, what does it mean to be an engaged teacher? And how do we engage in this work at any time, right? Especially when we’re struggling and we’re tired, and we’re doing things we don’t know how to do. I think that just became a lot more prominent. It was always there, but I think, like the online videos, the plans were there, they got frontlined. With the engagement, it was always there, but it got spotlighted or forefronted and a lot more

John: Is there some type of foundation funding the development of the K. Patricia Cross Academy? Or where does the funding and support for this come from?

Claire: So the funding for the Cross Academy has been 100% private donations, and anonymous donations to this point. So it has been completely funded by the generosity of people who wanted to support this work, to make this project an open project, and not a paid subscription or anything like that. We wanted it to be open and we found people who thought this was a good idea and were willing to support us from that. We could always use more funding, right? And so in part, this book can help with that because all the royalties that we receive from the book are going directly to support the K. Patricia Cross Academy. We’re supported by the SocialGood Foundation, and all proceeds are going directly to the SocialGood Foundation. The SocialGood Foundation is earmarking them for the K. Patricia Cross Academy, and so all of the money will go directly to support the Cross Academy for helping us continue to develop content, blogs, and videos, and continue sharing that information.

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

Claire: Yeah, that’s a great question. And there is always something next at the Cross Academy. We are continually trying to develop that site, and what is in the works right now is a new phase where we are developing an activity bank for college faculty to work through. And these activities will help faculty reflect on their own current views on the different aspects of college teaching in the book that we’ve just published, discuss their ideas with other faculty, and create teaching materials that can help them in their own classrooms, and also develop products that could help them in promotion, and tenure and merit reviews. So that is coming I hope soon. I guess it’ll be 2023, but that is the next phase that we are working on.

Rebecca: That sounds awesome.

John: It does.

Claire: We’re really excited about it. I hope it’s going to be useful for people and really give them the opportunity to engage with engaged teaching a little bit more, to engage with the Cross Academy in ways that can help them improve their teaching… and students’ learning by extension.

John: Well, thank you. It’s always great talking to you, and you’ve given us a lot to think about and our listeners a lot to think about. And we strongly encourage people to pick up a copy of Engaged Teaching. It’s a great book. I haven’t read through all of it, but I’ve read through a big chunk of it in the last few days since my copy came in.

Claire: Well, thank you, and thanks, John and Rebecca for having me. I have totally enjoyed being here, thoroughly enjoyed the conversation. It’s been lovely.

Rebecca: And we look forward to seeing the next round of materials that come out because I know we’ll want to share them.

Claire: Great. Thanks very 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, Annalyn Smith, and Joshua Vega.


237. Latina Educational Developers

Our intersectional identities impact our positionality in the work that we do. In this episode, Carol Hernandez joins us to discuss her qualitative research addressing the experiences of educational designers from an underrepresented group.

Carol is a Senior Instructional Designer and Faculty Developer at the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at Stony Brook University. Carol recently successfully defended her dissertation at Northeastern University. In it she examined the simultaneity of the multiple identities experienced by Latina educational developers working in higher ed. Before moving into higher ed, Carol was an award-winning journalist.

Show Notes


John: Our intersectional identities impact our positionality in the work that we do. In this episode, we discuss a qualitative research analysis addressing the experiences of educational designers from an underrepresented group.


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 Carol Hernandez. She is a Senior Instructional Designer and Faculty Developer at the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at Stony Brook University. Carol recently successfully defended her dissertation at Northeastern University. In it she examined the simultaneity of the multiple identities experienced by Latina educational developers working in higher ed. Before moving into higher ed, Carol was an award-winning journalist. Welcome, Carol.

Carol: Hi, thank you for having me today.

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

Carol: I’m not drinking tea right now.

Rebecca: Oh.

Carol: Should I go get some? [LAUGHTER]

John: We have had a number of guests, probably about 40% or so, who are not drinking tea. So you’re in very good company.

Rebecca: Yes, excellent company in fact.

Carol: I’m usually drinking tea, but it just so happens that right now I’m not.

Rebecca: Do you have a favorite kind of tea?

Carol: Yeah, I guess I like chamomile.

Rebecca: Oh, that sounds nice and refreshing and calming.

Carol: Mmhmm, or something fruity. There’s something called zesty raspberry zinger or something like that. I like that.

John: Raspberry zinger, yeah.

Rebecca: Yeah, I’m familiar.

Carol: Yeah.

John: And I have a peppermint spearmint blend today.

Rebecca: Okay, we’re calming down now, huh, John?

John: After the last four or five cups of black tea, yes.

Rebecca: Yeah, I’m still hyped up on my Scottish afternoon tea.

John: We’ve invited you here because we were intrigued by the title of your dissertation, I’m Not Like You. I’m Different. But before we talk about your research and your dissertation, could you tell us a bit about your pathway, which is somewhat unique, from being a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist to an educational developer?

Carol: So it starts with me going into journalism. At 19 I was an intern at the Miami Herald, and I loved it. I was so happy there, and I met all these famous writers. It was really such a dream, and I learned everything there. And then finished college and started working as a journalist, and really enjoyed it all throughout my 20s. And then I started editing, so I went to the editing side. And the way I think of writing and editing is like… writing is the creative, messy part, and then the editor comes in and analyzes it, and looks for fit, and cleans it up, and tries to make it even better. So the two really complement each other. I would never say one’s better than the other, but I think as a writer you have to be aware of those two approaches, because sometimes you just want to be in the writing space and sometimes you just want to be in the editing space. And I think what happens is sometimes you end up doing both at the same time, and you can’t get out of your own way. So anyway, in journalism, the things I really loved about it were writing, I love writing, reading. I love talking to strangers. [LAUGHTER] I love asking questions. I’m very curious, and I love learning. I love doing research, I love looking up documents, going to the courthouse and pulling lawsuits, reading things like that. That’s fun for me. And I realized I had this skill set, and there was an opportunity to teach as an adjunct at Stony Brook University in the School of Journalism. And so I started teaching, and I realized I am a subject matter expert, but I have no teaching background. I had never taught anything to anyone, and I needed help with the teaching. And I found myself at the faculty center talking to people who know about teaching, and I thought, “Oh my gosh, I didn’t know this was a job.” [LAUGHTER] And I thought, “Wow, this is interesting.” And I realized that the skill set that you use in instructional design is very much the skill set that you use as a journalist. And I also realized that as a journalist, you are, in a sense, an educator, because you need to quickly learn something, and then you need to explain it to your reader in a way that they will understand and be able to take some action, some informed action, based on the journalism that you have provided. So that opened my eyes to a possible career. And it coincided with the time that I had small children, and the life of a journalist, at least for me, when I was really having fun, that’s all I did, and it just took up all my time. But if you have a family that wouldn’t be fair. [LAUGHTER] So I looked around and I thought, “Well, what would be some other possible work?” And I decided, “Okay, higher ed seems like a very civilized workplace.” [LAUGHTER] Little did I know. [LAUGHTER]

John: At least it’s nice to think of it that way, yes.

Carol: You know, I just thought, “Well, I won’t have to work on Thanksgiving. I won’t have to work three to midnight. I won’t have to go ask people about their loved one who just got shot down in front of them, right? I don’t have to go to school board meetings.” There were so many pluses. [LAUGHTER] And when I was a journalist I did a lot of cops, courts, crime, really tragic stories. It was rough. I think I see myself as an upbeat person, and it was hard to stay upbeat when I was covering those kinds of events. And now that I’m not in daily journalism anymore, in that field they now discuss trauma and how it affects you as a reporter, and when I was a reporter nobody was thinking that way, and so it’s like a totally different way to see it. So I think that’s good, that it’s changed over time. So that’s basically my journey from journalism to higher ed and instructional design.

John: And working as an instructional designer, being upbeat and positive is actually a very useful asset when you’re working with faculty who are often a little bit anxious at the time, I would think.

Carol: Oh yeah, yeah. Yesterday somebody came in, and the person was so upset, and distraught, and just beside herself, and I felt almost like a counselor, “It’s okay, let’s talk about it.” [LAUGHTER] And then by the time she left, she was smiling and she wanted to make a date for coffee, and I was like, “Oh, thank God.” And I really felt like, I don’t know, she just needed, in that moment, somebody to hold some space for her, look at her course, and make some suggestions and commiserate with her, and then she was able to keep going.

John: Excellent.

Rebecca: We have to rise to all kinds of different occasions in these roles, right? Like far beyond what we think our actual job description [LAUGHTER] is sometimes.

Carol: Yes, yeah. So another job that I’ve discovered when you work in a Center for Teaching and Learning, that nobody told me about, is event planning.

Rebecca: Yup. [LAUGHTER]

Carol: Which I do not like at all, but I have to do it. So I feel like we need to tell people about this, warn them ahead of time.

John: Or not, because someone has to do it, [LAUGHTER] and sometimes it’s better to be surprised once you’ve already committed to it.

Carol: Yeah, we have a Teaching and Learning Center faculty commons space, it’s beautiful. And we used to have coffee, and people would stop in to get coffee. And so for some reason we would always run out of lids, and that became like a crisis, “We’re out of lids!” [LAUGHTER] “Somebody needs to order coffee lids.” And that was always an issue.

John: We used to offer coffee, but it just became too much of a pain for me to clean it, so we switched to tea, and that’s worked well for us since then. It’s pretty easy to clean up hot water.

Carol: Yes, yes. So because of the pandemic we stopped, so we don’t offer anything. We do have the water, so you could bring a tea bag and go for it.

John: We have probably over 100 different varieties of teas here, so we still provide that, but it’s all in nice sealed containers.

Carol: Yeah. Good.

Rebecca: Yeah, so we definitely want to talk about your dissertation. Can you provide a little overview of your dissertation and the methodology that you’ve used?

Carol: Sure, so my dissertation… I used a methodology called narrative inquiry. And narrative inquiry is a qualitative methodology, it’s based on stories, so the unit of analysis is the story. And you are looking at things that are literary concepts. So symbols, metaphors, emotion, humor, all the things that make for a good story, become the markers of what you’re analyzing. Because as people, that’s what we’re drawn to, and so that’s what you’re looking at. And in my study I had a small number of participants for a couple of reasons. One is I was looking specifically at Latina women, Hispanic women, who are working in higher education institutions and are doing educational development work, and there are not a lot of us. So I put out a national call, and I ended up with not that many people. So it actually works well with narrative inquiry because it really is for a smaller number of participants. It works well for populations that are marginalized in some way or have experienced some marginalized status. So there’s fewer of us. And it’s qualitative, so it’s based on interviews. It requires you, at least for my study, I did three interviews with each person, and so it also looks at past, present, and future. So you’re looking at people’s stories about their experiences, past, present, and future. So that was the methodology that I used.

John: And that interview process seems to track very nicely with your prior career too, that experience of interviewing and extracting information.

Carol: Yes, absolutely. I don’t think of it as extracting information so much as trying to immerse yourself in the lived experience of another person. And while I’m not saying you couldn’t do it in one interview, the approach that I used really emphasizes building a relationship with the participant, and it emphasizes that storytelling triggers the stories of those who listen and that it is a co-constructive process. So you tell a story, and it reminds me of a story that I can share with you, and so both of us are enriched by sharing these stories. And so that was the vibe the whole time. And I would say good journalists are aware of that. They’re aware of… getting a story isn’t just turning on a tape recorder, it’s really about connecting to people, to their humanity, and sort of trying to put yourself in their shoes. So I agree, it was something that… I felt so happy, and so lucky, I could not believe that this approach existed. Because when I started my doctorate I thought that I would be doing some statistical analysis, that I would have to have thousands of participants. Well, I didn’t know, I didn’t know anything about that stuff. So through my doctoral program, when I found out that there are other ways to do research I was just like, “Thank you!” [LAUGHTER]

John: So instead of gathering a lot of details on specific values over a large sample, you were exploring in much greater depth the experiences of those participants. So you’re acquiring a lot of information, but it’s a much more intensive process it sounds like.

Carol: Yes, and so in my doctoral program we were taught that the methods complement each other. So if you are drawn to quantitative, good for you, do it. And if you’re drawn to qualitative, do that. And those will complement each other, one is not better than the other. So the program I went to is at Northeastern, and they focus on the scholar practitioner, and they focus a lot on disrupting that hegemony. They’re really into social justice, and having us look at our own positionality, our own bias, our own privilege, and making us question ourselves as being scholars, as contributing to knowledge. So for me, again, I lucked out, because I got into this program, and it was just such a good fit. And again, I lucked out with my advisor, my advisor, I feel like she was an angel sent from heaven, I love her.

Rebecca: Can you talk about some of the challenges that the educational developers that you interviewed identified as they navigate within their institutions?

Carol: Sure. So there are a lot of challenges within the space that we know as higher education. It’s its own world with its own language, and its own culture, and its own tradition. And so many of those are just understood, so that makes them hidden. And when you are coming from a family, let’s say your family is an immigrant family, or English is not your first language, or your parents never went to college, your name is in Spanish. So there’s so many challenges where you constantly are reminded that you don’t belong there, or you don’t fit there. So one challenge, for example, one participant was saying that her name is a Spanish name, and early in her career she changed it to a name in English. And it worked for many years, and she realized one day that she had changed it to make other people comfortable. Other people couldn’t pronounce her name in English, so she changed it. And she realized that that was the power dynamics of the workplace, and that was a challenge. Another participant is Afro-Latina, and so people in her workplace didn’t know what to make of her, and just assumed that because she is not white appearing that she is an expert in diversity, and that was not her background at all. And so they kept pulling her into workshops to do stuff on diversity, and she’s like, “Why are you asking me to do this?” So that’s a challenge, and another challenge is… you can be a Hispanic woman and be white passing, and that’s a challenge because then people just assume that you have no other culture except the American culture. So this one participant, she was born in Puerto Rico, and her family moved here when she was young. And so her entire cultural identity was Puerto Rican, but in a higher ed space she was treated like a regular white woman. She felt weird about that. She’s like, “Well, do I need to tell people who I really am? Or should I just let them think whatever they want to think.” So those are some of the challenges that came up.

John: One of the things you mentioned was that people are often singled out because they are underrepresented to serve as representatives of that whole group. Was that something that was commonly experienced by participants in your study?

Carol: That depended on how their appearance communicated their identity, their ethnicity. And it really depends because for Hispanic women there’s colorism, there could be language differences, if you have a heavy accent that kind of becomes a marker for being different, hair texture, it really depends. So if you are different sounding enough or different looking enough, yes, somehow you do become the spokesperson, or you’re asked to comment on something that may or may not be your area of expertise. Unfortunately, you’re pulled into providing some extra labor and extra education and teaching around certain issues. Which, it depends, some people want that, and some people don’t want that. Across all participants they wanted to have an impact on their workplace, so they were looking at different ways of doing that. Could it be mentoring? Could it be creating affinity groups? Could it be collaborating to do research? So they were aware of it and actively trying to disrupt the system so that other generations of Hispanic women would have more space for them.

Rebecca: So one of the things that we’ve started talking a little bit about is representation. So there’s growing representation in college students, but Latinas are underrepresented among faculty, educational developers, instructional designers. What might be missing in our course design practices as a result of this under representation?

Carol: What might be missing in the course design? I think not just the course design, but just thinking about higher education in general.

Rebecca: The design of higher education. [LAUGHTER]

Carol: Yes, the whole thing, the whole thing. For example, we have so many programs where we have good intentions, but maybe we’re not thinking about it from a perspective of someone who doesn’t have access to social capital, or outside resources, or transportation. So one I think about all the time is how many institutions promote internships, and many institutions, they’re very proud of their outreach through internships, but if they’re unpaid internships you’re not helping anyone because students who are not self-funded are not going to be able to afford to do your internship. So things like that. Programs, for example, one of the participants is in engineering education, and she talked about programs that are meant for students who are underrepresented, so enrichment programs, trips, conferences, things like that. And what she found was that the target students were not taking part because they didn’t have the time, or the money to go on these trips, because they were working to pay for their schooling or their rent. I think that’s one design flaw. And even, just in general, I think higher education so often we have good intentions, but then we end up becoming gatekeepers and becoming very exclusionary, and I would like to work on that more. So when I work with faculty at the course level we might have conversations about… Who are the authors you’re assigning? Do you ever have students reflect on the positionality of the authors? And sometimes I’ll say, “Let’s look at your assessment. Are you doing a lot of multiple choice exams? Or do you have options for students to do other kinds of ways to demonstrate what they’ve learned? Are you diverse in how you assess learning?” So those are some things I could do with individual instructors, or in a workshop, or something like that.

Rebecca: You’ve talked a little bit about some design flaws for students. Can you talk about some of the design flaws in higher ed for faculty and staff?

Carol: So in the literature a few things happen. When we talk about, for example, a hiring committee, is your hiring committee diverse? And when you advertise or you promote a job, are you promoting it within networks that are diverse networks? And are you looking for a PhD or an EdD? Because if it’s a PhD it might be more restrictive, you might not get as many diverse candidates. And who are the leaders in your organization? Are they diverse? And are they assessed on how well they develop? Not just hire, but develop and promote diverse candidates. So often in higher ed we focus on just hiring people, but then we kind of forget about developing them, and promoting them, and thinking about how we want them to develop to the point where they leave and they tell other people about how great we are. So it’s not just about hiring people and keeping them there, but hiring them, developing them, and seeing them launch for the benefit of your institution, seeing that as a positive.

Rebecca: That’s a good point. I think that’s something that we don’t often talk about. Certainly, not developing community and helping someone develop as a member of a community, but then also that it’s important that they just have a good positive experience that they can share no matter where they end up, whether they stay or whether they go. I really love that you’ve highlighted that.

Carol: Yeah. So absolutely, what you find is that people are part of networks. For example, I’m part of this network, it’s Latinas Completing Doctorates. And so you get the inside scoop on everything, and that’s good because I want to know the inside scoop. So if I’m thinking about a job somewhere, I would get in there immediately and be like, “Tell me what’s going on.” So those networks do exist, and we need to be aware that if people come to our institutions and they feel isolated, it’s not going to be good.

John: And one of the problems we talked about in our previous podcast, and you’ve alluded to, is that often people who are from underrepresented groups get all these extra workload issues which makes it much harder to progress through the ranks and so forth, and make that sometimes a much more stressful experience than it is for people who are not in those categories. What can Latina educational developers do to have more influence in their positions?

Carol: That’s a good question. So one of my participants, we did talk about that, and basically she said she’s at an institution where, I think she said she might be the only Latina professor. And she said, “I’m white passing, and I like it that way. I do not want to have any conversations about diversity.” [LAUGHTER] She felt like she just had to protect herself. I said, “How do you communicate your identities to your colleagues?” And she said, “I don’t, I don’t need to do that.” She said, “I save that for my students. With my students I can be more honest, and I can talk a little bit more about myself. But with colleagues…” She said, “No, I don’t want to go there because I already know about the bias and assumptions.” She said, “I’m not going to go there.” So I think it really depends, unfortunately, on who you are and how visible you are.

John: One of the things you’ve chosen to work on, though, is the area of inclusive teaching practices, as a major focus of your work as an educational developer. Could you give our listeners some recommendations on some inclusive teaching practices that you encourage faculty to adopt?

Carol: I have chosen that. One of the things I noticed is… that doesn’t come up, maybe it’s coming up more often now, but when I first started in my research that was not something that would come up a lot in the research of educational development. We talk about excellent teaching and learning, and it’s excellent, and it’s active, and it’s high impact, and all of these things about good teaching. And I get excited about all that stuff, I love all that stuff. But I noticed that we never really talked about language, or accent, or ethnicity, or low income. I felt like there was this whole area that we were just kind of ignoring, and were saying like, “This is how you can be an excellent instructor, excellent teacher,” and ignoring things that, for students, are very at the forefront of their experience, like language. So, when I started school, I didn’t speak English. I learned English in school, right? So my teachers had to deal with that, and some teachers were cool, and some teachers were not cool. And the ones that were not cool, they were kind of nasty about it, and so then that affects how you feel about going to school, and how you feel about learning. And there’s a lot of research that looks at that, at being shamed because you’re not an English first language learner. Or your parents, they’re immigrants, and they don’t come to the school, they don’t come to open houses, and you know… Why? Is it because they don’t care? There’s all these things that come up for students, and it carries over to the college level even with graduate students. So one of the studies I read for my own dissertation looked at Hispanic women who were going for higher degrees, and how their own family sometimes would say, “That’s not a good idea, because who’s going to want to marry you with all this education?” Culturally, it was like, “This is not good. You need to focus on mom, family, caretaking. Do you really need to get a PhD? No.” So that came up. One of my participants said as soon as she told her mom she was pregnant, the mom said, “You need to stop with that little hobby that you have.” You know, her dissertation. The mom said, “Leave that alone.” To me, that tells you something about some of the barriers that you might face as a Hispanic woman, not just from society at large, but from your own family.

John: So one of the challenges we face is, many of our students are faced with that, particularly people who are from first-generation households, who may not understand the benefits of education and the role it can play. Often, it’s pressure from parents to choose a particular major, one that will guarantee a job in business or something else, but often students will want to pursue a career that they’re very interested in, but there may be some family pressure. And from what I’ve seen, it seems to be more common for first-generation students to pursue fields where the parents believe the job prospects are better based on their own experience and interactions. So I think that is something that perhaps faculty often are called on to address at least.

Carol: Right. In general, what I found through my reading is that higher education’s very expensive. And so families, of course, are questioning the value, and what is the outcome of investing all this money and time? Will my child end up working? Or just being in debt? Like what’s going to happen? So yeah, I think a lot of that is happening. We’re looking at higher ed and trying to assess it. Are students really learning what we’re saying that they’re learning? So yeah, there is more of a spotlight. When I went to college, you know, a hundred years ago when I was in undergrad, [LAUGHTER] the syllabus was one page. [LAUGHTER] It was like, “Here are the dates, there’s a midterm and there’s a final, and if you miss it, you fail the class.”

John: And maybe there was a list of topics you’d be addressing with the chapters corresponding…

Rebecca: Maybe.

John: …but that was about it.

Carol: Yeah, but I remember the syllabus was one or two pages, and it was a different time. We now expect a lot more, and I guess it’s good, but then when I see a twenty-page syllabus I just want to cry. [LAUGHTER]

John: So what are some other strategies?

Carol: Some other strategies… So what I’ve read is that first, as the instructor, it’s recommended that you talk a little bit about your own positionality. Whatever you’re comfortable with, you don’t have to tell people your life story. But by just acknowledging your own ethnicity, or race, or positionality, or first-gen status, that just by doing that, you are making it okay for others to reflect on theirs. Not necessarily even asking them to share that, but just kind of acknowledging your own. And so I tried it out, and I found that my students were receptive to that. It gave them words to talk about themselves if they wanted to. And another practice would be… Look at your syllabus and make sure that you’re assigning underrepresented authors. So are you assigning black women? Are you assigning trans authors? Are you assigning people who are not represented in your discipline or in your profession? Can you bring in guest speakers? Can you offer some choice in how students show what they know? Can you get students working on some kind of community project, helping them make some connections? What is the community impact of their learning? Helping them make connections to their personal goals. So those are some ways to address maybe some areas that we’ve overlooked in the past, and having students reflect on who they are and also who their instructors are. So Hispanic women, that segment of the labor force is one of the fastest growing. Hispanic women are also one of the fastest growing populations that are going to college, but they tend to be also the least likely to complete, and the most likely to be living in poverty. So by the time they get to higher ed they’ve already jumped through lots of hoops and surmounted a lot of obstacles. So the literature is looking even farther back, like preschool. So some of the things, yes, we can address, but it’s almost too late at the higher ed level.

John: Or at the very least, we need to provide more support for students who come in with backgrounds that may not be as enriched because of the quality of the educational experiences up to that point.

Carol: Right. Or let’s flip it, and say that their experiences are enriching, right? That they have experiences that they can share that are valuable. Why am I saying that they haven’t had enriching experiences? Maybe they were translating documents at age eleven for their parents. To me, that is a high level achievement. Being bilingual, that’s something important. Working for your family, supporting your family, that’s important. That’s another practice, is reframing… What is enrichment? And what is social capital? And what is cultural capital?

Rebecca: And what are those achievements? Because we often don’t value some of those achievements in our culture…

Carol: Mmhmm.

Rebecca: …the culture of higher ed. But those are so important, those are things that they can share with their colleagues in class, and that they can learn from each other. And I find that when I’ve had opportunities to find out things like that from a student, they’ve shared, and I’ve said, “Please share that experience with your colleagues in this context. This is actually really valuable.” They always seem so surprised.

Carol: Right!

Rebecca: They wouldn’t necessarily think of that as being a valuable thing to share, or they’ve been treated in a way that hasn’t made it so that it has been comfortable or optimal to share.

Carol: Right. So since you are the instructor, you sort of have a magic wand, and you can wave your magic wand and give them the words and the frame to say, “This is knowledge, and this is valuable, and you should be proud.” That’s the power you have in the classroom.

John: As an instructor, one of the most important jobs is to treat diversity as an asset within the class environment. And in fact, just telling students that they all are bringing in their own unique experiences that can enliven our discussion of these topics, and we need to hear all these perspectives in order to fully understand the topics we’re addressing in class. So welcoming that diversity is very important.

Carol: Yeah, for sure, for sure. The other thing I was thinking is… and my thinking changed over the course of working on my dissertation. So it took me six years from start to finish, and [LAUGHTER] I think I started with like, stars in my eyes, like, “Education is going to fix everything!” And then by the end I just was like some curmudgeon… I don’t know. I think I’m recovering from finishing the dissertation.

Rebecca: Yeah, but I mean, there’s so many barriers that sometimes it feels like it’s completely impossible to overcome those barriers, or to redesign a system that has such a legacy. It’s difficult to change a system. It takes a lot of time, and it’s really slow, and it feels like change doesn’t happen fast enough. [LAUGHTER] So it can be really easy to get frustrated, rather than trying to work to change the system further.

Carol: Right. So the theoretical framework that I use is a theory called simultaneity. And the scholar that proposed it, she was looking specifically at the system, and that they are all happening at the same time. And so when you talk about systems, that, to me, is the key, because an individual can be very prepared and go into a system that just chews them up. One strategy is numbers, we need numbers. We need more people who have had these experiences to come into these spaces, and that’s where a lot of my participants wanted to connect, and they were just so happy to be able to tell their story. And that was interesting to me because sometimes you think, “Who’s going to want to tell me their stories?” But they were so happy to share, they really loved it, and I was so grateful to hear them. So connections, mentoring, networking, affinity groups, supporting each other, joining committees, meeting people who are interested in the same things. Those are some things that I’m trying to do, personally.

John: So that’s important both for faculty and instructional support, as well as for students having those connections and networks.

Carol: Definitely. That’s why I came to talk to you both because I thought, “Wow, this is an opportunity,” and I love talking, so. [LAUGHTER]

John: Well, we very much appreciate you joining us, and sharing your story with us.

Carol: Thank you.

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

Carol: So for me, when I finished with the dissertation, I felt like I immediately needed to publish something. I felt like I was in a race. And I don’t know, at some point I realized, I need to do something totally different. So I signed up for an improv class, and that was so much fun, I loved it. And then I signed up for a TV writing class, so now I’m writing sitcoms. And that’s totally different, and I’m learning again. I’m terrible at it, I’m trying to learn how to do this other kind of writing. So for me, that’s been my way to recharge, to figure out what the next step is. Because I don’t know what the next step is.

John: Those types of experiences are something that I think all faculty should experience, too. And Rebecca and I have talked about this in the past, because having the experience of struggling with something helps put you in a better mindset for dealing with students who are facing the very same sort of challenges when they’re approaching a new subject for the first time.

Carol: Absolutely, yeah.

Rebecca: It’s funny too, as a lifelong learner, that [LAUGHTER] it can be just as frustrating and scary to do something new, but also, I think as people who are in higher education, there’s something about that feeling that we must like because we keep going back for it. [LAUGHTER]

Carol: It’s fun, to me, to learn new things. So I guess I decided I should have fun. And not that my dissertation wasn’t fun, but it was such a long journey, and I feel like I deserve just some fun.

Rebecca: I think so too.

John: And it certainly helps maintain that positive attitude that you mentioned before.

Carol: Yeah, yeah, yeah, definitely. I love comedy, so I feel like it’s recharging my battery.

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for sharing your story and some ideas about how maybe we can instigate some change in our institutions and in our classrooms.

Carol: Yeah, thank you 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, Annalyn Smith, and Joshua Vega.


236. ePortfolios

As David Wiley has noted, “disposable assignments” often have small impacts on student learning. In this episode Nikki Wilson Clasby joins us to  discuss how one campus has used ePortfolios to create authentic learning experiences in their English composition courses.

Nikki is the coordinator of the English Composition Program at SUNY New Paltz.

Show Notes


Rebecca: As David Wiley has noted, “disposable assignments” often have small impacts on student learning. In this episode we discuss how one campus has used ePortfolios to create authentic learning experiences in their English composition courses.


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 Nikki Wilson Clasby. Nikki is the coordinator of the English Composition Program at SUNY New Paltz. Welcome, Nikki.

Nikki: Thank you. It’s good to be here.

John: Thanks for joining us. Our teas today are… Nikki, are you drinking tea?

Nikki: I am certainly drinking tea, yes.

Rebecca: Woohoo!

Nikki: Would you like to know what it is?

Rebecca: Yes!

John: Yes!

Nikki: [LAUGHTER] So this is an exotic blend called Tetley, a very strong British brew, which we Brits love, unless you’re a PG Tips fan, but Tetley’s pretty up there. And I have it with 2% milk which is the best way to drink it.

John: Most of our colleagues on campus from England tend to drink Yorkshire Gold.

Nikki: Mmhmm.

John: They seem to prefer that to the other options.

Nikki: Yes, well I am a Yorkshire lass, but I have to say Tetley has that kick that I need. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Good to know. I think today I have Scottish afternoon tea.

Nikki: Ooh!

John: And continuing with the theme I have an Irish breakfast tea from Twinings.

Rebecca: Oh!

Nikki: Oh very nice, that’s a good one too. I like that one.

Rebecca: This crew needs some strong stuff today.

Nikki: We need some scones now. [LAUGHTER] Then it will be complete.

John: We’re recording this at 12:30 today, and I’ve already had five meetings today including a class.

Rebecca: This is my second pot.

Nikki: I’m impressed. [LAUGHTER] You can come and have tea with me any day.

Rebecca: [LAUGHTER] Perfect. So we’ve invited you here today to discuss the use of ePortfolios in the Composition Program at SUNY New Paltz. But first can you tell us a little bit about your role at New Paltz?

Nikki: Yes, I am the Coordinator of the Composition Program. I stepped into this role two years ago, and I am also a lecturer. And so I teach mainly our upper-level writing and rhetoric courses where I specialize in visual rhetoric. And I also teach courses in what we call Practical Writing and Design which is a new course dealing with a sort of blend of graphics and writing. And I also teach a FIG, a First-year Interest Group, for the Communication Disorders. And I run practicum for our TAs.

Rebecca: So you’re not busy or anything?

Nikki: I’m not busy at all, no. Plenty of time for drinking tea. [LAUGHTER]

John: And plenty of reason to drink that tea with the caffeine.

Nikki: Which is why I drink Tetley, yes. [LAUGHTER]

John: So, we invited you here, though, because we heard about the common use of a WordPress site for the creation of student ePortfolios. And I think the first question we have to ask is… How did you possibly get agreement within a department on the use of one platform?

Nikki: [LAUGHTER] Actually it’s pretty simple, there’s no drama involved here. So in 2019 the composition committee reworked our three-credit English 180 Composition II course to a four-credit GE course, which we retitled English 170 Writing & Rhetoric. And we had been using print portfolios for a long time, and so during the process of revamping our course the composition committee reviewed how we could improve our portfolio assessment. And Matt Newcomb, who was the coordinator at the time, and I had been long advocating for ePortfolios. So during our meetings we decided that it would be a good time, seeing as we were revamping this course, to introduce ePortfolios into our curriculum. And we’d looked at options in Blackboard, but they were just too…

John: Awful? [LAUGHTER]

Nikki: Yes, too awful, but just by happenstance and pure serendipitous coincidence the university at this time decided to just opt for a CampusPress system, and they adopted Hawksites. And so it was made readily available for us to use. And so the timing was perfect, we just jumped on it right away and said, “Yes, this is what we want. This is the way we’re going to go.” So because Matt and I had been advocating for ePortfolios for so long it was pretty simple to get our program on board with the project.

