252. Thriving in Academia

Graduate programs focus on preparing students to become researchers and practitioners in their disciplines, but generally offer little support for those choosing to pursue teaching careers. In this episode, Pamela Ansburg, Mark Basham, and Regan Gurung join us to discuss some strategies that new faculty can use to support a transition to a career at a teaching-focused institution.

Pamela is a professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences at Metropolitan State University of Denver, Mark is a behavioral neuroscientist at Regis University, and Regan is the Associate Vice Provost and Executive Director for the Center for Teaching and Learning and a Professor of Psychological Science at Oregon State University. They are the co-authors of Thriving in Academia: Building a Career at a Teaching-Focused Institution, which was published earlier this year by the American Psychological Association.

Show Notes


John: Graduate programs focus on preparing students to become researchers and practitioners in their disciplines, but generally offer little support for those choosing to pursue teaching careers. In this episode, we discuss some strategies that new faculty can use to support a transition to a career at a teaching-focused institution.


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 Pamela Ansburg, Mark Basham, and Regan Gurung. Pamela is a professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences at Metropolitan State University of Denver, Mark is a behavioral neuroscientist at Regis University, and Regan is the Associate Vice Provost and Executive Director for the Center for Teaching and Learning and a Professor of Psychological Science at Oregon State University. They are the co-authors of Thriving in Academia: Building a Career at a Teaching-Focused Institution, which was published earlier this year by the American Psychological Association. Welcome, Pamela and Mark, and welcome back. Regan.

Mark: It’s great to be here.

Regan: Thank you, John and Rebecca.

Pam: Thank you.

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

Pam: Earl Grey, because I like a classic.[LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: How about you, Mark?

Mark: Well, we’re in Colorado, which is home of Celestial Seasonings. So when I’m drinking tea, I’m always drinking a Celestial Seasonings tea, usually Sleepy Time, even during the day.

Regan: Are they sponsoring this podcast or something, Mark?[LAUGHTER]…

Rebecca: …Right. Yeah…

MARK’: …I’m in the Pacific Northwest, hours behind all of you. So I’m actually still on my morning cup of coffee.

Rebecca: Alright, that’s fair.

John: And I am drinking ginger tea.

Rebecca: Nice. I have some Jasmine green tea now.

John: Oh, very nice…

Mark: Nice.

Rebecca: And for John’s benefit, It’s been like an evolution over the day of what kind of tea I’m having. [LAUGHTER]

John: Rebecca is at home. I’m sitting in this control room for this old recording studio. So I’ve got this tea… and this tea…. And this tea.

Rebecca: He had to pack them all this morning [LAUGHTER]…

John: …and this tea. And, two of them were insulated, so they’re still warm. [LAUGHTER] We’ve invited you here today to discuss Thriving in Academia. PhD programs generally provide fairly solid training for grad students planning for a research-focused career, but most PhD students don’t end up in research institutions, they end up in teaching-focused institutions, and your book is designed to ease this transition. How did this book project come about?

Pam: It came about from a conference presentation. We were at a conference, the three of us met up and started catching up and talking with one another, and thinking about where our careers had led us. Regan and I have been friends and colleagues for, I don’t know, 25 years or so. And even though we were never in the same physical location, we had a long history. Mark, and I are married, and so when we all got together, we’re kind of talking about where the time had taken us and what we wanted to do, and what are the things that we were learning about, and basically, our interactions with our junior colleagues and the questions that they were asking. And we started to realize that we had some knowledge that we thought would be helpful for people going on this career path.

Mark: One of the things I think we all talked about that first dinner was we were all in positions where we were mentoring younger faculty or newer faculty, and we were seeing them have the same challenges and make some of the same mistakes that we had made, that we had seen early career faculty make over and over and over again. And we thought, well, there should be some resource. There needs to be a book. Certainly, there must be a book out there. And it turns out there wasn’t. And so then we were like, well, we should write it, a guide to having the career out a teaching-focused institution, instead of how to do research.

Regan: Yeah. And I think just an important thing for me to add is, picking up on what Pam said about we met at a conference, it was a teaching conference. And I think that’s important. It was a teaching conference, and it really made us realize how often it was only at teaching conferences that people felt like they could out themselves as being passionate teachers. And I think all three of us have had the occasion of being at a non- teaching conference, a conference in our field and going to a session that was on teaching. And then especially having grad students come up and say, “Oh, I’m so glad I can talk about teaching here, because I can’t do that at my research institution, or with my mentor or anywhere else.” And I think that really fueled our fire to say, we need to sort of unpack that hidden agenda about how it is at a teaching-focused institution where service and research is still important, but the fact is teaching is primary, and what does that do to your psyche, by things like that. So that’s why it’s sort of neat that it happened at a teaching conference, because we looked around at all these people who really didn’t have another home to really talk about teaching and share what the additional challenges of teaching does when you’re in higher education.

John: We were so impressed by the book here that our Provost is buying copies of the book for all of our new faculty and we’re going to have a reading group this fall with them working through it through the semester…

Pam: …Oh, thank you,…

John: …we were very pleased by this…

Pam: …we really appreciate it. And, we hope it will be very useful. I think it will be.

Rebecca: You’ve talked about this already a little bit. But can you talk about who the primary audience for the book is? And is it while they’re in school? Is it right when they’re looking for a job? Like, when’s the best time to engage with this book?

Mark: We really tried to write it for all of those audiences. So certainly, the book starts with just a finding: what is a teaching-focused institution, how do you know one when you see one? How do you find one? We talk about how do you find the jobs that are there? How do you prepare yourself for those jobs? But we also talk a lot about what does that job look like? As John said, during the intro, most PhD programs don’t train you to teach, certainly, and they definitely don’t teach you about advising. They don’t teach you about how to be a good committee member, how to do mentoring, all of those sorts of things.

Pam: And you also don’t have those role models. When you’re in a PhD program, your advisors are researchers. And so that’s who you get to model yourself after. So that was another reason why we thought this book was useful.

Mark: And then as we started writing it we started to realize, well, what about people that are in the middle of their career? There are some unique challenges to that at a teaching-focused institution. So then we said, well, we should include that. So that’s another potential audience. There’s a whole chapter on mid and late career, how do you stay invigorated? How do you handle a transition into being a chair or a dean or a provost? How do you handle potentially switching institutions? So we really think the audience is anybody who is in a teaching-focused career or contemplating a teaching-focused career.

Regan: And I think one particular fun part is by virtue of the fact that we’re all and maybe I should put my co authors on the spot here. What are you guys? Are you mid career? [LAUGHTER] What do you call yourself? Yeah, don’t let the gray hair or lack thereof fool you. I mean, the reality is, all of us have been around for some time. And the neat thing of that is we not only reflected on folks where we are, and a few years ahead of us, but… and this is the part of the book I loved in particular… was it’s packed with our stories of different points in our career. So we’ve got stories in there from when we were grad students, from when we were junior assistant faculty and associate faculty. And so in that way, I think you can really see yourself no matter where you are in your career. And there are three of us, we all read each other’s chapters, that was one of the most fun parts for me was to read Mark’s and Pam’s stories, because each chapter ends with a personal story. And each of us took turns writing that and it was a lot of fun to get the first look at Pam’s story or Mark’s story. Because there were things that even though we’ve known each other for some time we haven’t talked about, but it immediately, I think, invites the reader into the different stages of careers.

Pam: And I think depending on where you’re at in your career, parts of the book will resonate differently with you. So when you’re just beginning, if you’re in graduate school, you really are just trying to understand what the job is, once you take on the decision to become a professor at a teaching-focused institution, then it gets real. And you really have to figure out what do I need to do here. And then, even if you’ve been in the role for a little while, we have some, I think, neat tips about efficiencies and ways to take and model your career and make choices to help you really feel fulfilled as you go through.

Regan: I just want to add one more thing, I think educators or especially grad students, but even educators in general, forget often that there are close to 4300 colleges and universities in the US itself… 4300. Yet, when we’re in grad school, so many of us are so often just thinking about that small number of research schools. And what’s neat about this was it was the recognition of the fact that there are so many varieties of institutions…. 4300 out there… that’s a lot of variants. And I think all three of us have realized in our careers, in the work that we do, that the absolute bulk of faculty and instructors at those 4300 institutions never get the chance to talk about teaching or talk to peers about the challenges of being at a teaching-focused institution. And I think that’s the eyes in which we set out to write this book is to say, if you’ve never had the chance to be to a teaching conference, or to have that support structure or have your teaching champion, join us and read this book, and it’s really written with that voice. And I mean, it’s not your dry book, the three of us let ourselves and the publishers let us, be more conversational in places, which I think really invites you into that conversation.

John: The faculty that grad students are working with see the reputation of their institution being partly reflected by how many of their grad students end up in top universities within their discipline. And there’s generally not a lot of discussion of other options or, if there is, it’s often a discouragement of that, that maybe people should apply at teaching colleges as a backup rather than as their primary market. Yet, that’s not why all grad students chose to go to grad school, many people would like a career in a teaching-focused institution. What advice do you provide in the book for students who are looking at alternatives, who are trying to choose between a research-focused institution or a teaching-focused institutions? What sort of guidance do you suggest? What factors should they consider?

Mark: Before I actually answer your question, or let one of my co-authors answer your question, I think you hit upon one of the real driving forces about this book, which is that as a grad student, as Pam mentioned, your mentors are researchers typically, but the whole incentive structure… You’re right, at a big research university, the things that are prioritized, that are incentivized are doing research, and then making sure that your students do research and contribute. And so once you go to a teaching-focused institution, even though you’re still going to do research, you’re still gonna do scholarship, you’’re still gonna do all the parts, but the incentive structure is much different. And that’s a big change from being a grad student. But as far as the advice, it seems sort of obvious, but one of our main pieces of advice is get experience teaching. The more experience you can get, the better. And we have a lot of sort of suggestions about how to go beyond just being a TA as a grad student, but how do you connect with maybe community colleges or teaching-focused institutions that are nearby so that you can become an instructor of record for a course or two, because really, that’s the only way to know which way you want to go. You’re trying to research, you’re doing that, as a grad student, you really need to try your hand at the teaching part and see how that feels.

Pam: And I would also add that reaching out to find somebody who is at a teaching-focused institution in your field and, send an email and just explain who you are… you’re a graduate student, you’re exploring this as a potential career path… and would they be willing to give you 15 minutes of time just to explain what their daily life is like? Because I think as a graduate student in a PhD program, you don’t really have a good window on what the daily activities of a professor at a teaching-focused institution is. And so just hearing somebody talk about what do they do on a daily basis and what are the challenges and what are the advantages and why they made the decision to go into a teaching-focused track is another strategy.

Regan: Yeah, this is why I love having two co-authors because we all come at things from such different directions. When I heard your question, John, I immediately thought of the importance of mentoring. And we had a really good time writing about mentoring: both how to find a good mentor, but then also how it’s important to be a good mentor. And that’s where I first went to, which is many times our mentors are very well meaning and looking out for us and looking out for the best, but it’s often the best according to them. And I think I was very fortunate that I had some mentors who, even though they were really training me to be Research I University people, when I said I really wanted to teach, they said, “Okay, I respect that and let me help you.” And I know that’s not the case with many mentors who you may even shudder to mention the fact that you are looking at a small liberal arts college, or that’s where you’d like to go. Full disclosure, Mark and I both went to Carleton College, a small liberal arts college where teaching was a big deal. And the faculty were passionate about teaching. And I know I took that with me through my grad schools. And I was a postdoc at UCLA. I was in grad school at the University of Washington, both big Research I schools, but thankfully, my exposure to a liberal arts school where faculty loved to teach, I knew it was possible. I knew it was possible. I always hung on to that. And I always think about those grad students who didn’t have that kind of exposure to passionate teachers who only have a Research I exposure but who still want to teach, how do we let them know that teaching is an option and that’s where I think Pam’s advice is so good. Find somebody who is passionate about teaching, either at one of those teaching schools, or I will add, elsewhere in your discipline, but find your champion who is willing to say I will support you in going to a teaching-focused institution.

John: One other thing I think that is becoming much more common is, even in research institutions, there are more people hired as professors of the practice or some similar name, where there are some people who specialize in effective teaching. So there may be people in more and more departments now who could serve in that mentoring role without even having to leave the institution. That was very uncommon when I was a grad student, but it is becoming a bit more common now.