John: And we should note that the Hawks are the campus mascot for SUNY New Paltz. And that Hawksites is just a campus-wide instance of WordPress, I believe.

Nikki: It is, yes. That’s exactly what it is. We just gave it the name Hawksites. Yes, it’s a campus-based university blogging website and ePortfolio tool.

Rebecca: Are students developing these in this more beginning course, and then working on the same portfolio throughout their entire curriculum?

Nikki: Well, this is what’s really interesting. So the faculty are allowed to use the ePortfolios as a tool for however they want to integrate it into their program, so they have free rein to do whatever they want with it. And we all use it in different ways and to different degrees, depending on our comfort level with technology, and how it fits into our curriculum. But as a composition program we use the ePortfolios for assessment purposes, so I can tell you a little bit about how that is organized. So whereas we can have free rein to use them however we want, we do have some very specifics that we need for our assessments. Would you like me to tell you about those?

Rebecca: Love to hear about those.

Nikki: [LAUGHTER] Okay, so for English 160 which is the basic, very first writing course, students have to go through this ePortfolio assessment at the end of the semester to determine whether or not they are fit to move on to English 170. So this is the tool that we use to make sure those students are ready for the more vigorous program. So for that 160 assessment process the students have to upload to the ePortfolio, or at least be able to visibly show on the ePortfolio, they have to have two of their strongest assignments, and they also have to have their revisions for those assignments. They can choose whichever ones they want to put on, but they have to be two major assignments. The only requirement is that they have to show that they have been able to write in different modes, different genres for different rhetorical situations. And there needs to be an element of research in their citation, you know the beginning stages of that research process. And obviously we’ll be looking for the standard of their writing as well, that’s why the revision aspect is really important. So that’s what they’re required to do for the ePortfolio. And then the 170 students, they have different requirements. But let me just backtrack just for one second. So across the board for 160 and 170 as part of the ePortfolio requirements, all the students have to create a reflective cover letter that goes up front in their ePortfolio. They write that reflective cover letter at the end of the semester and we give them questions, guidelines as to what to tackle. And what we want from them is a sort of critical overview of their progress during the course. And they have to cite examples of their writing to prove their case. So it’s a persuasive letter, and our assessors read that first, so they’ll read that reflective cover letter. And that gives us a very clear sense of what the student understands about their writing process, and that makes us feel a little bit better about whether they’re ready for 170 or not. It shows that they’re applying the techniques and skills that they’ve learned throughout the semester to that cover letter. So the 170 students, we have a very specific framework for our 170 Writing & Rhetoric program, it’s based upon a wicked question. So a wicked question might be… What should we eat? Or how do we save the world? Or what does it mean to be human in a digital landscape? And all professors can choose whichever kind of wicked question they want, that they’re excited about, and then they base all of their assignments around that wicked question. That gives us a lot of flexibility for Writing & Rhetoric, which is wonderful. So the semester is divided into two sections. We basically require two major assignments that are argument research based, and then each of those two large assignments has two smaller assignments that help students gear into those big assignments. So, for instance, you might have a proposal with an annotated bibliography that leads to a research paper. So students have to choose one of those sections. So in the ePortfolio we want to see two smaller assignments leading to a large assignment. We don’t need revisions at the stage for 170, we acknowledge that revision is part of the process, and that they will be revising anyway for those papers. So that’s the structure of the assignment sequences for those two ePortfolios. And then beyond that we add other things into the ePortfolios as we see fit. So, for instance, this semester we have our internal assessment which is for our 170 students, and that’s on basic critical reading. So that’s kind of how our ePortfolios are set up. And then at the end of the semester we have a system set up where we review each other’s ePortfolios based on a common rubric that we have put together. So that’s basically how it works.

John: It sounds like a great approach in ensuring standardization across their classes and making sure that all students meet the requirements to move on.

Nikki: It is, it’s very effective. We have lots of conversations afterwards about who’s on the cusp, borderline cases, and so it’s very democratically pieced together. And then of course we have to work on individual cases of students who are failing for various reasons. And it’s a pretty good system, and it’s been very effective over the last two years that we’ve been using it.

John: This is more of a technical question about the organization… Is each site organized by class or is it by students? In other words, does a student have their own WordPress account that they use and create an ePortfolio that is unique to them across all their classes? Or is there a class site where all the students in the class post their work? Or is it some combination of the two?

Nikki: So what happens for us is that in our composition program, we have a template on Hawksites, and our students create an account through Hawksites, and they are given the template that they have to use. So they are essentially creating their own account on Hawksites for our classes, and it’s unique to them. It’s not something that we share with other classes, this is specifically for our class. Does that make sense?

John: Mmhmm.

Rebecca: So just to clarify, if a student was in another class, in another subject area, they may have an additional site.

Nikki: Correct, students can create as many accounts as they want on Hawksites for individual programs. I have about 10. [LAUGHTER] It’s fantastic. It’s such a good resource, we love it.

John: I’m hosting a variety of WordPress sites as well for different purposes.

Rebecca: Me too. One thing I think that’s always important to ask when we’re talking about ePortfolios, is whether or not that student work is public to everyone, public just to members of the community, your classroom community? Or are they private? Or do students have a choice of the privacy settings?

Nikki: The students have a choice of privacy settings. But what we encourage students to do is to select the option that allows only people within our university that have a university ID and login to be able to access it, and only the people that the students give the link to, or the people that the faculty give the link to. And this allows us to share those ePortfolios amongst the people who are going to be assessing. So there is some choice for the students, but it also gives us the option to share easily amongst our colleagues. But I want to add something into this too, that within our template that we had created at Hawksites, we have a permissions policy embedded into the site. And that is a basic form and students can sign it, they can say yes or no. We ask the students, “Would you mind If we shared your portfolio for teaching purposes? Would you mind if we shared some of your work for research or for teaching methods?” And students can pick “yes” or “no” for all of those. And that’s nice to have that there on the ePortfolio, so whenever we’re looking for examples we can check the permissions pledge and see who’s agreed and who’s not agreed, and then of course we respect the students that haven’t signed it. So there are some levels of privacy within our cohort of teaching. There is a blog function on our Hawksite. It’s up to the professor whether they use the blog or not. But as they stand, the students can’t see each other’s ePortfolios, those are private. But there is a blog function within Hawksites, and faculty can choose whether they decide to share that blog function with other students or not. I have used that function for a different project, but I haven’t seen anybody take advantage of that because we also have Blackboard which has its own blog function too.

Rebecca: How have students responded to the idea of using ePortfolios?

Nikki: That’s a really good question. It very much depends on the instructor and how the instructor teaches the ePortfolio component. I can tell you that for TAs who are new at trying to grapple with this technology and pedagogy, some of them have in the past waited till the very end of the semester to have the students upload their work. It’s too stressful for students, they can’t handle it. It’s a lot of work to put a good portfolio together. So I make the TAs have the students sign up for an account within the first two weeks of the semester. And I encourage the TAs to find ways to get the students to engage with their ePortfolio on a low-stakes non-graded level just so that they can learn how to use all of the functions and the tools. And also get them in the habit of using their ePortfolio as a working kind of document, and not something that just gets shoved to the end of the semester. So it really depends on how it’s taught. But if you do teach it with those kinds of sensitivities in mind, and you don’t stress the students out, I find my students in particular love using their ePortfolios. They enjoy engaging with them, they enjoy seeing their work look professional on the site, they enjoy the option of using a more web-based writing process for embedding videos, hyperlinks, uploading images, embedding their beautifully designed Google slide presentations into their site. So they do enjoy that process. I give them time in class to do it so it’s very therapeutic for them. But they also appreciate learning some of the real-life skills that comes with curating an ePortfolio, and they recognize that this will help them later. So the enthusiasm for it is pretty high, and most students feel very proud of their ePortfolios by the end of the semester because they have something to show for all of their hard work, and it looks good. So they’ve adopted it really well. My worry about students is they do all this work, and they hit the submit button for grading, and then that paper disappears down the black hole never to resurface, and then they just move on. And it’s a shame because that work is good work, and we want our students to feel like they have a stake in the writing process, they have a stake in scholarship and research, and the ePortfolios provides a really nice platform for allowing them to think of themselves in that respect, and not just the humble student that struggles, if you like. [LAUGHTER] Helps them feel a little bit more professional.

John: David Wiley refers to those types of assignments that students post in Blackboard, or submit their paper at the end of the term and never see again, as disposable assignments. And having something that looks professional that they have access to, and that they can share and feel good about, is something that students really value. I’ve had students write some books in my class, and they really enjoy seeing this final product. It’s something that they can share with their friends, with their parents, with potential employers, and link to on their resumes and so forth or on LinkedIn, and they’ve appreciated that tremendously. I think you do some of the same, right, Rebecca?

Rebecca: Definitely the students love it when it’s like… It’s a real thing, a real shareable thing, with real audiences. [LAUGHTER]

Nikki: Exactly, and that’s the key thing, right? Especially in rhetoric having that real audience, it’s super, super important.

John: And in my experience it leads to a much higher quality of work when they have that non-disposable assignment. Have you seen the same?

Nikki: Yes, I totally agree. There’s a level of accountability that goes on there. So when you’re racing off an essay at the last minute and submitting it, it disappears into the black hole. With the ePortfolio it comes back to hit you in the face, and you can’t put that stuff on the web, you have to go back and revise it. And it’s really nice being in the classroom and having the students respond to your comments and make those revisions. And then you kind of hear the penny dropping, it’s like, “Oh boy, I really didn’t do this very well, I better snatch this up for the ePortfolio.” And it is very reassuring to see that in action. So yeah, it’s lovely.

John: So how have other composition faculty responded? Are they all comfortable with it? Was there any resistance?

Nikki: That’s a really good question. I know, for me, I’ve been involved in this sort of work for a long time, I came from Iowa State University here and we’ve been working with ePortfolios for a long time. And that switch, going from the paper portfolios which I hated [LAUGHTER] sorry, I hated them… Going from the paper portfolios to the ePortfolio, that’s a big mind switch to go through. So we had to work with our faculty, encourage them to set up a Hawksite of their own so they could experiment, help them feel comfortable sharing those Hawksites in the classroom so they could use that as a teaching tool. So initially there was some learning to do, and that’s great, I mean that’s great, that’s fine, perfect. So it took a while to make that switch to ePortfolios, but now that we’ve made that switch, I think we all recognize that it’s so much more accessible, it’s so much easier to organize, it’s so much easier to assess. We’ve only been doing it since the fall of 2019, but I don’t hear any complaints [LAUGHTER] about the ePortfolio. It is part of what we do now. So it’s good.

John: And that was perfectly timed to be ready for the pandemic.

Nikki: You know, it was perfectly timed for that. And what I like about it, and I think what we all agree we like about it, I encourage the faculty to have the students post the links to the faculty right from the very beginning. So that way we can just go in periodically, and we can just monitor what’s happening on there, and then we can give direct feedback to students about it. So it is, it’s a wonderful tool.

Rebecca: One of the things that you’ve mentioned is this template that you share out, and you mentioned some of the permissions that you allow students to choose. Can you talk about some of the other features of the template itself that you share with students? Like, what are some of the things built into it?

Nikki: Yes, so the template has the tabs already constructed so that students don’t have to work out how to recreate those. Obviously we teach them how to generate new tabs, but the basics are already there. So it has a homepage tab, so we encourage students to post a photograph of themselves and think about how they want to present themselves to a general audience as a student. So they have that, we work on that side of things. And then we just have the tab for the reflective cover page. Then we have the tabs for the individual assignments and their revisions,and then we have the permissions tab. And then we also include on the ePortfolio, this is a new feature, during the pandemic we had a lot of issues with attendance and accommodating students who were sick and who were in quarantine, so what we did was we posted the essentials of the course policies on the ePortfolio. And we had students acknowledge and sign that they had read them, and that they understood what those different policies were for attendance, for assignments, for what they needed to do if they were sick, all of those things we put on their ePortfolio site. So it became a quick reference guide for students that they can just pull it up, and they could see what was required of them. But also for us as faculty when students were suffering, or not keeping on track, or getting to the end of the semester and things were not looking good. We could pull that up, we could see who had signed the pledge and we could say, “Look, policy said that you needed to do this, this, and this, and you didn’t do those things.” And so that helps stem the flow of the great appeals at the end of the semester which I have to deal with. So that worked well for keeping students on track, and keeping that information transparent and clear.

John: And you have it in writing, digital writing.

Nikki: We have it in writing, and the students sign it. So it helps them take accountability for their part in this process. They can’t say, “Oh, I didn’t know about that,” when it’s on the ePortfolio and they’ve signed it. It’s like, “Mm, well apparently at some point you did read this.” So that helps. Not all students read it [LAUGHTER] of course, but at least it’s there though, that’s the important thing. Those documents are not buried somewhere else, they’re visible, they’re right up there. And I think that’s really, really important, and I’m really glad that we decided to do that, especially over the pandemic. It’s been helpful.

John: And I know I always read all the terms and conditions when I sign up for a new software package, and so forth.

Nikki: Of course we do. [LAUGHTER] The other thing that I want to add in there is that, for me, some of the professors do this too, but I have my students create a writing journal tab in their ePortfolio, and they have weekly writing journal prompts in there. And I do that so that students have a safe space just to write, and to reflect on what we’re doing in class, and to apply those ideas to material that they’re interested in. And I set that up because I wanted them to feel like they owned their ePortfolio, that it was their ePortfolio, that it was their personal sort of diary, if you like, of all of their work. So that tab is very important for my classes, and my students enjoy doing that kind of work.

Rebecca: You also mentioned earlier that the work looks professional, so I’m assuming then there’s some stylistic things that are built into the portfolio as well. There’s at least a base look for things, no?

Nikki: There is a very basic look, and I would love to be able to include more design tools in the ePortfolio because we don’t have a choice of font style, we can move our images around [LAUGHTER] to a couple of places. It’s very, very rudimentary, and it would be really lovely if we could add a few more tools in there to make it look even better.

John: So everyone in composition has agreed to use templates, but it sounds like they might use them all differently. Is that correct?

Nikki: Yes. Thankfully, even though the design elements are pretty rudimentary, there are some tools to change the actual overall look within the basic template. The students can change the background image, they can change colors, they can personalize it in a way that suits them which is really nice. So yes, that’s fun, and those are good skills to teach the students as well.

John: What about different sections of the course? Is there a standardization in terms of how the platform is used? Or does that vary from instructor to instructor to some extent?

Nikki: It varies from instructor to instructor depending on their comfortability with technology, and how they want to integrate the ePortfolio into their program. I’m not a standardization sort of person, but we do have… the basic elements for assessment are standardized, they have to have those specific elements for assessment. But apart from that they are free to use those ePortfolios as they wish, and that’s the way that I want it to be.

Rebecca: One of the things that might be helpful for listeners too, earlier you were talking about your assessment process, and that people from other sections review work, that you’re reviewing work of the students of other instructors. So I’m wondering if you’d talk a little bit about the logistics of how that actually works. Because I think for some folks it can be such a big undertaking, so hearing stories of how other people organize those sorts of things can be helpful.

Nikki: Yes, so first of all students have to be eligible for an ePortfolio review, that’s the first step. So students have to have completed all of the assignments and all of their requirements, like the library instruction, oral presentation, all of those things. The student has to have at least a D to be able to be eligible. So that sort of weeds out some of the stuff. And then what the faculty do is we take seven portfolios per class, and that’s a random selection, so you take the first student on your roster, and then every fourth student gets to go in that pile. So each faculty member has seven students randomly selected for ePortfolio assessment. Plus, we have then any student who is borderline, any student that is just clinging on there, or any student that a faculty member is really unsure about, so that goes into the pot too. And then my assistant and I, we create ePortfolio partners and we specifically place, for instance, seasoned faculty members with new TAs. And that’s the way that we do it, so we choose who assesses whose work. And that makes it a very organized system and a fair system, especially for the new TAs who are not sure about what to do, at least they’re working with someone who has experience. So that’s how we do it, and the assessments can take place whenever is convenient for that particular pair, as long as all of the results are all tabulated and submitted by a specific time period. And then after that time period we’ve got some space here to work on ePortfolios that have issues. So once that rudimentary assessment is done then anything anyone is concerned about can be given to my assistant and I, and we’ll go through case by case any of those borderline cases that we’re worried about, we can work on those. So that’s kind of how it works, and it’s a really good system. It works really, really well, it’s very efficient, it’s fair for everybody. At the end of the semester, you know we’re tired, the faculty have already been through all of the ePortfolios and given their verdict, and then we double check with those seven to make sure, it’s really a calibration thing to make sure that everybody’s on the same track. And I need to preface this by saying that all faculty members have to go through a standardized calibration training at two points during the semester, so we make sure that everybody knows how to use the rubric and can apply it effectively. So with those checks and balances it actually works out incredibly well.

John: Are there standard documents that you share with people, and then you see how they evaluated to compare against the benchmarks, for the calibration?

Nikki: Yes, we do. We have a standardized rubric, and then during our retreat sessions we will selectively pick, like, a very, very borderline portfolio for people to assess. We put people in groups, and then we make them grade the ePortfolio with the rubric, and then we discuss it and we talk about what’s working, what’s not working. And if there’s any huge discrepancies in the assessment of those ePortfolios we talk about what was going wrong with those discrepancies. So it’s pretty organized, and it’s pretty efficient.

John: It seems like a really nice way to provide equitable and fair assessments that adhere to the standards that you’re trying to meet. I’m impressed.

Nikki: Thank you.

Rebecca: You talked a little bit about students needing to meet standards to go through the portfolio assessments. Does that essentially equate to their ability to continue on in that particular program?

Nikki: Yes it does. If they’re not meeting the basic requirements for an ePortfolio review, technically it means they’ve failed. And so what we do with those students is we then decide… How did that student fail? Did they fail on their own merit? Or did they fail because they tried and tried and tried but just couldn’t get it? So we have standardized measures here that says, “Okay, so if a student has been trying really hard, and they just didn’t get it, then we will allow that student to repeat the course.” So we have checks and balances there for those students.

John: So this program is used universally in the Composition Program. Have similar practices been adopted by other departments at New Paltz?

Nikki: I’m ashamed to say I don’t know, and the reason for that is because I don’t get out much to see. [LAUGHTER]

John: That’s not uncommon especially during the pandemic.

Nikki: Yeah, I just don’t know, and I feel embarrassed to say that, but I came out of teaching a 4/4 load into this position. So that’ll be one of my next step projects is to figure out who else is using them on campus and talk to them about how they’re using those ePortfolios.

Rebecca: So another thing that is worth considering is… You mentioned that students can choose some privacy settings and things. How long do students have access to these portfolios after they’ve created them?

Nikki: As far as I know students have it for as long as they’re a student.

Rebecca: So we’ve talked about assessment being a primary motivator and maybe some professional skills as being a good motivator for putting ePortfolios in place. But are there other advantages to using student ePortfolios that we should be thinking about?

Nikki: So apart from the ePortfolios for the students being an opportunity to see themselves as professional communicators, to help boost their ethos and their confidence. I think we talked a lot about what the students get from this, but from a faculty’s perspective the ePortfolios are a fantastic tool because they are so accessible, they’re easy to coordinate for assessment, we don’t have to wade through buckets and buckets of paper. And also we don’t have to, [LAUGHTER] I know this sounds like a really minor thing, but when we used to do the paper portfolios we’d do the portfolio assessment, and then we would call the students into our offices to break the news to them whether they’ve passed or not, and give them their paper portfolio back, and a lot of students didn’t come. So we ended up with piles, and piles and piles of portfolios in our offices and it’s like, “Well what do we do with those?” I found it really distressing. You know, if you’ve got four classes and 120 students, and every semester, and then they just pile up, that was distressing. So to switch to the e-system just feels better on my soul, [LAUGHTER] for the planet doing this. But the ePortfolios, they’re just such a good tool for faculty for teaching, for training other faculty, and for sharing what we do with our students with each other, and sharing ideas and seeing what the possibilities are. The ePortfolios just offer so much more potential for pushing what writing and rhetoric is, and what we do with it in the classroom. So from a pedagogical point of view, I can’t imagine going back to paper portfolios. It’s just a fantastically amazing, creative, and soul-satisfying tool to have at your disposal.

John: That’s a really nice, positive note to end on.

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

Nikki: Well, so last summer my colleague Rachel Rigolino and I used Hawksites to develop an online tutor training site because we need more TA tutors in our system to help with the writing program, and that was really successful. And so what we want to do now is to extend that. We would like to develop a Hawksite for our TAs so that we can put all of their innovative teaching ideas into a Hawksite, so that it’s accessible to everybody for sharing ideas. And that’s a really big project. So that’s our next big step, to do that.

Rebecca: Sounds like it’ll be really helpful, and really exciting to work on.

Nikki: I think so. I think it will be vital. [LAUGHTER]

John: This sounds like a really good program, and thank you for joining us, and thank you for sharing this with us.

Nikki: Thank you, it was a pleasure. 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, Annalyn Smith, and Joshua Vega.


235. Pandemic Teaching: Week 109

We take a break from our usual interview format in this episode to reflect on how our teaching has continued to evolve as we moved through a second year of pandemic teaching. We also speculate a bit about the longer term impact of the pandemic on teaching in higher education.

Show Notes


John: Roughly two years ago, our campus shut down for a two-week pause until the COVID-19 pandemic was brought under control. And now we’re celebrating a two year anniversary of that.

Rebecca: We’re celebrating that, John?

John: Well… [LAUGHTER] Let me rephrase that. [LAUGHTER] So this is now the second anniversary of that temporary shutdown, which has had some fairly substantial consequences for teaching and learning in higher ed. We thought this would be a good time to reflect back on how the pandemic has altered the way in which higher ed is taking place in the U.S., and also to speculate a little bit on what the long-term implications of these changes might be on instruction in higher ed.


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: Today’s teas are…

John: Since I’ve had lots of tea earlier in the day, I am having a Twinings Pure Peppermint tea.

Rebecca: And that seems good, that seems good. Given that we’re needing to find comfort, because this has been going on for so long, I have reverted back to my dear old friend, English Afternoon tea, for today’s episode.

John: Very good. We thought we’d start by reflecting back on where we were before the pandemic. What was our life like?

Rebecca: Oh, my life was glorious, John. I was on sabbatical, I had a studio space set up, it was all perfect for working. Had my really big monitor that I invested in because I was going to spend so much time in this studio. I was doing research, I was immersed in accessibility related research, inclusive pedagogy, and taking online courses.

John: I had some classes that were going really well, I was going to a lot of conferences, I had several conference presentations scheduled. And in general, things were really positive. And then we had this shutdown, and things have changed quite a bit.

Rebecca: I know, I had so many travel things planned too, John. I had conferences, travel, there were so many glorious things happening. [LAUGHTER]

John: And I think we’ve talked about this before, individually, but I don’t know if we’ve talked about it on the podcast, but the nice thing about going to conferences in person is that you can focus on them. You can actually focus on the topics that are presented, you can go to sessions and focus entirely on those sessions. And then there’s all those wonderful hallway conversations with the presenters and with other people doing similar work, without the distractions we have in our regular day-to-day work weeks. Conferences since then, at least for me, have been entirely remote conferences. And that’s been a somewhat different experience.

Rebecca: Well I’m going to so many conferences now, except… [LAUGHTER] I intend to go to so many sessions, and then often have to make concessions about what I can go to and what I hope to at some point in the future revisit in a recording later on. So I really appreciate the ability to engage with a lot more material. The potential is there with these remote conferences that in many cases didn’t even exist before in that format. So I appreciate that component of it, especially having a small child and not having to uproot for long periods of time. But if I’m in the office, or people know that I’m around, that I’m still teaching my classes, or going to meetings and all these other things are still on my calendar, even though I’m supposed to be at a conference the whole time.

John: And that’s been exactly my experience, that I sign up for these conferences expecting to attend three or four or five sessions with the hope of catching up on the others later. And I’ve been lucky to attend more than two or three at any of the conferences I’ve virtually attended this year. Again, it’s nice to have those videos, but it’s very rare that I’ve had time to actually go back and watch them. And I’m very much looking forward to the return of in-person conferences.

Rebecca: Yeah, I mean, I’ve definitely had some great information that I’ve been able to access through virtual conferences, but I really do miss some of the opportunities to engage with colleagues that I don’t know, are new to me, who might have some similar interest that we might be able to collaborate or share resources. And I deeply miss that.

John: And also, I found I have a lot less time for professional development reading and other professional development activities, not just the ones at conferences, but also ones within the discipline: catching up on reading, reading new books, new journal articles. It seems as if we have much less time in the day now than we did prior to the pandemic.

Rebecca: I used to have a really regular routine prior to the pandemic of reading, both within my discipline but also pedagogy and other relevant professional development readings every morning. That’s how I started my day. I don’t do that anymore, I don’t have time.

John: And also I found, especially recently, I spend much more time browsing the news to see what the current potentially world-ending crisis is at any given day. Right now we’re in the middle of the war in Ukraine. And that certainly provides some substantial distractions from the areas that perhaps we might prefer to be focusing on. And I think that’s also true for our students.

Rebecca: Yeah, I think that our attention is more divided in that way. I might be paying more attention or more careful attention to the news, or health-related news in a way that, although I certainly consume news on a regular basis, my consumption of such things is up significantly, and basically has replaced some of the other things that I might have read otherwise. And I think our students are feeling that too.

John: And one thing I’ve also noted is that the workshops that we do in the teaching center tend to have a bit less attendance this year than in the past. In the first year of the pandemic, we had an explosion of interest when people were transitioning to new teaching modalities. But this past year, faculty have generally been reporting that they feel a bit exhausted, that they just can’t fit in one more thing. And one of the things that’s made this a little bit more challenging on our campus and throughout the SUNY system, is that we’re going to be moving to a new digital learning environment this summer. And for those of us who are teaching in the summer, we’re going to have very few weeks to learn the new environment and to prepare our courses. And that’s been somewhat challenging. And a lot of faculty are very concerned about this one more disruption in the way they’re teaching. And I think that’s been making it much more challenging for many people.

Rebecca: Yeah, I think faculty are just tired. So many lifts that needed to be done to survive during the pandemic. We all went kind of in survival mode, put in way more hours to make experiences that were good for students. Because, as teachers, we really care about these student-centered approaches, and there was a real commitment on our campus by all of our faculty to do this. As John mentioned, lots of people participating in professional development, really putting the commitment and time in. And that’s really valuable work. But we’ve been doing it for two years. [LAUGHTER] And I think that faculty are just starting to get to a point where they’re trying to reclaim some time back for research, or reclaim back some time, dare I say, for leisure.

John: I remember reading about that at some point in the past. [LAUGHTER] But following up on your comment there, one of the things we’ve learned about inclusive teaching, partly from Viji Sathy and Kelly Hogan, is the importance of providing students with structure. And from my observations, students need that structure more than ever in a world filled with so many other distractions and disruptions. And that all requires some work on the part of faculty to provide more complete directions, more instructions, and, more generally, just to provide more support for students than we had been doing in the past… that we probably were doing too little of it in the past, but I think now it’s needed more than ever.

Rebecca: You’re making a good point here. I know that one of the things that I shifted to doing that students have really responded positively to is providing weekly updates, or at this point, four semesters in, I’m doing recaps of each class period with, like, what to do for the next class period. And students await that to help structure their time outside of class. But one of the things that I’ve definitely had students report is just how much distraction there is, challenges that they’re facing. They’re also reporting things like mental health challenges, the state of the world weighing on their minds, and being distracted by health related things, war, race-related issues in the United States. The other thing that students are reporting is that they’re really self-conscious about interacting with other students, about giving feedback or receiving feedback. In my case, I’m teaching online, and they’ve all said that they would appreciate people having their cameras on, for example, in the Zoom class, but all report that they don’t, because other people don’t, and they’re conscious about their appearance. But also they’re reporting in reflection assignments that they’re really afraid of just what other people think of them, generally.

John: I think one of the costs of the year plus of remote teaching in general is that students lost a lot of connections with other students. And not only were there some issues in terms of a learning loss, it was also a loss of social interaction. For the classes that did take place in person in the first year of the pandemic, people were wearing masks and were separated often by six or more feet, and were actually discouraged from interacting in small group discussions and so forth, or small group interactions in general. And I think that’s led to some issues where people have to re-learn how to interact with each other again.

Rebecca: Yeah, I think unfortunately, some of the aftermath or during-math of the pandemic has been sometimes an over-reliance on sage-on-the-stage methods in the classroom, in part out of necessity, because facilitating those interactions was too difficult, especially in person.

John: In the fall semester, it was my first time back in the classroom after a year of teaching remotely, I was teaching our large class where most of the students were first-year students. And I had about 189 students in the classroom, but they were spread out in a room that seats about 420 students, which had often been filled with 420 students in past semesters. And when I tried to get them to interact, it was a real challenge because sometimes they were 10, 15 feet away from other students. Some of the students did interact, but whenever they were talking to other students they were pulling down their masks to do so, which was also less than optimal. So it was a bit of a challenge trying to encourage students to keep masks on but also to talk to each other. And it was a far lower level of interaction than I’d ever seen before. Now, I’ve noticed in the spring semester that interactions are much closer to what they had been prior to the pandemic, partly because I’m teaching juniors and seniors I suspect, but also partly because I’m dealing with smaller classes, and we actually did end the mask mandate just two weeks ago. And I think that has been a signal of a return to normalcy that I very much have enjoyed seeing, and I hope it lasts at least for another month or two before the next wave of the pandemic hits. But it’s been nice hearing students more clearly without the mask, and it’s been nice to actually see the faces of the students who choose not to wear masks. Some students have been consistently choosing to wear masks, and that’s probably not a bad strategy, especially if they face any health issues.

Rebecca: One of the things that has been really enlightening for me over the last couple years, having not really taught online before but teaching online synchronously, is how much using some text-based communication is so helpful in getting to know the students and allowing them to ask questions and get help. It’s not that I wasn’t using text-based communication before, because I have typically used chat tools like Slack as part of my class structures. But there’s definitely more of a reliance on that, and I’ve ramped up things like reflection assignments that are more written. And this is interesting, because I typically teach design classes, so there’s a lot of visual work that’s happening, and so the written work isn’t always a common element. But it’s interesting how honest students have been in those reflections in revealing things like being self-conscious, or being concerned about what their peers think, or being honest about mental health issues, and revealing that knowing that I was going to read that, and that that information I would then have. So it’s interesting, because I have not seen the faces of many of my students. [LAUGHTER] I’ve interacted with them synchronously, but not seen their faces, and still actually feel like we have a pretty strong connection. And I think that they’ve revealed or indicated that they have strong connections with each other as well. Despite what maybe from the outside would look like a lot of barriers.

John: I do have to say that it’s been such a relief to me to go back into the classroom, because when I was teaching that large class on Zoom and seeing that sea of black boxes, it was really hard to maintain my enthusiasm and to try to maintain engagement, because there were always a number of students who were just tuned out… who when you called on them just were not responsive, when you sent them to breakout rooms just kind of ended up hanging out there, and in general it was also reflected in their performance on all the graded activities in the class. And that was kind of depressing. And I’m very much enjoying the classroom interaction again. Now I’ve been teaching online for many years, asynchronously, and that worked very well all through the pandemic. But I think part of that is that the students were older and had very strong motivation for being successful in the classes because they saw the importance of the classes in their educational or career goals, which is not something that freshmen and sophomores always have intrinsically, at least.