Rebecca: Thanks for sharing your story, Regan. One of the things that you made me think about is how lucky I was to have some of the mentors I had in graduate school because I got to teach a special topics class as a graduate student and write my own class and try it out my last semester. And it was a really great experience for me. And I also wanted to just note here, we’ve been talking a lot about PhD programs, but the same thing also happens in programs like MFA programs that are also terminal degrees, but might have a slightly different context. But there are those that are really focused on the creative practice and being in a research institution versus teaching as well. So that does kind of span across those kinds of programs as well.

Mark: Regan, I think is more tenacious than I am. I remember sitting in that Carleton classroom, looking at my professors and thinking, hey, this is what I want to do. But then I also know that as I went on, and got a master’s degree and PhD program, and then as a postdoctoral researcher, I kind of forgot that, I forgot that dream. It was easy to get indoctrinated into the “I’m going to be a researcher, I’m going to strive for the Nobel Prize, I’m going to do this.” And it wasn’t until I almost accidentally ended up teaching my first class, which I did only because my first child was born and I needed the extra money. And I sort of surreptitiously, without my PI and my postdoc knowing, signed up to teach a class. And then when I got in front of a classroom full of students, it sparked that memory of like, “Oh, I remember why I started this journey, I started this journey, because I wanted to be like those passionate professors that I had as an undergrad.” And I had forgotten that along the way. And then I’m one of those people who had to sort of do a pivot without a lot of support, where I had conversations… I adore my advisors and the PIs I’ve had over the years, and they were wonderful mentors in many ways, but they were lukewarm at best in supporting that transition to a teaching-focused institution. So I’m one of those people who had to sort of swim upstream to get to where I am.

Regan: I love that story, Mark, because my undergrad experience actually was the opposite. And when I sat in class as an undergrad, although I respected the passion, teaching was the last thing I thought I would do, I had absolutely no idea. I was brought up in the classic Indian tradition of, “Hey, go be a doctor, go be a lawyer.” And I’m grateful to my parents to saying: “Psychology, sure, give it a shot.” But I was completely PhD research. That was all I could think about. And I mention this, because there will be many people listening or reading, who likewise may have come to teaching out of the blue. Through my grad program, we didn’t have to teach. So Rebecca, when you said you got a chance to teach, wow, that’s great. There are many folks out there who never get the chance to teach because it’s not part of the plan. In grad school, I did not have a chance to teach. But a friend invited me to do a guest lecture in their class. And that one hour changed the trajectory of my life, because the highs that I got from that 50 minutes, of the reactions, of the feedback of what it felt like, and I knew that’s what I wanted to do. But, and this is what I was gonna say Rebecca, in response to your story, but then it was hard work. People be prepared. If you want teaching experience, sometimes you’re gonna have to work very hard to do it. And that’s why, I think, Mark, you mentioned going and looking at if there’s a course at a community college that you can teach, that’s what I had to do at a postdoc. I was a postdoc at UCLA, fully funded, and I wanted to teach. So I went and taught at a college an hour away, because that was the only place that had an opening for a course. So, be prepared to really fuel that teaching passion. It may take time and effort as part of the whole deal.

Pam: I’ll just tag on to Regan. I had the same experience as Regan, I was research all the way, no interest in teaching whatsoever. In fact, when I got into my PhD program, I was really upset because there was no research assistant positions, and I had to have a TA position. And I fought, I went to see the chair and I said, “I really don’t want this. I really want to be a researcher.” And he said, “Well, do you want money? Do you want the TA? and I thought, “Okay, I guess I’ll be a TA” and I just was like, “This is gonna be horrible. I’m gonna hate it, but I’ll do it for the money, fine.” And the same experience, Regan, I had to run review sessions for an introductory psychology class. I walked into the class with the worst attitude you could have ever imagined, and within two minutes, I was in love. A total turnaround. It was a really amazing experience. And so I would say like, sometimes you don’t know where you’re headed, and the advice I give to my students is: “Be open.” I wasn’t particularly open. I got forced into a situation and then it changed my whole life.

John: Which comes back to that advice that you talked about earlier of trying to teach your class just to see what it’s like, because it would be very easy for many people to go through grad school without realizing that that’s something that they really do have a passion for, or that may be something that they just never want to do. So,[LAUGHTER] having that experience is really essential. I was in a position where I was planning on going into research until one of the professors left very suddenly. And with a couple of days, notice, I was teaching a course. And I decided from that point, that’s what I wanted to do. I was on a fellowship, I didn’t have to do any teaching. But once I did, it pretty much determined the path of my career.

Mark: It was one of the fun things about writing this book was, we would write two thirds of the chapter, and then we would read it and we would email each other and say, “Man, we’re making the sound like a terrible job. We’re making this sound like it’s really hard.” And then we would say we need to add in, what’s the reward? Why do we do that? And I think the final product does a good job both sort of addressing how difficult it is, how much time it’s going to take, what is this job really like? But then also, why do we do it? Because it’s not for the money. We all do it for the joy you get from doing all of these things. And even not just the teaching. But we talked about the satisfaction of service done well, the satisfaction of involving students, particularly undergraduate students, in your scholarship and your research. And so I think, as Regan was saying earlier, it’s a very accessible book, because it does talk about the difficulties, but it also talks about the joys and rewards from doing this job..

Rebecca: It’s funny, Mark, that you mentioned that you had initially taught for the money. So did I. I didn’t do it, because I wanted to teach, necessarily, but then we stay because of other things.[LAUGHTER] So one of the things that you talked about is thinking about some of the challenges and surprises and maybe positive things of working at a teaching institution. What are some of the things that are different at a teaching institution than at a research institution that people should think about?

Mark: There’s so much. [LAUGHTER]

Regan: I have actually a number because when we first talked about this book, talked about it, even the idea for it, I was at one institution, which is a very teaching-focused institution, and then very recently moved to a Research I institution. Now, that said, I sit in the Center for Teaching and Learning, so I am surrounding myself with teaching and learning. But it really opened my eyes to some of those really big differences that I do see out there. And I think the biggest difference, is in the fabric of a teaching-focused institution, our constant conversations about teaching, where I know that next to every day, I would get coffee with a colleague at my teaching-focused institution, the University of Wisconsin Green Bay, and we talk about teaching, or we’d pop out of our office, and we’d talk about teaching, or we’d walk to somebody else’s office and we’d say, “Hey, I’m playing with this assignment. What do you think about teaching?” …and that doesn’t happen with the same frequency at Research I schools. I think, what does happen though, here and this goes back to Pam’s comment that I’m going to take up a notch, Pam said, “Hey, find somebody at a teaching-focused institution.” I’m going to modify that a little bit to say, even at Research I schools, if you’re interested in teaching, find somebody who’s interested in teaching, because just a couple of weeks ago, I had lunch with a colleague here at Oregon State. And he said a very interesting thing to me at lunch, where he said, “I don’t get to talk about teaching a lot. But I wondered what you thought about this.” And it was this great conversation about student attendance and recording lectures or not, but the way he tentatively put it forward as the “I never get a chance to talk about this. But here, was what I want to talk about.” That was so neat and in stark contrast to when I was at a teaching-focused institution, we had chances to talk about it all the time. In fact, for me, at a teaching-focused institution, I needed to create opportunities to talk about research, because our default was to talk about teaching. So that was one big difference.

Pam: I would also add that service is a much bigger expectation at a teaching-focused institution than at a research-focused one. So not only are you balancing the demands of teaching, and having all the pleasure of talking about teaching and experimenting with teaching, and keeping your scholarship reasonably productive, you’re also really expected to contribute quite a bit to your institution or your department through service. And sometimes that can get a little bit out of control if you don’t make smart decisions about where you’re going to spend your time in terms of doing service. So I would say that that that is one of the things that is really never really explored very much, but really is a large part of the job at a teaching-focused institution, is service.

Mark: And since Regan and Pam talked about teaching and serving, I guess I could talk a little bit about advising, because I think that’s another big difference. When I was in grad school, when I was a postdoc, when I looked at the people that were at the research institutions, they never talked about advising. If they did, it was sort of obligatory, get it done as quickly as possible. Whereas at most teaching-focused institutions, although there are some that have professional advisors that are doing that, but oftentimes, it’s the faculty that are advising students and doing that academic advising, the career discernment advising, and I think that’s a big difference, too. And I think that’s one of those things that isn’t obvious at first, when people think about a teaching focused institution, they obviously think about teaching, they know that they’re probably going to do some scholarship. But many people, until they have the job, don’t realize how much time you’re going to spend, both formally and informally, advising students, …and especially that informal advising can take up a lot of time at a teaching-focused institution.

Pam: So to tie it back to the question about applying and being prepared for an academic position, these are things that would be helpful to be at least conversant in: “How would you approach your service commitments? Where do you see spending your time? Be able to speak about your advising philosophy as well as teaching and your research.” I think that would make a competitive applicant.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about the advice that you offer related to balancing things like academic advising, teaching, research, and service, and all the other things that we didn’t even talk about? [LAUGHTER]

Mark: Well, this is the big challenge. We talk a lot in the book about trying to do two things at the same time. So can you integrate some of the research into the classroom? Can you combine those so that the research becomes part of the teaching? Can you involve your students in part of the research process, both as part of the research lab, but also as part of the classroom experience? We talk about being really intentional about service, not saying yes to everything. There’s great pressure, especially on early in the career faculty, to say yes to service requests, particularly when they come from a chair or a dean, how can you possibly say no? And we discuss in the book that you actually can say no, and sometimes you should say no. And how do you do that gracefully? How are you intentional about those service activities, so they don’t take over everything. And then I tell this story in the book about my early advising, I got no training in how to do academic advising. I was handed a sheet that had the degree requirements and told, “Hey, meet with these students.” And I memorized the sheet, and I got pretty good at getting students registered for classes. And I could get students in and out of an advising session in 20 minutes. And I was looking at all my colleagues who were spending an hour or more with every student, and I thought “You guys are crazy, get the student in, tell them what classes to take, get them out of your office, sign the form, so that I had time that I could do research.’ I didn’t want to be spending time advising them. it took me several years to realize I was actually missing the point, the point of academic advising at teaching-focused institutions, and particularly the institution I was at, was not just get the students registered for the next semester, it was to help them figure out career discernment, help them figure out how they were going to navigate the difficult courses, how they were going to balance the courses, to get to know them, so that I could write letters of recommendation for them. And with several years of experience then suddenly, I became one of those people that spending an hour or more with every student. But it takes a while to figure out that balance.

Regan: To add to that is the notion that how you balance is going to vary and what you balance is going to really vary at where you are in your career. And I think going back to your earlier question, Rebecca, was “Who’s this book for?” …and our very neat response, which is “everybody along the spectrum,” …something we really tried to address in all over the book is remember, this will be different for you depending on where you are. And so we have parts where we’re like, “Hey, if you’re a grad student, remember this, if you’re a tenured faculty member, remember this.” So I think that how to balance varies on where you are in your career. Now that said, that’s not answering your question on tips to balance, it’s just kicking the can down a little bit. So I will address how to balance. I think at the end of the day, there are just so many different productivity tips and tools. And I think our best suggestion is, remember that there’s no one planner or app that works for everybody. And in fact, I’ll go so far as to say for many of us, an app is not the way to go. Go old school. Something we did in our household yesterday is my spouse pulled out a sheet of paper, a ruler, and a felt pen, and drew out the month of July so we could write on what our two kids would be doing during the week so they could plan and balance their summer. And I think sometimes, in this world of apps and technology, we keep looking for an app to help us balance where sometimes it’s going old school and writing it out or drawing it out in a journal or a calendar and going that route. The key suggestion here is: find a way that’s good for you. Don’t stick with something that’s not working. I think that’s a really key part that we wanted to share over the years is… I don’t know about Pam and Mark, but I know I have tried different things and have settled on what works really well for me in terms of creating balance.

Mark: And one of the things I learned from writing the book with Regan, is this idea that sometimes you have to be creative about thinking about how you’re going to get scholarship done. I was in this mindset that I needed to be able to block off big chunks of time to research. And so I was constantly trying to find six hours on three consecutive days so that I can do this. And then in reading Regan’s, what he wrote for this book and talking to Regan, I had this realization that well, I can reconceptualize how I do that and maybe it is work on scholarship for just long enough until it loses efficiency, and then switch to something else. And do that until I lose efficiency, and then switch to a third thing, and then come back. And this sort of not trying to say, “Well, I have to have these huge blocks of time, but say I’m gonna do something as long as it’s productive. And as soon as that stopped being productive, I switch to the next thing,

Pam: Both Mark and Regan offered very practical, down-to-earth, advice and mine’s going to be a little bit more abstract, philosophical. It’s important for me to always know: What am I doing this for? Why am I doing whatever the thing is that I’m doing? And is it important to who I am as a professional? Does it match my goals? And my goals may be determined sometimes. If I’m not tenured yet, it may be determined by other people, but always sort of looking at it from a strategic holistic viewpoint so that you can make the decisions about what kind of research do you want to do? How do you want to integrate that with teaching? What about service? How can you come up with a coherent, connected professional life? And for me, that has always been really important, and it’s really helped me balance because I can have a sense of what I’m trying to do and who I’m trying to become as a professional. And then when opportunities are available, I can always match that against “Does this fit what I want to do and how I want to proceed as a professional?” Sometimes you have to do things you don’t want to do and things that don’t fit exactly. But for the most part, there’s so much to be done. You really do have a lot of control about what specific things you do. It’s just important to know who you are and where you want to be heading.

John: One of the things you address in the book is mentoring and finding support for your work. Many campuses, maybe most campuses, will provide formal mentors, but that doesn’t always work as well as institutions hope. Could you give some suggestions on how new faculty can develop mentoring support in their new positions?

Pam: I think one of the best things to do is to look around your institution and identify people that you admire. Who has the career that you’d like to have? Who is involved in the things that you’d like to be involved in? …and then reach out to them. So I think that’s a quick short answer. But you can do that relatively easily. Just being around in any university, you’ll start to notice people who are doing different things, and you’ll start to develop admiration, reach out to those people.

Mark: And I agree with that and the only thing I would add is it doesn’t have to be at your own institution. Look around, look at your professional societies. Look at the people that you’re collaborating with, find the people, like Pam said, who have the career you want. Reach out to those people. Most people are flattered to be approached and say “Hey, can you give me advice? Can you informally mentor me?” Most people are happy and eager to do that if they’re approached..

Regan: And something that relates to both of those, especially at your university, you will see some usual suspects, the people who are always showing up at the things that you’re showing up at, those are great people to grab some coffee with or another beverage with…

Rebecca: tea…

Regan: tea… exactly…

Rebecca: always tea. [LAUGHTER]

Regan: Kombucha. This is Oregon, go for some Kombucha… [LAUGHTER] and just chat some more. So be on the lookout for those people you see often because there is actually something to connecting with somebody in a different discipline at your university. There are many, many benefits to that and we talk about that a fair amount. But I’m going to take what Mark said and some folks may say “Oh, I’d never do that.” So here’s something that I would actually underscore. You’d be amazed at what you will hear if you reach out to somebody else and say “You know what, I’ve either read some of your work or I’ve seen you at conferences or whatever, would you mind touching base every so often?” And I say this because this happened to me, where somebody out of the blue, who I did not know just reached out and we’ve been meeting every month for close to a year now. And this was somebody out of the blue. And I think there are many of us out there who would be happy to do those kinds of things, especially if your discipline doesn’t have a built in mentoring connector kind of thing. And for all of you out there who are psychologists, the Society for the Teaching of Psychology has a mentoring site where you can find mentors for you. So not every discipline has that, but do not poopoo the possibility that just reaching out will get you a connection. Now mind you, just like anything else in higher education, reaching out may get you nothing, and the person may not even respond, but like I tell my students in this day and age of things going into your junk folder, don’t give up after one email, give up after three, because who knows where email messages go nowadays.

Rebecca: One of the things that you address in the book is about preparing for all different roles in all different stages of the career. And I know that when I was applying for jobs, I was peeking around the corner of what tenure might look like. And then after I was tenured, I was peeking my head around wondering what it’s like to be a full professor. And now I am peeking my head around wondering what’s next. [LAUGHTER] So what advice do you have, as folks are moving through their continuum of their career and peeking around corners? It’s often a mystery what happens next.

Pam: I think seeking a mentor who is at that next stage is a great way to get a better view of what that looks like. And maybe more than one because my experience is that as you progress in your career in academia, there are lots of different paths you can take, lots of different ways people can go. So I know that Regan’s definitely in the administration and of things, Mark is heading there, I’ve popped in and out of administrative roles, but I keep coming back to faculty roles. I think there’s a lot of ways you can design your career as you go, and so having multiple mentors and multiple models is a good way to get that look ahead.

Mark: My answer, Rebecca, to your question was: “Well, that’s the reason we wrote the book is so that you could get a better peek around those corners.” And I would add also to what Pam just alluded to, there’s a reason that this is a three-author book, that it’s not just a single person story. And sort of serendipitously, the three of us have had very sort of different careers within this umbrella of teaching-focused institutions, and so you get those multiple perspectives. And so peeking around the corner, looking at my transition from pre-tenure to post-tenure looks different than peeking around the corner and looking at how Pam did it or how Regan did it. But in our book, you get all three of those. And so you really do get more information that way.

Regan: Yeah, and Rebecca, going back to your situation, I’m going to say something I think somewhat controversial in that I don’t think everybody needs to go through the same rung of higher education and climb one rung after the other. We talked about balance a little earlier, let me say this bluntly, you may be able to get a lot more balance if you’re not a full professor. You may be able to get a lot more balanced just once you get tenure without needing to then push yourself to that next level. There’s more responsibility with more levels. And I think to get a little Pam and philosophical here, it’s a state of mind. What are you comfortable with? And I like to say: Are you being challenged? Do you look forward to going into school? Or do you look forward to your work? If it is, do you need that rank? Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s a whole separate story about the tenure track versus the fixed term. That’s a separate issue. But especially in the traditional tenure-track moves, and also in ranking more for fixed term. And really ask yourself, are you happy where you are? Are you happy with the challenges? And that’s when you look around the corners and look around different corners? Because as Pam alluded to, maybe you look around into the administrative corner and you go, “No, I don’t want to go that route.” But by the same token, you may look around that corner and go, “Wow, I love the challenges there.” But it’s totally okay, if you don’t. You’re not a lesser person if you decide not to go up for full, if you decide not to go into administration. And the last thing I’ll say that is a little pragmatic, is this is why volunteering for committees is wonderful, because then you get a taste for those different corners and whether you want to go those routes or not.

Mark: And one thing I would add, we’re talking a lot about tenure and, more and more, there are institutions that are not tenure institutions. In my institution right now we have two different types of faculty, some who are on a tenure-track tenure system and some who don’t have a tenure system. The title of the book is Thriving in Academia, and we do talk about: “Can you be thriving in academia as an affiliate faculty for your entire career?” I think that’s very possible. I know people who’ve done that, so it doesn’t have to be that traditional route of a tenure-track position and then tenure and then department chair. We really want people to thrive, whatever works for them. And if that means that you’re at an institution where you’re just on multi-year contracts for your whole career, that’s great. How do you make that work? If you are in a position where you want to be an affiliate faculty member and teach classes at multiple different institutions? Can you build a thriving career out of that? Yes, absolutely, certainly you can. All of that is part of the book.

Regan: Mark’s commenting about the different tenure-track versus fixed term and contracts… To push that a little further, I think the constitution of higher education and how it’s done is looking very different. Something that we didn’t touch on at all in the book, because it was written mostly prior to the pandemic was remote learning. There are things coming down the pike, how do you deal with different teaching modalities? How do you deal with remote work? These are two major ways that higher education is changing. And you’ve got to hope that folks at your institution are looking ahead and not just rushing to get back to normal, where normal wasn’t the best place to be.

John: So maybe another book on How to Continue to Thrive in Academia, when the world’s falling apart?

Regan: There you go. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I’ll look forward to reading that when you guys are done with that. I’ll be the first purchase. [LAUGHTER]

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

Mark: For me lunch, lunch is what’s next. [LAUGHTER]

Regan: With the message being: don’t forget about your physical needs to thrive in academia. [LAUGHTER]

Pam: Exactly, exactly. [LAUGHTER]

Regan: That was the subtle subtext over there.

Mark: ….self care, Regan.

Regan: Actually, I was mostly jesting, but I just finished a project writing about how to help students study. And the last chapter is self care. So, sleeping and eating and family time and social support, and we don’t talk about that enough. I think something I have seen over the last year is a lot more of us on social media and in these places, being more direct about “Look, people take time for yourself.” And I think, honestly, my big answer to the “what’s next?” is how do we give each other the permission to do that. And I don’t think we in higher education are very good at that yet.

Mark: I had a colleague one time that was from Europe. And he was just appalled at what happened at our institution, which was that everybody ate lunch in their office at their desk working. And he just thought this was crazy, that you wouldn’t stop working, go somewhere, have lunch as a separate event. And I often think about that when I’m sitting in my office having lunch and thinking this is ridiculous, I should be able to take the time that it takes for me to have lunch away from work, not trying to eat and answer emails, I should be able to go somewhere, have a mug of tea, have my lunch, and have that time. And that’s just a small example, I think, of what Regan’s talking about. We need to set up a system…

Rebecca: Well, you all had me at lunch….

Mark: At my university, I was instrumental a couple years ago in just getting a faculty lounge so that we had a place that faculty could go that wasn’t in their office, that wasn’t open to students, so that we could spend a little bit of time not doing the job for a moment.

John: There was recently a podcast sometime in the last month or so, I think it was Rough Translation, where they talked about someone who went from the US to France, and that person wanted to have lunch at her desk, but there was a tremendous amount of peer pressure to get her outside, to leave the office, even if it was raining or cold, there was pressure on her to get out of there. And it was a bit of a transition for her.

Mark: I think one of the next steps that I think we’re all interested in and hoping for is really just continuing to share this information. So the book is out there now. There are starting to be conferences that are in person. We are starting to do presentations at conferences about parts of the book. And I know, talking to Pam, we’re very excited about being able to go to conferences and talk about: How do you be intentional about your service? How do you deal with feeling burnt out as a mid-career faculty member. …These workshops and conferences and, as Regan alluded to very early on in this conversation, talking to each other, about teaching, about teaching-focused institutions. For me, that’s the thing I’m really looking forward to is getting back to where we can gather as a community and have those conversations and share each other’s knowledge.

Pam: And I think hearing feedback from readers also will be really helpful because, as Regan said, we conceived of the book before the pandemic, finished writing a little bit of it during the height of the pandemic, and we’d like to hear from readers about how things are different for them now and how we can address some of those challenges that they might be facing that we didn’t anticipate in the book?

Regan: Yeah. And I think, definitely striding into next steps, I can’t help but think how we… and I mean the three of us… can better leverage psychological science, because this book was about teaching and teaching-focused institutions and the three legs of the stool of teaching, research, and service. But especially when you try to address the bulk of the questions, whether it’s balancing, whether it’s productivity, the reality is the psychological knowledge out there that can help you do it better. And what I haven’t seen yet is how do you really explicitly leverage what we know about stress and coping and planning and judgment and decision making, and all these psychological topics to help the teaching enterprise. So if you were to say, “Hey, what’s a potential fun next project that builds on this?” That’s definitely something that comes to mind where we unabashedly say here’s how you can do these things. Because I think it’s the pragmatics of how to do things that are important. We have a lot of pragmatics in the book, but especially and I love the reader feedback element, Pam, especially with reader feedback. I know people go: “Give me an example. Give me another example. Give me another example.” So pragmatics and leveraging some of those theoretical things that we know about aS psychologists, I think, really good scope for that.

Pam: I think about maybe adding a workbook component to this sort of thing where there are really practice exercises and practical, even though I do like the philosophical. But, as teachers, we do know that people need concrete examples. They need to work through things. They need to try to problem solve, not in the situation where they’re doing the problem solving for real. And so adding some piece like that, I think, would be valuable. And some of that is figuring out how to do your balance. I’ll admit I’m not very good at that. I eat at my desk all the time.

Mark: I’m happy to say that I have become somewhat notorious on my campus for skateboarding during lunch. I do a little laps around the campus on my longboard and everybody laughs at the old guy trying to be cool, but at least gets me out of my office.