Rebecca: I might add to what you’re saying, John, in that I certainly had that experience teaching mostly through Zoom. My class size has been relatively consistent throughout the pandemic as what it was before, which is smaller, about 25 students in total. And I definitely experienced feeling like, “What are you guys doing in these breakout rooms? Just like sitting staring at a wall? I’m not sure what’s going on here.” I’d pop in, and no one’s talking to each other. And I still have that experience [LAUGHTER] to be clear. I still pop in, and it seems like nobody’s engaging with one another. But what’s been interesting is that in the kinds of reflection questions I’ve been asking students, they’ve revealed more of what those interactions are like when I’m not present. And what’s interesting is that many of the students are indicating that they’re relying on each other to troubleshoot, to help each other out, to brainstorm, to get feedback from one another. They’re just not doing it constantly the whole time they’re in there, but they are getting a lot of value out of that. And my timing just is terrible? I don’t think they have any reason to lie about that, because there’s evidence of it, they’ve given specific examples of the kind of feedback that they’ve received or the kind of help that they got, and what happened. So certainly I’d like to see more engagement, but I also think that they’ve become more accustomed to working in that space, and knowing what the expectations of that space are. And I’ve also set up more structure for those spaces, and I’ve provided instructions and ways to intervene in those spaces. Using Zoom you can’t chat to breakout rooms using the chat feature, so we set up Google Chat to do that, and all of those things have helped manage those interactions in a way that I wasn’t doing in those first semesters.

John: And I should note that my experience was in the first full semester of remote teaching. And there the students themselves were complaining that some of the other students were not actively engaged in the breakout rooms, that they’d call on them and they just wouldn’t respond. They’d actually show up because they had to intentionally choose to go into the room, but then they just wouldn’t talk to each other. And I got that response from about 35 to 40 percent of the students, so it was a pretty significant issue. Maybe with more experience they’ve gotten better, but I’ve been out of that teaching modality for the last year, and I’m very happy to be out of it, because even though I’ve never required students to turn on their cameras, it makes teaching a lot more challenging when you can’t see the people that you’re interacting with. Sometimes you hear the voices, but not always even then, and most of the interaction was through chat. But the class that I taught in the fall of 2020 had over 300 students in it, and the chat with 300 students was often a constant stream of text. The signal to noise ratio in that was not quite as high as I would have liked. So I did rely on breakout rooms a lot, but they just were not as effective as I had hoped or have been in other contexts.

Rebecca: I think the kinds of classes we teach also has a big impact there. I’m teaching studio classes, we’re in class together six hours a week. I have a smaller class size, I know the students very well, and I have the opportunity to interact with them all individually on a pretty regular basis, which I think perhaps does guilt students into participating more. [LAUGHTER]

John: That makes a lot of sense. And my large classes are intro classes, and it’s their first experience in college and generally their first experience in a large class. And it can be perhaps a little bit intimidating, especially when they’ve just come out of a period where they were taught remotely in their high schools…after the end of their senior year was spent in remote instruction of somewhat varied quality depending on the resources of the school district and of the individual households.

Rebecca: Not to mention really some of the very sad results of having to go remote. For many of them, they missed in person graduation. Something that’s supposed to be a really culminating experience ended up being, for many, a letdown. And it’s no wonder why we have a lot of students experiencing some mental health challenges.

John: What are some of the challenges that you’ve seen during the past academic year? Now that we’ve had a year of adjustment to teaching during a pandemic.

Rebecca: I think the biggest observation that I made, or a difference that I’ve seen this academic year in comparison to even the first full year of the pandemic, is a lot more variance in the quality of student work, not engagement in class, but the quality of student work submitted. So having a lot of really strong pieces of work, and then really weak pieces of work, and not a lot in the middle. And what’s interesting is that it’s the same assignments and things that existed the first year of the pandemic and that was not the case.

John: I’ve seen something very similar, not just with the quality work but also the quantity of work. Most of those grades below a C are because of students just simply not doing the work. And for me that’s been fairly persistent last year and this year, although it does seem to be better this semester. And I think some of it may be just that students have adjusted, some of it is because I’m teaching upper-level students who are majors either in economics or applied mathematical economics, and so they’re just more intrinsically motivated in the subject. So that’s been a pretty significant factor.

Rebecca: I feel like sometimes I’m noticing, or I’m hearing folks say that they’re finding their students to be less motivated. And I have really been thinking hard on that. I’m not sure that they’re less motivated, I’m not sure that’s the right word. I’m certainly finding in class, and in student work submitted, that students are engaged. They’re doing interesting things, having interesting things to say. They’re contributing to class, but aren’t necessarily doing work outside of class, unless that time is really structured. And even then when I hear students report what they’ve done outside of class, it often sounds like they’ve chased themselves in a circle and haven’t really accomplished anything. And so that time outside of class wasn’t necessarily super useful. And I think that has a lot to do with the cognitive load of everything else that’s going on, and not really being able to manage the world-things going on on top of four other classes, and all the things going on in all of those spaces as well.

John: With all the challenges we’ve been having, I think we all have a bit more trouble maintaining our focus and concentration, and I think that’s part of the issue for students. I’ve certainly heard that from students, that they really have trouble concentrating on the work because they have other distractions. And I’m hearing much more of that than I ever have in the past.

Rebecca: And I don’t feel like lack of concentration on something is the same thing as lack of motivation.

John: Yeah, and I certainly suspect that’s probably a major part of the issue. This is really a challenging time to be alive for so many reasons right now.

Rebecca: And to really be a young person in our world.

John: And to be going through a college experience which is very different than the expectations you had just a couple of years ago.

Rebecca: Yeah, I think that’s an important thing to always keep in balance when we’re thinking about how students are responding to things. They’ve really been incredibly adaptive, especially considering how drastic their actual experience has been compared to what they imagined a college experience might be like.

John: Since the start of the pandemic, there’s been a lot of discussion about how remote instruction, or online instruction, hasn’t worked. One qualification is, what we experienced during the pandemic was a lot of emergency remote instruction done by people who were not trained in the modalities that they were using, and in particular using modalities that virtually no one had used before. So I think we should be a little bit careful in interpreting some of those claims.

Rebecca: Yeah, and even having the time and space and mental capacity to fully redesign something for a different delivery wasn’t something that we had the luxury of having. We were trying to pull these things out. I know that for me, because I was on sabbatical when the pandemic started, I actually had some time, not a lot, but I had some time, to do more of a development for the online synchronous modality that I’ve been teaching in over the last couple of years. And I think that gave me a little bit of an advantage because I was able to really consider the space and the way that I was going to be teaching and be reflective upon it, when I didn’t have to worry about the emergency things going on in the spring, or having to learn a lot of new technology because I already had some of those skill sets in place.

John: There have been some studies where there’s at least some attempt at natural experiments or random assignment of students. There was one that was done at West Point, and we can share a link to that in the show notes, which essentially randomly divided a class where half the class were face-to-face, half were attending class remotely on Zoom. But one thing I think to keep in mind with studies of that sort is that, essentially, they were comparing face-to-face instruction with students participating remotely in face-to-face instruction. One of the things that I think always happens when people try moving to a new instructional method or a new technique is people try to replicate what they were doing before. And there’s still really a lot that we haven’t learned about what will work best. So I think we should be a little bit careful about ruling out the possibility of synchronous remote or making global claims that it’s not going to work because, as you said, you spent a lot of time reflecting about it and thinking about how you needed to modify your approach to deal with this new modality. I think we should at least keep an open mind going forward about this, and do some research on what works better when we’re not in the midst of a global pandemic where the students who are there don’t want to be in that modality, and where many of the faculty using that modality are only there because they had no other choice.

Rebecca: Yeah, the ability to collaborate and work together synchronously using digital tools is really powerful, and is something we shouldn’t lose sight of using in the future. I found it really promising even though there were challenges, and continue to be challenges during this time. It’s really easy to bring in a guest using Zoom. Certainly you can use a classroom space and Zoom or Skype somebody in, but if the classroom isn’t set up for that kind of interaction it doesn’t work well. Typically, I find in my experience, it’s been really great when everybody’s in the same modality. So just watching recordings of something that’s happening live, or joining in on a live session but you’re remote… you’re not fully integrated into the situation often. But if you’re in the same platform and everybody’s in Zoom, then the chat becomes something that works a lot better, or breakout rooms become something that works quite well if you want to have some kinds of interaction. And if you’re taking advantage of the platform, and what the platform offers, and then extending with some additional tools. For example, I was using Zoom and extended with Google Chat so that I could chat with people in breakouts. And I extended with a tool called Miro, which is a digital-whiteboarding tool that’s far more developed than what’s available in Zoom. We could do all kinds of really great interactions that I couldn’t necessarily do in the same way in person, it was completely adapted to that particular situation and the context we were working in. So I can imagine this being a really important modality for working professionals, for example, who might be going back to school, who really wants to have some interaction with real humans in real time [LAUGHTER] but can’t necessarily get somewhere by a particular time.

John: I think something very similar happened when we first started to teach online in an asynchronous manner. People were trying to duplicate the same classroom environment in an online environment. And a lot of the early results suggested it didn’t work that well until people started studying it and working through what worked best. And now we have whole new ways of teaching, many of which have made it back into the classroom because they have been successful online. So recent studies find that asynchronous and face-to-face instruction are essentially equivalent. Sometimes one does a little bit better than the other, but that varies by instructor, and the instructor’s knowledge of techniques and personality and so forth. But in general, there really doesn’t seem to make much of a difference in learning outcomes between those two modalities. And with some work and development, the same may very well be true for remote synchronous. But picking up on that issue of bringing in guests and so forth with video, I think many campuses, including our own, have to do a lot to upgrade their facilities. And one of the things that faculty have learned is how easy it is to bring people in remotely, either students who are sick who are out with COVID or something else, are able to attend remotely and actively participate using Zoom or other tools, as long as we have adequate video and audio capabilities in the classroom. And I think on our campus, and probably on most campuses, we haven’t quite reached a level of video and audio that really works that well for students participating remotely.

Rebecca: Even before COVID faculty might have done lecture capture or something like that. But the expectations around that is that it’s something you’ve already experienced, and you’re going back to review it. So the expectation of really high quality wasn’t necessarily there like it is now. Now everyone’s experienced the ability to lecture capture in something like Zoom and get some really high quality recording when we’re all in that same space. Have high quality transcripts, be able to see what’s on the screen. And so, as we move forward, these are new expectations. These are not just expectations of the students who had been in school the last couple of years during the pandemic and have experienced some of the synchronous remote things. But K-12 has done the same thing, we’ve got a good 13, 14 more years of students who have already had these expectations. This is where it’s going to be at. And professionals have this now too because they also have been working remotely, and have a lot more collaboration happening in this way as well.

John: And many faculty used to bring in guest speakers, but it used to require someone to physically be there and sometimes people would travel to do that. But now you can reach anyone pretty much anywhere in the world and bring them into your classroom, if you have adequate capabilities to do that. So I think all campuses need to work on upgrading both their microphone systems so that you can hear everyone in the room, not just the sage on the stage, especially since we don’t have stages in most of our rooms. And also better video so that people presenting remotely can see their class and see the people they’re engaging with.

Rebecca: Yeah, definitely. I think one thing we should think about, John, is, I don’t know about you, but during this time I’ve used some pieces of technology differently or some new technologies that I haven’t used in the past—new to me, not necessarily new to the universe—that I don’t want to let go. [LAUGHTER] Like I want to keep going there. Or I want to find some sort of equivalent for the physical classroom, but I don’t know what that is yet. I’ve adopted some new practices, and I haven’t been back in the classroom, I know it’s different for you because you’ve been back in the classroom, but I see my teaching changing. How do you see your teaching changing?

John: Some of it was technology. When I moved home, all of a sudden I had faster computers, I had a nice big second monitor. And now coming back it’s really hard to adjust to the computers we have in classrooms, a single monitor which is really hard to do when you’re working with some students coming in on Zoom. Having a second monitor, and there were times when I really wish I had a third one, where you could keep the chat open on one, you could see the list of participants on it, and you could have other materials staged to bring onto the screen that you’re sharing with people participating remotely. It’s been a big adjustment. I had also had a video camera and microphone in my classroom for at least a decade, and I assumed all of our classrooms did, but this time I was assigned to a classroom that had neither of them and that required a little bit of adjustment. So I think we do need to upgrade these things so that all of our classrooms are able to adapt to the technology that’s become kind of the norm.

Rebecca: Yeah, prior to the pandemic I routinely used Slack for some kind of back-channel conversation, or to have some text conversation. But what I’ve realized now is I’ve adopted many practices teaching synchronously online that allow people to participate, who maybe don’t want to speak up for whatever reason. And I desperately don’t want to lose some of those ways of participating. And for me that includes the ability to answer questions using some sort of chat feature, the ability to use things like Miro, and so this whiteboard application has become so central to some of the things that I do, I’m now having a really hard time envisioning what that would be like if I was teaching in any kind of classroom that wasn’t a lab space where everybody had a computer. [LAUGHTER] Because these are places where we can brainstorm together, share ideas together, and have them all collate into a single location and not be lost in the time/space in a conversation. And these are ways that students have reflected in various reflection assignments that are really important to them. They found these opportunities to share their ideas, without having to speak up, to be really valuable. And it’s not just the camera thing. I think some people will jump to the conclusion that, “Oh, you’re teaching synchronously online, people are using these chat things because they don’t want to turn their camera on.” It’s true that students don’t want to turn their camera on for a wide variety of reasons which I fully support and respect. I don’t require that, we participate in other ways. But there’s also this deep insecurity that students have communicated about being afraid of being wrong, or just not wanting to voice their opinion, or needing time to think before presenting something. And these other platforms, or this other way of doing things, really supports this group of students in a way that I don’t want to stop supporting.

John: One of the things I did in my large class last fall is I had Zoom open, and I encouraged students who were present in person to use it if they wanted to participate using chat. That worked really nicely in a classroom where I had two monitors, so I could keep the chat open on one screen. And sometimes the students who are way in the back, when you have a few 100 students in the classroom they’re often really reluctant to raise their hand or to say something, but they’re much more comfortable participating in a chat discussion. And so that has helped. Another thing I’ve done is I’ve cut back on the number of exams. In my econometrics class this semester, normally, I had three exams where I used a two-stage exam which worked beautifully. And I was originally planning to do that again, until the first week of class when a third of my students were out with COVID. And we’re not quite past this yet. And I just noticed in the last week, our infection rate in this county has doubled. So I think we might still not be past it by the end of the semester, even though we’re…

Rebecca: It’s more than doubled. [LAUGHTER]

John: So I decided to drop all those exams, and I’m just doing a lot more lower stakes assessment. And much more of the work that students are doing that is assessed is done as group work where they’re working with each other every day in class on some assignments. And I more fully flipped the class where instead of giving them written assignments that they worked on individually, and then submitted, and I graded. A lot of that is done in small groups in class, but some of the basics and some of the retrieval practice and other things are done with videos I created during the pandemic with embedded questions. And that’s where they get some of the basic concepts, and they get to review it at their own pace. And they can take the embedded questions over and over again, after watching the appropriate parts of the video, as many times as they need to master the concepts. And it seems to be working much more effectively than it did when I was using a more interactive lecture approach in class.

Rebecca: That sounds really exciting, and I would think those things are things that you certainly don’t want to lose, those are things to keep and continue finding ways to engage students with each other. I heard you just say something that sounded like persistent teams, John. And so I know that that’s something I have definitely adopted over the course of the pandemic. It’s something that I definitely used in a slightly smaller context prior to the pandemic, I had persistent teams for a particular project. But I’ve moved to having persistent teams for the entire semester as a way to connect students with each other, to work through problems, or to troubleshoot with one another, and just have a group of students within the classroom that they get to know each other better, it facilitates some of that relationship building. How about you, John?

John: Well, in one of my classes, in a seminar class, I have persistent teams that are working through the whole semester where they’re writing a book again. But they’re working in small groups, and they work every week on some projects. Each week they present some journal articles or working papers, and they also work on their semester-long project and that, again, has helped develop connections among students really effectively, and it’s created a really positive environment. In my econometrics class I haven’t been able to create the same sort of persistent groups simply because I’ve had students who were ill at various times in the semester. And I’ve also had a student who had a car breakdown, I had a student who was stuck in another country where their travel arrangements broke down after spring break, and I’ve had people who were hospitalized. And nearly all of them have been attending every class, but today, for example, I had all the students in class except for two. And those students were a group in the breakout room while they were working through the same sort of problems, and the others were meeting in person. So there’s some degree of consistency in the teams based on where they sit with each other, but it also shifts a little bit depending on who is there in person, who is there remotely.

Rebecca: Yeah, it’s a lot easier to collaborate when you’re in the same modality. And so I think that’s an interesting challenge for HyFlex, which is showing good promise, but also definitely has its challenges. When we’re using some of these active learning techniques, or we want this community building, there can be some challenges when people aren’t there, all in the same modality.

John: And one of our earlier podcasts was on the topic of HyFlex. And in that one of the things that Judie Littlejohn suggested was exactly that: that one of the challenges with teaching in a HyFlex environment where some students will be in person, some remote, and some working entirely asynchronously, is you never know who’s going to be in class on any given day, which makes it really hard to have those persistent teams, and also to plan for in-person and synchronous remote, as well as what’s going to happen asynchronously. Because potentially, you have a constantly shifting pattern of in-person attendees, remote attendees, and students who are not engaged in any way synchronously on any given class day. And that could be a real challenge. The other challenge with HyFlex is it requires a lot more work on the part of faculty to develop the courses, and this also was discussed in that earlier podcast, and a lot more work on the part of faculty to manage it in terms of preparing things for all possible eventualities of different attendance patterns. And the development work essentially means that someone has to develop a fully asynchronous plan for each of the course modules or for each class meeting. They have to develop other activities that will work synchronously in person as well as remotely. At the very least, it’s like building two entirely separate courses. And that’s a lot more work than we typically have to do on either an asynchronous or a synchronous class, whatever the version of the synchronous class is.

Rebecca: I think what these conversations always reveal, or remind us, is that we really have to take in mind what the course objectives are, the kinds of activities that might help students best meet those course objectives, and then what modalities might best match that. [LAUGHTER] Some things are going to work really well synchronously online, and some things just aren’t. And I think some things will work really well in HyFlex, and other things will just be incredibly challenging to do there and maybe don’t make sense in that kind of a format. So I think that as we move forward and we’ve got more choice, we should really reflect upon what we’re trying to achieve, and then making good choices to help us achieve those things

John: And become more proficient using whatever we’ve learned about each modality to make our courses better. Which is why we have all these professional development activities, which have certainly become much more popular in the last few years than they ever had been before.

Rebecca: You know we’re going to be looking at professional development through these lenses too. Do we need more asynchronous professional development? Do we need more synchronous online, more in person, more HyFlex? What that mix is going to be. And it really is those same kinds of factors that we need to think about for our students. Like, who’s our audience? What are their limitations and barriers? And what modalities and things are going to help us overcome some of those barriers to participation the easiest? So, John and I have talked before about timing always being an issue for professional development, and that’s how this podcast got started. Thinking about… How do we address some of the professional development needs of our community when finding a common time was impossible to meet in person, or even to meet remotely synchronously online, especially when we have a lot of commuters and things.

John: It’s even tough for us to find time to meet to record these podcasts often. So we always end with the question, What’s next?

Rebecca: Good question, John. I’m not sure. I’m looking to the fall and thinking about teaching in person again, the first time in two years, and really just not knowing where to start. There’s a lot of things that I’ve gotten really accustomed to, and comfortable with teaching synchronously online, and things that I don’t want to let go of. Some emotional attachment to things, and I really need to rethink what things look like coming back in the fall because I cannot go back to the way I was teaching before. I’m a changed teacher, I can’t go back. How about you, John?

John: I think that’s true for all of us. For me, in my long-term horizon I’m going to hold office hours online in about five minutes, [LAUGHTER] and in the longer-term horizon I’ll be back with you to record a podcast in about an hour or so. And I suppose in terms of longer term planning, I’m looking forward to learning more about Desire to Learn’s Brightspace platform, which we’re moving to in SUNY very shortly.

Rebecca: Yeah, exciting new things happening, for sure. And I’m so glad that I’m part of your future, John.

John: The long-term horizon!

Rebecca: Yeah, I know, this is exciting stuff.

John: We’ll be back with another podcast next week.


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, Annalyn Smith, and Joshua Vega.


234. Education in Prisons

Education provides a pathway to a more secure and comfortable future for individuals living in poverty. This is especially true for those who are incarcerated. In this episode, Em Daniels and William Keizer join us to discuss the challenges and opportunities associated with providing education in prisons.

Em is a researcher who focuses on education, corrections, criminal legal reform, and abolition. She is the author of Building a Trauma-Responsive Educational Practice: Lessons from a Corrections Classroom. William is a Founder of Frontline Professional Development and Co-Founder of Revive Reentry Services and the Revive Center for Returning Citizens. He is a former state prison Adult Education Instructor, and in addition, he himself was formerly incarcerated.


John: Education provides a pathway to a more secure and comfortable future for individuals living in poverty. This is especially true for those who are incarcerated. In this episode, we explore the challenges and opportunities associated with providing educational in prisons.


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 Em Daniels and William Keizer. Em is a researcher who focuses on education, corrections, criminal legal reform, and abolition. She is the author of Building a Trauma-Responsive Educational Practice: Lessons from a Corrections Classroom. William is a Founder of Frontline Professional Development and Co-Founder of Revive Reentry Services and the Revive Center for Returning Citizens. He is a former state prison Adult Education Instructor, and in addition, he himself was formerly incarcerated. Welcome back, Em, and welcome, William.

Em: Hello.

William: Thank you.

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

Em: I’ve just got water. I’ve got boring room temperature water with no flavor in it.

Rebecca: That’s a disappointment.

Em: I know, I’m sorry. I set the bar very high, and then I didn’t even get over it. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: How about you, William?

William: I am water and lemon in a spill proof cup.

Em: He’s got a sippy cup. [LAUGHTER]

William: I’m a little clumsy sometimes, [LAUGHTER] Em knows. I take every precaution.

John: And I’m drinking a peppermint spearmint blend today.

Rebecca: Oh, that sounds nice, John.

Rebecca: I have Scottish afternoon tea this afternoon.

Em: Mhmm.

John: Very good, appropriate. Because it’s afternoon and I’ve already had a lot of caffeine I’m doing a non-caffeinated route.

Em: I did have coffee earlier, just so people know that I haven’t abandoned the caffeine train. I just tried to finish it before, and I can’t have a tea right after a coffee. It’s too much liquid. [LAUGHTER]

William: I second that.

John: In an earlier podcast, we talked to Em about the general topic of trauma-responsive educational practice. Today we’d like to focus more on the topic of education in prisons. How did each of you become involved in teaching in prisons?

William: You know, it’s funny, as I was preparing for the podcast, it dawned on me that I actually started my career in education in a carceral setting, teaching life skills at a juvenile detention center, clear back in 1989. From there, I worked as an intervention specialist and a special education teacher in public schools. But around 2004, I’d been teaching life skills classes at a state work release program when I was hired to teach adult education in the state prison in our area. And I’ve always worked with marginalized populations. And so for me, it was just kind of a natural progression. I guess I’ve always just landed right where I’m supposed to be.

Em: Yeah, I started after Bill, but I also started out outside of academia, I started working in a community organization, helping people during the Welfare-to-Work years, as they were trying to transition people off of welfare. I worked for a small agency that did workforce development, and didn’t know anything, but learned quite a lot, and then continued working in just such a variety of different teaching and learning spaces, eventually coming to working in the prison for several years when I was living in Oregon, and had also worked in alternative high schools and left the prison in Oregon and then moved to Spokane, Washington, where I live now to work as a Re-entry Education Navigator, and my job was to try to help people who were coming out of prison who wanted to go back to school, and did that for several years… met Bill during that time, and feel like that whole experience of seeing what happens to people before they go to prison and what that education looks like, and then during prison, and then what happens when people come out of prison and want to continue education or enter education has really given me a fairly unique perspective on higher ed in prisons.

Rebecca: For those that aren’t familiar, can you describe some of the challenges facing both students and instructors within the prison system?

William: I think one of the significant challenges is to create an environment where students feel safe and respected, where they can settle and become ready to learn, especially a place where they can feel insulated from all the distractions that come with being locked up. It’s tough because students in a carceral setting are trying to learn while they’re dealing with stuff like maintaining a relationship with their significant other outside of the walls, or maybe family issues, family stuff, sick kids, whatever, because you’re powerless over what happens on the outside and it eats at you. Then you have internal distractions like prison politics, you may have issues with staff or with other individuals that you’re locked up with. And it makes it hard for students to try to settle and learn.

Em: Mmhmm. First, I’m going to say I think educational trauma plays an incredibly significant role for students in prisons, because so many of them have been denied public education or actively ejected from public education before they come to prisons. So they’ve already had a lot of really significant harm around education. So they come in with a lot of those barriers. And then when you look at the demographics of who was in prison, you see also many people who have disabilities, especially undiagnosed learning disabilities, the incidence of traumatic brain injury is anywhere from three to five times higher in the population in prison than it is in general populations. And that also presents significant barriers… addiction and the impacts it has on the brain, especially alcohol, provides really a lot of issues. So there’s just a number of barriers that show up in population, and are connected to reasons why people come to prison. So there’s that piece, and then some of the more logistical issues. It’s hard to describe how few resources there are, when you work in a prison setting. When I go into a prison, I’m like, “Well, I might be able to have a pencil and a piece of paper.” And that’s really the resource that I might be able to have. If I’m going in as a volunteer or something like that, if there’s programming inside, I probably have a little bit more, but there is no access to internet, not active internet. Some states and some facilities are working on a secure internet, where people can get on to certain sites, information and what not. And there are certainly, like, librarians and information management people at colleges, two- and four-year schools, do an outstanding job of trying to update resources that sit on a server. So they’ll put together sort of a secure server full of information and then they’re always trying to update those resources. But again, it’s still static, it’s not dynamic information. So the lack of access to resources is profound. There are certainly technical issues around funding, always around funding, Pell is being reinstated for people in prisons next year. So the scramble over the last couple of years, and will continue into next year for colleges and programming to try to adjust to people being able to have access to Pell again, and the benefits that that brings, but also the resistance of institutions to change and adapt so that people can get the most out of their Pell funding. To say it is very strong is an understatement, and that’s a whole other topic. Funding for programming is always challenging. And Pell is just a whole other big thing. There are all kinds of different issues around programming. So access, what materials you can bring in and bring out, who gets to come in and come out, what you get to talk about, all of these things. So there’s programming issues, and then probably, in addition to having to make an effort for students like a really, really big significant effort for students, the extreme cultural differences between, what you need for education, because education is inherently supposed to be a liberatory exercise, like it’s a movement toward liberation. And you are trying to do this in an institution that is designed to control and constrain and to hold people captive. So the cultural clash there is deep, it’s very deep. And because the corrections institution is really the one ultimately in charge, educational entities really have to walk a lot of lines that feel like compromise all the time.

John: One of the things you mentioned in the book, Em, was Eurocentric ways of knowing are built into our educational system. How might we adapt our approaches to education to better accommodate those from cultures who rely on alternative ways of knowing?

Em: Well, I would reframe that it’s not an accommodation, that it’s a rebalance… like, this country, it did not start out as a European country. And to say that European and Eurocentric ways need to accommodate other ways, I think is maybe a mis-frame. And I think that looking at all of the people and all of the representation of all the different people around the world who are living in the U.S. and go to school here, and pay taxes here, and are citizens, and all of this… this is really about how do we open our own minds and our own hearts to the way that we see the world? And understand that that is not the only way to see the world. And people talk about that a lot, but I’m, like, “This is more than just entertainment. It’s more than just a holiday.” It’s fundamentally, people see, they experience information. They take in information differently. They respond to it in their bodies differently. They respond to it in art and creativity. The way that they think about information is very different and those differences, while they certainly do present opportunities for us to push ourselves and stretch ourselves, that’s what we should be looking for. Because every time we push ourselves and stretch ourselves, it makes us better. It makes us more fully ourselves that we get to try to experience the world in all of these different ways. And I think that, when you look at the hallmarks of Eurocentrism, the production, quantifying things, wanting efficiency, wanting to make sure everything can be measured in a particular way, all of those kinds of things, none of those things are inherently wrong or bad. But when they are the only thing, the only way that you know the world, the only way that you even consider that could be possible to know the world, I think that that makes us all smaller. It makes us all less than what we really are. And I think that that piece of it, like really pushing ourselves and challenging ourselves to think about knowledge differently, is one way for us to step into a more fuller version of ourselves.

William: Yeah I agree, I agree. I guess in the literal sense, the Eurocentricity that’s embedded in our education system, really misinterprets and misrepresents the historical journeys of many marginalized populations. I think it forces those populations to use more informal ways of learning about their journey, like song and dance, and storytelling and art, just to get a more accurate understanding of who they are. And that shouldn’t have to happen. I think, really, the three things that are important for me are what’s being taught, how it’s being taught, and then how it’s being assessed. And we have to have a broader brush to be inclusive, otherwise, we’re just perpetuating that marginalization.

John: And that’s a critique of our educational system in general, but I think it may have even more weight in the prison system, given the large proportion of marginalized individuals who are in our prison system, it would seem to create even a greater amount of harm in terms of providing effective education.

Em: I agree. I think that one of the ways… like Bill talked about this earlier, building these relationships and building trust. And I think that when we think about what people need in a classroom to learn, and what they need in themselves, and in order for people to learn in a way where they are able to grasp that knowledge, connect it to something that means something to them, the things we really want students to do that there has to be sort of this calmness in the body. And that comes when people have some feeling of both physical safety, and I would say more settling than demanding that they label themselves emotionally. And one of the reasons I say that is because when you get students who have been really harmed by public education, and specifically when you’re talking about people of color who have been harmed by white supremacist entities or Eurocentric entities, and that can be white teachers, sometimes it’s not, sometimes it can be teachers of color, but it’s often white teachers, like asking them to be in a prison classroom, and they’re a person of color. And now there’s a white person, another white person in an authority role, and they’re supposed to just automatically trust them. That can be a big barrier. And it’s not something that you can talk about very often because race in prison, even though race is present in every single thing in every single interaction, always, it’s not talked about. When I was working there, race was one of those issues, like, you didn’t want to talk about it, you did not ever want to really have any conversation. I don’t know, I feel like that’s a mistake and not acknowledging it when we go in like the positionality, especially for white people, the positionality and the sort of inherent power that comes into that, like not acknowledging that and talking about it, at least amongst ourselves, is a mistake.

Rebecca: It seems particularly challenging when we’re thinking about these power dynamics that you’re talking about when it’s layered in a prison system where there’s already kind of a teacher-student relationship that has a power dynamic, but now there’s also a prison authority, telling teachers what they can and cannot do in this space as well. So how do you help students reach a feeling of being settled or overcome some of those barriers around power to actually have learning happen?

William: I think it’s super tricky, because with correction staff outside the classroom, it’s all about that absolute authoritarian coercive kind of power. And here’s the thing, often, new hire teachers, including me, receive their orientation training in the same sessions as corrections officers and other corrections staff. So there’s an expectation that we go in and behave like corrections officers in the classroom, see where in reality in the classroom success is found through compassion and collaboration and not coercion. So earning a student’s trust and respect by developing that teacher-student relationship goes a long way. If you ever have to exert your authority in the classroom, for example, enforcing classroom rules. I know from my own experience as a teacher that if you develop that relationship, you can gain compliance through respect and you don’t have to resort to threat of punishment.