Regan: Mark, we need a Tik Tok of you skateboarding with the book. Viral… That’s gonna go viral.

John: …holding the book.

Regan: That will go viral. That’s gonna go viral.

Rebecca: I think so. Well, thank you all for joining us and sharing all your insights in this book. We’re happy to share the book and share this episode with our listeners.

Pam: Thank you and we’d love feedback from the book once you run your sessions. We’d love to hear what people have to say.


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.


251. Where’s the Professor?

Where’s the professor? Unfortunately, this is not an unfamiliar question on the first day of   class when a young-looking instructor is at the helm.  In this episode, Reba Wissner joins us to discuss ways of shifting student perceptions in order to get to the real work of learning. Reba is an Assistant Professor of Musicology at the Schwob School of Music of Columbus State University. She is also the author of a chapter in the Picture a Professor collection, edited by Jessamyn Neuhaus.

Show Notes

  • Neuhaus, Jessamyn (forthcoming, 2022). Picture a Professor: Interrupting Biases about Faculty and Increasing Student Learning. West Virginia University Press.
  • Brian Eno Oblique Strategies


John: Where’s the professor? Unfortunately, this is not an unfamiliar question on the first day of class when a young-looking instructor is at the helm. In this episode we discuss ways of shifting student perceptions in order to get to the real work of learning.


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

Rebecca: …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 Reba Wissner. Reba is an Assistant Professor of Musicology at the Schwob School of Music of Columbus State University. She is also the author of a chapter in the Picture a Professor collection, edited by Jessamyn Neuhaus. Welcome, Reba.

Reba: Hi, thanks, nice to be here.

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

Reba: Kind of, I’m drinking a caffeinated seltzer, the Fuji apple and white tea.

Rebecca: Okay, I think this is a first, John.

John: I’ve had that actually. I got it at a Whole Foods in Durham, North Carolina. It’s very good. It’s one of my favorite iced teas.

Rebecca: How about you, John?.

John: And I am drinking a ginger tea now.

Rebecca: I have a jasmine black today, the new one that I’m trying.

John: So, we’ve invited you here to discuss the chapter you contributed to the Picture a Professor project. The title of your chapter is, “Where’s the professor? First-day active learning for navigating student’s perceptions of young professors.” Before we discuss this chapter, could you tell us a little bit about some of your initial first class day experiences as a new professor?

Reba: I remember the very first day that I started teaching. I was a second-year graduate student, and I was in an unusual position because when I was a graduate student at Brandeis, at the time, every department had to give a grad student to teach a writing section of a course. And so you were basically the instructor of record, and you’ve never taught anything, you’ve never TA’d, you just go in head first into shallow water, it can hurt real bad. But I remember the first day I was about 22 at the time, and I walk in, and I’m confronted with a bunch of college freshmen. And they are looking around and saying hello and talking to them. But they’re not really thinking much of it. And then I heard one student go, “Hey, look at the time, where’s the professor? Is she late?” And that’s when I realized, “Oh, they don’t realize that I’m the professor.” And so that’s when I had to take a step back and be like, “Hi, I am the professor.” And I thought it was a fluke. And it kept happening to me, which was really funny. And I remember the most recent time that it happened to me was about three or four years ago when I was teaching a graduate class. And one of the students in the graduate classes had had me as an undergrad, so they knew me, but the other graduate students didn’t know me. And we were sitting around the seminar table and the same thing happened.” The students just like “Where’s the professor?” and then the student who did know me started laughing. And I’m like, “Hi, I’m right here.” And [LAUGHTER] that’s where the the name of the chapter came from, where so many students just thought that I look too young to be a professor. They come in, especially as freshmen with this perception that the old guy with a white hair and the elbow pads and all of that other stuff, and maybe the pipe hanging out of their tweed jacket, and they don’t expect somebody who is in their 20s or 30s to be in front of them as the professor. And so for me, one of the things that I really had to start thinking about as it kept happening to me almost every semester for about a decade was how do I get the students to buy in? How do I get them to take me seriously? In the first semester that I taught I was 22 and they were like 18 year olds that were in front of me, and so not much of a big age difference. And like, how do I get them to realize that I’m in a position of power? …not in a bad way, but I am only about four or five years removed from you and I am the person who’s going to be teaching you and giving you grades. And I only at that point had a bachelor’s myself. And so it was a little bit of an awkward position. So that’s what got me started into thinking about what I have to do to get buy-in from my students.

John: In some ways that was similar to my own experience, you wouldn’t be able to tell that from looking at me now. But when I started teaching back in 1980, I did seem relatively young. And I was thrown into this with about maybe two weeks notice when a professor left suddenly, and I had never taught or been a TA before. And it was a bit of a shock for me and also probably for them, besides them not recognizing me as a professor at first, I was not at all prepared for this, I prepared a whole set of notes of what we were going to discuss that day. And I went through them at a speed that was just incredibly rapid with far less interaction than there should have been. But I settled in eventually. But my second time teaching was a master’s program, where I was the youngest person in the room by at least four or five years. And it was, again, a similar type of experience where they were very surprised that I was the professor.

Reba: And for me that particular first class was kind of interesting, because my degree is in music history. And the class that I was teaching was a writing section for a psychology class. I had never taken a psychology class before. And I only had about two weeks of training on writing pedagogy. And so that just made it worse in getting them to believe that I was somebody who could teach them. I had to kind of wing it, in some cases fake it, until I became more confident with that. So it just kind of compounded the situation.

Rebecca: Yeah, it’s funny how many people really relate to these scenarios, being young faculty. I’ve been teaching for almost 20 years now and people will look at me and say, that’s not even possible, were you teaching when you were in kindergarten? {LAUGHTER}… I indeed have been, so I certainly relate, and I know many of our listeners do as well.

Reba: Yeah, I’ve been instructor of record for 16 years now. And I still get asked for my student ID, which is really kind of flattering, but also kind of amusing, {LAUGHTER}

Rebecca: Are some of these challenges greater for female faculty or faculty from minoritized groups, or faculty that just appear relatively young?

Reba: Absolutely, And we know from research that there’s a lot of biases that play into student perceptions of faculty. And we see this even in course evaluations, where male faculty don’t have the same comments that female faculty have, they are not ranked lower on certain things. Women are described using certain vocabulary that male faculty are not described using. And so I think getting students to take you seriously can be an issue. I think, also, and dare I say this, depending on the part of the country you’re in, it might be far, far more difficult, especially if you are faculty of color, if you are teaching, say, in the south, or somewhere in the really rural Midwest, getting someone to take you seriously. And it’s even more so if you are a female of color. Or if you are someone who doesn’t look in a particular way. So for instance, if you are non-binary, if you’re not as female presenting as your name might indicate, that might also be a barrier that students face in terms of taking you seriously. In talking with some of my colleagues who have started teaching roughly around the same age that I did, none of them had ever had a student comment on how young they look, which is really kind of interesting. So again, this notion that if you’re not playing into those expectations of what a professor should look like, that creates a little bit of an extra challenge, when you’re trying to set up expectations for an entire semester.

John: The title of your chapter mentions active learning exercises for the first day, what types of active learning exercises do you use on the first day of class?

Reba: So it depends on the particular course, the one that I discuss in the chapter is a petting zoo activity, which is a term I got from some friends of mine who do something very similar. One of the classes that I teach, and I’ve been teaching for a very long time, is the what we call Music History I, which is music history from the beginning of time. Where I am now it goes up to Mozart, when I was teaching it other places it was various different time periods, but it always included Medieval or Renaissance music. And this was also a barrier, it still is a barrier. Music History I tends to be the class that music students don’t want to take. Because they’re just like, “Why do I need to know about chant? Why do I need to know about church music? Why do I need to know about music that I don’t play? It’s just a class that I have to take, and I’m not really going to care about it.” And so that’s another level of buy-in that I have to get them to understand the importance of it. Even if you are a saxophone player, you need to know about the roots of music, and you need to know about musical style. And so usually that first class, what I do is I ask students, “Why do you need to take music history, other than the fact that you have to be here? …and I get some glazed over looks sometimes. And then some of the students are like, “Well, I need to know about issues of performance, practice, and style and things like that, but I don’t know why I need to know early music.” And so that gives me an opportunity to tell the students “Okay, we’re going to take a look at some of the objects that we’re going to look at and discuss this semester.” And so I use a really great worksheet that I think it’s the Library of Congress has provided on material objects. And I spread lots of things around the room, I have early musical instruments, I have chant books that use non-western notations. I use vellum, I use gut strings, which are not used on really any instrument now except for like harp, and lots of different objects that they probably have never seen before in their lives. And I put them around the room. And I put the students in small groups, and I say, “Okay, you’re gonna fill out one of these sheets for each of these objects. You’ve got about two to three minutes with your group to look at this object. Tell me what it is. What do you think it’s used for? How do you think it’s used? And what era do you think it was from? Give me a decade or half century or something like that.” And they go around in their groups, and you can see the amazement and the wonder in their eyes, especially when we see something that they’ve never saw before. Like they might look at an instrument that looks like a violin and they were a violinist, but they’ve never seen it before and they don’t realize that that is essentially the predecessor to their instrument and where their instrument came from. And so the best thing that happens in that is the students get very confused. And I love when they get confused because when they get confused, they start to think out of the box. And so it sets them up for the kind of out of the box thinking that I’m going to ask them to do throughout that semester. So that once the students have gone through the petting zoo, and I tell them, I encourage you to touch, feel, smell, don’t taste… probably a bad idea. [LAUGHTER] I do warn students of the materials that are made from animal products, in case there are students who are vegan who do not want to touch them, I will tell them to objects in that corner I made from animals. If you are a vegan or an animal rights activist, or just don’t feel comfortable touching animal products, you don’t have to touch it. But I want to give you the courtesy to let you know that that’s what that is. And that’s also another thing too for students is they like knowing that I care. And that even something as innocuous as “that’s made from animal skin, if you don’t want to touch it, you don’t have to” sets them up for knowing that. Once they’ve done all of that and filled out their sheets, we come back together and I ask them, “Okay, what did you all think of this object?”…and we go one by one, and we discuss what the object is. So that one, the subsequent classes, when we do active learning, they know that active learning is a part of the class. And it’s not just something I did for this fun little first day activity; two, it allows me to introduce the first day of the semester, the material that we’re working on so they get used to something that’s very, very unfamiliar; and three, it allows me to come back to those objects throughout the semester and say, remember, on the first day we looked at this chant book. So now we’re going to talk a little bit about this chant book, or remember, on the first day, we looked at this object, okay, yeah, now think about this object. This is something that is a predecessor of something else. And so it’s kind of a three-fold thing. But it also gets the students to take me seriously, because nothing says someone who knows what they’re doing, or in my case, nothing says nerd better than lots of old dusty objects.{LAUGHTER}

John: And you’re activating student curiosity and getting them engaged right from the beginning, and it sounds like a wonderful activity.

Rebecca: …even sounds like a little bit of prediction going on there as well.

Reba: …which is great for them, because then it gets them to think about what they know about music. And one of the things that really confuses them the most are the books, because they’re used to reading Western notation. They may have seen chant notation if they go to church, but chances are they’ve never seen Ethiopian Orthodox chant notation or Western Orthodox chant notation, or notation used for Indian Summer Vedas. And to get them to realize that there was notation on that page is something that is really wonderful. And then we can talk about things like why does notation work the way it works? It’s not the standard thing that everyone knows, it has different functions, depending on the music. And so I love getting them to think about where the notes might actually be, when to them, it might just seem like nothing but squiggles.

Rebecca: It also sounds like it stimulates a lot of curiosity for a class that maybe they started off thinking like, “I have no interest in this nonsense.” And then all the sudden they’re like, “But what is this thing? What does it do? How did it work? What does this say? What does this mean?”

Reba: But also the other thing too, is that it dispels a misconception. When we talk about music history classes, especially early music, the first thing that students think of is “Oh, my God, church music.” And so it gets them to think, “Yeah, we are talking a little bit about church music, but we’re not just confining to Western music. We’re looking at stuff outside of the Western art music canon, we’re looking at Jewish cantillation, we’re looking at all of these different musical styles that they might not otherwise learn about. And so they see from the very first day to that one, some of them are going to be represented in the curriculum, and two, it’s not just old, dead white men, or it’s not just the standard church history. It’s lots of different things. And I bring in lots of non-western examples throughout the semester, and on the first day, they get to see that it’s not just that, it’s a curriculum that is going to be diverse, and may pique their interest in a way that they didn’t think would. I remember one of the first times I actually did this exercise, I heard my students talking as they were walking out of the room, and one of the students said, “You know, this might actually just be an interesting class.” And I was just like “mission accomplished.”

Rebecca: …one, you win, you’re winning, winning,…

Reba: Yeah.

Rebecca: …so much winning. [LAUGHTER]

John: So now that you’ve won on this first day, how do you continue this? What other types of active learning activities do you do to keep that level of engagement and interest?

Reba: Oh, there are so many. One thing that I know I’ve learned from many years of teaching is that there are two things that college students love and those are colored pencils and Legos. [LAUGHTER] And I incorporate both into my classes. So we have for instance, there’s a type of Music called a isorhythmic motet that’s constructed in a very specific way. And I hand out the sheet music for a particular piece of music, and I put them in groups and I give them colored pencils. And I tell them, you are going to identify these three different components of the music using colored pencils. Or when I’m teaching something like Renaissance notation… and I always say that the best teaching ideas are ones that are stolen… this is something that I stole from colleagues in the K to 12 classroom who’ve started teaching western music note values using Legos, and using the number of dots on top of the Lego as the number of beats. In that particular note, I adapted that for Renaissance notation, because the hardest part of Renaissance notation is actually the rhythms, not the pitches, because by the time we get to the Renaissance, we have our five-line staff so that you know where you are, it’s just the rhythms. And so I have the students create a… what I call a piece of rhythmic polyphony… where I give them a standard flat Lego plate. And then I’ve taken a Sharpie and wrote the note values on the Legos. And I tell them, “You’re going to give me a two-part, three-part, four-part piece of rhythm, you’re going to figure out how it goes together.” and Legos are great for this because it’s immutable, and so if it doesn’t fit, right, they know it. And then they have to perform the rhythm for the class. So these are the kinds of things that I get students to do. I’m very interested in having the practical applications of music in music history, I always say that music, as long as it’s on a page is not alive. If you’re making it, it lives. And so getting the students to then apply their knowledge through things like music making is really, really important to me. And then they also get a sense of ownership, and it helps with retention. I can say whatever I want about Renaissance note values, but as soon as they’re trying to futz around with Legos and move and put it in various ways, and then actually have to perform it for the class, it gives it a whole new meaning, and then they understand.

Rebecca: I can imagine that in a class like music history, it’d be similar to maybe a class like art history or some other arts where students come with the expectation that lecture’s how we’re going to do this thing. This is how I’m going to have the Professor dump this information in my brain, I’m going to learn it the best if they are really charismatic and tell us great stories about history. And it doesn’t involve doing something with our bodies, or physically moving around. So do you come up against students who had hoped to perhaps be very passive listeners as opposed to actively engaged in the material? And then how do you get them to understand the research and understanding that active learning is the best way to learn some of this information.

Reba: That’s the challenge for me, is getting them to realize that they don’t learn as much as they think they learn when somebody’s speaking at them. And sometimes what I do is I use this in my chapter and I again stole this from someone “hiding the broccoli,” they don’t know what’s good for them, if you hide it, they don’t know it’s there, but it’s there, and so sometimes what I do is, I’d like to try and create a tiered system in my teaching, which I call: listen, see, act. So I tell you a little bit about the material. Now you’re going to watch some sort of a demonstration, or you’re gonna watch a video or something like that. And then the act is the actual active learning. So going back to the Lego example, I talked to them about the beginnings of music printing, and how the music note became the way they were. I show them a video of the printing and how it actually looks on the page and how the notation works. And then the act is actually doing it. And so sometimes what I’ll do is after the “listen” part, I will do something like a Kahoot!, where I’ll ask them questions and get their answers, and then I’ll do the same one after the active learning part. And then they realize that they actually performed better after doing the active learning part than they have after just listening. Do that a few times, point that out to them, and then they’re like, “Oh, yeah, this is kind of cool. This works. It’s not just her like not wanting to do her job. It’s actually helping me learn and retain information better.”

John: And the more of us who do that in our classes, the more likely that it is that students will buy into that, because that is a bit of a problem quite often in convincing students of the benefits of active learning approaches.

Rebecca: And really, that doing the active learning is our job to like set those things up in those activities. And in that design of that work, or that activity is the job of the instructor, rather than talking at students. [LAUGHTER]

Reba: When I finished my PhD and I was teaching the early music class, I make my students learn medieval notation, too. And that’s always kind of like, “Ew,” and I’m like, “You know what, it looks harder than it is. It has four lines instead of five. The hardest part is getting your brain to not put a fifth line there. Other than that, it’s easy,” and they’re kind of like “Uh…I don;t even want to know this.” So I had one student who was really balking about it and he came back for the second semester. And he came up to me and he’s like, “Doctor Wissner,” and he’s a clarinetist. He’s like, “I never thought I would ever need to know chant. But I went to a youth church music retreat. And the priest who was running it asked if anyone knew how to read chant notation, and I told them I did. And I wound up teaching everyone else how to do it. And I never thought I’d use it as a clarinetist. And I used it. And I’m still in shock.” [LAUGHTER] And I’m like, “See…” So getting them to also realize, you may never use this again in your life, but you might, and you might use it at unexpected moments, and having the experience of actually doing it, rather than having me talk at you makes a world of difference if you’re the one that’s actually going to be eventually using it.

John: you may want to get a video recording of that student to share with future generations, because that may not happen every semester.

Reba: Yeah, it actually hasn’t happened since but it’s something that I will always remember. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: That is now the opening moment of every class.[LAUGHTER]

John: Are there any strategies that you use when you come up with new active learning exercises?

Reba: I think one of the most important things about active learning activities is that you have to make them unexpected. A lot of my most successful active learning activities were using conventional objects in unconventional ways. So, for instance, I like to use picture postcards in my classes to get students to think about things like performance of gender in music, or ethnocentrism in music, or I have a game of music theory Jenga, which I used with my students, where I asked them playing a regular game of Jenga, that what is different about this is that there’s a music theory question on each block. And they have to be able to answer that to get the points. And so the added layer was “okay, now you’re going to find a piece of music that uses this device,” and it got them thinking about the music that they know, and how the music works. And so not just saying, “Okay, we’re going to use this thing, and we’re going to use it in the way that you expect, we’re going to do something different with it.” And it also gives them the idea that not everything has one function. And so this is something that really comes into play, too when I have my students in the second semester bringing their instruments. We do an entire class on chant music. And so I have them use musical dice to create a piece of music, or I have them improvise using… Brian Eno, who probably many of you know, created a set of cards called Oblique Strategy cards. And it was, fun fact, a set of cards that David Bowie used when he was writing the Heroes album, and it has all of these very random things, I kind of liken it to fortunes that you find in fortune cookies that sometimes make absolutely no sense. So it will say “operate in reverse,” or the one that I absolutely adore, because it makes zero sense, especially in any context is “if peas increased virility, pour them down your pants,” like what do you do with that? But I have them select three cards from the deck and write a piece of music using what’s on those cards. And again, if I give you something that says, “Don’t do what you usually do,” and you have to use that, to write a piece of music, like what do you do with that or “use reverse operations?”…what do you do? And it gets them thinking about the process of writing music and then performing it. And students have always said to me after that class that they got to perform on their instruments in a way that’s not really acceptable in their ensembles or their studios. And they got to play around with their instruments and make music in a way that they typically don’t get a chance to. And so even just their instruments themselves, there was one student who, with one of those cards… it said something like “use something in an abnormal way,” and he was a trombonist, and he took that to just put the mouthpiece on his trombone slide and play it. And it’s like, I would have never otherwise thought to do that, until I started thinking about what this actually means.

Rebecca: I wonder if some faculty who might be listening, think, “Hmm, these sound really interesting and exciting, but I couldn’t possibly come up with one of these ideas myself.” [LAUGHTER] Do you have advice for how to design some of these unexpected active learning exercises or activities that you’ve been describing?

Reba: For many of these, believe it or not, they are complete accidents. It might be just me sitting in my office staring into space at the wall because my brain is so tired, and I come across something. That actually happened last semester, I keep a shelf of children’s books about underrepresented composers in my office, so that when I’m teaching students about that composer, I’ll bring in the children’s book so that the music ed students can see “Okay, there’s a book about this, maybe I might want to read it to my students.” I was teaching graduate bibliography and I was teaching my students about coming up with an argument for research. And my eye went over to that shelf and I’m like, “What if I took these books, and had students read them, and come up with an argument based on what that book is doing?” And so I experimented with it, it was a great class because I only had three students. And so I did a lot of experimenting in that class in ways that I might not be able to. But the students loved it. And they said, “You know, I thought that this was going to be easy, but it was actually really hard. “And I found that using children’s books for coming up with theses and argumentation and things like that, using something like a children’s book, which is easy to absorb, doesn’t take long to read, doesn’t have a lot of heavy vocabulary, works really, really well. And so a lot of the things that I’ve done over the years have come from just impulsive thoughts, like, what if I did this? What if I use that for that? So a lot of people would be surprised to know that most of my teaching techniques are not planned very far in advance. But I find that they work and I just keep using them.

Rebecca: And it sounds like you’re not afraid to experiment and try something. And I’m sure, like all of us, we’ve tried things and they’ve failed, [LAUGHTER] and you just try something else. And you don’t keep it next time.

Reba: Exactly. And I think that one of the, if I daresay advantages, of spending nine years as an adjunct is that I knew I had no job security. And so having a fear of experimenting, like if I try it and it fails, and they don’t renew me, cool. Now that I’m on the tenure track, and I’m still untenured, but having that fear dispelled that trying new things is not a bad thing, and if it flops it flops, has been really, really valuable for me. And the other thing, too, that was really helpful is that I had a lot of the same classes at multiple universities in the same semester. And so getting to try the activity on different populations of students was also really helpful because having a student at NYU is not like a student at Ramapo College or Seton Hall or Westminster Choir College or Montclair State University. And I was teaching the same class at all of those places at once. And so seeing how I might have to adapt it for different populations of students was also really helpful for me, too.

Rebecca: You should read an article about that.

Reba: Yeah. [LAUGHTER] I actually presented a paper on that a few years ago, at the teaching music history conference, It was called “One course, four ways.” [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Yeah, I think it’s a really interesting opportunity to really look at how our audiences really do impact how we need to teach or share or just adapt generally, I love that.

John: And you’re focusing on the students in the room, rather than this generic ideal student that you might have envisioned otherwise…

Rebecca: Exactly…

John: …It sounds like a great topic for a paper…

Reba: …Yeah

John: …or a podcast

Reba: Mm hmm, yeah [LAUGHTER].

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

Reba: I’m working on a few SOTLl studies, one I’m actually excited about, I’m excited about all of my SOTL work, but this particular one I’m really excited about, because I’m collaborating with two colleagues in STEM, so one in physics and one in computer science, because we all have probably a very similar problem in our disciplines is that there tends to be a particular demographic that we have trouble retaining, for whatever reason. And so we are looking at how can we better retain students of color and female students in both science and music classes? And for me, in the spring, I’m actually teaching a course on music encoding, which is basically like music computer programming notation, which I’m looking at for my students… kind of look at the students who are in the class and see… because coding scares people… and so what can we do in terms of support and scaffolding assignments that can help retain students of color and female students. So that I’m really excited about and kind of bridging the science/arts divide kind of STEAM, if you will. And another thing that I’ve been doing a lot of work on too, is supporting first-generation students. And so I’m looking at how we can continue to do that in the classroom, especially when students don’t disclose that they’re first gen because they don’t think it matters or it’s relevant, but giving them the proper support. So that’s just a couple of the things that I’m working on right now.

Rebecca: Sounds like exciting and important work, Reba.

Reba: Thank you.

John: And they sound like fascinating classes. I wish I could take one of your classes.

Rebecca: Yeah, Sign me up. [LAUGHTER] Well, thank you so much for joining us.

Reba: Thank you for having me.

John: It’s been a great conversation and we’re looking forward to sharing this with our listeners.


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.