Em: Mmhmm. I had that happen… When I was working I spent a lot of time building relationships with my students. And I had a very unique situation, I can’t imagine in today’s climate that I could ever have such a situation again, but, really focused a lot on building relationships with students, and also trying to walk the line of teachers are expected to be corrections enforcers when they’re in the classroom, like that is the expectation from the institution. And because teachers rarely get training that is not corrections offered training… Until this book, any training that was given was the program would put together some training. But the conversations around power and… What does it mean to be a teacher and be expected to be complicit in these dominator power dynamics? And what do you do with students who don’t have the ability to withdraw consent? And how do you navigate that? How do you not abuse that power? And that has been a question that we have not talked about. Education doesn’t have that question very often about, what do we do to maintain our own ethical core when we are in these positions where we are expected to wield power? And I think that, what Bill was talking about, where you’re building relationships with people so that they understand how you make decisions. They understand that a yes is always going to be a yes, and a no is going to be a no, and that doesn’t change based on the person. It doesn’t change based on, you’re having a bad day, you’re still going to make your decisions in the same way. People are going to know when they come to you, if you tell them yes, it would be a yes, and if you tell them no, it would be a no. And I think that we underestimate the importance of that, that consistency. I know that when I was at the prison, I had corrections staff who would come to me sometimes if they were having issues with a student, and they were someone who was in my class, they would come to me and they would say, “We know you have a good relationship with the student, can you talk to them about this or that?” And it didn’t happen all the time, but it definitely happened where they saw that I had a relationship that was not based on dominating the student and forcing them to do things. But it was based on trust and openness, as much as we can be open, and that I can at least have the conversation with the student where they might not even be able to do that.

William: Right, and I’ve had the same thing occur, and I think the big difference is that when you develop that relationship, that students begin to understand your motives for saying yes or saying no…

Em: Mmhmm.

William: …and that you do have their best interests at heart when you’re doing that, and you’re not just about asserting your dominance. It’s about trying to be that individual that is, again, working in their best interest.

John: And earlier, William, you mentioned how you received the same training that was provided to the guards. So it sounds like that could provide some insight for the correctional staff, who may perhaps be able to learn more effective ways of dealing with those who are incarcerated.

William: In a perfect world, that’s really all I can say. That institution has been doing things the same way for a long, long time, and is super resistant to any kind of change, especially in a more compassionate direction.

Em: Mmhmm.

John: Well it perhaps could lead to some gradual evolution in a better direction, at least.

Rebecca: Real slow, real slow. [LAUGHTER]

John: Really slow, but if perhaps instructors are better prepared in providing that sort of role model, it certainly couldn’t hurt, and it certainly couldn’t hurt the educational purpose. What are some effective strategies in providing trauma responsive educational practices in a prison environment?

Em: I think that the three things Bill and I always come back to over and again, and he’s always been the one to bring us back to that whenever things have gotten really difficult or challenging, is you prioritize the relationship, you maintain the dignity of everybody who is involved in whatever is going on, that’s yourself. I’m going to leave the word respect out of it, because respect in prisons is code for obedience, and I’m not interested in perpetuating that. So I think maintaining dignity, and then also strengthening connection. I mean I know, teachers, we have all had those moments with those students who are just… they feel intolerable. You’re sick of them. They have been irritating, they have been annoying, they will not leave you alone. They pester, pester, pester, whatever it is. And I think that on a free campus, you have a lot more latitude in how you work with students like that. And you get to leave, like you get to go. But in prisons you don’t really have the same amount of latitude. And losing your temper once can just destroy a relationship, and you don’t usually get second chances. People do not usually give you a second opportunity to regain their trust. So when I talk about strengthening connection, I think in that moment when you are disliking them the most intensely, you have to find something to appreciate about them, and you have to tell them that. So whatever it is, they have nice handwriting, or they’ve been speaking up in class, even if they’re irritating you to death, you have to find something to remember that these are people who are trying to learn, and that our job is to help them learn, and they are in a position that is so much more intolerable than ours. That’s something that we bring in when we accept the responsibility to teach inside, I believe that’s part of our responsibility, is to do that.

William: Absolutely, well said. Really, the only thing I think I can add to that is just to really be mindful to ensure that nothing that you say or do has a potential to re-traumatize individuals.

Em: Mmhmm.

William: Because, again, absolutely do no harm. But also, like Em said, you only get one shot with a lot of these students. And it’s part of the culture, you only get one shot. And if you do something to offend, or to re-traumatize, which is going to be perceived as offending, you may not get another chance to build that all-important relationship that you need to help them be successful.

Em: Mmhmm. To just add something to what Bill was saying, is that we talked about this a lot when we were prepping is… What would be helpful for people when we talk about strategies? And we aren’t going into more detail, because, well, we don’t have enough time and you can also read the book, but partly because some of the strategies are things that teachers have to develop for themselves. Like we can give people guidance on, How do you handle yourself when you go in? I assume that people who are teaching are professionals, and they may or may not have taught in prison before, but they’re professionals and that they have some experience and they have knowledge. And you know that they have their own strategies. So some of this is like, “How do you adapt your strategies?” Instead of telling you, “You have to do these things.” Just give you enough guidance, give teachers enough guidance, so they can see how their own strategies can fit into this very different environment. So I just wanted to say we’re not trying to avoid talking about more detail, it just feels like it’s not always helpful, you can get really into the weeds on it, and it’s not always helpful.

Rebecca: One of the things that I’m sure has impacted education in the prison system significantly is COVID-19. Can you talk a little bit about what that impact has been?

Em: That has been a disaster, like a disaster, as much a disaster as it has been for free campuses and for K-12, you just magnify that, because you have millions of people who are basically trapped in a building where they have to share ventilation. They are totally reliant on people who come in from the outside for protective gear, they may or may not be able to maintain social distancing. They have no way to ensure that people that they are around are vaccinated, or will get vaccinated, or can get vaccinated, and that includes prison staff, any staff who come in. And I’m going to refrain from more commentary about what happens in prisons to people, because those aren’t my stories to tell, but everything that’s happened outside of the prison, you can just magnify that by whatever amount you want to, and it probably still isn’t as bad as what happened inside.

William: We just lose that ability to provide the consistency that that population of students needs.

Em: Yeah. About education specifically, prison programs, because of the lack of technology and the lack of access, have almost entirely been face-to-face programs. There’s been like a little bit of, they can have a tablet, and you know, you update the tablet, but none of it is online, like the tablets aren’t connected to each other, you have to bring them in and plug them into a server and do the updates and things like that. So I think there’s a tiny, tiny, tiny bit of movement on that front, not very much. But most of the people that I know who teach, they can maybe get inside occasionally, but the minute there’s an outbreak they can’t come in anymore. So students, for the most part, have lost the last few years of access to education, in addition to being in a terrifying environment where they don’t have the ability to really care for themselves in the way that we do.

William: I don’t think we can overstate the importance of that face-to-face contact. I mean them seeing you on a daily or weekly basis and being in that physical presence. Because it’s everything you do, it’s your body language when you’re with them, it’s your facial expressions, it’s micro expressions. Everything you do is your message to them about why you’re there and what your motives are, and that you’re there to work in their best interest, to be an advocate for them to learn and to grow. Because that’s really, when we boil it down, that’s what we’re talking about, is we’re talking about individuals who are trying to better themselves through education. And it’s just, it’s a population that’s rife with trauma and negative educational experiences. And I think that that face-to-face time is just so important to support their success.

Em: I have a lot of colleagues who have been doing fantastic work through correspondence, or doing packets and things like that, because correspondence is a little bit different than doing packet work. And there certainly are people who benefit from having more time and people who are introverted, or have maybe some different needs in learning who like the asynchronous learning piece more, or they have more time to maybe reflect and things like that. So I don’t want to say that nobody has gotten any benefit at all. But I agree with Bill, like, my bias is certainly that face-to-face learning is… there’s so many benefits to it. And I think when you look at the literature around trauma, one of the big benefits when we talk about trauma responsivity, is that somebody has a settled body, like if you’re settled in your body, you can be in that space, and other people respond to that. Like mobs, you get one or two people who are just completely hyped up and doing all this stuff, and that’s contagious. Well, the same way that that kind of chaotic, high-level, excited energy is contagious. So also is the settled, calm, deeply grounded energy, is also contagious, and that can be really important when you’re working with folks.

John: There’s a lot of research that shows one of the best ways of escaping from poverty is through education and higher education. I would think that would be especially true for people who are incarcerated. As a society, are we devoting enough resources to provide educational services for those who are incarcerated? And what changes should be made to provide more resources? What are some of the most pressing needs for addressing some of these inequities?

William: For me, I just would like to see more resources devoted toward putting more teachers in the classroom. In my last teaching job in the county jail, my class size would be, sometimes, over 25 students. And it’s so much harder to… and I keep going back to developing these relationships because, to me, that’s a foundation for everything else that comes. But I would like to see more education staff and smaller class sizes, to help create those relationships that foster success and students.

Em: I agree, I think, definitely more teachers. I think that, like roughly half of the states in the country don’t offer education inside, or education is not mandated, and that may have changed a little bit. But last time I checked, it was, like, 28 states did. So it’s roughly half that do not mandate education. The demographics aren’t different, the people who go in, 60 to 70% of them don’t have a high school credential. And two thirds of people who are going into prisons are existing on, just subsistence, 12,000 a year or less, like very, very high rates of poverty. So absolutely. But I think we also have to think about re-entry, and 95 to 97% of people come back to the community. So if we’re thinking about education while people are in prison, but we’re not doing anything to make sure that people can have access to education, can have access to housing, and access to jobs when they come out, then, I don’t think education is ever a waste, but I think that it’s very short sighted, it’s not a good way to talk about lifting people out of poverty. I would say one thing people should be thinking about are background checks. Background checks are probably one of the biggest roadblocks to people getting housing, to people getting credit, to people getting jobs, sometimes getting into college, being able to spend time with their kids when they’re at school. Background checks impact people in so many ways and forever, because we don’t have any expiration date on them. So I’ve heard stories of people who got hired by a university to be a tenured professor, and then somehow it comes up that 25 years ago they had a conviction on their record and the university’s like, “Oh, sorry, our policy is that we can’t have you.” And I’m like, “Well, that person’s been working there for years, what are you talking about?” But it happens. So I think that that is one area where, because it’s so deeply entrenched, and it’s connected to employment law in a lot of ways and to public records, it’s such a tangled problem that people really don’t even want to think about it. But it is a huge roadblock for folks. So if we are going to invest in people, and we’re going to give them education that they should’ve gotten earlier in their lives and should’ve had access to. If we’re going to give them access to more education, then we’re just doing them a grave disservice if we are not making it easier for them when they come out.

Rebecca: Are there things in the education system we should be working on that happen, perhaps, before people end up incarcerated? So avoiding some of the traumas and things that are happening in the education system early on.

Em: Well… I feel like that is a very difficult question to answer because I have the same critique of our K-12 education that I did of higher ed, that it is very Eurocentric and that people of color, and people with disabilities, children with disabilities, who need to relate to information differently, who may need to consume information differently, all of that stuff, like, they’re not just treated as if they are trying to learn things, they’re treated as if they are wrong, as if they are deliberately challenging the authority of a teacher. And then they’re punished, they’re punished, because they can’t or won’t assimilate into these Eurocentric ways of understanding the world, which again, are not wrong, but are not the only way. And nobody should be punished because they understand information in a different way from somebody else. And that is a very broad statement, and I know that there are individual people who make an effort to try to not punish, or who try to have students learn in different ways. But systemically, the system itself does that. I mean, think about it, so if you are a black student, black parents, and demographically, perhaps you have a single parent household, we’ll say, and this could happen with any student, I’m picking a black student for a reason. So they have a single parent household, and the parent has to work a couple of jobs. So not only like if that parent is going to come to school and interact with teachers, which they definitely want to do, they have to deal with their own trauma from having been discriminated against and potentially punished because they were a black student in a white system. So they have that from their own childhood, from their own adulthood, from their own lives. And they have to try to come into a school which may have harmed them when they were young, and try to bring themselves in and do the things they need to do for their children. And so that’s a barrier that white parents, perhaps, don’t face. And this is a very general example, and I am not saying that all white parents or all black parents would have these kinds of experiences. But it is an example that I’ve heard from many students and many parents that this happens. And again, it’s just something that we aren’t addressing. And I’m very hesitant to say a whole lot on the topic of K-12, because I don’t teach in K-12, which is part of the reason I don’t feel like I have a lot other than a general observation, I don’t have a lot of direct experience that I can speak to. Bill, I think you taught more in K-12 than I have.

William: Yeah, having worked in about, I think five middle schools, and seven different high schools in different parapro and professional instruction capacity. What I can say is looking back, if I had access to Em’s book, to having a better understanding of trauma and the impact of trauma on how students learned. I felt that I was fairly effective as an educator, back in my time in the public schools, but had I had access to that I could have been more, I could have done more, I could have been more effective. Because for me, introducing a trauma-informed perspective into my instruction, I think it’s a game changer, I really do. I think that students who couldn’t be reached before, could be better reached, better understood. And even within the constraints of the framework of public education and the way it is right now, I think that teachers who adopt a trauma-informed approach into their teaching can’t be more effective. I can’t say enough about it, honestly.

John: There’s certainly a lot that we as a society can work on to provide a more inclusive environment all the way through for everyone, but let’s turn back to one of the things that is addressed in Em’s book, which is the importance of bringing joy into the educational experience, so we can end on a, perhaps, a little bit more upbeat note. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Em: One of the things I love about being in any kind of learning space is getting to learn with people. And I think that that’s learning from them, but also getting to learn with them. So I’m teaching how to make a widget, or write about widgets, or something like that. And I have a way that I do that, so I kind of teach from that perspective and maybe I have different strategies. But what I get to learn is, when that person, when that thing, whatever it is clicks in and they have that lightbulb moment. What I get to learn is how they understand it, and I get to learn how they see it and I get to feel that excitement that they feel because they, maybe opened up a new little neural connection for themselves, or maybe something they knew in one way they now know it in another way, and I get to share that with them. And that’s something, like people love working with kids because that’s what’s happening all the time. There’s so much they don’t know that everything’s like,“Oh my god, I can’t eat dirt.” That is exciting for a child because they didn’t know they couldn’t eat dirt, and, I mean, maybe they’re just going to eat dirt anyway, because it’s fun, because it makes your parents mad, but it’s really exciting, everything is exciting. And I think that we lose that as we get older and we get into adulthood and we take on adult responsibilities, and there is no structure in our society that encourages us to keep learning and to keep our learning muscles strong. And so we kind of forget just the joy and the pleasure that we experience when we’re being expansive together, when we’re expanding our minds together. And we’re opening ourselves up to learning with other people and learning from them. I think we forget that, because we’re not allowed to do it, or we don’t have places that we think we can do it, or we just get sort of swept away by circumstances of our lives.

William: And I take what Em said, and I want to frame that in a carceral setting too, because seeing the face of a student who’s learned something that they never thought they could learn, or seeing them begin to understand a concept and watch that light bulb go on. And just to know that something is happening that’s combating some of those past educational negative experiences that they’ve had, that they’re finding out that they have the ability to learn, that they can learn, and that they’re excited about it. And to be able to share that excitement with them, to me, that’s the joy of education, because like Em said, the instructor and the learner share that. So yeah, just knowing that the ability to learn is there. It’s amazing.

Em: I had a student once, this is not when I was in the prison, but I had things like this happen when I was in prison. And we were talking about getting jobs and doing interviews and things like that. And I had a group and we would do a group interview, and then I would interview them one on one in front of their classmates, which was a small class, and it was a cohort so it wasn’t like it was a bunch of strangers. And this one student was just terrified. Like, didn’t want to even get in the chair at the front of the class to do the group interview just where the class was sort of asking questions. And all they could do was just sit in the chair. And the class went around and they all asked the question, and I don’t even remember if the student really answered anything, but they did stay in the chair the whole time. And when they got done, that moment of recognition… And of course, the rest of the class was very supportive. If they could answer that would be great, but if not just overcoming their fear of sitting there. And that moment when the student realized that they had stayed in the chair, that was such a moment of success and triumph and joy for them. And all the class got to share in that we all got to support and cheer for this person, even though it was really, really hard. And that’s something that you would not necessarily consider a learning that you could measure. That what? Somebody would just, like, sit in a chair? That’s not a piece of learning that you can quantify, you can’t put a grade on that. But when I ran into that student years later, and they were working as an educational assistant at the local community college, and they had gone through however many interviews they had to do to get that job. And if they had not done that, they would not have ended up on that career path. And I thought, “Oh, this is one of those things that you need for people to be able to do.” But you shouldn’t have to put a grade on that, a number or a letter. This is part of what it means for us to be human together, and to be in this space together, and to support each other, and care about each other. And I always remember that whenever we talk about what is learning, and joy in learning, and that piece of it. And I saw things like that happen, I would have students who would fail two or three tests in a row, but they would get one or two points more on each test. And so the whole class would just celebrate, because the person was obviously starting to get a little bit better either at taking tests or remembering information or learning how to study or whatever that was. And I think that those are things that our current education system doesn’t give us time for. And I think especially when you’re talking about prisons, and just the level of educational trauma and denial and rejection that those students have gone through, of anyone who needs that kind of attention and care, I think that our students who are inside really do. And joy as an antidote to trauma, Bill mentioned ability to learn, but I think that when you look at what trauma does to the brain, the stress chemicals and keeping us locked into fear and survival, but when you talk about joy everything just opens up. When you are having those joyful moments everything just opens up, and I can’t help but think that those moments of joy and what happens in your body really is an antidote to some of the impacts of trauma.

Rebecca: That was a great story, Em. So we always wrap up, though, by asking, What’s next?

Em: Hmm. So for me what’s next, I’m working on a book chapter for a handbook on prison education, a friend asked me to do a chapter on that. So working on the chapter on that. But beyond that, I am starting to put together, like a companion or guide for the text, Building a Trauma Responsive Educational Practice. And I just started thinking about what that would mean, and what are the things that would be most important to unpack? And what would I want people to take away from that. And then, of course, my consulting business, I’m going to be talking to Princeton in May, which is very exciting. And I’m going to be doing a training session with John Jay College, which has two or three programs around corrections ed and teaching and working in prisons. So I’m pretty excited to be doing that later in the year. But yeah, I think the companion book is starting to take some shape in my head, so I’m excited about that.

Rebecca: That’ll definitely keep you busy.

Em: Yes.

Rebecca: How about you, William?

William: For me, a couple of things, I am working on a re-entry survival guide, which is kind of a workbook manual for people coming out to help them through just some of the beginning pitfalls of re-entry. You know, how do you get your ID? How do you get connected with your state services if you need them? Job hunt, finding housing, things like that. And then I’m also looking at putting together an in-service training, a lot of it based on Em’s work to take into the public schools. Because I think that if students have an opportunity, say at a secondary level, to be exposed to educators who have a trauma-informed perspective, a trauma-informed approach, then hopefully we can mitigate some of the high prison populations that we have now, and maybe go a long way to having some of those students skip going to prison. [LAUGHTER]

Em: Mmhmm. It would be at least nice to be able to reduce the overall level of connection between education and prison. Like people are always going to make mistakes and screw up, and part of abolition is imagining… What would it be like to be able to make a mistake and screw up and not have to go get locked in a cage? So part of the work of abolition is imagining that and I think for me, too, part of that work of abolition is… What would it be like if education wasn’t a pipeline to prison for so many people? What does that mean? How would education have to change? How does society have to change? And I think that’s work that is very interesting to me, and necessary.

John: Well, thank you both. You’re doing some really important work, and we thank you for sharing it with us.

William: Thanks for having us.

Em: Well, thank you, too. Yeah, and I welcome if people have questions or want to learn more, I’m happy for them to reach out to me. I think you can put my email in the show notes.

Rebecca: Thank you both.


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.


233. Guided Notetaking

Many college classes contain a substantial lecture component, but our students arrive at college with little or no training in taking effective notes. In this episode, Tanya Martini joins us to discuss how guided note taking can be used to promote equity and student success. Tanya is a Professor of Psychology at Brock University in Ontario.

Show Notes


John: Many college classes contain a substantial lecture component, but our students arrive at college with little or no training in taking effective notes. In this episode, we examine how guided note taking can be used to promote equity and student success.


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 Tanya Martini. Tanya is a Professor of Psychology at Brock University in Ontario. Welcome, Tanya.

Tanya: Thanks very much for having me.

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

Tanya: I am drinking tea, yes. So, my tea is a pomegranate white.

Rebecca: Oh that sounds nice. Nice and light.

Tanya: Yeah. My friend was joking with me because I said I was doing this podcast about tea and teaching, and he said, “So, like, basically two of your favorite things in the world.” I said, “Pretty much!”

Rebecca: You’re in excellent company then. [LAUGHTER]

Tanya: Are you also drinking tea?

Rebecca: Always, always.

Tanya: Always.

Rebecca: Today I have English afternoon. I was in a rush, so I couldn’t get a fancy pot going.

John: And I’m on my fourth cup of tea for the day, and it’s a peppermint spearmint blend.

Tanya: Oh, that’s nice, that’s really nice. My mum was English, so we always drank tea when I was growing up. And then I met my husband when we were hiking in Wales. So we basically have a household where the kettle is never cold.

Rebecca: Yeah, my house is like that, too.

Tanya: Is it?

Rebecca: When John’s like, “Fourth cup?” I’m like… “Fourth pot? What are you talking about?” [LAUGHTER]

John: We have had three kettles today, because we’ve had a number of people come into the office earlier today.

Rebecca: We’ve invited you here today to discuss how you’ve been using guided note taking in your introductory psychology course. Can you give us a little background on the course first?

Tanya: Sure, it’s at Brock. So there’s 1500 students in the intro psych class, and about 220 or 230 of them would be psych majors in their first year. And the rest of them are taking it either as a requirement for another degree program like education or nursing, or they take it as a social sciences elective. So I would say about 85 or 90% of them are genuinely in their first year, they’ve just arrived from high school. We don’t have a lot of non-traditional students in the class, a few, but the majority of them are 17, 18 year olds, and they’re just making their transition from high school to university.

John: What’s the modality for this class? And how is it taught in terms of dealing with that many students in one class?

Tanya: Yeah, it’s a good question, because different people will handle that sort of volume of students in different ways. We made a really intentional choice even before I came on board that we wanted all psychology students to have the same experience. So rather than trying to split the students up into different groups taught by different instructors, what the instructors do is they split the weeks. So our course runs 12 and 12, like 12 weeks in the fall and then again in the winter. So it’s a 24 week, full-year course for us from September to April. And in the past I would say decade or so it’s three instructors, but it’s usually kind of two primary instructors and what we call a junior partner. And so the two, kind of, main instructors would teach 10 weeks each and then the junior partner would teach four. And it’s been kind of a good model. I started as the junior partner and it gives people a bit of a chance to decide… Is this a course that I could see myself moving into? Or is this really not something for me? Because it’s not for everybody to be in a course that’s that large. So in terms of structuring it, that’s how we do it. And it gives everybody a very consistent kind of experience. And then, like most Canadian universities the last couple of years, the big, big courses have been asynchronous online. So that’s what we did last year, what we’re doing currently this year. In normal times, it’s run as a three hour per week course, where two hours is allocated to a lecture. We don’t have enough seats in any space for all of those people. So what we do is we run the same lecture three times a week to 500 people, and we would do a two-hour lecture. And then we run 75 small group seminars every week, so 18 to 20 people usually. And those seminars are run by third and fourth year undergraduates. So we have, like, a peer mentorship model in the seminars. And it works actually pretty well, because what we find is that the first-year students, our impression, anyway, from the evaluations, is they like having other students leading those discussions. It makes them feel comfortable, and not just with the content, but I think they feel comfortable if they’re struggling with the transition. They feel as though this is kind of a senior mentor who can help them to find the resources that they need. But I really like the fact that our department and our faculty kind of puts the resources behind it because it’s quite resource intensive to run that many seminars in a course. It’s nice because it helps students to make the integration into university and help them cross that bridge from high school. Because they’ve got this one person who knows who they are, knows them by name, knows that if they go missing somebody will be checking in on them to make sure that they’re okay. And it also just helps them to meet people and make new friends in the first year. And then a few years ago, we got permission to have the teaching assistants, those third and fourth year students also take a course in facilitating good discussions. So that they’re not walking into the seminars feeling ill prepared. And it’s a great space for us to teach them some transferable skills that are very applicable to the workplace. So it’s kind of a nice model. Very resource intensive, and I’m grateful for that, but it works really well.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit more about the seminar for your TAs?

Tanya: Yeah, sure. It’s a full-year course. So it runs basically in parallel to the first-year course. And what we do is, I really try to model it as… it’s not a kind of “how to TA intro psych course,” I really try to sell it and emphasize its applicability to the world more broadly. So we tackle a number of different topics that are relevant to those seminars, but are also relevant to the working world, too. So we talk about diversity in groups. And so if you’re facilitating conversations in groups that are diverse, what are some of the advantages to that? And what are some of the challenges? And how do you overcome those kinds of challenges? How do you manage the balance of the discussion so that you don’t have decisions being made based on the people who talk the most or who talk the loudest? How do you get over those kinds of challenges? We talk about active listening and what that means, and we talk about cultivating a level of self awareness so that if you start to feel kind of anxious or upset, you recognize that in yourself, and you know what to do to bring it down. We talk about… How do you facilitate things when it starts to get challenging and heated? What kinds of things can you do? And then in the second semester, we move into talking about things, like, How do you give a good presentation? So if we move away from the facilitation skills, we talk about good multimedia presentations, the students do the equivalent of a 15 minute TED Talk. So it’s all meant to be very applicable to a broad array of settings. And most students find that it’s a great community, because we hire 18 students every year to fulfill the seminar leader role. And we tend to find that they coalesce into a really nice, tight community, they’re very supportive of one another. So you get a great exchange of ideas and lots of support, if you’re feeling anxious, or things aren’t going well, or whatever. So that course runs separately, but it’s a really nice counterpoint to the very, very large first year course. So I love having the big, big class on the one hand, but then also this smaller class where I really get to know those 18 TAs really well.

Rebecca: In our notes for this episode related to this course, one of the things that you talk about is how diversity doesn’t necessarily promote inclusion, or the other way around. Can you expand on that a little bit more? It totally caught my attention. I was, like, I want to know more about that!

Tanya: Yeah, it’s such a great point. So I have the luxury of being on sabbatical this year for the first time in eight years, and it’s such a great gift. And one of the things that I really wanted to do was, to do more reading about diversity and inclusion and thinking a little bit about… How do we incorporate that into the syllabus? And what does it mean for our seminars? Are we doing the best job that we can be doing? And I have been taking, like, a number of workshops, and I went to this great workshop being run by an organization that promotes diverse viewpoints. And the woman who was running it is from an organization in the States called The Village Square, where they purposefully bring people together who are on both sides of the political divide, I think, in that case, left and right. And I had a conversation with her, and she’s, like, taking this really great course, this… it’s a MOOC basically, Massive Open Online Course, and she said, “I think you would really like it. It’s all about bridging differences.” And so that comment about you can have diversity without any inclusion comes from this course that I’m taking. And they just talk about how you can have diversity, like, you can purposefully hire or take on people who look different from one another, or different religious backgrounds, political backgrounds. But unless everybody feels comfortable articulating their opinions and talking about where they’re at, unless they all feel comfortable with one another, you don’t really get true inclusion. Because inclusion sort of necessitates that not just you have a roomful of diverse people, but that all of those people are contributing to the conversation. And I thought that that was a really valuable and important point to take away. Because although I think, of course, you have to make some effort to bring those diverse people into the room, the job doesn’t stop there. Because at that point then, you have the sometimes challenging job of getting all those people to a place where they all feel as though their opinion matters, and they’re comfortable articulating it. And they go on to talk a little bit about how in some cultures, for example, there’s much greater value placed on listening rather than talking all the time. And so you have to work with that and work around that and try to draw people in so that the discussion is somewhat balanced. And at that point you’ve kind of done a better job of reaching inclusivity, as opposed to just diversity.

John: This is a really great set of skills you’re providing the students, who no matter what they do in the future are going to be working with diverse groups, as well as having to do presentations in some form or another. You mentioned hiring these students, what type of compensation do they receive? Are they paid for this work? Or are they receiving credit for it as a result of the courses they take?

Tanya: Yeah, so that’s another great question. And it’s a model that has changed over time. So at Brock, and at a number of schools in Ontario, teaching assistants are unionized. And for a long time this was a unionized position, they would get paid for something like 300 hours a year. And then, like this won’t surprise you at all, we went through financially difficult times as budgets were shrinking. And there was a period in the last decade where enrollments were shrinking just because of the demographics of Ontario. There was a much smaller pool of 17-year-olds in high school, and we were all competing for those people. And I was really only the junior partner at that time. But at that time, the Dean really started to make noises about the amount of money that it cost to mount this course. And so what we decided to do was to implement this strategy where we would make it a hybrid. And what we did was we rolled some of the things that used to be paid tasks into a course. So on the one hand, it would be disingenuous of me to say this was all driven by pedagogy, because it was driven to a large extent by budget. So what we did was we created this course, and about one third of the hours, we rolled into course related stuff. So a lot of the seminar preparation material, where we would pay them for that before it kind of became part of the course and talking through the seminar preparation with your colleagues and me giving some scaffolding around that. So now they get paid for about 200 hours. And the rest of it is rolled into this full-year course from September to April. So they get course credit for that. What it does mean, though, just from a logistical point of view is we used to have a model where people could do the course a number of times, they could TA the course a number of times. In fact, they were more likely to because they would get seniority in the union. But now you can only TA when you’re taking this course, and you can only take it once. So we don’t have the continuity we used to have, but we get a fresh group of 18 people. And I try to look at it as the upside of that is we can deliver these skills to more people because it’s a unique cohort every single year.

Rebecca: Are most of the courses in your college the two semesters back-to-back, like full-year courses?

Tanya: No. In fact, it’s kind of a rarity. Almost all of them are a half-year course, so 12 weeks, from either September to December or January to April. Intro psych is one and then we have a research methods course that’s a full year. But, in general, the guiding principle has been one of breadth. But I think what we have always felt is that a full year for first year is a good idea. Not so much because it’s such an important year for us and there’s so much to deliver. I mean, there is, but I think just in terms of integrating students into the department and to the university, and again, helping them to make that transition, giving them the full year course is really helpful in terms of allowing time and space for that to happen.

John: We saw an article in The Chronicle recently describing your use of guided note taking and it seemed really effective. Could you describe how guided note taking has been used in your classes and how your use of it has evolved?

Tanya: Basically in terms of historical context, what we find, and this won’t surprise anybody, in a class of 1500 people, you get everything from A to Zed. So we have students who are amazingly well prepared for university, and they know how to take notes, and they know how to read dense text, and they’re very skilled and savvy about taking exams, and they have great study strategies. And then on the other end, we have students who are quite ill prepared. And sometimes not even ill prepared, but maybe they’ve been out of school for a long time, and so those skills are kind of rusty. And so retention is an issue for us. We’re always trying to make sure that we’re a course where we’re bringing everybody up to the same place. By the end of the 24 weeks we’re trying to get people ready so that everybody is kind of on a level playing field. And when I joined the course, laptops were just starting to be a big thing. And what we were doing at that time, and this predates my involvement in the course, is we were supplying notes to students. But they were the PowerPoint notes. So you print the PowerPoint notes, you’ve got the slide, and they’ve got a bunch of lines on the side, and students would make these notes. And we would supply these paper notes for a fee, and they would buy them at the bookstore bundled up. And then they could just put them in a binder, and bring them to the course. And so some of the students, as I was coming into the course, were just kind of ignoring them and they were taking notes on a laptop, other people were taking notes using these paper copies. So it was kind of quite a mix at that time. But one of the things that really started to become clear to me was students really weren’t sure what they should be writing down. And my slides are somewhat sparse. Yeah, I’ll have the main points on there. And students would come up during the break, and they’d say, “Well, I kind of missed this point.” And sometimes I would be looking and it was just full of dense text, like, they were trying to write down verbatim everything I said. And then some of them would come and they hadn’t written down anything because they had the picture of the slide there, and they assumed that if it wasn’t on the slide it probably wasn’t worth talking about or remembering. So it really struck me how there was so much diversity in what people interpreted to be good note taking. And I was talking to my colleague about that, and I said, “Sure,” that this is really a good thing. And so that was my first sense that maybe we needed to do something and talk more explicitly about note taking. And could we do something that would scaffold their note taking? And so that was where the first iteration of our guided notes came from. And basically, the first iteration was just, like, a hierarchical overview of, here’s what the lecture looks like from the top, here’s the three main points or the four main points, and here are the subpoints. Just like on a PowerPoint slide, you get the main points and the subpoints. So that they could kind of see at a glance, these are the big things. And then what the guided notes looked like was almost like a series of small exam questions, because that’s really what the lecture is, it’s the answers to a number of different questions. And so if I was talking about, say, four things that determine whether you will pay attention to something in the environment, the question in the guided notes would be: “Name and describe four things that determine whether you pay attention to something in the environment.” And might even give them a table to fill in. And so they started to see the lecture as providing answers to a number of questions, some of which are connected, and giving them clearer space in which to put it in. And then we had students in that first iteration commenting on the fact that they didn’t want to take notes on a computer, or they didn’t have a computer. And so we started creating a digital copy and a PDF copy with spaces, and they could either write with their pen or they could type on a computer. And that’s what we did for four or five years, that’s kind of what it looked like. And then one of the things that I wanted to do during this sabbatical was just think a little bit more about them, because I started to think it would be a good idea to have something similar for the text. So I co-authored the textbook that we use, and I started to think, you know, it’d be really good to have something comparable to the text. Because in as much as they struggle to take notes during lectures, sometimes I think they struggle just knowing what to extract from the textbook. There’s so much material there, and sometimes they come in with all the highlighting. Okay but, [LAUGHTER] like, it’s the whole page.