250. Hacking Assessment

Traditional grading systems often encourage students to focus on achieving higher grades rather than on their learning. In this episode, Starr Sackstein joins us to discuss how classes can be redesigned to improve student engagement and learning. Starr has been an educator for 20 years and is currently the COO of Mastery Portfolio, an educational consultant, and instructional coach and speaker. She is the author of more than 10 books on education, including the best-selling Hacking Assessment: 10 ways to go gradeless in a traditional grades school, which has just been released in a new edition.

Show Notes


John: Traditional grading systems often encourage students to focus on achieving higher grades rather than on their learning. In this episode, we discuss how classes can be redesigned to improve student engagement and learning.


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

Rebecca: …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 Starr Sackstein. Starr has been an educator for 20 years and is currently the COO of Mastery Portfolio, an educational consultant, and instructional coach and speaker. She is the author of more than 10 books on education, including the best-selling Hacking Assessment: 10 ways to go gradeless in a traditional grades school, which has been released in a new edition. Welcome, Starr.

Starr: Thanks so much. I’m excited to be here.

John: Today’s teas are… Starr, are you drinking tea?

Starr: I am drinking water. No tea unfortunately, not yet.

Rebecca: Not yet. Okay. See, there we go, there’s promise there. I have Scottish Breakfast tea today.

John: And I have spring cherry green tea.

Rebecca: Well, that’s good.

Starr: Those both sound delicious, really.

Rebecca: So, you haven’t had that one in a while, John.

John: I haven’t had any in a while…

Rebecca: true that…

John: …we took a pause in recording for about a month. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Fair. But even prior to that it had been a while I think.

John: I think so too.

Rebecca: We invited you here today to discuss Hacking Assessment. The first edition of your book seven years ago helped to launch the ungrading movement. Could you give us some background on what prompted you to move away from traditional grading systems?

Starr: Absolutely. In years one to five when I was in the classroom, I would say that I pretty much did grading and assessment the way it was done to me. And the one major significant thing that changed during that time was I had a child. And in his elementary school, they actually use standards-based grading. And when I got his first report card and saw just how much information I got from his teachers, and how the behaviors were separate from the actual learning and the narratives were really aligned with where he needed support and what was going on. I was like, Mmmh…for someone teaching AP English, only having the opportunity to give one grade, with pre slugged sort of comments that I was allowed to bubble into my… back then we were still using Scantrons for entering grades. I’m definitely dating myself by saying that, but it’s the truth. And I started getting really frustrated with that. And from there, I started doing a lot of reading. Alfie Kohn has really played with a lot of these ideas for a long time now. And then folks like Ken O’Connor, who had the book 15 Fixes for Broken Grades, his first edition, I think it’s been republished twice already, in the time since I’ve read from there. I read his book, and I was like, “Oh, my God, I am doing all of this wrong.” There are so many things on this list that I do, and I never thought about it that way, and it’s just not how I want to keep doing things. And I think there’s a synergy with when you decide to read a book, whether or not it resonates with you and whether or not you’re ready to start implementing the things that you learn. And I think I was very ready to first acknowledge that the practice I was doing wasn’t serving my students as well as I could. And I was looking for alternatives. So having those jumping off points, having read a bunch of different things, and then meeting Mark Barnes along the way as well, and experimenting with alright, well, these are suggestions for this kind of space. What does this look like in New York City public schools, as an 11th and 12th grade English teacher and also as a journalism teacher? How do I start making this work? And that’s sort of how it all happened and then it took years to figure out how do I make this work well, because I did it for a while before it worked well. [LAUGHTER] There were a lot of mistakes, unfortunately.

John: We’ve been dealing with a number of people starting to experiment with ungrading in college, but it’s a little bit easier in a college environment, I think, to make these changes, because there’s a little bit less structure imposed on teachers. How were you able to implement this in a K through 12 system?

Starr: So I think I was very fortunate to be in a very small community when I started doing this. We were six to 12. I was already a very established teacher in that community. I had a track record of getting students prepared for college. And most of the families when I made choices, always kind of knew that they were intentional, and there were reasons. And in my AP classes, that was probably the most struggle, because parents get nervous when they have 12th graders, what is this gonna look like on the transcript? How is this going to impact my students moving forward from school? And I just really tried to set up systems and to be super transparent about everything that we were doing so that first of all, I live streamed my class a lot, for better or for worse. And I say that because not every class was a winner. So if you were watching when it wasn’t a winner, like, well, this is reality, it wasn’t a good day. But I think they were able to see the rigor of what was going on in the space and despite the fact that it didn’t look like what normal AP classes looked like, they could appreciate my wanting to be flexible to the individual learners in my classroom… that even the creative projects I was asking them to do was often a lot more intensive than just doing a test or just writing a paper and gave that level of inquiry into that process as well so that students could be really excited about the learning they were doing. And the more comfortable I got with different technologies… I experimented with blogging to increase reading. That’s one of the biggest problems in English classes. I think most kids don’t read the books for a lot of different reasons. So how do you get them to read when you’re teaching a literature class, beyond just the five or seven or 10 books you’re reading as a whole class. So they started blogging, and we started using the blogging communities for recommendations on different books they were enjoying on their own and why they enjoyed it. And I really encouraged them to use that space too as a way to develop their writing voice. So it wasn’t like analytical writing all the time, it was more conversational… reaction sort of stuff to what they were reading and focused instead of like overviews of everything that they read… an analysis paper, which isn’t always fun for every single kid. I started tweaking that and I think parents appreciated my transparency. I did screencasts of our dashboard, because I had changed the way I was using the tool that my whole school was using. So like, if you have any questions, this is what it looks like, this is what you’re seeing. And if they emailed me, I just really tried to get back to them immediately, so that I could really put their concerns to rest before they started doing the thing that parents do, where they start making it a lot worse than it actually is. So I tried to catch that right away. To be honest, though, my colleagues were the ones with the greater pushback than parents and students… a couple of students, but just shifting the conversation away from grades, instead of what did I get? What did you learn? How can we track that progress over time? How do you know you learned it? Where do you see that evidence in your own learning. And I think very soon after getting in the routine of this is how we do things now they got it and saw that the level of metacognition as well as the rigor in the actual tasks were much greater than what they would have been seeing in a regular class anyway. So sometimes I got the: “this writing reflection is like a whole other paper that you’re asking us to do.” And I’m like, “Yeah, it is. But it also helps me give you better feedback, and it also helps me know where I need to adjust my instruction. So there’s a reason and it’s worthwhile, and it’s gonna help you, when you’re not just in school. This is a practice that you’ll probably carry with you.”

Rebecca: One of the things that you just brought up, Starr, is something that I definitely want to follow up on, which is getting our colleagues to also buy into this, and administrators. We exist within systems that require grade inputs. Grades are transcripted. So how do we get the people around us who support us professionally, to get on board? And what does that actually look like, functionally, when we’re generating grades when we’re saying we’re kind of ungrading all semester.

Starr: So those are really good questions. And in the second edition, I actually have built in leadership tips to support leaders who are unfamiliar with this kind of assessment practice and how they can support teachers who want to do it, if they’re not doing it wholesale as a school. I advocate for systemic use of this practice, because if we catch kids much younger, by the time they get to high school, their language and fluency in discussing their own learning is a lot greater. I was a 12th grade teacher, my kids had come through an entire system where this was not how it was done. So it was like, literally at the last minute, I’m like, “Yeah, I know, that’s the way you’ve been doing it this whole time. But we’re gonna do it a little differently and I promise you’ll still get into college.” It’s a different vibe. And my colleagues, I think, knew my students appreciated it, because they would start hearing from my students: “How come you don’t do this?” …which is also like a little bit of a target was put on my back, because if a school or a district is going to make the shift, it requires a lot of professional learning. And if you aren’t the kind of teacher who makes the time to do learning on your own, then there really does need to be supports put in place prior to it’s happening. And I’m a super reflective teacher, I did National Board Certification, I will go out of my way to get myself to a conference even if my school wasn’t paying for it. Because as an educator, I felt it was an essential part of my job to continually grow and model that for my students. But not every teacher is like that. And I’m not suggesting that everyone has to be or whatever their process is, but I do think it’s important to invite colleagues into your space, give them that “what you could do tomorrow kind of tips” like what are the first few steps you could take to try this out before you commit to it wholesale. And in terms of the grading aspect, the way that I got around the traditional grading was assessment conferences with my students. So really building in a vibrant and robust portfolio system where students were collecting their learning over a larger period of time, giving them the vocabulary to talk about their growth as they looked at those things, and then a conversation just like this. So based on the standards we worked on this marking period, where do you find yourself in terms of mastery? And what does that translate to for a report card grade, because I had to put a grade on the report card as well. So it was really just making them acutely aware of what exemplary work looks like, how they were meeting benchmarks to get there over time, and then also switch that transactional sort of relationship around getting grades to a more progress minded model, where they understand learning doesn’t happen in one sitting. And even though you may have successfully completed one assignment, that doesn’t mean you’ve mastered a particular skill, it’s just your first go at it. In order to get to that mastery level, you have to do it over time with less and less support, and kind of do it on your own.

John: What sort of buy in did you get from other teachers that you were working with?

Starr: It was secret at first. There were like people just dropping by out of curiosity to see what was going on in my classroom. Then a couple of other people just asking, “what would this look like in my gradebook?” I was very lucky in the one sense that our whole school was a portfolio school. So that part of it was already there. And then I also did some PD with my colleagues around reflection practices. We tried to really create something that was consistent, and also the same. So like I had created a process for doing reflection, which is that five steps sort of: first, you have to reexamine what was it I was asked to do? What were my steps for completing the assignment? Where do I think I’m meeting the goals that I set for myself? How am I doing that? What level am I doing that at? And what would I do differently in the future? And then we kind of scaffold that down to sixth grade up to 12th grade. So what is that kind of reflection look like in a sixth grade classroom, a seventh grade classroom, all the way up to 12. So that there are realistic expectations in that space around those things. And my classroom was always open. And I resented the fact that when my principal decided that she wanted us to go to a standards-based model, I implored her to not do it the way she did. I think we should have a pilot team, we should have a committee that does this, we should test it out first, try to get either a grade level team or a content area vertically to commit to doing this and then have input from more people. And then we need to train folks in the areas they aren’t already familiar with, starting with unpacking standards and getting them comfortable with that kind of language and what our expectations are. But that’s not what happened. It was like an email that went out. We’re going to do this this year. And it was a disaster. And I got attached to the disaster as a direct correlation to how all that happened. And unfortunately, you get one good shot to make a significant assessment or grading shift in a decade, because unless your folks are leaving quickly, no one forgets. So really setting up systems in the future, if folks who are listening want to do this on a bigger scale, set yourself up for a three- to five-year implementation plan, start small and grow it organically and provide tons of support along the way so everybody feels confident and not just your teachers, your community also. What does this look like for your parents? What are they going to be receiving that’s different? And just make sure that you have answers to commonly asked questions on the front end, so that when new stuff starts coming in, you’re ready to triage that, you’re not just answering the standard questions over and over and over again.

John: You mentioned in your first edition of the book that one of the motivations for this was to get students to focus on their learning rather than on grades. How successful was this? Did this work for most students?

Starr: For most, yes. And believe it or not, the ones that don’t traditionally do school well, who don’t play the game, it worked best for them. And as three educators sitting on this podcast right now, I think we can all agree that sometimes our brightest students are not the ones who do the best. The ones who do the best are the ones who are most committed to getting high grades and kind of checking the boxes and doing everything that they have to be compliant for in order to get that score. So when we shifted the focus away from that and started looking at skill acquisition and content deepening, and really getting them to be able to advocate for their own needs in that specific area, I think that it wasn’t just about them completing the tasks I asked them to do, but it required them to engage with me in a dialogue in the kinds of tasks they wanted to be doing, the way they wanted to be doing it. And it required my flexibility with taking that input and actually putting it into action. So I think that once they saw that I was listening to their feedback actively and using it right away to shift the way class looked, they understood that I wasn’t just saying, “I’m asking you to do this,” it was a real partnership, where if this is going to be successful, and you want your voice to be heard, you need to contribute or else you can’t complain when you don’t like what ended up happening, because I really did try to say “yes,” just about to everything, if they could articulate how their decisions and their choices aligned with what the objectives were, then I was totally hands off in their process to sort of help them be successful in the big picture. And it also really decreased the amount of folks who didn’t participate in the group work or didn’t participate in the learning. So when people say my students don’t finish work, or they don’t submit things, to me, that’s a red flag that either something else is going on that you need to get to the bottom of, or the kind of learning you’re asking them to do isn’t resonating. And rather than just pulling out the binder from what you’ve done for the last 20 years, you really do have to make a concerted effort to make changes so that it meets the needs of the kiddos that are sitting in front of you right now.

Rebecca: So you’ve talked a lot about reflection, and the role reflection is playing. Can you talk a bit about how you were able to get students up to the level of reflection that is really meaningful and gets to this metacognitive skill, building

Starr: Feedback, feedback, feedback. We give a lot of feedback to everything that kids do in the classroom. But the first few times we ask them to reflect, it’s so important that we’re also giving them feedback on their reflections, providing exemplars for them, really creating success criteria too, like that co-construction, like if I’m telling you, these are three examples that are wildly different, but all successful, what do you notice about all three of them? What are the things that need to be a part of every single reflection that we do. And then as they do them, rather than have them revise every single one that they do, since they’re doing them with every major assignment, it’s like, “alright, well, now take the feedback you got from the last one, apply it to this one and let’s see if we can’t grow you.” And usually by, I would say November, they’re already writing fairly good reflections and their ability to have conversation about their level of learning already starts to increase, because by November, you’ve already had a progress report conversation, you’ve already had a quarter one report card conversation. And I was doing a lot of modeling myself, like I would reflect openly on how successful projects went, in my estimation, and be really, really tied to the outcomes. And not just what I think or what I feel, but what I noticed, and how I would do it differently if we had the opportunity to do something similar again. And I think, again, that level of transparency and my comfort with saying to them, I don’t know how to make this better. What do you think? What made this experience challenging? Were my directions not as clear as they could have been? What do I need to learn from this experience? So it was very much a two-way street, which took time. And I do want to say that too. Like, I think I was seven or eight years into the classroom before I was comfortable enough to say “I didn’t know something.” That takes confidence in a way that you don’t really think. In the beginning of my career, I felt like I needed to be the expert over all of the students in my room, and I had to have an answer for everything. And I said a lot of wrong things because I was trying so hard to look like an authority. And I think the older I get, the more I work with educators, the more I realize that I’m a learner, I don’t know everything, even the stuff I’ve spent a lot of time teaching I don’t know everything about and new perspectives are incredibly useful in how I approach something because it’s the first time this group of kids is seeing something I might have tried before. Their input is extraordinarily useful for me to make changes moving forward.

John: It’s also a great way of nurturing a growth mindset in students by reminding them that we’re all part of this learning experience together. And that no matter how much experience you have, there’s always more you can learn. And so I think that’s a really great process. And it’s something that I think it generally takes a while for most people to get to.

Starr: Yeah.

John: So you mentioned having conferences with students, how often do you conference with students?

Starr: So, there’s lots of different levels of conferencing. So you have your in-class formative conversation where they’re asking questions and you’re taking the pulse of whether or not you’re going too fast or if you need to stop the class and do a mini lesson on something you notice everyone’s struggling with. Or if you pull a small group because only a small group of kids are really having an issue. So there’s that kind of on-the-fly conferencing where you’re walking around with a clipboard or an iPad and you’re taking notes on what you see. And then listening to the questions kids are asking and making a determination as to whether or not this is a small or bigger issue that needs to be addressed. And then there are formal conferences where kids are coming prepared to have that conversation where you’re giving them time in class. So part of my structuring… because remember, I said it took me a long time to find a system that worked that ended up in Hacking Assessment… so I started creating Google Forms, where there were very targeted questions that also aligned with the assessments that we did, and the different pieces of learning and the standards that we were addressing at that time. And before they could set up a conference, they needed to fill in that whole Google form, then I had all that informatio, so I could really target clarifying questions or gaps that we could spend our five minutes talking about. If they had done all the work to do certain things, they don’t have to rehash what I could read. And if I had 34 students in most of my classes, so there’s a lot of kids, there’s a little time, you really have to make that three to five minutes count, and give every student the opportunity to give you the most information that you could have to be able to determine what was going to go on the report card. So those conversations certainly got a lot better over time as well. The first one, there was a lot of prompting from me, a lot of questions to get them ready by conference number 2, 3, 4, and certainly by the end of the year, if you watch on my YouTube channel, I have examples of what those look like. By the end of the year, the student is doing 98% of the talking. And I’m just redirecting if they kind of get off a little bit, or if they miss a spot versus at the beginning, it’s more of like a 40-60 where I am interjecting and kind of bolstering confidence, helping them set goals and stuff. So there’s more of a give and take at the beginning of the year.

John: You mentioned giving students some choice in terms of the assignments and so forth. What are some of the more interesting assignments or learning activities that your students have come up with?

Starr: The one that always comes to mind was, towards the end of my time in the classroom, before I became an instructional coach, I literally gave my students my entire unit plan for Hamlet. And I said, “Alright, this is the way I always teach it. But I want to do it differently this year. So I want you to look at the overall objectives. And as a group, I want you to come up with something different, then we’re going to vote as a class, which group suggestion we want to go with, and whichever group is chosen, you’ll come meet with me at lunch, we’ll design an assignment together and work through the success criteria and benchmarks for doing it successfully.” And if I tell you some of the things these kids came up with, I would have never come up with in a million years. And what we landed on was these psychological profiles of the characters of Hamlet, where they had to first use the text, to use Shakespeare’s language, to diagnose them with some kind of psychological issue. For example, Gertrude would be a narcissist. And then they do research on the actual issue, so there’s a research component as well. And then they had to come up with a treatment plan for the character and create a movie that demonstrated the growth from whatever the treatment plan was. And what it really did was have this really in-depth character analysis of each character from Hamlet, regardless of which character you did, you were set on a course. And then we also created this Google form, so that when we had screenings of the movies at the end, students were actively taking notes about what they learned about the characters and giving feedback at the same time to the creators of those movies about what they learned and what they were still curious about. And it was really phenomenal, honestly. I think that I wish I would have started doing stuff like that sooner. Other examples would have been students creating movies in Minecraft, like for our satire movies, that’s usually so like, just technology, but I was very uncomfortable with, that they were able to use that. I was like, yeah, “If you could do it without my support, I could help you with content, but you’re on your own for the technology.”

Rebecca: So you’ve hinted at some of the changes in your second edition. Can you highlight some additional changes between the first and second edition?

Starr: Okay, so yes, there are a lot more resources. So over the last seven years, part of the reason I hadn’t made a second edition up till this point, was because I really wanted there to be a value added. I wanted there to be new voices I can highlight. I was really also looking for systems that started doing this work because I wanted there to be more case study material that kind of went in that it wasn’t just single teachers kind of playing with it, but actually systematizing it in ways that work for them. So there are brand new hacks and actions for every single chapter, all of them have read the first edition and implemented it in their own way. So what you’re getting is people’s take on how what they learned looks like. I really tried to implement K to higher ed. So Susan Blum did write a section as well on what it looks like in college for all of my reticent K-12 folks who were like, “This isn’t going to be viable in the future.” I had central office people write about stakeholder buy in and how they brought this into their space from a leader perspective, instead of just a classroom perspective. A lot of new tools that have been developed in the last seven years, lots of stuff about that, rubrics, progressions, not just in English, which was my background, obviously, really trying to span math, science, social studies, related arts. So there’s one with a music teacher writing about how they’ve done that in that area… elementary teachers. So there really are tons of resources with a lot of different fresh voices who are using this now, as well as a very intentional talk about equitable practices. I think a lot of this stuff is equitable, but I never thought of it in that lens until COVID. And then once COVID happened, really trying to talk about how these things address some of those gaps that need to be addressed, but weren’t explicitly tied to them in the past. So that’s really where the bulk of things have shifted. And then there’s an incredible appendix with lots and lots of examples of everything.

John: And your first edition was wonderful. It provides a lot of good resources. And in each section, it talks about how to deal with pushback, which is one of the things anyone introducing something new has to deal with. So I’m assuming that continues into the second edition.

Starr: Yep, sure does.

John: So your first edition was very successful, and has received a lot of traction at all levels of education, and helped spur the ungrading movement at the college level that we’ve been talking about a lot in the last couple of years with our guests, and with many of our colleagues. For those people who have read the first edition, what would be the benefits to them of picking up the second edition, and who should they share that with at their institutions?

Starr: So I’m really hopeful that this time, it’s not individual teachers picking the book up on their own, although I certainly advocate for that. I want to see teams use this as a PLN opportunity and explore the text in a way that makes sense to them. It is not narrative, necessarily. So each chapter is its own sort of entity. And so I would encourage folks to choose the chapter that they’re most ready for at this moment and pick it apart in a way that’s going to make most sense for their practice.

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

Starr: Oh, I’m so glad you asked. So what’s next for me right now, we are doing a free book study with the new book when it launches August 2, and it’ll be on Amazon. And then also, once this one launches, and things are moving, I’m under contract with ASCD for my next book, which is specifically about portfolios and student-led conferences. So that is still something that’s a little thinner in Hacking Assessment, because I think that that really requires a little bit more depth than I could give it in that book in one chapter. So I am currently working on that and really trying to gather with some of the districts that I’m working with to build really great systems for building portfolios. What does that look like? And how do you parlay that piece into these student-led conferences so that you can have a robust system in your space?

John: That sounds like a great supplement. Well, thank you. It’s great talking to you. We’ve heard mention of your book from many of our past guests, and I’m glad I was finally able to get to read it. And I’m looking forward to the second edition, which should be arriving soon.

Starr: Awesome. Thank you so much.

Rebecca: Yeah, thank you so much. This is such great information and we’re looking forward to all your new work as well.

Starr: 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.


249. Winning the first day

Faculty that fit the cultural stereotype of a white male professor are often presumed authority figures in the classroom. Faculty that do not conform to this stereotype can face challenges in acquiring student acceptance of their expertise. In this episode, Sheri Wells-Jensen and Emily K. Michael join us to discuss the role the first day of class can play in addressing these challenges.

Show Notes

  • Neuhaus, Jessamyn (forthcoming, 2022). Picture a Professor: Interrupting Biases about Faculty and Increasing Student Learning. West Virginia University Press.
  • Wordgathering
  • Wells-Jensen, S. (2018). The Case for Disabled Astronauts. Scientific American.
  • Smith, K. C., Abney, K., Anderson, G., Billings, L., Devito, C. L., Green, B. P., … & Wells-Jensen, S. (2019). The great colonization debate. Futures, 110, 4-14.
  • Wells-Jensen, S., Miele, J. A., & Bohney, B. (2019). An alternate vision for colonization. Futures, 110, 50-53.
  • SETI Institute
  • Mission: AstroAccess
  • Baruch Blumberg Chair in Astrobiology


John: Faculty that fit the cultural stereotype of a white male professor are often presumed authority figures in the classroom. Faculty that do not conform to this stereotype can face challenges in acquiring student acceptance of their expertise. In this episode, we discuss the role the first day of class can play in addressing these challenges.


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 Sheri Wells-Jensen and

Emily: K. Michael. Sheri is an Associate Professor of Linguistics at Bowling Green State University.

Emily: is a poet, musician, and writing teacher and is the poetry editor for Wordgathering: A Journal of Disability Poetry and Literature at Syracuse University. Sheri and

Emily: co-authored with Mona Makara a chapter in Picture a Professor entitled “How Blind Professors Win the First Day: Setting Yourselves Up for Success.” Welcome,

Emily: and Sheri.

Sheri: Hello.

Emily:: Hello.

John: Thanks for joining us. Our teas today are…

Emily:, are you drinking tea?

Emily:: I’m not, I’m drinking water.

John: And Sheri?,

Sheri: I am not drinking tea, I wish that I were. If I were it’d be some awesome lavender thing,

Rebecca: …which would be very nice. I have Scottish breakfast today.

John: And I have English breakfast today.

Rebecca: Before we get started talking about your chapter,

Emily: and Sheri, you do such really interesting and fascinating work. Can you share a little bit about some of the things that you do in your scholarly and creative activity?

Emily:, do you want to start?