Rebecca: It’s a rainbow page. [LAUGHTER]

Tanya: I know, the rainbow page! And so it was sort of clear that sometimes we’re struggling to extract what the central stuff was. And rarely did I see people making marginal notes or anything like that. And so I started to think that would be helpful. So that was one of my sabbatical tasks. So I went into the note taking literature a little more deeply, and I started to create them, and they’re a little more in keeping with the Cornell Notes. So they take the form of the Cornell Notes, and they are a little more sophisticated. And that was what prompted the rework of the lecture notes that they commented on in The Chronicle. So they look more like Cornell Notes now with the features of Cornell Notes. And the other thing, it’s such a great blessing that a sabbatical is, I was reading about diversity and inclusion, and went back into some texts that I hadn’t read for a while, like Dan Willingham’s book, Why Don’t Students Like School? And he talks about the fact that, one of the things that you could do and might be advantageous to do is to sort of frame the lecture around a series of questions and make them explicit. And so it really pushed me… this whole reformulation of the lecture notes has really pressed me to think about my lectures a lot more carefully. And so what I started to do is think… Okay, well, if I was going to distill this section on attention into, like, six or eight main questions, what are they? Because Willingham’s contention is, instead of it being like this steady stream of information just being thrown at you, if you can kind of organize it into a series of questions that are somewhat interesting, that makes things, first of all, organized a little bit better in your head, but also just a little more interesting to listen to. So the guided notes now kind of look like Cornell Notes. And they’ve got this accompanying, what I call “the roadmap,” which is basically just a graphic organizer. I did a lot of reading about graphic organizers. It sort of shows, these are the main points, these are the main questions. And then as we’re answering this question, we’re tackling this study and this study. And you’re not meant to write on the roadmap, it just gives you a visual of… here’s where we are in the grand scheme of things, here’s where we are in this particular unit.

Rebecca: For those that aren’t familiar, can you talk a little bit about what Cornell Notes are?

Tanya: Sure, yeah, I would love to talk about Cornell Notes. And there are obviously slight variations, but the way Cornell Notes are set up is that if you’re thinking about a page, there’s two main columns, usually. And in the left-hand column, in my notes, I list the main questions or the main points for my textbook notes. It’s like, here are the learning objectives for this chapter. And then the students’ written notes are on the right-hand side. And I scaffold those by putting in the sort of smaller questions that were always in the guided notes. Like, name and describe the four things that guide whether you’ll pay attention to something in the environment, is there. But what I do is also to include, and sometimes it’s structured differently, but I’ll section on, like, What are your questions about this? So that students have a space to write down if something’s going by, and they know that they haven’t understood it, it’s a space where they can very clearly plant a flag and say: “I need to go and check on this,” or “I need to ask the instructor, or I need to go to office hours, I need to talk to my TA.” So there’s a very clear space there for… What questions do you have? And I always frame it that way, too, because I think it’s a subtle difference. But when you say, “What questions do you have?” You’re basically saying, “It’s totally normal to have questions. So what are they?” So our Cornell Notes look like that. They’ve got a section for here are the main questions over here on the left-hand side, and as we’re answering that question, here are the things we’re going to cover. And you can make your notes on that right-hand column. And then before we move on to another question… What questions do you have about this? What do you need to check on?

John: You mentioned at the start of this, the wide diversity in students’ note taking skills, and so the students who are going to do well would probably do well, anyway. But I would think that this would benefit some of the students who would come in with weaker skills, and they are now able to focus on the things that are much more relevant and important for learning the course content. As well as it’s providing them with some clues about how it all fits together with the questions and with the structure you provide. Has this reduced some of the equity gaps in your classes?

Tanya: Yeah, I think that’s a great question. And the answer is, I don’t know, because I don’t have data. But one of the things that I found really interesting, and I was saying I did a lot of reading about note taking and so on, and I hadn’t really thought about guided notes as being an equity issue. But Viji Sathy and Kelly Hogan, who are both in North Carolina, have written extensively about how providing structure of this kind is incredibly beneficial in terms of students who have come from usually some disadvantage and have less preparation, or their preparation for university hasn’t been as strong. And so I don’t have any data, but certainly Kelly Hogan in her intro biology class, and I really admired the fact that she actually dug around in the data. And what she found was that, quite unbeknownst to her, the number of Ds and Fs was not spread equally across different groups. And so she found that people who were Caucasian ancestry, like they were getting a relatively small proportion of Ds and Fs. It was slightly higher among her Latino and Latina students. And then it was really quite high among the African American students. And I found that quite surprising too, but certainly she’s got data to support the idea that providing this kind of structure is very beneficial in terms of diminishing those kinds of gaps. But what I will say, and I’m not sure if this would resonate with other people, one of the things that has always concerned me a little is when you provide this kind of structure in a first year course, and then you send them off into the world in second year, with me knowing that none of my colleagues are providing these kinds of support… Are you in fact just pushing off the retention issue and all the problems into second year? And so one of the things that I think is really important is not just creating these guided notes and the scaffolding, but really talking very explicitly about: If you find this helpful, let’s talk about why it’s helpful. And let’s talk about how you can transfer that skill into another course where they’re not necessarily going to give you guided notes for your textbook and for your lecture. So what are these things doing for you? How are they scaffolding? And I think having that explicit conversation is really important. Otherwise, I feel like we run the risk of just pulling the rug from under them, but doing it a little bit later on. So one of the things we talk about is, How do you decide what’s really important? So if it’s in a textbook, being cued into what’s in bold type, and what’s in italics, and so on. But I also try to kind of just get back to the structure issue. Because it’s interesting how you teach for a long time, and it seems so obvious, but it’s not obvious to them. So it’s like, if I give you this chapter, why don’t you just try mapping out the headers and the subheaders? So that you get some sense of how this material is organized. And you’ll see in chapter eight, there’s like four big topics, that’s the big text, the main A headers, and then there might be two subheaders under this one. And then if you kind of create that map for yourself, it gives you the big overall picture. And one of the benefits of teaching intro psych is we talk a lot about memory. And how is memory structured? And what do you do to facilitate memory? And we talk about how memory is organized in this kind of way, and hierarchies are important and useful. And so I’m really trying hard not just to provide the scaffolding, but to help them to understand why the scaffolding works. So that in second year, if somebody has dismantled it and the scaffolding isn’t there, at least you have some sense of, “Okay, how can I recreate that effect for myself?” And I think that that’s something that is still kind of a work in progress. I don’t know if I do that well enough yet, or enough yet. But I think that that’s a really important component of providing the support in the first place.

John: And that’s something I think that most students have not been exposed to along the way. So helping them develop those types of skills would be really helpful, I think. And we should probably mention that Viji Sathy and Kelly Hogan have a book coming out at some point in the near future, and I’m very much looking forward to reading that.

Tanya: Me too.

Rebecca: I’m sure many of our listeners will be. We have it on our radar, like the second it comes out, we’re going to know. [LAUGHTER] Have your students responded to this scaffolding that you’re providing through note taking? Have they given you some informal feedback that you could share?

Tanya: Yeah, so, so we’ve had informal feedback verbally, and sometimes it’s solicited and sometimes it’s not. So if students come to my office hours, and they bring their notes, I don’t hesitate to ask them, “How’s it working for you? Does it matter to you?” Occasionally students will tell me they don’t use the notes, but they will refer to the notes before a test. And sometimes they tell me that it feels like it’s the only thing that is keeping them going through the lectures, which sometimes does feel like it’s quite a lot to take on board. But on the course evaluations, we see a number of people… because sometimes I asked about it explicitly on the course evals, and what we get is uniformly positive feedback. Sometimes it’s quite effusive, and sometimes it’s not, but we don’t get people saying, “This is terrible, don’t do this again.” Even if they’re not using them, they genuinely appreciate the fact that we think about the fact that this is sometimes a skill that’s challenging, and that we’re trying to support them as best we can. So yeah, the informal feedback and the formal feedback has been uniformly positive. The question of the data is an important one, and I don’t have any data to supply. But I kind of lean on the fact that Kelly Hogan’s work, to me, is pretty compelling if you can move students in that way. That’s a big deal to me, because, as I said, we have a lot of traditional students. They’re 17 and 18-years-old, but they come from such different places, and the extent to which high school has prepared them well varies a lot. And I’m not sure what your experience has been like, but I think the pandemic has just amplified that a lot. The kinds of experiences they’ve had, the extent to which they’ve been in the class versus not in the class, the extent to which teachers have had the resources to rise to the occasion, or not, has really created significant inequities, I think, in high schools in Ontario. I don’t doubt that everybody’s doing the best job they can, but they don’t always have the same resources to work with. So I think we’ll only see more of that in the future as they move through high school and arrive on our doorstep.

Rebecca: I think tools like the note taking that you’re talking about, are just really great ways to help students filter out the mass amount of noise in an already very noisy world. And it seems particularly noisy these days. [LAUGHTER]

Tanya: Yes.

Rebecca: There’s so much going on, that helping provide that structure to really narrow focus seems really helpful. I know that my students have been certainly reporting that there’s just so many distractions, and things that are occupying their minds, that the ability to have structure like this in place can be really helpful to getting through a class, or being successful in a class in ways that maybe if that structure wasn’t there wouldn’t happen at this moment in time. Maybe it would happen in a different moment in time, but not at this moment in time.

Tanya: No, I totally agree with you. I think that that’s true. And I also think that, I’m not sure about your experience, but my experience is, even in the normal times, many of them are not accustomed to sort of sitting through it, our lecture. I do try to break it up quite a bit, actually, so that we’re trying different class activities. Or I’ll do something where, in a class of 500, I can divide them into groups, and we try to replicate an experiment. And like, “You’re going to be the group that has these instructions, and you close your eyes now, and you guys will have these instructions, and then…” So we’re always trying to mix it up a little bit. But sitting for two hours and trying to take stuff on board, it’s a lot. And I’ve been doing different things on this sabbatical, some of which have involved me sitting for hours, and struggling by the end of it.

Rebecca: I love that you’re taking classes on sabbatical, it was something that I did when I was on sabbatical as well. It’s a nice reminder of what it’s like to be a beginner in things again.

Tanya: It’s totally true. Especially, I think, the last couple of years. Doesn’t it feel like there hasn’t been two minutes to spare to do anything that elevates your teaching? I was trying to really struggle just to get through, and you know we were pivoting this really big course online, and suddenly all the assignments are different, and no in-person exams. It just felt like… it was so intense. And so this has been just such a great gap to kind of go, “I have time to do some reading,” and “I have time to take this course that I think will be beneficial to me, and it might be beneficial to my students.” So yeah, it’s been so amazing [LAUGHTER] just to be able to remember what it’s like to go learn some new things and get excited about that. I also started taking karate lessons, right? Which I thought, this is the best example of why you have to really have a lot of patience with beginners. Because I’m now at that stage where I’m a complete beginner myself, and hopelessly uncoordinated, and there’s all these black belts who are incredibly patient with me. But it’s sort of like, “Oh yeah,” everybody who teaches first year students should actually go do something brand new every now and again and remember what it was like to feel like you don’t know anything, and you’re not really very good at it. So that’s been a good reminder, too.

Rebecca: I love it.

John: When you were talking about the course for the teaching assistants, you emphasized how the skills they’re learning are going to be useful in the rest of their lives. Since most of the students in your psychology class are not going to become psych majors, and I think many of us have experienced challenges in getting students engaged in content in gen-ed classes. What type of strategies do you use to help emphasize the relevance of the skills they’re acquiring or the knowledge they’re acquiring in your class?

Tanya: Yeah. So that’s been kind of the focus of our research for a number of years now, and it was born of just some of those lightbulb moments. I’m sure you guys have had them too, where you have these experiences, like, “Ohhhh!” So I’m just going to describe one of them to you. So it started to become clear to me… now I’m going back probably eight or nine years, where I was having a good discussion with a student who had worked as a TA for me, she had worked as a research assistant for me. She was one of these young women who just had it all going on, like really smart, and really thoughtful, and a good thinker. And we were having this conversation as she was getting ready to apply to graduate school, and she was putting her application stuff together, her letter of intent. And we got to talking and, just to paraphrase, she was basically communicating that she really didn’t know, she spent four years and tens of thousands of dollars, and she really didn’t know how to articulate or leverage what she had been learning. So even though I had zero doubt that she had all these skills, she didn’t know how to talk about them, and she didn’t know how to talk to somebody else and persuade them that she had skills. And I suddenly started to think, that’s a huge problem. [LAUGHTER] That’s a really, really big problem. And that led to some of my early research, where I started to look at that question among our site undergrads at Brock, and it wasn’t an anomaly at all. And what I found was that students, when you ask them, “What do you think you’re getting out of these assignments that they’re giving you? Most of them would say, “Well, the instructor wants me to learn about topic X. They want me to learn about the content.” And very rarely did they ever say, “They want me to improve my communication skills,” or, “They want me to improve my teamwork skills,” or whatever. And so for me, that was really telling. And so I started just trying to be a lot more intentional about being explicit with students about the skills. And so in PSYC 1F90, what the main project that they do is, they would gather some data as a group, usually on some really famous study that works pretty well consistently, and they would gather data from themselves as participants. And I would get the data from the TAs, and I would combine it, and I would analyze, it’s very simple analysis. And then they would take the findings, and they would write it up like a mini psychological paper with an introduction, method, results, and discussion. And I would talk a little bit about that, and I would talk about the fact that it builds communication skills and writing skills. And so I think that I’m doing well, and then I had my second lightbulb moment when I had a history major come in. And we were talking about the assignment, and she was very polite, like really polite, but kind of candid. And she basically said she thought the assignment was pointless. And I said, “I was talking in lecture, it builds communication skills.” And she said, and again I’m paraphrasing, “Well, maybe that’s the way psychologists communicate, but that’s not the way historians communicate.” And I thought, that’s really interesting. [LAUGHTER] Because suddenly it became clear that she was kind of focused on the superficial aspects, like, it’s got our introduction, method, results, and discussion, and that’s not what historians do. And I suddenly realized it’s not actually enough to say, “Well it builds communication skills.” You actually have to talk about how there’s some transferability of communication from one discipline to another, right? So, absolutely true, historians probably write papers that look quite different. But let’s talk about the fact that all communication—written, verbal, whatever—you have to think, first of all that, What’s the main thing you want to talk about? So what are the main points you want to make? And what are the subpoints? And how are you going to order those points? What’s the logical flow of information that you want to present? And then you need to think about your audience and think about their characteristics. Do you need to persuade them? Or are you going to be preaching to the choir? What do they know in advance? What background do you need? All these things, it doesn’t matter, I said in an essay that I wrote for the Times Higher Education, it doesn’t matter whether you’re like a cop giving testimony to a jury, or whether you’re writing a psychology paper, or whether you’re given a TED talk, or whether you’re writing a history paper, or whether you’re writing an auditing report for Price Waterhouse. Those things matter cutting across different disciplines. And I never realized that it was really important to actually get to that level of detail in explaining the skills to get buy-in, but that’s what I do now. We’re doing a different project going forward, and I’ve got a whole section of the instruction sheet. It’s like, How can you leverage the skills from this assignment in a job interview? And I don’t know if they’ll read it, but I’ll be talking about it in class anyway. And so this is where I’ve arrived in terms of students and skills. And I know some people will probably say, “Wow, you spend a lot of time in class talking about skills,” but I actually think it’s really an important element of what we’re doing. And I think, left to their own devices, it’s not always obvious to students that this is going on, that you’re acquiring this, as well as some knowledge of “what are the factors that influence whether you pay attention to something in the environment.”

John: Faculty often complain about the silos that we created within our discipline, and we forget that students create their own silos where they think of each thing as something entirely separate from the rest of their academic career. And if we can make it clear to students that the material they’re learning is going to be useful for them, they’re going to be much more engaged and much more interested and enjoy it a lot more, I would think.

Tanya: Yeah, I think it’s really important in terms of buy-in, I really do. And you’re absolutely right about the silos, and I think I had been quite naive to that. I think I really didn’t realize it until this wonderful young woman took the time to articulate it to me, and that was incredibly helpful. So you’re right.

Rebecca: While you’re talking about this, Tanya, I’m also thinking about how often I experience students focusing in on the thing that seems newest to them, the thing that’s most unfamiliar. And that’s what they get hung up on, and they think the entire class is that one thing that they don’t understand. And then the things that seem familiar—like writing seems familiar, we’ve written before—that’s the thing they pay the least attention to, and it’s often some of the things that we want to pay the most attention to. And so it’s funny how the newness, or our fear of not knowing how to do something, can put our attention there, and forget about the details of other things that also have a learning value to them that aren’t always recognized.

Tanya: Yeah, and I think you’re right about that. I have to constantly remind myself that they might not see that. It’s very obvious, but they might not see that. And to make it explicit, and to take time to talk about it, and answer questions about it. And that was something that I didn’t do nearly enough of in the early days of my teaching. Like, I really just thought, I don’t know, I thought if it was obvious to me it should be obvious to you. [LAUGHTER] But students over the years in articulating some of these things have really crystallized for me how important it is to be explicit. And for sure, some of them absolutely do get it, they don’t need me to explain it. But I come back to the variability in a class of 1500, and even really, I mean, I don’t even think that’s totally wrong for upper-year courses. Sometimes students don’t necessarily always see things that we think that they will. It helps me to think to myself… Okay, what’s the most important thing here, in terms of content but also in terms of skills? And then let’s make sure that I talk about that, and talk about how it moves from this particular course and this particular assignment. Like, can you see how you might use it out there in the world? And I usually try to talk in terms of multiple examples, like my students are going into law enforcement, they’re going into business, they’re going into nursing. So I try to draw from a few different disciplines, just to give this sense of… Yep, it transfers over here, and it transfers over there, and it transfers over here, just so they get in the habit of thinking about that.

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

Tanya: What’s next for me is, I’m still working on the diversity and inclusion piece, and so that’s taking up lots of the space between my ears. Trying to think more about… How, in a class that is so diverse, how do you create the kind of inclusivity that we’re looking for? Recognizing that students don’t participate for lots of different reasons, and we want to kind of take them gently into the water in some cases. So I was mentioning that we’re moving away from that old assignment where they would write kind of a mini psychological paper. And then what I’m trying to get them to do is to work on a persuasive message, and they’re going to present it in a couple of different ways, so they choose a topic they agree or disagree with. And then what I’m working on is… It’s got an element where they have to find some sources to support them, and there’s an information literacy component. So I’m doing a lot of research on that, and how do you promote good information literacy at a time when information is just boundless, and some of it’s good and some of it’s not good? And then they have to present it in a screencast. So we talk to them about good multimedia, and they do a very short screencast with their preliminary ideas. And then they have to write an op-ed. And so one of the things I’ve been dialoguing with my co-instructors about is, just lots of students are incredibly nervous about putting a screencast together. I try to talk a little bit about how this is kind of a gentle introduction to presentations. So we’re not going to ask you to give a flawless presentation in front of 20 people or more, and if you don’t like your first recording, you can try re-recording. So I acknowledge that there are people who have significant anxiety, for example, and so on that diversity, on a side of that kind of diversity, trying to create an assignment that will gently lead them into improving their sense of confidence about their ability to present. And looking at the seminars, and asking myself, How can I draw on this Massive Open Online Course? Which is all about, How do you facilitate good communication among people who don’t agree? How can I bring that into the TA course and help them to inspire really good, inclusive conversations among the first-year students? So I’m thinking about inclusivity in a really broad kind of way. I’m thinking about it on the side of my assignments, I’m thinking about reworking my syllabus. I’m thinking about… How do we bring it into the seminars? In more than just, “Well I’m going to introduce you to some African Canadian scholars,” or “I’m going to draw in people who are diverse into the course.” It’s more about, how do we get diverse participation? And the sense from students that we’re all part of this community, and we’re all going to contribute to this community that is the intro psych.

Rebecca: Sounds like you’ve got a lot on the horizon for sure.

Tanya: Yeah, it’s an exciting time, it really is. It feels like it’s a time where you just have an opportunity to do some really good work, and I’m going to really try to capitalize on it.

John: Well, thank you. It was really enjoyable talking to you and you’ve given us a lot to think about.

Tanya: Thank you very much. It’s been such a pleasure to speak with you today.

Rebecca: Thanks, Tanya.


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, Annalyn Smith, and Joshua Vega.


232. The EmTech MOOC

The technology tools that we use in our daily lives are constantly changing and evolving. In this episode, Cherie van Putten and Nicole Simon join us to discuss the development of a MOOC and a wiki project designed to assist us in learning how to effectively use emerging technologies. Cherie is an Instructional Designer for the Center for Learning and Teaching at Binghamton University. Nicole Simon is a Professor in the Department of Engineering, Physics and Technologies at Nassau Community College. Cherie and Nicole work together to support a SUNY Coursera MOOC that focuses on exploring emerging technologies. Cherie is the Associate Director and Nicole is the Administrative Fellow and future Director of the Exploring Emerging Technologies for Lifelong Learning and Success, or EmTech, MOOC.


John: The technology tools that we use in our daily lives are constantly changing and evolving. In this episode, we discuss the development of a MOOC and a wiki project designed to assist us in learning how to effectively use emerging technologies.


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 Cherie van Putten and Nicole Simon. Cherie is an Instructional Designer for the Center for Learning and Teaching at Binghamton University. Nicole Simon is a Professor in the Department of Engineering, Physics and Technologies at Nassau Community College. Cherie and Nicole work together to support a SUNY Coursera MOOC that focuses on exploring emerging technologies. Cherie is the Associate Director and Nicole is the Administrative Fellow and future Director of the Exploring Emerging Technologies for Lifelong Learning and Success, or EmTech, MOOC. Welcome Cherie and Nicole.

Cherie: Thank you. Thank you for having us.

John: It’s great to talk to you again. Our teas today are… Cherie, are you having tea?

Cherie: Yes, I am. I’m having an orange blossom oolong tea, and this one is similar to a jasmine tea in taste, with a hint of orange blossom.

Rebecca: Which sounds very, very nice. I’ll have to try some of that.

Cherie: It is. Yes, it is very nice.

John: Nicole?

Nicole: I’m actually drinking water right now. I’ve switched over from tea. This morning I was drinking tea, though. I had my usual chai tea.

Rebecca: Glad to hear that is part of your diet. It’s very important here. [LAUGHTER] And I’m drinking a golden monkey.

John: Which is one of your favorite teas.

Rebecca: Yeah.

John: She didn’t put a monkey in a blender.

Rebecca: It’s a Golden Monkey. [LAUGHTER]

John: And I am drinking a blueberry green tea. So we’ve invited you here to discuss the MOOC that you’ve been working on, the EmTech MOOC. And this evolved out of the Tools of Engagement Project, which started back in 2015 to 2016, in that academic year. Could you tell us a little bit about the original project and how it evolved?

Cherie: The original idea came from 23 Things which is an education and learning project out of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library in North Carolina. Then Robin Sullivan, who is at University at Buffalo, used it to create a actual college course for libraries. I believe it was Library Studies. From there, a group of SUNY institutions created the Tools of Engagement Project, which you’ll hear me refer to it as the TOEP project. And that was mainly for faculty to develop technology skills, and the MOOC was created based on that Tools of Engagement Project.

Rebecca: For those that aren’t familiar, can you describe what a MOOC is?

Cherie: A MOOC is a Massive Open Online Course. So it has a scale built into it, where it can have 50 people, it can have a couple thousand people taking the MOOC all at the same time. And this one happens to be on a MOOC platform called Coursera.

John: Going back to the original project, we should probably mention it was funded by a SUNY Innovative Instructional Technology Grant for both the original phase as well as for its conversion into a MOOC. But could you tell us just a little bit about how that original project worked in terms of the collaboration among campuses?

Cherie: The original project, the Tools of Engagement Project, was set up more like a website. So there would be a brief audio track that you would listen to about a particular topic. And then there would be resources and other tools that you could find about those. And there was also a community that was on Google Community. And that was a very robust community with a lot of good information going on with the people who were participating in the project.

John: And the participants would try some new software, and then write up a description about it and make recommendations about its use… Is that how it was structured?

Cherie: Yeah, so as they were using tools and reflecting on their experience, they would add comments to the community.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about how that project evolved into the MOOC and what that construction process looked like?

Cherie: That TOEP project involved, I would say, at different points, probably half the SUNY campuses. And then what we would have was a pay structure. So you would pay money to participate in it and then anyone from your organization was allowed to participate in the project. So it limited who was able to participate. Then what we did was we moved it over to the idea of the MOOC. And by moving it over to the MOOC, we were able to open it up to everyone. Because that was part of the agreement with Coursera, was that anyone who had a SUNY email address and used a SUNY email address to create their MOOC log in, they were able to get a free certificate when they completed it.

Rebecca: But the MOOC itself is open to a much wider audience.

Cherie: Yes. The MOOC itself is operating in several countries. We do have our base in New York, but we also have a following in India and a few other places.

John: And the MOOC is free to everyone. It’s only if you want the Coursera certificate that you have to pay unless you’re in New York or a few other groups that have free certificates.

Cherie: Right.

John: So the MOOC consists of five different components. Could you give us an overview of those five modules in the MOOC?

Cherie: Sure. The first module talks about concepts that encourage people to take responsibility for their own learning, building lifelong learning toolkits. So this would be… Who do you need to surround yourself with as far as people who already know technology well or can help support you in your quest for more technology, and websites? …the mindset of being a lifelong learner and technology tools that will help you. Topics include the Seven and a Half Habits of Lifelong Learners, fixed versus growth mindset, the idea of Creative Commons, which is new to a lot of people, and that’s just a different way to copyright things so that they can be used in different ways. And then also accessibility so that your information is accessible to people from all backgrounds. The tools quickly change, and tools that you’re used to having for free might suddenly become tools that you need to pay for, or the tool that you absolutely love might go away. So, participants need to learn to adjust to these changes. And they need to learn how to do this on their own, because you’re not always able to take a course to quickly find out how to do something that you used to have a tool for.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about who the audience for the MOOC is?

Cherie: The audience for the MOOC is everybody. But we did start with a slant towards SUNY faculty. And some of those faculty members have actually used it in courses as well. So it has been used with some students and people have assigned it as actual parts of courses.

John: One thing I do have to ask is, I should know what seven and a half habits of lifelong learners are, but I’m particularly interested in the half habit. What is the half habit?

Cherie: The half habit is play. So it’s to have fun with your learning.

Rebecca: I don’t think that should be a half a habit.

Cherie: No, it should be a whole habit, I think.

John: It should be, yeah.

Rebecca: Let’s make that eight habits.

Nicole: Another module within the MOOC happens to be Creativity, where we’re giving learners of all levels—whether it’s K-12, whether it’s faculty, whether it’s students—we’re giving them the ability to really learn how to create. And you’re creating things that are within your discipline, or within your studies, or within your hobbies. You’re learning different technologies and how to really show a play side of how to use that technology. Or it could be just creativity, in as far as your delivery or your format, whether you’re creating it for your classes as a student, or if you’re creating it for your students as an educator. We want to really encourage the technology play component. And then another module happens to be Critical Thinking, being able to be a little bit more analytical, a little bit more intentional in what technology you choose. You don’t want to just choose a technology that is over and above the purpose of what you’re trying to convey. So we want to make sure that you take ownership of what you learn and how you use it appropriately. But more importantly, educating the user on what options they have and how they may want to apply it. And then there’s Communication and Collaboration, where you’re learning how to work together in a community, but also bring students into the active learning process, how to share out different resources. It’s not just about learning the technology tool and applying it, it’s also learning how to educate others and bring other people into that growth mindset of: What can I learn? How can I share? How can I encourage? And how can I support?

John: And as part of that people also develop an ePortfolio, which is actually the fifth activity in the MOOC, where there’s a peer review of that.

Nicole: Correct, it is optional right now. But we do highly encourage users to really embrace the idea of that ePortfolio. It can be for fun, which I’ve done several in the past that are great to be able to highlight some aspects of what you’re using and what you’re learning and share those deliverables out. Or it could be something a little bit more serious minded, whether it’s a student for a course or capstone of what they’re learning, or it could be for an educator of how they can use it for their courses. So it’s a nice flexibility. We have a variety of different ePortfolios you can use, and it’s to showcase what it is that you learned and a little bit of a summary of how you can apply it.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about the format of the course and the interactions that occur between participants or how the content is delivered?

Nicole: Sure, once you enter the MOOC, you are introduced to the entire platform of Coursera, and more importantly, how and why you go about using the MOOC. It allows you to transition and move through each of the different modules where you’re learning a little bit about that module. You’re learning how to share and collaborate with others within that module. And you’re introduced to little tutorials and videos on how to learn a little bit more about the idea of the module itself. Whether it’s lifelong learning or collaboration, communication, or going through how you’re using it in your course, or how you’re using it with your students. So, you learn a little bit about the information, you’ve watched a few videos, and then you’re invited to go and play and discover the different technology tools. Whether you want to look at a more open-ended approach for the technology tools using the wiki, which I’ll get into in a minute, or if you want to drill down a little bit more intentional and specific on which technology tools you use. You take a quiz to show that you understood the proficiency behind it, you develop some type of summary on the technology tool you used. And if you’re actually doing the fifth module, where you’re bringing it into an ePortfolio, you’re actually creating that actual exemplar to use with the newer ePortfolio. And when you use the technology tools, you use the second part of the project, the EmTech wiki.

John: You mentioned the wiki. Can people take advantage of the EmTech wiki without participating in the MOOC?

Cherie: Yes, they can. And I know a lot of people who use the wiki for that reason, they keep it there to find tools and resources quickly.

John: And there are hundreds of resources that are reviewed there… at least hundreds, maybe in the thousands?

Cherie: I don’t think we’re up to thousands yet, but we are hundreds. A little bit more about the wiki is anyone can add to it, you just go and you get a login and you’re able to add a tool or a resource that you really love. Or maybe there’s a tool or resource that doesn’t have a description that really fits it anymore. Maybe something has changed, maybe it used to be free and now it’s a freemium product. So you can go in and make changes as well. And don’t worry about messing anything up because it’s all moderated. We get a notice that a change was made and then we’ll go ahead and look it over and change it, maybe reformat it a little to fit the style we use. And I probably should add that we also have tags for it. So once you’re in there, if you’re looking for certain things, like you want something that’s video or you want something that is to help you persuade people in an argument, you can use that to look for different tools that would fit those various needs.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about some of the impact the MOOC has had on participants or how faculty have reacted to their participation in the MOOC?

Nicole: It’s been very positive. I think pre-pandemic we had a little bit of a different mindset of how it was used versus over the past two years. But faculty have loved the idea, especially the cohort model, where they’re coming in, they’re learning about the MOOC, they’re learning the different aspects of the modules, they’re able to choose and customize, almost, what it is that they’re learning and how they’re using it in their courses or for their own personal learning. Throughout the pandemic, we found that a lot of educators really relied on using the MOOC because now they can learn a lot about the technology they need for their courses. And to get them through the last two years. A lot of them will also turn to the wiki because… “Okay, now I need to learn about collaboration skills. So I’ve learned about those skills, but I have a variety of different technology tools I can rely on. And which ones best suit the needs of my students?” We also found that over the past two years, we’ve had much higher numbers as far as users worldwide, both the wiki and, more importantly, through the MOOC. So it’s kind of shifted people’s mindsets on how and why they use the project.

John: You mentioned a cohort model, is this a self-paced MOOC? Or is this done with fixed starting and ending date?

Nicole: No, it is self paced. But we found that a lot of campuses and a lot of different educational groups, whether you’re using it in a course, or you’re just using it on your own, a lot of people have gone into a cohort model. I know my campus at Nassau, we use the cohort model where we offered it with a group of faculty so that they were able to actively participate and work with one another. It’s certainly self paced but we found also with students that have used the MOOC as part of their course, they like to have that cohort model so that they have that collaboration from day one.

John: And having that cohort can also create a bit of a commitment device where people are going to meet and discuss what they’ve done, it makes it more likely they’ll actually do it. Because one of the issues with MOOCs is they often have a low completion rate. But when you have a cohort of people going through, it seems to have a pretty significant effect in encouraging completion.

Cherie: Yes, it does.

John: And another advantage of it for a teaching center, say if they want to bring a group of people through, is that you can schedule around your holiday schedules and so forth. So you can come up with a schedule that works with your campus’ schedule so that you don’t have it running into holidays or spring breaks or other periods. So the self-paced nature can be really helpful.

Rebecca: I can imagine, too, that one nice thing about the cohort is that you actually know the participants are accountable to people that you know, but also you might feel more comfortable having conversations or asking questions because they’re not just like anonymous little bees in the course.

Cherie: And the other thing to keep in mind with MOOCs in general is a lot of people don’t complete them. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t start them. Because you’ll get a lot of good information, take what you need from it, and maybe, eventually, you’ll have time to go through the whole thing. But I just think, don’t have the mindset where, “Oh, I started several MOOCs, and I never finished them.” You still started them, and you still got some knowledge from starting them, so give it a try.

Rebecca: Well, that’s good encouragement for sure.

Cherie: Yes, you can always refer back to them.

Rebecca: Now, I know that you use badges in this MOOC, can you talk a little bit about how that works?

Nicole: There’s always an incentive-ation component, where you really want to get leaders, you want people to learn and use the modules. So if you’re using the modules, and you complete not only going through the modules, but the quiz, and then providing a summary that you participated and completed that module, then you are eligible to receive a digital badge for that module. If you go ahead and complete all four of the modules and complete an ePortfolio, again you can earn a digital badge for that module. And what’s nice about it is it does encourage completion. But more importantly, it encourages you to really take a deeper dive. Why is it that you want to learn about a particular technology tool? Why is it you want to learn about a different module? And then really apply it. How do you plan on applying it to your learning? Again, whether it’s in a course, or just for your personal gain.

Cherie: And also, Robin wanted us to mention that it’s now an auto process through Coursera that the badging gets done. And we are like one of the first Coursera MOOCs to actually use this process. Before it used to be a manual process, which meant that it was a lot of time for us to try to figure out… “This person earned this badge, let’s do the little computer thing we need to do to get the badge out to the people.” So it’s gotten a lot easier now with that auto ability.

John: So what is the plan for keeping the MOOC current? Because with emerging technologies, they’re constantly changing. And you mentioned a little bit about that with the wiki and how that can be continually updated. But what about the MOOC itself?

Cherie: One of the things we’re going to do with the MOOC is we want to translate it in other languages. So it’s not just available in English.

Nicole: Yes, one of our big projects is being able to translate it, first starting off with Spanish and then to other languages, so that we can get and encourage more users worldwide. And it can also be used for COIL faculty, which is a SUNY initiative for Collaborative Online International Learning. So that not only can we point users to the MOOC, but more importantly, it can be used as part of a course or a COIL project. Another component is to constantly go in and update some of the videos or some of the processes that we’re learning within the different modules. We’re looking to add on, essentially it would be a sixth module, taking a look at AR and VR technology, and allowing users to go through a small component of how you can learn about adding that into your course or adding that into your own personal knowledge, and then sharing out more resources as we start building out that component of the wiki.

Cherie: And one of the things we did when we built the MOOC was we tried to not get in the minutiae, we tried to have a big picture overview so that it would last for a few years. Because technology changes all the time. So we need to make a conscious effort not to mention tech tools in our videos. So that’s when you go to the EmTech wiki for. So, when you’re in the MOOC, you’re not going to find mention of, and I’m not going to even mention any, so that this thing can live into the future. But if you mentioned certain tech tools, it’s going to date your video. So we’re keeping all that in the wiki and that can be updated.

John: Because issues of lifelong learning, your online presence and communication and collaboration, creative expression, and critical thinking are not going to go away. So I think focusing on that makes it a whole lot easier to keep the MOOC current. Very good. If anyone’s interested in learning more about the MOOC, there’s a nice website that has a wide variety of videos on it. So if you want to see more about what’s being covered in there, you could watch some of the videos and then join in the MOOC.

Rebecca: And we’ll have all those links in our show notes.

John: We will.

Cherie: One other thing that I would like to mention is the modules also go along with the NACE competencies, which is the National Association of Colleges and Employers. So a lot of these skills are what colleges and employers think you need to have to be ready for a career. So that’s another really great point of how we set this up.

Rebecca: Probably a nice way to underscore how it could be used with students.

Cherie: Yes, and it has been used, like Nicole had mentioned, it’s been used with students, and it’s been used at SUNY Fredonia with a group of students as well who were pre-professional teachers.

John: Did the pandemic have any effect on the demand for this MOOC?

Cherie: During the pandemic there was a time when the MOOC was free for everyone, because Coursera marked some MOOCs as being something that would help people with career readiness and get ready to find a job once the pandemic was over. And we did get some traction in a couple areas of the world. There was a big cohort in India, and also in South America… And, Nicole, do you remember which country in South America we were getting?

Nicole: We’re getting a big chunk, both from Brazil and Venezuela. And we actually encouraged faculty from Venezuela to use it for the COIL projects. So that was our latest big jump.

John: We always end with the question, What’s next? And that could be about you, it could be about the project, it could be anything you want to say, it could be, “I’m going to have lunch,” or, “I’m going to go shovel snow or whatever.”

Cherie: I’m going to go shovel horse manure, [LAUGHTER] because we have horses, and they were in last night. But, I think Nicole will be the best one to talk about the future because she’s going to be our new fearless leader.

John: Nicole?

Nicole: Bringing more VR and AR to both the module and to the wiki would be our next component.

Cherie: And I guess we should mention that we’re always looking for partnerships and grants for this project. So that’s another big part of what we do. And we also are looking for partners in K through 12. We’re actually working on something now for K through 12, to bring some workshops to people in the state of New York, I believe. Right, Nicole?

Nicole: Correct.

John: Well, thank you. The MOOC is a wonderful resource. And it’s nice to see that it’s still developing and growing. And I strongly encourage people to explore the MOOC and the wiki.

Rebecca: Thank you so much for joining us.

Cherie: Thank you so much for having me. This has always been one of my bucket lists to be on Tea for Teaching so I can cross that one off. I’ve been excited for it since the day it started.

John: Does that have anything to do with the horse manure? [LAUGHTER]

Cherie: No, It does not, I really sincerely mean that. I am not shoveling manure right now. [LAUGHTER]

John: Well, thank you.

Nicole: 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.

John: Editing assistance provided by Anna Croyle, Annalyn Smith, and Joshua Vega.


231. Include Instructors in Inclusive Instruction

Educational developers often recommend teaching practices that assume instructors are in a position in which they can cede some of their authority to students in order to increase student agency and motivation. Not all instructors, though, are in this privileged position. In this episode, Chavella Pittman and Thomas J. Tobin examine strategies to adopt practices that are inclusive of our colleagues as well as our students.

Chavella is a Professor of Sociology at Dominican University, the founder of Effective and Efficient Faculty, and is the host of the Teaching in Color podcast. She has written extensively about issues of race and gender in higher education in scholarly and general interest publications. Tom is a founding member of the Center for Teaching, Learning, & Mentoring at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the author of Reach Everyone, Teach Everyone: Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education and several other works related to teaching and learning.

Show Notes


John: Educational developers often recommend teaching practices that assume instructors are in a position in which they can cede some of their authority to students in order to increase student agency and motivation. Not all instructors, though, are in this privileged position. In this episode, we examine strategies that are inclusive of our colleagues as well as our students.


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 Chavella Pittman and Thomas J. Tobin. Chavella is a Professor of Sociology at Dominican University, the founder of Effective and Efficient Faculty, and is a host of the Teaching in Color podcast. She has written extensively about issues of race and gender in higher education in both scholarly and general interest publications. Tom is a founding member of the Center for Teaching and Learning and Mentoring at the University of Wisconsin – Madison and the author of Reach Everyone, Teach Everyone: Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education, and several other works related to teaching and learning. Welcome back, Chavella and Tom. It’s great to have you back on the podcast again.

Tom: Thank you much, John. Glad to be here.

Chavella: Yeah, thanks so much for having me again.

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

Tom: I am not a tea person. Although I did just restock my cabinet from black tea to green tea. So, we’ll see how that affects my ability to write and function throughout the day. I’m drinking distilled water today. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: A good choice for the body for sure. How about you Chavella?

Chavella: I am drinking water with electrolytes. I participated in a bottle share this weekend. And because I’ve been running a lot more this winter, I can get a little sensitive to dehydration. So, I’m drinking water with electrolytes. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I think a first on the podcast. [LAUGHTER] John, how about you?

John: I am drinking ginger peach black tea.

Rebecca: And I have Golden Monkey today.

John: Back to an old favorite.

Rebecca: It is, it is. I don’t always have it in stock.

John: Advocates of inclusive teaching often encourage faculty to share their power and authority with the students. But you both wrote a February 7, 2022 article in The Chronicle noting that this does not work as well for all faculty. Could you share this argument with our listeners and tell us a little bit about how this article came about?

Chavella: As many things, it came about as a result of my frustration, if I’m gonna be honest, which I always seem to be. On a fairly regular basis, I see folks putting forth ideas like you should do this, you should use that. But it’s often attached with some elements of, for example, during a pandemic, people saying… If you’re still having deadlines for students, then therefore basically you don’t care for students, or you’re like an evil person. And seeing people make these individual level attributes that ignore the structural context of teaching was getting really frustrating for me. And I was having a conversation about it with some folks and Tom was one of those folks. And I said, “I have to write about this, and who’s interested in writing with me about this?” But the general argument is, absolutely, that a lot of times, people perceive teaching as individual choices, and therefore they’re making individual level attributions, not realizing that these aren’t just individual level choices. What we can and can’t do, how students respond to the various things we do, are very much so in the context of our social statuses and identities.

Tom: Absolutely. And as Chavella has said, I stepped in to work on this with Chavella, because… two different sides of the same coin for me. I have been an advocate for universal design for learning for a very long time, trying to lower barriers for our students. At the same time, I was one of the people Chavella was a little mad at, in that my research was moving in the direction of how does Universal Design for Learning underpin all of our other diversity, equity, inclusion, social justice efforts on our higher education campuses? And I was at the same time also advocating for, “Hey, all instructors, please share your power with your students, please be vulnerable,” all that kind of thing. And I was doing that in a blanket way. So the conversation that we were all having when Chevella said, “You know, not everybody can do that.” That was a moment where I came up short. And I thought, I haven’t even really examined this aspect of inclusive teaching. So it turned out to be a really good platform and conversation. When Chavella and I were first having one-to-one conversations about what do we want to actually say, it struck me …and listeners, you might remember the old Highlights magazine for children. And there was always the Goofus and Gallant segment in that magazine. Goofus was the young man who could never do anything right. And Gallant was the one who always did things perfectly and had perfect manners and it was meant to teach children how to do and be in a socially acceptable way. This is kind of the ninja-level Goofus and Gallant article from me and Chavella. I’m playing the role of Goofus. I am the person over 50, white, cisgender, heterosexual male with gray hair. I tick a bunch of boxes for unexamined privilege. And we wanted to contrast that unthinking and unexamined exercise of privilege with the experiences of women instructors, instructors of color, people who are in other precarious places like part-time instructors, and talk about how what is simple and easy for me becomes dangerous, challenging, or a bridge too far for other instructors.

Chavella: I was gonna say thanks, Tom, for admitting that you were in the group of folks that I was frustrated with. I wasn’t gonna out you, but… [LAUGHTER] It’s that level of reflectivity and that level of honesty and the willingness to look at yourself that I’m super grateful for and that we’re trying to encourage people to do, is to actually pause and ask yourself these sorts of questions.

Rebecca: I think it’s really important that we stop and reflect about these sorts of ideas when we’re really in the business of trying to advocate for students. If we want student success, we need our whole community to be successful and included. One of the topics that you brought up in your article was about flexibility in the classroom, specifically around deadlines. But I was curious about whether or not other conversations around flexibility came up as, Tom and Chavella, as you were talking with each other about this article. A lot of things that we see around inclusive practices include things like giving students agency around the format of their projects, or assignments, and other things like this.

Tom: When we were drafting the article—of course, the article can be only so long for The Chronicle—the very first example that came to my mind was, Rebecca, you’re talking about being flexible with formats and giving people choices about how they show what they know and take in information. That’s Universal Design for Learning. That’s one of my areas of expertise. It was one of the first things that occurred to me. And I thought, “You know, we’re not really this kind of reflective with UDL.” It’s kind of ironic, too, because even teaching approaches that center and address learning variability tend also to frame instructors as a homogeneous bloc, who uniformly have status and power that they’re able to transfer to learners. For example, UDL began as a way for K-12 teachers to lower barriers for students with disabilities. Now, because UDL began in an environment in which adults are teaching children, that power, respect, and status dynamic, they’re simply assumed to be tilted heavily toward the teachers regardless of their other identity characteristics or intersectionality. So when UDL began to be adopted beyond the special education curriculum, and in higher education settings, those assumptions about instructor authority went largely unexamined. And so our colleague, Jay Dolmage, suggests that UDL should encompass both learner and instructor variability. And he calls this the intersectional theory of Universal Design for Learning. And so classroom and teaching authority means that students recognize you, the instructor, as having the right and duty to ask them to participate in learning activities and to manage a classroom that’s conducive for learning. The challenge there is that students can perceive, in higher education, that they have greater power than their instructors because of the instructors’ institutional and structural identities, things like age, race, gender, employment status, ability profile, and you name it. So that give and take, that being reflective about who has the authority and power to share and give up extends to lots of other types of flexibility.

Chavella: You’re right, Rebecca, that is absolutely something that we discussed. And the piece that he shared, we had lots of conversations about that. And even just beyond the statuses, or related to the statuses, even assumptions about what technology faculty have access to. I talk about this all the time, the fact that people assume that because I’m faculty, I have access to all sorts of technology, I have access to all sorts of wireless internet connectivity. But I happen to live in a community of people that look like me, which means that our infrastructure isn’t the same, right? So I’m supposed to be having all this variability for students that I may not even have myself. So lots of assumptions layered into what faculty have, even as it relates to UDL.

Tom: And that’s something that Derrick Bell calls “interest convergence.” We tend, if we’re in a dominant culture group, we tend not to say, “Oh, yeah, we should be concerned about our colleagues who are having a more challenging time of things,” unless and until it affects us, right? This is the, “not in my backyard,” or, “I’ll wait until it affects somebody in my family,” kind of thinking. And that interest convergence can really get in our way, because we just assume, “Oh, if it doesn’t affect me, it must not affect many folks.” When the reality of intersectional thinking is that it affects everybody. And it’s useful, not from just a social justice perspective, to take a step back and think about how all of the instructors at an institution are situated to be able to do the work that we’re asking them to do in a safe and effective way. But it’s also a bottom-line business continuation conversation. This has to do with… Are your instructors going to want to come back and teach another semester if they’re contingent? Are your instructors eyeing the door? as Lee Bessette said in another forum. Are they looking to skip to another institution or find another place that gives them a little bit more psychological safety or a little bit more explicit support. So it’s not just the social justice aspect of things, but it’s also the keeping the lights on and making sure that you have talented people working with your students, consideration here as well.

Chavella: It absolutely is a retention issue. Part of what makes this particular issue frustrating for me is because it’s not like faculty with marginalized statuses haven’t been saying this all along. We’ve been saying that all along, “I can do that thing in terms of ability, but it’s going to have different consequences for me, or it’s going to play out different, or it’s going to take more energy for me, or I’m going to get more pushback from it.” So we’ve been saying that consistently. It’s just that the mainstream communicating about the scholarship of teaching and learning hasn’t been echoing that, hearing that, reflecting that. So it very much so becomes a retention issue when you situate it such that you have to do these things or you’re not a good teacher. And then people are having all the push back and sort of emotional energy. And I got a lot of responses after this piece came out from faculty with diverse and marginalized statuses saying, “Thank you,” like, “Basically, I’ve been yelling into a vacuum about this, and no one has heard me.” So for sure, definitely a retention issue.

Rebecca: I know we often don’t hear about a lot of examples of how marginalized faculty are impacted, in part because they feel like they have to be silent about it because they are unsafe, maybe they won’t get tenure and promotion, maybe they won’t get renewed. Do you have any examples that you collected related to UDL that you might be able to share that weren’t included in the article? Because I know that’s the section that got cut.

Tom: And I’m actually looking at the draft where we have those selections here. And with regard to Universal Design for Learning, the challenge that we found was the classroom dynamic shift, where Universal Design for Learning is asking at its core for the instructor to create various paths for the students to be able to move through the instructional space. That’s not actually all that controversial, and it doesn’t open up a lot of risk for folks with marginalized statuses. Where we get into the challenge is at the more approaching-expert level of universal design for learning. We want to move our students from being expert students, the people who know how to cram and know how to study for a test and can tell me back the things that I told them in the classroom. And the risk becomes we’re trying to create expert learners. We want students who can create new information, encounter new situations and apply what they know, and be open and more vulnerable with us. And that requires that openness and vulnerability from us as instructors as well. Part of the challenge with that is, if there’s not a lot of implicit or unearned respect and trust, then you have to establish what that trust looks like. And for folks who have fewer trust resources to be able to build from, that becomes tricky. So I’d love to pick Chavella’s brain here, too. And we’ve got a couple more examples in the kit as well.

Chavella: Yeah, I was gonna say that that beginner part, I think there are challenges for faculty with marginalized statuses. The idea of sort of opening up different paths, the issue becomes… and again, when you think about the scholarship of teaching and learning in general, you’re going to have moments of like, “Oh, yeah, that makes perfect sense.” We know from the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, that when you do things that are innovative, or non-traditional, that you can get a bit of student resistance. So UDL requires you to do things that are innovative and non-traditional. So even if it’s just how students submit work, whether they’re doing in writing, or whether they’re doing an audio file, or doing some sort of visual presentation, those actually all open up paths to resistance for faculty with marginalized statuses, just by the virtue of the fact that they’re doing something different. Those things get rewarded for faculty that have dominant statuses, they’re seen as experts. Now we’re questioned, our expertise becomes questioned: “Why is she doing it? That’s strange. I don’t understand that. I’m confused by that.” So I would say that all sorts of teaching choices require students to actually view you as an expert. And if you have some statuses that are marginalized in society, those are all things that students will use to decide that you’re not credible. But we know that those are the practices that are supposed to be done. We know those are the ones that are good for learning. It’s just a matter of who’s doing it that makes it a little bit more challenging.

John: What are some ways in which we can make it safer for faculty to experiment with some new techniques? Or what are some ways that faculty who are in a marginalized position can address some of these challenges? Or might, in some cases, it be better to not try and to use teaching techniques that work best for them in their environments?

Chavella: I would say probably a little bit of mix and match. I’m always like, “There’s no silver bullet.” I wish there were. “There’s no magic wand,” I say that all the time. But it’s probably a little bit of mix and match. Like, if you have your energy, you’re trying to get your scholarship together, maybe not doing things you know students are going to resist, it doesn’t mean that traditional practices don’t work, you can do the traditional stuff. But that might not be the right timing for you. But at the end of the day… I was getting ready to say it doesn’t have anything to do with the marginalized faculty. And part of what I mean is, it’s not their responsibility. The institution should be making changes, the institution should have chances where you can try something innovative and your course evaluations don’t matter. The institution should have an understanding of the ways in which bias gets involved in your student rating, so whether it’s because it’s innovative or you have a marginalized status. I think that a lot of the folks that do this work and our own colleagues need to understand that the way you do things might be different from someone else, and then not to shame, or guilt, or assume that the other person’s way of doing it is less valid or less excellent when it comes to teaching. So all of the sort of, like, needing to be done parts are things that need to be done on the part of the powerful and of the institutions. But I absolutely tell diverse faculty to be intentional and be thoughtful about what they’re doing and what the consequences are going to be for them. And just be very aware that they might get a different outcome, and it might require different resources for them.

Tom: And the flip side of that is also true, that there’s a whole bunch of “don’t do” things that seem kind of intuitive to a department chair, or a dean, or a provost. Because when we hear, “Oh, well, we have to make safer spaces for people with intersectional identities, marginalized identities. And we have to empower them from an institutional perspective.” The first reaction from a lot of folks, especially if they are from dominant-culture backgrounds themselves, is to start looking for the people in their institution who fit the definition… “I’m going to go ask my black colleagues how to work with them.” And the chances are that most of your colleagues, your women colleagues, if you’re a man, your black colleagues, if you’re a white person, they don’t know any more than you do how to do this well. One of the things that I really benefited from is Chavella, this is her research area, she is a trained facilitator. Bring in people with expertise to help you and your institution to come up with policy, practice, and models that suit. Too often we just turn to one another and say, “Well, what should we do?” And that sort of uninformed guessing isn’t helpful and can actually perpetuate harmful situations.

Chavella: Absolutely. One of the other things we talked about as having some frustration is people identifying this as a gap. Like Tom said, this is my area of expertise: the intersection of structural oppression and the scholarship of teaching and learning. But some people will see this gap and be like, “Oh, all of a sudden I see my privilege now.” And then they rush to fill the gap. No, no. No, no, no, no, no. You don’t have the expertise for that, you don’t understand that. So the people with the dominant statuses, that rush to suck up all the air in the room because they see the new shiny thing that they want to pursue. First of all, a lot of times they’re sharing misinformation or things that are misguided, that are actually going to be more harmful for the group that they purport to help. But they’re also silencing the people who actually already have this expertise. So there are a lot of faculty developers and folks that do Scholarship of Teaching and Learning who have some expertise, who look like me, who are people of color, LGBTQ folks, but a lot of us are being drowned out. So that definitely falls in the category of “don’t,” which is, don’t center yourself by trying to fill the gap and sucking up all the air in the room. [LAUGHTER] Look around and actually identify who those folks are and work with them.

Tom: Yeah, am I allowed to say that most people doing land acknowledgments now aren’t actually working with their First Nations colleagues to make things better? That’s kind of what we wanted to do in the article, was to not call people out for doing things poorly or not doing things at all. What we wanted to do was to say, “Here are ways to think about and act that move you away from performative work into intentional allyship. What actions are you actually taking, so that you are using the privilege that you’ve got, even if you aren’t from a dominant perspective? What actions are you taking that help your colleagues? What actions are you actually taking?” And in the article we talk about how I started, when I first got my PhD I thought, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m going to be the cool professor, and have my students call me Tom.’ And I didn’t realize at that point that me having them call me by my first name meant that some of my women colleagues who were insisting on being called “Dr. So-and-so,” then that was, “Well, why are you being so formal about it when Dr. Tobin says, ‘Call him Tom’?” And I came to realize pretty quickly that they didn’t have that assumed authority. And so if I said, “Please call me Dr. Tobin,” and we were all Dr. So-and-so in the department, that made for a more level playing field. And it also meant that I was showing respect for my colleagues, even in my own classroom, because I was explaining why I was asking for that formal, “please call me Dr.,” as well.

Chavella: And that’s such a good example. And in the research that I do, where I’m collecting stories and information from faculty with marginalized statuses, that happens to be one of the things that comes up all the time. And I know that people think that the titles are a small thing, but they’re not. And so in the article, one of the things that I’m always, when I’m trying to describe to other people, or make it clear to them that there is an intersection between structural oppression and the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, is I’m always talking about this idea of a force field. So all those things make it clear that there is teaching authority, professional authority, that there’s some expertise involved. And a lot of times privileged faculty don’t realize, that force field just automatically exists for them, it doesn’t exist for other folks. So having your title is a marker that sort of provides a force field for faculty with marginalized statuses, so that they can do the work that they need to do. They don’t have to worry about people testing the fence, trying to get over the fence, trying to ignore the fence. So very much so, people think that that’s a small thing to be called by your professional title. But it is a reminder to students, and then they behave accordingly, if they’re referring to you by your title. And again, it just gives you the space to be able to do your work when you’re a faculty member with a marginalized status.

Rebecca: One of the things that has come to mind as we’ve been talking today is how often narratives around almost the same circumstance can be different at various tables. And that one way perhaps, to show some allyship is to make that visible in conversations when it occurs. So if there’s an evaluative conversation, for example, around promotion or tenure, and something comes up about teaching, and it’s maybe a different narrative around some of the same techniques, because maybe the teaching evaluations come back negative because they often do. That conversation is different, we can point out, “Hey, this is actually a good practice. And that the research says that these evaluations are often not accurate.” And to try to point to the fact that these narratives are inconsistent. It happens so often, and we observe this all the time. And often people don’t speak up.

Chavella: No, they don’t at all. [LAUGHTER] There are a couple things going on at once. One is people see teaching as this very private activity. So very few people talk about their teaching in general. And then a lot of the folks that are doing the evaluative pieces don’t really actually know anything about the scholarship of teaching and learning. [LAUGHTER] If we’re being honest. They just know what’s normative. So I work with campuses doing all this stuff. I train people how to do inclusive teaching, and how to do the reflective pieces around identifying your own privilege and making it clear about their teaching choices. But I also work with institutions about how they evaluate, and really making it plain to them, how what they’re doing are the most common practices, and then put them in conversation with the best practices. And those are usually opposite. So a lot of the people that are doing the evaluative pieces, absolutely. They don’t know anything about the scholarship of teaching and learning. So the more of us who know, engage in those conversations and have those narratives, I think it could make a huge difference. Absolutely.

Tom: And back to the idea that the changes we want to see are structural and institutional ones. When Jean Mandernach and Ann Taylor and I were doing the research for our book, Evaluating Online Teaching, from back in 2015, we couldn’t include a lot of the horror stories that we heard about how institutions would often hire adjuncts to come back the next term or move people forward on the promotion and tenure line, based only on student ratings of teaching. And so there was that one signal that, as Chavella has mentioned, we know is imperfect and riddled with student bias. And we also know that student ratings of teaching—you notice I never say evaluations, because our students are not qualified to evaluate us—they can share what their experiences were like. And we have to look at those experiences through the lens of what are the biases that they are expressing through that rating system. So when we have just the one signal that we’re making an employment-based decision on, that’s where that bias really creeps in. The other side of that is also true, that when we’re asking peers, or our department chairs, or our Deans to do observations of our teaching, unless there’s a structure in place that asks for very specific teaching behaviors to be observed and then evaluated, then we’re going to bring our own unexamined and unintentional biases, and some intentional ones too, into that process as well. So in the book on evaluating online teaching, we tried to be very clear that even someone who’s never taught online before, can still give a meaningful and legally defensible assessment of our teaching, so long as they understand what they’re looking for, and what we count as teaching behaviors, versus what’s just bias from the face-to-face classroom. And we talked about things like voice tone, pacing, eye contact, use of humor, all those kinds of things that even in the face-to-face classroom, we might be using as proxies for observable teaching behaviors, because we don’t know what those are, or we haven’t done the research or read the research about Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, like we’re coming back to over and over in this conversation. Move that into the conversation about all of your instructors coming from various types of backgrounds, level of preparation, and level of implicit authority that is granted to them by students, dnd you come up with a very similar argument. The challenge for us as administrators, is to be very clear about what we are assessing and measuring when we think about the assessment of teaching quality,

Chavella: Obviously, I cosign all of that. [LAUGHTER] I cosign all of that. I feel like I’m always sort of on a rooftop yelling all of those things over and over again.

John: One of the things we’ve observed at the teaching center is we have a wide variety of young faculty in many departments who are trying to do new things. But their pushback is coming from other people in the departments. Our administration is, in general, quite good at recognizing some of these challenges, but that doesn’t always translate down to the senior faculty in departments. And I think Rebecca and I, at various times, have both had to urge some caution to faculty in trying to get some support for the things they do and some buy-in. What are some ways we could address that issue at the departmental level?

Tom: One thing that we mentioned in the article, and it’s a shameless theft of mine from a colleague at Westmoreland County Community College in western Pennsylvania. He called it the get-out-of-jail free card after the card in Monopoly that allows you to pass through the game more quickly. What we recognized was that our contingent and adjunct instructors who are just coming back from semester to semester, as well as our people who are on the tenure line but not yet tenured, often felt that they had to be very conservative, not take very many risks. And they wanted to do innovative teaching practices, felt perhaps not comfortable doing them as much, or as soon as they wished to do so. So the get-out-of-jail free card, we call that a provost’s letter. We asked our provost to be willing to write a letter that went into somebody’s promotion and tenure packet, or went into somebody’s employment history packet for the adjunct folks, that allowed people to collect, but not have count, the student ratings, any peer observations, anything that was formatively or summatively evaluative of their teaching, for one particular semester, or one particular class where they wanted to do something experimental or take a risk. That provost’s letter, you could apply to do it once every… in our case it was three years when I was in Chicago. And that provost letter changed the academic tenor of the conversation, because people felt that they could take a risk every now and then. And we started to see more people, not only just the faculty members and instructors who were newer to the field, but also those who had been there for a while. It wasn’t so much a case of, “Oh, these new people that are showing me up or they’re taking risks that I would never take.” We saw some of our more seasoned faculty members start saying, “Oh, well, if they can do that, and it actually lowers barriers, not only for the students, but also for me, then I want in on that as well.” And so that was one concrete thing that we’d encourage your listeners, get with your faculty senate, get with your administration, and see if there are ways that you can provide little islands of safety or security for people to do things that might be risky for them in their current roles or in their current progression.

Chavella: I’m thinking about it because I deal with this all the time… the, “What can you do?” Because as we mentioned earlier, I see this ugly endpoint of this. So I see the faculty with marginalized statuses who are about to not be renewed, because they have taken a chance, regardless of whether or not what they did was effective or not, the colleagues are the ones that are gunning for them. Your teaching content is different than what they want. They take offense to that. You’re not lecturing the way that they might do it, like you’re doing something a little bit more active. So they’re gunning for you. And what I would say departments could do that would link back to what Tom was saying a second ago, is you have to have an ally in your department that’s gonna do what I refer to as these collaborative teaching observations, where the person is observing your effectiveness versus judging whether or not you teach exactly like them or not, because that’s a lot of what the review is. So any shift that you can do in a department to get them to realize the evaluation isn’t a matter of… Am I a clone of you or not? And are you actually achieving the things that you have set out to do? Would be an improvement. And honestly, I’m thinking if you even ask the department to ask that question in their evaluation processes, I feel like that might be the punch in the gut that would make them realize, “O-M-G, all we are doing is reproducing ourselves.” I think it would produce a movement that would benefit everybody, not just faculty of marginalized statuses, but any and everybody who’s trying to do great teaching and do a little innovating here and there.

Tom: And that circles us around to one other practical thing that you can do at the department or institutional level. And that is provide anonymity. Get an external group to your institution, bring in an outside consultant, bring in people from another university, and have them offer everybody at your institution, or everybody in your department, an anonymous way to provide feedback about their feelings of safety and their feelings of power in the classroom. You will get an earful. Especially if there’s no way that that information could possibly pass its way back to the department chair’s ear with a name attached to it, you’ll get a much better sense of the comfort and the privilege that people feel that they’re exercising, and the threats, we heard Chavella talk about the force field that many people experience and how it malfunctions a lot. You’ll get a better sense of what your baseline is. And you can start having open and honest conversations. We started this conversation by saying this is an issue that not a lot of people talk about because either A, they don’t feel like they have the power and standing to do so safely. Or conversely, if you’re from a dominant-culture identity, you don’t want to dive in on a conversation like this because you’re afraid that you’re going to say something wrong, you’re going to offend somebody. Here’s the newsflash: You’re going to get it wrong, you’re going to offend a couple of people. It’s still worth having the conversation. And as long as everybody is practicing from a space of goodwill, having that conversation and seeing it as a necessary step toward better diversity, equity, inclusion, and social justice, that’s what we want people to be able to do.

Chavella: And actually, I’ll take what he just said a little bit further, in terms of asking the question of, Is it safe or not? I would say just assume it isn’t. I feel like as academics, we want to do all the climate surveys and the folks that are privileged sort of know in their heart, ‘Oh, nothing bad is going to come out of that.’ Nope, you’re going to find out stuff that you probably aren’t going to want to accept. So in a lot of ways, yes, that’s important to do to get the specific examples from your campus in your department. But in a lot of ways, I say skip that step altogether. Assume that folks do not feel safe. Read the literature, because they’re those of us who write these things. We’re on the margins, right? We’re on the margins in our institutions, we’re on the margins in terms of writing. Read what we’re writing and assume that is going on on your campus and start coming up with solutions for what you see in the literature. So don’t wait until you can identify validated results on whether or not you have that problem or not, just assume that problem is at play and get the solutions going.

Rebecca: Yes, yes, yes. Sign me up. [LAUGHTER]

Chavella: Yes. [LAUGHTER]

John: While I don’t think this would eliminate the problem of bias in student ratings, might it be useful if departments at least reconsidered the questions in their student ratings so that they actually focused on teaching techniques that are demonstrated to be successful? So that at least it would more closely proxy what we’d like. Students may not be able to evaluate how well an instructor is doing something, but perhaps questions such as… Does the instructor provide you with feedback on your work? Are you allowed opportunities for revision? Are you given opportunities to express yourself in multiple ways? To perhaps address some of these issues where we’d like to see faculty moving, and perhaps to overcome some of the resistance. Because if all faculty knew they might be evaluated in sending it relates to effective teaching practices, maybe that could move the needle a little bit.

Chavella: I’m always sort of a one foot in and one foot out on this. I’m like, “Ah, we kind of know they’re broken.” So I’m not sure if that’s really where I want people to expend their energy. I want people to expend their energy fleshing out that image of people’s effective teaching, so it’s not just the student perspective. I don’t know if I would encourage people to do that. And I’m not sure how much you can actually improve the questions. Because even the examples that you just gave, some basic psychology research shows that cross-racial interaction people misattribute. So you’re like, “Oh, did they give opportunities for feedback?” Well, the feedback that students might want from a woman will look very different than the feedback they want from a man. You see what I’m saying? So, like, a male faculty member could give two sentences of feedback. And the students are like, “Great! I got feedback from whoever.” But then when a woman does it, if it’s a woman of color, there’s two sentences, all of a sudden, they expected more so to them that’s not feedback. So even the questions that people come up with to avoid bias at the end of the day, we’re all human, we’re going to see each other through these gender, race, social class lens. So yes, so I agree, I think it should be much more about student learning. But I definitely think that we should expand whose voices are included, in addition to what we’re looking at when it comes to teaching effectiveness.

Tom: Indeed, and don’t even get me started on student ratings. We’ve been yelling at the top of our lungs for the past 42 years, that we know how to do psychometrically valid student writing instruments. And then every college and university says, “Oh, we’re going to do our own.” And so the challenge is we’ve had organizations like the Idea Center that’s now part of a larger corporate entity, they’ve been doing the research on what are questions that students can use for ratings that are as neutral, and single barreled, and psychometrically valid as possible. So I’ll second what Chavella is saying here, and let’s go beyond just the student ratings. We, ideally, would train all of our instructors, to understand psychology, to understand statistics, to understand the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, all those things. But what we hire people for is they’re good chemists, they’re good art historians. So we don’t have enough time, people, money, or effort to be able to bring everybody up to expertise in all of these areas. What I’d much rather see is I’d much rather have three or four big ideas that everybody gets behind, and then they figure out how they’re going to do so in their own circumstances. Rather than trying to make everybody feel like they missed the boat, and they didn’t get training, and therefore, they’re at a beginner level in something. We’ve got experts in our campuses and around us, who can help us with the framing of these kinds of conversations, especially when they’re difficult, perhaps especially because they’re difficult. We should not ourselves need to feel like we need to become miniature overnight experts in how to have conversations about intersectional identity, or race, or gender in the classroom, in order to be able to take some actions that help to support our colleagues, create community, and find good ways to enact policies and practices that enshrine those things in the life of our colleges and universities. Alright, I’ll get off my soapbox now. You get the idea.

John: It’s a good soapbox to be on, though.

Rebecca: I really appreciated thinking about the systemic issues that we need to address and thinking through the institutional and departmental level challenges that we need to get on board with and address. But I don’t want to lose sight of some of the really practical reflection points that were in the article.

Chavella: You know what, though? I was going to say, they’re not disconnected. But I think that people think that because it’s a structural thing, it means we can’t tackle it, it’s going to take like one year of faculty senate meetings and changes the handbook. It doesn’t require that at all. And so I think those structural things are very much still connected to really practical pieces… easy, actionable… you could do it tomorrow, or at least by the end of the week. [LAUGHTER] I know that’s true, because this is what I teach campuses how to do.

Rebecca: That’s a really good point. Chavella, for sure. As I was reading the article, I was reading the student incivility section and just starting to think about the kinds of practices we often recommend around establishing belonging and community and wondering “Hmm, what kind of privilege do I bring to that space?” And so that was a moment of deep self reflection for me that went beyond just the incivility piece, but the sense of belonging that we had been heavily advocating for, especially throughout the pandemic, but obviously before that as well.

Chavella: Honestly, even just hearing you say that means that the article did its work, because that’s the question we want people to ask all the time. I don’t think we want people to ask if or when does my privilege come into play? But assume that it does and figure out: “How does it come into play?” …and then make some adjustments. So what did you come up with? Like I want to know, when you think about the things that you do, like what did you come up with in terms of like how my privilege play into how you do sense of belonging? I don’t mean to put you on the spot, I’m sorry. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Yeah, I’m not sure if I’ve come up with adjustments yet to be honest, I’ve started thinking about the kinds of activities that I do, the ways that I try to include multiple voices, but also the access to the technology I have to be able to do that. The fact that the institution has given me the ability to teach online synchronously during this time, because of my own disability status. I think about how that might change in person, and what kinds of things that I might do differently. And even the kinds of questions that I’m asking, and whether or not other folks would be able to ask the same kinds of questions. I have a lot of technical skill, I teach web design, I have a lot of technical skill. And there’s a lot of privilege just from that position [LAUGHTER] that I bring to my teaching space that many other faculty don’t have. So I’m often very aware that the kinds of things I do are not necessarily things that other people can replicate in other scenarios. They’re really based on the very specific contexts I’m teaching in, my own position in that context and my own expertise in particular areas. But I also know the kinds of things that I shy away from as a female instructor. [LAUGHTER]

Chavella: Right? Exactly. My brain got stuck at what you said at the beginning of it. So even if we think of this as an illustration, just talking about the pandemic, and sense of belonging, a lot of our faculty with marginalized statuses either structurally or institutionally, right, people who are contingent, or folks of color, women, that did not have options about whether or not they could be online or not. And could you imagine being from a community that’s disproportionately affected by the outcomes of COVID-19 in a classroom, with students where you don’t have a lot of power, and then trying to establish a sense of belonging… the actual physical distance that’s required to keep you, your family, and your folks safe. Imagine that being interpreted by students as you having distance, on top of the fact that you’re different from them, they’re already going to perceive distance, regardless of whether that’s there or not. That’s like basic psychology research. So I got stuck there. So I think you’re absolutely right. These are the questions we want people to be asking of themselves, and making adjustments to make sure that not only might your privilege be affecting how you make students belong, but also your colleagues who might be different from you, because then it becomes: “Well, professor so and so does XYZ.” So it’s about being really mindful of what you’re doing, and how that might make your colleagues be perceived as well.

Rebecca: Yeah, definitely. There’s been so many situations where I have definitely acknowledged my privilege. During the pandemic I have stable internet, I have technology, but I’m able to use my camera, I’m not in a situation where it’s unsafe for me to use my camera and my microphone, and all of these sorts of things, and how many other faculty who might be more contingent than myself have had a much more difficult time across many institutions and trying to speak up to get them some of the support that is necessary so that they could function safely. But, also just recognizing that I can’t really imagine what it would be like not to have the privilege that I have. And that’s an important thing to, I think, acknowledge. It’s difficult to imagine that.

Chavella: Yeah, and another thing popped into my mind, this is what popped in my mind immediately before I asked you a question. So sorry about turning it back on you. The idea of a sense of belonging in the classroom, and one of the inclusive teaching practices I teach folks how to do is to have an inclusive teaching statement. But even if people don’t do that, let’s not even talk about that. Let’s just talk about regular scholarship of teaching and learning. And the whole idea that you’re supposed to have guidelines for how you interact in the classroom for the students. Even that… I think that a lot of our faculty with privileged statuses don’t do that, or my version of don’t do that. The way that people do that people say, “Oh, follow the golden rule, or in this classroom, we’re going to treat each other with respect and with civility.” They’re super vague and they’re vacuous. And when you’re a person with a privileged status it means something completely different for you. And when you’re having students who also have privileged statuses, that all means something very different for you. I think, all practices from the rooter to the tooter, essentially, people should be thinking about them in the context of their privileges, but a sense of belonging is absolutely one of them.

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

Tom: I’m thinking about what I’d love your listeners to do next… it is first to do a little listening. Find a way to ask your students, ask your colleagues, ask your administration, questions about how people are supported in the teaching that they do. And then a second action that follows along from that is to determine what kind of action you can take in order to either exercise your own privilege in concert with and communication with other folks, or to find allies who can help you to make an argument for making positive change. So those would be the two things I’d love people to take away from our conversation today.

Chavella: And I would cosign that again. [LAUGHTER] But the “listen” piece, in particular, I would say if by the end of the week, you could find an article or two to read, if you could check out a podcast episode or so… like my podcast is simple and easy to hear about some of these issues. But there are people that are writing about these items. Just learning a little bit about these things on your own and figuring out how you can make slight changes to your practices would make a huge difference. And obviously, I have a book that’s going to be coming out that’s all about all of this, sometime in the near future.

Rebecca: Well, we can’t wait to have you back to talk about it.

Chavella: Yes, I’m looking forward to it. Lots of laughing… that is serious topics sometimes, but I do lots of laughing. [LAUGHTER]

John: Well, thank you. It’s great talking to both of you again, and I think this will cause a lot of people to reflect on their practices and think about how they can be a little bit more inclusive of their fellow faculty members.

Tom: I hope so. Thanks for having us on.

Chavella: Yeah. Thank you so much, y’all. Have a good one.

Rebecca: You too. 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.

John: Editing assistance provided by Anna Croyle, Annalyn Smith, and Joshua Vega.


230. Students Who Are Teachers

Degree programs designed for practicing professionals need to be flexible and adaptive. In this episode, Kathryn Pole joins us to discuss the online master’s program in Literacy Studies at the University of Texas at Arlington. Kathryn is a literacy researcher and teacher educator in the Curriculum and Instruction Department at this institution.

Show Notes


John: Degree programs designed for practicing professionals need to be flexible and adaptive. In this episode we examine one online teacher preparation program.


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 Kathryn Pole. Kathryn is a literacy researcher and teacher educator in the Curriculum and Instruction Department in the College of Education at the University of Texas at Arlington. She is also the Program Coordinator for the online master’s program in Literacy Studies. Welcome Kathryn.

Kathryn: Hello, it’s a pleasure to be here.

John: Our teas today are… Are you drinking tea?

Kathryn: I am drinking tea. I have a black chocolate tea from the Tea and Spice Exchange. It’s good, and it reminded me of Valentine’s Day, and it pairs well with Girl Scout cookies.

Rebecca: Sounds like a good combo. You’re rocking the afternoon.

John: And to put that in perspective, we’re recording this a day after Valentine’s Day. It’ll be released a little bit later.

Rebecca: It sounds like a real tea cup with a real saucer.

Kathryn: That is true. I love real tea cups.

Rebecca: I love it. I have just an English breakfast today, John.

John: And I am drinking ginger peach black tea.

Rebecca: Yum! We’ve invited you here today to discuss the online advanced graduate teacher certification program in Literacy Studies at UT Arlington. Can you tell us a little bit about the program and the students in the program?

Kathryn: Sure, it’s a master’s degree program designed for already practicing teachers. So these are people who are already teaching in the classroom, but they want to become literacy specialists, or instructional coaches, or curriculum developers in literacy. And currently we have about 325 students in an 18-month program. So somewhere about 100 join in the fall semester or the spring semester or the summer. Many of them are from Texas, but some of them are from other places, and we’ve actually had students around the world in our program. And they range from just a year or two of experience up to… some people say, “Oh, I’m bored with teaching, I’ve been teaching the same thing for 25 years.” And so they decide they want to come back and hone their skills so they can apply for a new job. So they’re kind of from all over the place.

John: And I believe you mentioned that this was an entirely online degree program. Could you talk a little bit about why students might prefer an online degree program?

Kathryn: Yeah, so this is an entirely online program. And over the years, we’ve asked students, we’ve done surveys, or asked even informally, why this program appeals to them. And for one thing, they have to be a practicing teacher to be in the program. And so if they had to come to campus for face-to-face classes it would have to be either in the evenings or on weekends. And a lot of them are women and mothers and they have things to do, they have got soccer practices to get their kids to, or just family time, helping with homework, and all of that. And so they don’t really want to come to school in the evenings or on the weekend. And probably the number one reason is that they appreciate the flexibility of when they work, because while we do a little bit of synchronous work, we have office hours. They’re always optional, and students can either come or they can view recordings that we make following those meetings. So they feel like there’s a lot of flexibility. We have very solid deadlines for things. If an assignment is due on a Friday, it’s due on a Friday, but students can work on it at two in the morning if they want, and a lot of them do. We also have a 100% pass rate on our certification exam for those students who end up taking that, the Reading Specialist exam. And I think a lot of them indicate that that’s really appealing. So those are the two big reasons, I guess. The flexibility and then they know that there’s quality in the program. And then some of them come because they know a faculty member in the program that draws them to us.

Rebecca: So I believe the program started in 1998. Can you talk a little bit about how it evolved?

Kathryn: Yeah, it started in 1998, which was well before my time there, but it started out, they used to call it the “TeleCampus” where the instructors would actually go and be filmed reciting lecture notes and things in front of cameras. And then it just evolved into something that is much more flexible and appealing. And so that’s just evolved a lot. At this point it’s online, and it’s mostly asynchronous. And it’s a 10-course program, so a 30 credit-hour program, that students can finish in as few as about 18 months. Each one of those 10 courses has a lead instructor. And that lead instructor’s job is to select the course materials and set up the objectives and map the course and the assessments to the standards that we’re trying to address. And then that person designs the master course shell. We’re using Canvas right now, and so they’ve got a master shell that they designed so we can easily, pretty flexibly move it from the master shell into a live course shell as courses are beginning so people aren’t constantly rewriting courses. They also create the rubrics and the assessments and the course structure and policies. And then we also have support from our Center for Distance Ed. So if an instructor who’s designing a course needs some help with any aspect of designing a course and getting it up and running they can get help from there. And so we do that because it’s more consistent than those old TeleCampus courses where people were just kind of talking on the fly. And we feel like having this lead instructor idea ensures quality across the program. Our courses change, but if we have an adjunct or a graduate student teaching a course, for example, they don’t change the course at all, they teach what’s handed to them, and it’s pretty standardized at that point. And a couple of other changes. When I first took over the leadership of the program, it was a 36 hour program. And then we were told that we had to shorten it to 30 hours by our university. They were looking to shorten all the master’s degree programs. Figuring out, how do you cut two courses without losing content? That’s been a challenge. And then because we’re a teacher ed program, we have certification standards that we have to meet and our state certification agency change their rules pretty often, and maybe they won’t let us know until about the day after they’ve done it. [LAUGHTER] No, it’s not that bad, [LAUGHTER] but sometimes it does catch us a little bit by surprise. We’ve changed to meet that. And then at the university level, we’ve changed our learning management system a few times. Now we’re with Canvas, but we’ve been with Blackboard, and before that there was this TeleCampus structure. So that kind of changes the way things have worked. And then we’ve also changed, not we but our university, has changed the way we collect and archive important documentation. So that has been all over the place. So there have been a lot of changes along the way. And we just do our best to roll with the punches. I think it’s working really well right now. We’ve maintained this 100% pass rate on our exam, and our students are happy, and enrollment is looking good.

Rebecca: So you mentioned having master courses. How many sections do you usually have of each course?

Kathryn: We have one section of each course each semester, so fall, spring, and summer. And so, sometimes there could be 100 students in one section, but they’re divided into smaller groups, so students really only see about 20 classmates. So we put them into smaller groups, and then we have the equivalent of a TA, we call them instructional associates, who lead those smaller groups as far as discussion boards and those kinds of activities. So one section, but broken into smaller pieces.

John: What would a typical semester’s course load be like for a student in this program?

Kathryn: Every semester, a student will take a full semester-long course that is called a practicum. And so there’s learning within that course, but there also are practical pieces that they need to be able to demonstrate by sending video. And so we assess the video, looking for specific things that they can do that demonstrate how they’re meeting our standards. That’s one course that is an umbrella over the semester, either August to December or January to May. And then they also will take two, seven-week courses. They’ll take one seven week course the first half of that time, and then another seven week course, the second part of that time.

Rebecca: So your practicum is interesting, because we typically think about these as being in-person experiences, and you have an online program, and you mentioned video. Are teachers using the classrooms that they’re already teaching in to do their demonstration videos? Or is there a different structure?

Kathryn: So for the most part they use their own classrooms. And because they’re seeking advanced certification, that’s fine. Typically, each practicum has a different focus. The first practicum is on learning best practices within the field of literacy. So they learn what is good reading instruction, and what is good writing instruction. And how do you move students along based on research. And then the second practicum is working with diverse learners. So they might be looking at working with special education students, or students who speak another language than English at home, or some other form of diversity. And then the third practicum is on literacy leadership. And so in that course they actively mentor another teacher or a paraprofessional or someone who is interested in learning more about literacy within their school. And then they also plan for professional development within literacy. And so they’ll lead, maybe, a workshop or another professional development opportunity for teachers in their school. So they create these videos within those practicum courses. And we have instructors, but we also have people called “field supervisors.” Field supervisors are also experts in the field, and their role is to help the student prepare for these practicum videos. And then to eventually analyze them, evaluate them, and then write up a practicum report helping the students grow along the way. So it works really well to do this online surprisingly. We do think about these in-person practicum supervision, but with these videos we have opportunities to go back and look at things and to call attention to something that we want the student to see. It’s like, “Oh, look, here’s something that you did that was really effective,” or, “Here’s something that if you had asked this question a little different way you might have gotten a different kind of answer or a better answer.” So it gives us really good opportunities to work with our students.

John: One issue that might come up with some of the shorter terms is what happens when there’s some type of natural disaster, say a power outage in the middle of winter as happened in February of 2021. How did people adapt to losing power and internet access and so forth and still keep the online courses progressing?

Kathryn: Yeah, so that was a really interesting thing. I live in a part of Texas where we didn’t have power for… I don’t know, 10 days? Like we had power, but we might only have it for an hour, and then we wouldn’t have power for two hours. And so people’s priority wasn’t hopping on to Canvas to get their work done. It was more like, “Oh, how am I gonna cook dinner?” It was a really tough time. And so what our instructors did was, they just stayed in contact with students as best they could, sending emails and messages through Canvas, and letting students know that we weren’t going to ping them for something that completely wasn’t their fault at all. Even other adults, they need a lot of hand holding. Sometimes they think, “Oh no, I’m going to be in trouble. I’m going to get a bad grade because I didn’t do this work,” and we all understood and so we sent those kind of messages. So if there’s a natural disaster—even if it’s not in Texas, maybe it’s a wildfire in California, or a hurricane that hits the East coast—our university is really good at identifying those online students who are most likely to have been impacted, and they’ll send us those names. And so we can match that with emails that we’re getting from panicking students, and just let them know that we understand and we’re as accommodating as we can be. It’s not that they have forever to finish the assignments, but we do give them grace. We’ll give an incomplete if we need to, to let them catch up. That was a challenge. And of course COVID was a whole different challenge, because we had people who were supposed to be doing practicum in schools and their schools were shut down. And so it was the same sort of story, we just said, “You know, we get it. We’re all in the same situation.” And so we gave a lot of grace for that.

John: Now, you also did a study at some point about the times when students were participating in your classes where you looked at the timestamps on their student submissions. Could you tell us a little bit about that?

Kathryn: Yes, another colleague and I, one day we both were talking about how tired we were, [LAUGHTER] and we’re like “Oh, I was up until 11 o’clock working with a student.” And so we thought, ‘Well, I wonder how many of them are actually emailing us, or posting things in Canvas, or trying to get our attention at odd times?’ And so we actually did a study. We requested timestamp data from our Distance Ed office, they were able to pull together all the time stamps that involved students for a period of about two years. And so as we looked at this, we realized there was a really good reason why we were tired, because a lot of our students were logging in and doing work between about 11 o’clock at night and two in the morning, that was a pretty heavy time. And then a lot of them would get up early, and we would see that they were working from 4 a.m. until about 7 a.m. And then, I guess, going on to school. It might not be every day, but it was some days, especially, probably days when assignments were due that evening. They would try to make sure that they had it done in the morning before they left the house. But a lot of our students were working on Saturdays and Sundays, which I guess is to be expected as well. And sort of strange hours then too. Again, early mornings and in the evenings after they were finished with family time. It was very interesting. And so we’ve kind of made a little bit of a shift ourselves, realizing when our students needed us most. I’m not one to be online with my students at 11 o’clock at night, I’m way too tired for that, but I do try to hop online every night between 8:30 and 9:30 or so just to make sure they’re doing okay. And I wake pretty early, and so I’m usually looking at Canvas by about 7:30 in the morning to try to catch those who might have questions in the morning. And also, we’ll hop on Canvas more on Saturdays and Sundays, because we know our students are active and there may be some timely questions. But we’ve also decided… You know what? If I decide to take a nap from one to three, it’s okay, because I’m doing all these other things at different times of day. And I think looking at that has really helped us understand what our students are doing and why it’s important for us to practice self care in this kind of a program as well.

Rebecca: I can imagine. You’ve mentioned family commitments and work commitments of your students. There’s a lot of challenges associated with going to school while you’re a working professional. Are there other challenges that your students have faced or mentioned that you’ve been trying to accommodate in addition to the timing?

Kathryn: There’s always something, you know? [LAUGHTER] Especially now, we’re on the getting better side of it now, but one of the things that was a surprise to us was the impact of COVID. It’s like, well, we knew that they were closing schools, and that that was a disruption. But what we didn’t expect until we started asking students about it and digging deeper into it was that all these other issues, like technology. They were parents whose kids were home all of a sudden instead of being at school and the kids needed to use the computer and their schools were expecting them to be logged in. And maybe that family only had one computer, or maybe if they had two, they had five kids. The parents needed the computer, the kids needed the computer. And so that was a really interesting thing to discover: how much sharing of devices happens in a family. My kids are all grown and they have all their own computers, and so that wasn’t anything that I had to face. But I have a couple of colleagues with younger kids, and they were definitely feeling that as well. But it was a surprise how much device sharing there was. And then also, we realized some of our students were staying at their schools to get their classwork done because they didn’t have internet at home, or they didn’t have stable enough internet at home. And so when their schools were not opened any longer, we found out that they were thinking creatively, I guess. They were going and driving their cars to a McDonald’s or Starbucks and logging into free public Wi-Fi. So those things were challenges and surprises to us. And then just the impact of what it’s like. They’re teaching all day normally, but when it’s your own children, and they’re in your own house, you don’t have quite the same control. And so they were saying, “Well, my kids are just going crazy in my house. If I was at school, I would have everybody at their desk doing work.” And here they were, like, [LAUGHTER] “Oh! Kids.” And also we had students dealing with their own issues. Many of our students reported having COVID themselves or having family members who came down with COVID and they were having to be caretakers. And we had a good number of students and even some of our faculty members who lost a family member to COVID. There’s just a lot of stuff going on. We’ve always got something popping up to deal with and thinking about creative ways to handle it all and keeping people moving along. That’s always an interesting challenge to coordinating a program like this.

Rebecca: Did you find that during COVID, and even now, while these teachers who are also students are handling COVID in their own classrooms, are they using this classroom space or your discussion boards to collaborate and troubleshoot together?

Kathryn: Absolutely. It was fascinating to me to see them because they were sharing. And a lot of instructors, me included, we changed our discussion prompts. Because for a while we were saying, “Okay, well, discuss how guided reading might look in your classroom,” and then all of a sudden it became, “Discuss how guided reading might have looked in your classroom, but now what are you doing in this hybrid, or high flex, or totally online teaching situation?” So they were hopping onto discussion boards, and they were sharing those things, and they were talking about what it was like in their classrooms. And even we as instructors got some really great ideas. It’s like, “Oh, well this might work.” Sharing ideas was a really important piece, but also, this whole sense of built camaraderie. It’s like, “Oh, this is not just me. I am part of this bigger community of people who are trying to find the floor under our feet, while all of this stuff is shifting.” And so they were absolutely doing things like that. They were using the discussion board, I know for sure. They didn’t invite me to it, but they had a Facebook group for second grade teachers who are doing high flex or something. They had several different ways that they were communicating amongst themselves and sharing ideas. And they let me know that they were doing that, and that it was working. So yeah, and I think in a program as big as ours, that was probably one of the more helpful things for them. They got to see what other teachers were doing and what other school districts were doing, or other principals were doing. And some of them would say, “I’m going to tell my principal this.” The things that worked anyway.

John: Now we’ve done some past podcasts where we addressed issues of the emotional pressures put on students or the emotional challenges that our students are facing. We also have talked a little bit on previous podcasts about issues of burnouts among faculty, but the students in your program are kind of getting both sides of that. They’re students working through COVID, and they’re also teachers during COVID. What sort of challenges has that presented for your students?

Kathryn: A lot, even though we’re kind of at this point where we’re almost pretending that COVID is gone, it’s still on our students’ minds. In my county, we’re still seeing 800 or so cases a day, and it’s better than the 4000 we were seeing a few weeks ago, but our students are really feeling this. And I don’t know what the next new thing is going to be because it seems like there’s always something. Probably last year was the hardest because we had both power failures and COVID at the same time, and how do you use technology when you can’t turn on your lights? I think part of the coping that they did was trying to stay in touch with one another and then our faculty being more present than we might have been otherwise, I think we’ve learned to be more present as part of what we learned from that timestamp study. When are our students hanging around? And if we can answer their question 10 minutes after they ask, that’s a whole lot better than making them wait 8 or 10 hours. So I don’t know that there’s a great answer, but I think it has to be something about being present. Both our students being present for one another, which we’ve learned better ways to build into our courses, and then for faculty being more present to our students as well.

Rebecca: You mentioned too, kind of at the top of the episode, about faculty in your program being careful about self care and managing hours and managing time. Could you talk a little bit more about some of those boundaries that you’ve set? And then also the ways that you might be supporting your students in setting some of those same boundaries and finding some similar balance for themselves when they’re taking on quite a bit all at once?

Kathryn: I have a colleague, and I can’t remember exactly how she puts it, but her email signature says something like, “I am responding to this in hours that I have decided are within my work day. Please respond only in those hours that you have decided are within your work day.” And I love that, and I feel like using it on my signature, but I don’t want her to think that I’m stealing it. [LAUGHTER] But I think it’s really important that we do set those boundaries, but at the same time being present. And so being present doesn’t mean being present 24/7. It means being present in those times when our presence is the most helpful. And so we know for sure that our students are not typically working in our courses between 9 a.m. and noon. They might hop on during lunchtime for a little bit, and then they’re not usually in our courses working between one in the afternoon and three or four in the afternoon. And so if we’re going to adjust our schedules, and run our errands, and do those kinds of things, that might be a good way for faculty to think about their use of time. When are the times that we’re most helpful to our students? And when are the times that are best for us to take care of ourselves? And so I think we’re all still working, probably, more than eight hours a day, because that’s just kind of the nature of our work and that’s our passion as well. But we’re not feeling like we have to work all day and late into the night and all weekend, the way that we first thought that we needed to in order to be that presence that our students needed. Did that answer your question?

Rebecca: Yeah, the second part was thinking about supporting your students and also finding balance.

Kathryn: So we also give our students a calendar so they know exactly when things are due. And we typically have them due at some time that is… you know, if they like working at night, we might have something due at 6 a.m. or something like that, just so that those people who want to work at two in the morning can get it done. And so we think about those kinds of things. And we let our students know that the entire course is released at the beginning of the term. And so they can see everything, they can start reading ahead if they want and working ahead if they want. Other than discussions that need to be relatively live within a week’s period of time, they can still prepare in advance if they need to. And if they anticipate something, if their school is having some particularly busy or stressful week, they’re free to work ahead and move things off their plate. And we encourage those kinds of things. And then also, another piece of it is just, again, faculty reminding students that we’re human, and we get it and if things come up, just keep communicating with us and letting us know so that we can be of the most help to them as well.

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

Kathryn: Oh, we have so many different directions to go. I’m working with a group of colleagues from across the country, about eight different universities in eight different states. And we’re looking at the impact of COVID and beyond. What can we pull out of what we’ve learned from COVID to help refine online teacher education courses? Because there’s a lot there I think. And as we look at it, we find more and more interesting things to analyze. And so we’re working right now on getting that more refined and getting that information out. And then our programs themselves are constantly being refined. We’re looking at new state standards soon and other issues that just pop up. And so keeping in touch with our students and figuring out what’s going to be the next new things that we learn to support them and to keep them moving along, I think that’ll be part of the next steps as well. So there’s kind of no shortage of where to go.

Rebecca: It’s kind of the biz that we’re all in. [LAUGHTER]

Kathryn: Right! [LAUGHTER] Yeah, I think so. These are such interesting times, because we don’t know. I keep reading all these different opinions on whether or not COVID will be over pretty soon, or whether the next new wave is coming. Just thinking about what’ll happen in the future that’s outside of our control, and then figuring out ways to mitigate that in ways that we can control, I think that’s gonna be really important. I don’t think that higher education is going to ever look like it did four years ago. I think that’s gone.

John: Whatever happens with the pandemic, I think we’ve experimented a lot in higher ed, and I think there’s a lot of lessons we can take away. We’ve observed a lot of things that were hidden in the past from faculty as students moved into working from home with very different technology and so forth. So I think you’re right that we are going to see some pretty substantial permanent changes. What they are though is open to discussion, and so your study could be helpful in helping to shape that, perhaps.

Kathryn: Yeah, and some of these things will be decided at levels above our heads. State boards of regents and university administrations will make some of these decisions, but figuring out what it means to be faculty in these programs and then getting everything to align right so that we’re doing the best job for our students I think is going to be really important.

Rebecca: Definitely. Well thank you so much for sharing some of your insights and experiences with us.

Kathryn: You are so welcome. I’ve enjoyed talking to you both.

John: Thank you. It’s great talking to 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.


John: Editing assistance provided by Anna Croyle, Annalyn Smith, and Joshua Vega.


229. Inclusive History

Most history textbooks provide a narrative that is filtered through the lens of the dominant culture. In this episode, Vanessa Holden joins us to discuss how the study of history can be enriched by including a wider variety of voices and perspectives in historical narratives and in our classrooms. Vanessa has a dual appointment in both the Department of History and the program in African American and Africana Studies at the University of Kentucky. Her research focuses on African American women in slavery in the antebellum South, the history of resistance and rebellion, gender history, and the history of sex and sexuality. Vanessa is the author of many scholarly publications, including the recently published Surviving Southampton: African American Women and Resistance in Nat Turner’s Community. During the 2021 academic year, she was selected to be the inaugural Distinguished Visiting Scholar at SUNY Buffalo’s Center for Diversity Innovation.

Show Notes


John: Most history textbooks provide a narrative that is filtered through the lens of the dominant culture. In this episode, we explore how the study of history can be enriched by including a wider variety of voices and perspectives in historical narratives and in our classrooms.


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 Vanessa Holden. She has a dual appointment in both the Department of History and the program in African American and Africana Studies at the University of Kentucky. Her research focuses on African American women in slavery in the antebellum South. Her areas of interest are the history of resistance and rebellion, gender history, and the history of sex and sexuality. Vanessa is the author of many scholarly publications, including the recently published Surviving Southampton: African American Women and Resistance in Nat Turner’s Community. During the 2021 academic year, she was selected to be the inaugural distinguished visiting scholar at SUNY Buffalo’s Center for Diversity Innovation. Welcome, Vanessa.

Vanessa: Hi, happy to be here.

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

Vanessa: I’m not. I’m drinking water. I’m a coffee person, I’m sorry.

Rebecca: So you got the water, you got the coffee, all right, all right. As John always says, that’s our most favorite tea on the podcast. [LAUGHTER] How about you, John?

John: I’m drinking iced tea today for a change. Because it’s such a nice, warm, wintry day here with a blizzard going on outside.

Rebecca: Hey! It’s in the 30s, it’s a heat wave.

Vanessa: Oh, that’s like beach weather in Oswego.

Rebecca: Totally.

Vanessa: Yeah.

Rebecca: And I’m drinking cinnamon spice black tea today.

Vanessa: Ooh!

Rebecca: It’s very warming, kind of the opposite of John’s situation.

John: So we’ve invited you here today primarily to discuss your work on inclusive teaching. But first, could you tell us a little bit about Surviving Southampton and the research that you’ve been doing that led up to this book?

Vanessa: Sure. So Surviving Southampton is about America’s most famous slave rebellion, what historians often call Nat Turner’s Rebellion, but I’m really keen to assert should be called the Southampton Rebellion. Mostly because that’s what the people who lived there and lived through it called it. And that’s mostly what it was referred to until historians got a hold of it in the 20th century. And what I do for an event that’s been written about, almost since it happened is I actually just asked the question: How were women and children involved in this really important moment of violent resistance? And of course, when I started to look for women in the archive, I was led to a number of other communities of people in Southampton County who’ve been mentioned, but largely understudied and not looked at. So I do have a chapter that specifically deals with enslaved women. But I also look at free people of color in the county—Southampton County, Virginia had the third highest population of free people of color at the time in Virginia. I look at children and children’s involvement and resistance. And I really center survival not just as endurance. We use the word survivor to mean somebody who endured a natural disaster, a crisis, a tragedy, but it’s also a word we use for the bereaved. So if you’ve read a death announcement, or see a notice on Twitter, it sometimes will list who the deceased is survived by. So I also take time to look at the ways that African Americans were rebuilding systems of resistance, even as trials were happening for rebels, really violent backlash to the rebellion was happening. So even in the midst of really the most oppressive moments of the slave regime, black people were strategizing about how to continue to resist slavery. And really, women are at the center of that labor of survival.

Rebecca: These narratives are often not discussed, especially K12 but also at the college level. How do we start bringing these voices in more? Obviously, your book is helping with this, but how else can we start doing this?

Vanessa: Yeah, I am a very public-facing scholar. I work a lot with public history projects and community groups, and have a real heart for working alongside K-12 teachers. I’m convinced that they’re all geniuses, that they take on mammoth feats every single day in the classroom. And really through my work with the digital humanities project Freedom on the Move, which is based at Cornell right now, but we have a team of scholars who are at universities all over the country. The project’s main goal is to find and digitize every extent runaway slave ad. Right now we’ve got about 44 or so thousand ads in the digitized archive, and a little over 10,000 have been fully transcribed. But through that project, I’ve had the opportunity to work with teaching hard histories and work with focus groups of K-12 teachers, and really hear how impactful dealing with these particular sources can be for K-12 students. That learning about the history of slavery from the point of view of people who were resisting slavery, reading thick descriptions of folks who were fleeing to find family members or striking out for freedom really transforms the way that students are able to access what is and should be a very difficult, painful history. And also thinking about really age-appropriate ways to approach that history, that often students can find people their age who are listed as fleeing from slavery. And that really helps them think through, at an age-appropriate way, the real injustice of slavery and the dehumanizing nature of enslavement while acknowledging moments of resistance and, really, triumph of humanity. So I think some key ways that I’ve seen educators who work with K-12 students bring this history to them is highlighting the ways that people their age experience these difficult histories, and giving them a chance to work with primary sources, to go to the documents, work with them to get through some of the stilted 19th century language to get at experience that hasn’t been interpreted for them that they can really exercise their interpretive skills to understand better.

Rebecca: I love the hook of finding a way to connect. And doing that through finding people of the same age is such a great idea.

John: Have you or this project done any work in having some of the students do some of those transcriptions?

Vanessa: So yes, and that has been a key part of one of the branches of developing the project, is thinking through the accessibility of our crowdsourcing platform. So right now, Freedom on the Move is a crowdsourced database, anybody can log in to freedomonthemove.org, create an account and begin transcribing, or pulling information out of the ads—what data scientists would call coding data, but what historians would call really mining sources for information. And we’ve run into a couple of interesting things working with educators, because the team initially was only researchers. And we sort of imagined that there would be classroom applications. And we’ve really learned from this misstep of not having educators involved from the very beginning. Because, of course, the things that researchers care about are not the things that are most useful in the classroom. And the transcription platform is built for an educated adult public, you don’t have to be a specialist to do the transcription by any means. But there’s a real difference in what, say, sixth graders can read and understand and transcribe, and what someone who is an adult can read and transcribe and understand. One thing that we were pushed to do actually was, and this really was an educator critique, was create a glossary. Because, of course, these documents from the late 18th through the 19th century include racial terms. And we have advertisements in the archive from Spanish speaking areas, from French speaking areas, from English speaking areas. And these racial terms are archaic. They’re considered offensive and racist now, and also students have little or no familiarity with them. And so one of the ways that we had to really provide educators with a tool they could point to, to help students understand this language, understand its context, understand why we don’t use it now, involved us going back and doing the work of writing out a glossary of terms with, really, annotations for how to best understand why enslavers are using the language that they’re using. To get students and user participants to critique the documents, read the documents with a critical eye that these are things produced by enslavers about enslaved people, it’s not the way they maybe would’ve described themselves. So finding both subtle and overt ways to cue in participants, and also teach critical skills, interpretive skills at the same time. So there’s a lot of intellectual work that goes into these sorts of projects. But ultimately, I think it helps students really engage with the sources in really fruitful ways. And we’ve had educators take this in all sorts of directions, to creative lessons, to lessons where students are writing bound poems using the ads and really attending to the emotional affect of this material. Instead of shying away from the fact that this is difficult, leaning in and saying, “Yeah, it should be difficult. And let’s actually do the care work of processing what’s difficult.”

John: Many textbooks, though, do not take this approach, where they leave those voices entirely out. What sort of harm is done to students, when there are these glaring omissions in history?

Vanessa: You know, there’s like a whole series of podcasts you all could do on the textbook industry, and how textbooks happen, and what is and isn’t allowed. And of course, we’re living in a contemporary moment where what reading materials are provided to, particularly K-12 students, where they’re being deeply scrutinized. There are a new wave of bans on materials. And interestingly, a lot of those revolve around the language of discomfort. And I think often the way that issues like racism, sexism, ableism, classism can be approached is with the language of emotion and feelings. So particularly very young people, it’s explained to them, “Oh we don’t use these words that are racist, because they’ll hurt someone’s feelings.” And sure, yes, feelings are a part of that. But the other reason we don’t use these racist terms, it’s not just that it might hurt someone’s feelings, it’s that those terms dehumanize someone. And when that happens, that opens the door for very real violence, and very real physically, financially, materially detrimental consequences. The first step actually is that language, but it’s the steps that follow that language that are the issue. And so I think sometimes, because so much can get wrapped up in only dealing with the first piece, when it comes to feelings, the other pieces get maligned. So then it becomes about well, nobody should ever feel bad ever. And a lot of times that I’ve talked to my own students who often, even at the college level, they’re encountering these sources for the very first time, they’re encountering an in-depth discussion of American slavery for the very first time, some of them have never really heard in any detail the types of violence that were involved in American slavery, that just are omitted, they sort of know slavery was bad and that’s where the lesson stopped. I give them a moment to pause before we really get into the semester and I just acknowledge that this is really difficult material to read and to process. That they’re going to learn about things that they haven’t learned about before, and they’re going to have a feeling about it. And then I say that that’s actually pretty great, because that actually just means they’re human. They shouldn’t learn about the Middle Passage or slave auctions or physical violence, and just be sort of okay with it, or have no emotional response to that. Then in those moments when they’re having an emotional response, that’s just a moment where they are being empathetic human beings. So at those moments where a student learns something that makes them uncomfortable, learns something that ignites an emotional response. It could be sadness, it could be anger, it could be disbelief, it could be a little bit of denial, it could be a whole range of things. That’s actually a moment to pause and acknowledge your own moment of really human empathy, your moment of discomfort. And then to push forward that, “Oh, this is the place where I actually should be paying attention. That, here’s the point at which I’m learning things I didn’t know before. Here’s the point at which I haven’t experienced that before.” I also like to do an exercise that involves watching an episode of Colonial House. Are you both familiar with the series from PBS?

John: I am not.

Rebecca: No.

Vanessa: It’s an early reality television series where they get people to agree, I don’t know how they get them to agree to this, but they get them to agree to live using only materials and technology for a particular historical period for a summer. And then they film them and find out what happens if a bunch of modern people go pretend it’s the 1630s. So there’s this great episode of Colonial House where the overwhelmingly white participants are upset because churning butter is really hard and the corn isn’t coming in. And it turns out building a colony in 1630s Massachusetts isn’t so great, and it’s pretty smelly, and difficult or whatever. And then some Wampanoag people who are descendants of the original inhabitants of the Cape in Massachusetts show up in their traditional clothing. And their point of view of this experiment is very different than the participants. The participants are there thinking they’re doing this educational thing with their kids, even though it’s hard, they have a really positive perspective about what they’re doing. And when the Wampanoag show up, some of them are moved to tears, the way that they’re viewing this little re-enactment experiment is deeply emotional, and deeply hurtful. And they make the point to the participants, you know, “You’re out here playing, but you’re re-enacting this moment, this kind of point of no return for people like us where we were about to lose our homelands, we were about to lose everything.” So I have students engage with a form they’re really familiar with, reality television, before they’re engaging with each other around these topics. And we kind of talk through how this is an iconic period in American history, the Colonial Period. And Americans throw around that word “colonial” like it’s a type of architecture or a type of clothing. Americans don’t really think about it as a system of oppression, even though a key moment of our history is throwing off colonial rule. And we talk about it, it’s the exact same experience. The people who are playing colonists aren’t there with evil intentions, they think this is like a summer learning thing. And they’re confronted with a community of people who can look at the exact same thing, and say, “No, this is actually really harmful. And here are all these things you haven’t thought about at all.” And it creates a really helpful moment because, of course, in an African American history course we’re going to talk about the American Revolution, we’re going to talk about the American Civil War, we’re going to to talk about westward expansion, we’re going to to talk about all sorts of moments that they probably have watched movies about, they’ve maybe read really celebratory accounts of, or just accounts that are just like, “Well, that was just meant to happen, that people moved westward, that just happened. And moving on.” That doesn’t account for other people’s experiences. So it gives them a moment to look around the room and say, “Oh, I might be sitting next to someone for whom a moment in American history that I’ve always thought was celebratory for them is actually a horrible thing to remember. And it involves all these other dimensions that they just have never been asked to think about before.” And so give students a moment because, of course, some of the people on the show get really defensive. And so rather than have them start to learn difficult things and get defensive with each other, they can actually talk about these people on the TV. So we get a lot of that out of the way before we get to, “Okay, now you’re reading a slave narrative, and you’re learning really horrible things. And you see some place names you recognize, when you get into it.” Now, we have this common text to come back to and say, “Oh, there are different ways to remember this. There are different perspectives about what exactly happened. And the version I learned has particular consequences.”

Rebecca: I really love the idea of having something to try on that conversation without it feeling like it’s actually a conversation about you. It’s safe to have a conversation about something that’s not you, like the TV show, as a way to work through those ideas, and deal with some of those emotions that you were talking about that certainly come up that make you be defensive about certain topics, potentially. I love that you have that grounding and shared moment with each other. I’m sure it actually helps make everything else be far more productive during the semester.

Vanessa: I mean, there’s a great moment where one of the participants says, “Oh, I never thought that I was being an imperialist.” And then inevitably a student of mine will say, “The name of the show is Colonial House. [LAUGHTER] Like, what did you think?” So then he kind of really gets it like, “Oh, you’re using these terms to describe, I don’t know, buckle shoes and funny hats and architecture, but you’re not thinking about, ‘Oh, I’ve re-enacting a process of incurring on other people’s lineage.’ Like, that’s what I’m re-enacting.” It’s not just churning butter. It is a lot of butter turning, but it’s not just that. [LAUGHTER]

John: I also really like that approach of letting people look at it through this third-party lens. We’ve talked about that in some other situations, where that’s really effective when their own personal emotions and feelings are not put at stake in the same way. But I imagine some difficult conversations will come up during your class. How do you help prep students to deal with those issues when someone is offended by something that someone else says because they weren’t considering other perspectives?

Vanessa: I try to… and this is some work that I do in the first few weeks before students, I think, are even really aware, because the first few weeks of class are all about setting the stage, not just material that they need to know, but also practices that I want them to engage in throughout the semester. So I begin to set up early a culture of common texts for the class. So that first documentary clip screening that I show, it becomes a common text. It’s the first day of classes, sometimes they think, ‘This is just a throwaway exercise,’ or ‘Dr. Holden is just trying to engage us or whatever.’ But I start to build into this culture of, we have common texts in this course that we go back to. Part of learning in my field, at least historical methodology, is work with historical sources. So I begin to build piece by piece that in this class, it’s less about you talking about your own opinions about things, and more about us discussing common sources and common texts. So I’ve had, of course, a number of situations. Sometimes it’s students speaking without thinking. Sometimes they are in the middle of having an emotional response to something, dnd so what comes out of their mouth hasn’t taken into account all the other things we’ve read. Sometimes though, I’ve actually had a couple situations a lot earlier in my career, where students are just trying to test me or test my knowledge or see if they can knock me off kilter a little bit by saying something just outrageous just to see if I’m going to take the bait or engage. And typically what I do is turn the whole class back to the common texts. So I had a student once make a really disparaging comment about a group of Thai immigrants who were actually being forced to do unfree labor in Hawaii on pineapple plantations, because we were talking about contemporary cases of unfree labor and slavery. And the student just off the cuff said, “Well, these people aren’t Americans, why should we even care about them?” Which immediately resulted in gasps for the rest of the class. And so I said, “Well, let’s answer that question. Okay, this half of the class go back to this document, this piece of the class go to this document, and this piece of the class go to this document, let’s interrogate this. A: Why aren’t these people Americans? How is it that people who are not Americans are ending up in this labor situation? B: What is the landowner getting from this? And C: What connections can we make? Why should we care?” And this took the wind out of this particular student’s sails, because I think they really hoped I was going to really go in and yell at them or say something out of pocket. And instead, it was up to their classmates. And what came out of that, A: Really made clear that the class as a whole was not going to accept this. And B: Got students back into the documents in a way that felt way more immediate, I think, than it would have if they felt like, “Oh, clearly everybody in class with us agrees that this is horrible.” And it also set up some expectations for appropriate ways to handle disagreements in class. I do that a lot. Teaching the American Civil War here in Kentucky is always interesting, because the Commonwealth did not secede from the Union. But it’s a very contentious topic. And what folks often know is what family members have told them or things they read themselves in historical fiction or more pop historical texts. And seeing the primary documents for the first time can be kind of startling with just how explicitly racist people of the 19th century really were. And so I found myself in a number of situations making clear, we’ve got to go back to the sources. And I’ll say this, my subject position in the classroom is something that I have to be very aware of, as a woman, as a person of color. Sometimes students expect somebody like me at the front of an African American history course or an African American studies course. But when I’ve taught broad U.S. courses, I’m not who they think is going to teach them American history. And it would be silly for me to not be aware of that. But oftentimes, that means my pedagogical practice has to be really transparent, I have to be really clear. This is what I’m asking you to read, this is why I’m asking you to read it, and this is what outcome I expect for there to be. And some students are surprised that I’m that transparent about pedagogical practice. But in a time and place where student evaluations are as biased as the research tells us, I think it’s really, really important.

John: This might be a good place to transition into a discussion of inclusive teaching practices. And one aspect of that might be that sort of transparency about what you’re doing in class and why you’re doing it. Could you talk a little bit about your philosophy of teaching and how you go about creating an inclusive environment in your classroom? Some of that has come through already, but what are some other specific steps you might take?

Vanessa: Sure, I approach my classrooms as a collaborative space. Of course, there’s a power differential, and my job as a professor is different than students’ jobs as students. But I find that, actually, the more transparency, the better. So clearly laying out expectations, but also being really clear about what my expectations for myself are. So students are often surprised that I’m pretty upfront, “Here are the ways that I am available to you. And here are the ways that I can help you outside of those hours I’m not available to you.” Modeling healthy boundaries around what is my obligation to this course, allows them the leeway to say, “Oh, one of the things I need to do is set up what my boundaries are around my coursework.” [LAUGHTER] I’m very clear. I don’t expect that you are only thinking about my class all the time. So you should just know that that’s not an expectation I have for myself. So let’s talk about the times when I am thinking about this course. Beyond that, I offer them as expansive a menu as possible of inclusivity policies. And I think when students think about accommodation in class, they often think only of visible disability and that’s it. And so in my syllabi, in my first day of class presentation, I make super clear that anybody can be eligible for accommodation, and the ways to go about advocating for that for themselves, that there are processes involved. So I mention everything from care responsibilities, I have a number of students who are parents, I mention military service, I have a number of students who are in ROTC, or they’re in the National Guard. I talk to athletes in my classes. I talk to students who may be figuring out for the first time that they have learning needs that are now becoming apparent in their first year of college, they just, it hasn’t been diagnosed, it hasn’t been looked into, tested, treated, all those things, and then give them all the resources I possibly can to access those services. And I’ll say that it actually lends itself to really good classroom management, because it opens the door for students to talk to me early and often. I can’t tell you how many times I have students who are parents that are surprised that I note care responsibilities, particularly for young children. And I just say, “Look, as your professor, obviously I can’t help you with the direct physical care of your children. But when a two year old has an ear infection, they have an ear infection. So here are ways you can get in touch with me, here’s how we work on how your assignments work. This is something you can bring up to me as a mitigating circumstance for assignments.” I also bring a sense of, and this is where common texts come in too, that nobody’s joining the course because they know everything that we’re going to cover already. That everybody is at a space of learning and a space of growth. That this classroom is an opportunity to ask questions, it’s an opportunity to sometimes get things wrong, it’s an opportunity to be called in about various prejudices you’ve never really interrogated before. And to really set up the expectation that what’s important is not that you know all the right things to say every single time. But what’s important is that you’re open to learning, and that you’re open to understanding. And I think that setting up that environment as collaborative is really important. That it’s as much about the questions that they ask as the lecture terms that I talk about. To really be clear that students have agency in their own learning process. And some catch on, and some lean in and some don’t, that’s just the nature of classrooms. But affording them that agency then has resulted in some really fascinating takes on the material I have to cover.

Rebecca: So one of the things that you’re describing, Vanessa, is in your classes, students are doing history, right? [LAUGHTER]

Vanessa: Yeah.

Rebecca: No matter who they are, they’re doing the practice of history, because they’re looking at primary documents and things. But we also know that there are students who may not come to a particular class or a discipline because they don’t see themselves represented or people like them representing the field. How do we help to bring students in through the door, and also keep them there, so that we do have a wider perspective in each of our disciplines?

Vanessa: I feel like I’m really fortunate because I end up with, at least in my African American history courses, I end up with a pretty self-selecting population. So, typically, I end up with students who already have some subject interest in African American history. So they’re not particularly surprised, for example, that we’re going to talk about slavery at some point. In my general American courses, then that can be a little hit or miss. But in my AFAM courses, students tend to, like I said, expect somebody who looks like me at the front of the classroom, expect to talk about these issues. Something that I find is that students often arrive on campus with a pretty limited view of what’s available on university campuses. There are some majors that have professions directly related to them. So they know if I go pre-med, then I’m going to become a doctor. That’s a thing. I know what that is. If I major in history, there’s less of a clear, professional path. And that’s true with a lot of the majors that are available on university campuses. And we know from this side of the desk, like, “Oh, no, there are all these applications for all these different types of inquiry. They’re all these different ways to think about the world.” But students often are just trying to figure it out. And I just find a lot that students don’t realize what can be known, if that makes sense. They’ve taken history courses, because they have to in high school. They can be pretty cursory. And that’s not the fault of educators, it’s often the fault of a whole other set of mitigating things like standardized testing schedules and what textbooks are available and these sorts of things. I know I was told frequently growing up that the kinds of things I was interested in in U.S. history, just couldn’t know them. They just weren’t knowable. There were no sources for that. So I think sometimes when I go to these major fairs, or I’m trying to reach students at our black students center and say, “You know, you could take whole courses on this.” Some of it is just about showing up in spaces where students are already, being visible on campus. I’ve gotten more interest in my classes just walking through the classroom building and having students say, “Wait a second, who are you and what do you teach? I didn’t even know that there were black professors in the history department.” Meanwhile, we have like eight tenured black professors in our history department. So not just assuming that students know what’s available to them. I also think there’s something to be said for university advising. This is different at every institution, but the sorts of courses that advisors are slotting students into sometimes has way more to do with whatever the core curriculum demands. So for example, now that my African American History course to 1865 is part of our core curriculum, I know that that’s going to get that course in front of the eyes of way more students, and students who would have self-selected into the course, had it been part of that core. And so I also think that there’s something to be said for really solid intro course teaching, because that’s the place where you can really capture students’ interest and give them a sense of what’s available to them.

Rebecca: It’s also the place where we often rely on part-time faculty, it’s a different experience, often at the first year, not always, but that happens more often than not that introductory classes may be taught by faculty who aren’t there all the time, or who are new to the field. And not that that’s a bad thing, necessarily, but it’s not always engaging students with the people they might be working with as they go through all four years.

Vanessa: Well and I think students have really very real and understandable considerations. I know at my institution, a lot of our students, they’re very career minded. We have a number of students who come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, they do not have the extra funds to just play around in elective courses, they’ve got to get things done. I get it, I understand. I’m not going to disparage them for that. That makes a lot of sense. So sometimes the kind of exploratory moment of, “Well, who’s in what department? Do I see myself in this? Is there a way that I can learn the histories that apply to me?” That’s not the priority. And I get it. I think, as a faculty member, and I’ve talked to my colleagues about this too, what we want to pivot and do, really, with real intention is find ways for us to serve students better with the kinds of offerings we make. And that has meant actually putting in the time and the paperwork to make sure that our courses fulfill particular requirements. We’re in our first couple of years of having an African American Africana studies major at U.K. We had a minor for a while, and now we have the critical mass of black faculty to really provide an Africana course progression in the history department. And so these things really do matter. And I think as faculty, that’s also something to think about when we’re advocating. I’ve seen, I don’t know how many job ads for scholars of color, for research areas around minoritized people, and that’s fine. But it really does take more than one person to step in. To really serve a student population, you really have to have a whole constellation of folks. And so tackling issues of diversity and inclusion on this side of the desk are super essential to tackling those issues for our students.

Rebecca: So I’ll be your next student, I’m going to sign up. This sounds like a really good course to take. [LAUGHTER] I’ll be moving.

John: I was thinking throughout this that Vanessa and I worked at the Duke University Talent Identification Program for several years, and I never got a chance to sit in on any of her classes. And I was just thinking, I wish I could do that now.

Vanessa: Oh, man, I was a baby. He met me when I was a rising junior in college.

John: At first, but I think you also did it into graduate school, didn’t you?

Vanessa: Oh yeah, yeah and I did teach some of my own courses, which was a lot of fun. It’s always fun in the humanities, because it’s this area that I found students, particularly students who are slotted into the gifted track, they end up doing STEM things, sometimes the social sciences, sometimes, but they found the humanities challenging in ways I don’t think they expected because you can’t evaluate them in the same way. And they were just so much fun. So much fun to work with.

John: Now, you went to SUNY Buffalo in 2020, as this visiting scholar. It may not have been the greatest time to be able to do as much outreach and meet quite as many people. Could you talk a little bit about your experience at the start of this pandemic?

Vanessa: Sure. So a couple interesting things that were just happenstance because, of course, we couldn’t have possibly seen any of those coming, except for in a broad sense that like pandemics are possible. But what that would even look like most people didn’t really think about. So two things. So in 2018, I agreed to develop an online course for African American Studies, as a part of a graduate certificate program in diversity and inclusion. It’s an accelerated course that runs for eight weeks. And it’s exclusively online and asynchronous. And so back in 2018, I said, “Oh, yeah, yeah, I would do that.” I developed it over the summer of 2019. And then ran it for the very first time spring semester 2020. And ironically, it wrapped up right at spring break, just in time for everything to shut down. And then the other course I had was full of senior seminar papers that now they couldn’t leave their houses, let alone go to archives, it was a complete mess. So I have this completely online course. I did all of this work, thinking through asynchronous pedagogy and thinking through… How would I cover an intro to African American studies that quickly? How do I make sure that the rigor is at a graduate level, but also accessible to undergraduates? And I put in all this time and work. And now for the first time since then, I’m actually going to teach that course the second half of this semester. But I’ll be interested to see for students what the differences are, because initially with the course, actually, the learning curve for students was pretty steep. I think there’s an assumption that students, at least before this pandemic, there is this assumption that students just are born with devices in their hand, and they just automatically know how to use whatever random teaching platform exists. Honestly, this move to more online teaching, or even platforms like Blackboard or Canvas. What you make available on those platforms, there’s a whole sharp learning curve for students, they don’t necessarily know the functionality of the Canvas website, and they don’t know where to find things. And you really have to teach them to use the course, if that makes sense. And so I’ll be interested to see if there’s any difference now that the students that I’ll most likely have in this course will have had, at least part of their education has happened online, remotely during the pandemic. I’ll be interested to see if they’re more adept at it, or if it feels too demanding, because it’s assuming conditions of a different time and place. So we’ll see. It’s designed to be really, really flexible, because it was designed for people who this is the one thing that they’re doing this semester towards their certificate, and they might have a full time job or whatever. The other thing about the start of this pandemic is in 2019, I got invited to apply for this program at Buffalo. I moved to the University of Kentucky from another institution. So even though I was going up for tenure, I wasn’t eligible for sabbatical yet. So I knew that if I wanted some time away, I had to go find the funds somewhere else. So this was a great opportunity. Looked like a great time to get involved in a different intellectual community. And I knew western New York was gorgeous. And it was like, “Yeah, this will be wonderful.” And then the pandemic happened. [LAUGHTER] So I moved up to Buffalo and I spent time in Buffalo and came back and forth to Kentucky. It’s actually only eight hours by car between the two places. You know this but Buffalo’s about as far west as you could get without being in Canada. And yeah, Buffalo is such a cool city. And I got to experience none of that. [LAUGHTER]

Vanessa: I did eat wings while I was there, and they are better. They’re different there than they are other places. And I had a lot of great colleagues. But there just wasn’t the opportunity for the kinds of collegial bonding or collaboration. My cohort was wonderful. And I was putting the finishing edits on my book. It was really good for me to have that time out of the classroom, sort of dodged dealing with early pandemic stuff. I will also say that New York’s approach to the pandemic, very different than Kentucky’s. Initially in Kentucky, we had a lot of really common sense measures around safety in the pandemic. And that eroded pretty quickly in ways that New York was way more cautious. City of Buffalo was way more cautious, for example I had to quarantine for 14 days every time I left the state and came back and I experienced two different types of availability of testing. In Kentucky we had really good testing really quickly. Experiencing the pandemic and two very different states was a little bit of reality whiplash. I felt like I was beaming down to a new planet each time I would go from place to place. And then I experienced that again, just this fall, I gave a talk at my graduate alma mater at Rutgers and I got off the plane in New Jersey, it was like I was on a different timeline where the pandemic was still happening, versus Kentucky where very few people wear masks in public and mandates are few and far between. So it’s been a wild ride. It was a really weird time to have a fellowship like that. I think I still got quite a bit out of it. And I enjoyed my time up in Buffalo. I really wish that it had been a non-pandemic time. And I did get to go to Rochester and see Susan B. Anthony’s house and Frederick Douglass’s grave. So I felt like I got to have my one big field trip, but I’d have been doing a lot more field tripping had I been there any other time.

Rebecca: Definitely a weird time to be doing things. [LAUGHTER]

Vanessa: Yeah, just figuring out travel in general. We had pretty early access to vaccines in Lexington, and so I was vaccinated relatively early, but New York did not. So I would go from an area where the city has really high vaccination rates to then New York where they just were not available yet.

John: Interesting times.

Rebecca: Yeah, definitely.

Vanessa: I told my students sort of jokingly, “History is way more fun to study than to live through.” [LAUGHTER] We’re all ready for some precedented times. It turns out, yeah, living through a historic global pandemic, not fun, not a fun time. And they all chuckled. That’s why I always sort of scratch my head when people find out I’m a historian and they ask me, “Oh, well, what time period do you want to live in?” And I’m like, “Oh, yeah, no I’m good. We’ve got enough going on right here. Yeah, I’m good.”

Rebecca: Well, we always wrap up by asking, What’s next?

Vanessa: So it is been since the 1930s, that we’ve had a synthetic work about slavery in Kentucky. And so currently, I’m the Director of the newly started Central Kentucky Slavery Initiative. It’s a project to both tell the black history of our university from its founding in 1865 to present, and a multipronged research initiative to study slavery in the bluegrass. So we’re working on a history of African Americans in Bourbon with one of our partners right now. We’re working to make some public documents more accessible to community members. In collaboration with and partnership with our local county clerk’s office. We have a number of research projects going on African American contributions to the University of Kentucky. And my hope is to take really the broad range of research that’s happening across a project right now, and do a project on slavery in Kentucky. It’s famous for being one of the hubs of the internal slave trade, but the depth of knowledge about that sort of stops there. So I’m going to do work where I’m at and delve into this archive. I’m a Virginia specialist, and when I got here I was bowled over by the amount of material that still exists here. In Virginia there are a lot of burnt counties, because lots of cities were burnt to the ground in the American Civil War. But this place didn’t secede, so they have all of their documents. And I think it’s really powerful, particularly for descendant communities, to have a lot of what they often already know from oral histories and community historical memory, acknowledged, preserved, and presented in accessible ways. Not just for researchers, but for community members, for communities that have their roots here, but have moved on to other parts of the country. So yeah, I’m Kentucky focused and the Bourbon project doesn’t hurt. I’ll say that’s one of the perks of living here.

Rebecca: Sounds like a great project and a really worthwhile endeavor and a good way for us to be thinking about the different spaces we live in, and the records that are kept, and what’s here and what’s not.

Vanessa: Yeah, I try to keep things as local as possible wherever I’m teaching. Because if students can recognize street names, or they recognize names from buildings in the work that we’re doing, it just makes it feel so much more present.

John: Well, thank you. It’s great talking to you again, and I really enjoyed reading your book Surviving Southampton.

Vanessa: Thank 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.


John: Editing assistance provided by Anna Croyle, Annalyn Smith, and Joshua Vega.