Emily:: Sure, I got my masters and my bachelor’s degree in English. And I always knew that I wanted to teach English. But I didn’t start writing creatively until I finished my master’s program. And I kind of looked into the great abyss of what am I going to do with my life. And professors suggested that I start writing creatively. So I did, I started writing essays. And I had the first couple of pieces accepted for publication, and it really encouraged me. So I didn’t really attempt a lot of scholarly work, although my interests were scholarly. I’m very fascinated by disability studies, by environmental literature, and by how music affects people mentally, physically, emotionally. So as I continue to teach at UNF, I continue to publish essays and poetry mostly and I started doing some reviews. And then I was an associate poetry editor for WordGathering, which is located at Syracuse University. So that has been really exciting to be able to read and review and encourage up and coming and experienced disabled poets as well.

Rebecca: It’s been nice reading some of your work recently,


Emily:: Thank you.

Rebecca: How about you, Sheri?

Sheri: I started off as a young person wanting to go into astronomy and physics, and kind of a long, winding path later, I was in the Peace Corps, and was just smitten by the genius that was my Spanish as a second language set of teachers. These women, I just thought they were the most amazing people I’ve ever met. And I wanted to be just like them because they were brilliant, and they had technical knowledge, and they were super intuitive, and I was just amazed by them. And so my studies became linguistics, and I got a PhD in linguistics. And then my first year working at Bowling Green State University, our department chair asked me as new faculty what I’d like to teach in the summer. And I just reached randomly into my mind and said, I would like to teach a class in Xenolinguistics, combining astronomy and linguistics. And what would an alien language be like if there were an alien language? And instead of saying, “That’s the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard in my life,” he said, “Oh, okay, go do that thing.” [LAUGHTER] Which meant for my first year, I was desperately scrambling to prepare that class and figure out what it was I would say about that, and what that would all be like. And so that landed me on another long trip, which has placed me in this remarkable position of studying the intersection of astrobiology and disability studies. So what would your mind and cognition be like if you had a totally different body in a different environment on a different kind of planet? And how would that affect your language? And then how would that affect your mind? And to some extent, then, could we ever communicate with beings like that, which also led me thinking about humans in outer space, and disabled people traveling into space on commercial and governmental space vessels.

John: Each of you and your co-author come from very different disciplinary approaches. How did you come together to write this chapter for Picture A Professor?

Sheri: So I saw the call for papers. And I thought, “Oh, this is so cool, because I think a lot about pedagogy, obviously.” And I think a lot about what it is I have to do differently, since I’m blind, what it is I have to do differently than other faculty and how that’s similar and how that’s different. And I started thinking about writing it myself. And then I thought, “Yeah, but I’m only coming from this small place of my own experience and my own discipline.” And so I was thinking, who are fabulous people that I could get to co-author this with me. And I thought immediately of both Mona and

Emily: as people who are in very different disciplines, Mona, being a chemist, and

Emily: being more on the creative writing end of things and I thought, “Well, let’s see how our experiences might complement one another.”

Rebecca: Can you tease us a little bit about your chapter in Picture a Professor?

Emily:: We had so much fun putting this together, we all got together on a zoom call, because of course, it was COVID time. And we all just started sharing stories, what happened to you? what happened to you? Oh my god, that happened to me too. So I really think it was cathartic for all of us to share that we all had the same bad experiences, but also that we all found workarounds to deal with negative experiences in the classroom and to deal with the inaccessibility of most classrooms. But we started from a place of gathering common experiences. And most of them, I would say, when we started to narrow it down to first day of instruction, it was that we walked in, and students thought “that’s not my teacher,” or “that couldn’t possibly be my teacher,” because we all talked about how we look so different. So Sherry uses a white cane. I use a guide dog, but I haven’t always used a guide dog. And we’re all different ages. And then when you walk in, and you’re visibly disabled, the students think that your lost, most of them will say, “Oh, can I help you find a seat?” And I’m like carrying a huge pile of photocopies like, “I’m the teacher, here’s the syllabus,” and they’re shocked. And so we really thought, let’s focus on the first day, and really talk about how we negotiate those impressions of us that are so off because again, for most students, we’re the first blind person they’ve ever met. And they’re just shocked that we would be allowed to teach. And then it’s like, “Oh, this isn’t a class about Braille. So what are you doing here?”

Sheri: Right, exactly. And then our philosophy on managing first- day scenario is much like you might hear anywhere else, except that this is not optimal for us… if we want to survive and want our classes to go well, we’ve got to deliberately engage with the narrative and take control of it. So we can’t let students decide what the class is going to be like. We have to decide what the class is going to be like, and with firmness and respect and lovingness. And let me go back to firmness. [LAUGHTER] Tell the students “This is how it’s going to be. Listen, friends, this is how the class is gonna go. Love ya. Pay attention. We are going to have to change your focus here.” And we want to be in a place where disability is neither central to the conversation nor taboo, and negotiate that… not so much that we’re negotiating who we are. But what we’re doing is taking the students, meeting them to some degree where they’re, at with the understanding that they might think this is weird, and explaining that, “Okay, it’s not weird, you’re going to be fine. Welcome to the ride.”

Rebecca: Here we go. It’s the adventure of the semester. Can you share maybe a tip that you talk about in the chapter?

Sheri: One of the things that we talk a lot about, which is necessary for us as blind people, is the preparation of the physical environment. So when I teach in a new classroom, I go there in advance, I scope it out. And this is part sort of grounding myself and part getting in touch with the physical environment. So I go into the class ahead of time, I take one of the seats, and I sit there and I think, “Okay, this is the perspective of the student, this is where they’re going to walk in, they’re going to take one of these seats. What’s this room like?” And that sort of helps me to ground myself, take a few minutes to breathe. And then I also kind of do the search, I kind of check around: Where’s the fire extinguisher, If there is one? Where are the windows? Where are all the exits? What is the arrangement of the seats? Do the seats move? I answer all those questions for myself. So that just like when my kids were little, I knew my physical environment so well, that whatever noise they made in the room, I knew what made that noise. That’s how my toddler survived, [LAUGHTER] ‘cause kids get into everything. So the way that I made sure that everything was safe for my toddlers was that I knew what was in my room and where it all was, so that when the kids did something, I’m like, “Oh, I understand that you are now messing with thing X.” And so we all do the same thing with our rooms, we make sure we know where the light switches are… the whole nine yards. And this is particularly necessary for us. But it’s a good idea for everyone to go take up your space, to own your space, to have your classroom kind of be your stage… more staging area than stage, I guess… so that you know what’s happening in there and that you feel very comfortable walking around in it and welcoming people into it.

Rebecca: Classrooms are so different. And if you don’t take the time to be embodied in those spaces, you can really stumble around on your first day, no matter who you are. And the technology is different, the layouts different. And then there’s always the variable of the students. So the more variables [LAUGHTER] you can be aware of before the unknown of the students comes in the better.

Emily:: I recently made the switch to teaching high school. And one thing that I got surprisingly emotional about… I did not expect to be so emotional about it… but I have my own classroom, and it’s mine. I don’t have to move. I don’t have to trade classrooms with anyone. And like you said, every classroom is different. And so as a college professor, you’re constantly a traveling teacher. You never get to settle anywhere. You have four or five classrooms for the semester. But again, If a faculty member rearranges the tables, and you walk in, you don’t know that. If the lights aren’t working to your advantage, you don’t know that till you get there. And so I remember my principal had picked out classrooms for me when I first started teaching high school and said: “I think this should be your room because it didn’t have any windows…” and I’m very light sensitive, so I want a dim lighting, I didn’t want sunlight. And she walked around and pointed to all the things that she had considered when she chose that room for me, I just started sobbing, I mean, I was so embarrassed, [LAUGHTER] you know, because that was my room. And when I walked in, I would know where everything was. And I would be able to control the lighting and she took all the outlet covers and replaced them with a contrasting color, so that I could actually find my outlets. It was huge. And I thought, “Wow, this is something that I never experienced at the college level.” There’s something very special about it being your room, and it just takes so much weight off of having to adjust every time you walk into, essentially, a classroom that you’re renting for that semester.

Sheri: Oh, that’s huge. Oh, my gosh, what a wonderful thing. I think the other thing, that if we could throw out one more thing that I think is really important from our chapter, which is for any professor who finds themselves not in the majority, is to avoid the usual advice. I think when I got started in grad school, someone said to me, “Well, you know, you’re gonna have to work four times as hard as anybody else.” And that, to some extent is true. But it doesn’t have to be as true as they say it is. Teachers already work really hard. It’s not really possible to work four times as hard as most teachers, it’s not like most teachers are sitting by the pool sipping margaritas all day long, [LAUGHTER] just like oh, I guess I’ll go teach now no big deal. That’s just not how it plays out. And so if you are a teacher with a disability, or if you’re a person of color, you know, if you’re LGBTQ, whatever your situation is, you can’t be 400% better than anybody else. And so the solution is to be just a little bit smarter, and to leverage what we already know about good pedagogy to your advantage, so that you’re not working harder, you’re working smarter.

John: So what would the first day of one of your classes be like for students in the class? One of the things I’ve been hearing a lot about recently, in some of our faculty conversations is “syllabus day.” And recently, someone even threw out this term “syllabus week,” both of which seemed like one of the worst things you could do on that first day. How do you start off your classes?

Emily:: I am guilty of syllabus day. [LAUGHTER] But I found a couple of ways to make it more interactive. So my students walk in. Usually their seats are not assigned on the first day, especially now that I’m teaching high school, I work with assigned seats, but in college you never do. I usually don’t. And there’s questions on the board designed to get them thinking about what the class is really going to be like, that maybe they might be provocative questions like, “Is there such a thing as standard English?” or “What is the emotional value of poetry?” …things that there’s not a clear right answer to which is what drives most students crazy. [LAUGHTER] And we kind of do a little introduction, and I do pass out the syllabus. Some of it is just again based on time, but if I have a nice long chunk of time I pass out the syllabus, then I make them either work alone or with a partner and come up with two questions from the syllabus or two expectations about the course. So I explain the nuts and bolts that I know they need to hear. And I also introduce my guide dog ‘cause he’s usually in the corner and they’re all looking at him anyway. [LAUGHTER] So, I introduce him, I tell them they can’t pet him or talk to him. So I crush their spirits a little bit. But then we do get into a more interactive approach to the syllabus where we will go around the room that I hear from every student an expectation about my class, like, “Oh, we’re going to write 20 page papers in here.” And then I could say, “No, we’re not.” And then I also take their questions. And what I feel that this does, instead of me just reading the syllabus, which I’m not terribly good or comfortable reading long chunks of material out loud, I feel that it makes me the authority in the world because I have all the answers. So when they have a question, are we going to write 20 page papers? I can say, “No, you’re not.” But I’m the one with that answer. And so instead of coming in and saying, “Oh, is she really my teacher?” …and for the more hostile students, “Does she qualify to be my teacher?” This makes me the clear authority in my own classroom.

Sheri: Yeah, I’m gonna agree with

Emily:. I don’t like syllabus day, but I do a couple of syllabus day things, because it’s really important for both my comfort and honestly for the comfort of my students that they feel safe with me in charge. So I do go in more on the first day than some of my colleagues do, and say, “Okay, sit yourselves down friends, this is how the class is gonna go, and this is who is in charge,” because their default is that I’m not in charge, and that someone else is going to come in and do things for me, or that they’re gonna have to take responsibility for doing things that they ordinarily would not have to do. So I agree with

Emily:. I also do a little bit of that. Here are the rules of the test. I establish how we’re going to interact, since they’re not going to raise their hands. That’s a big question that many of them have on the first day: “How are you going to know if I want to talk to you?” …and just some really basic uncertainties that they might have about me being in charge of their classroom. And so we do a bunch of that, and then I have them sit and write for five minutes. I have them make a list of everything you don’t know about language, just go. And then I put them in the groups and they compare, you know, what don’t you know? what don’t you know? and that kind of sets this class up for two things. First, this class is a safe place in that you have a real teacher. And also, we’re going to do really cool things, and you’re going to find out things that maybe you want to know.

Emily:: I would also like to add that it’s important on day one to do your best to set aside every negative experience you’ve ever had. Because most of the time, our students are not hostile. They just don’t know any better about how to treat you. So if you walk in and think “they’re all judging me and you feel defensive,” it’s the worst place you can speak from. And this applies to anyone: fat, thin, blonde, brunette, anything that you think: “Oh, my students are making fun of me, they’re judging me.” As a teacher, you have to turn that off, even if they are, [LAUGHTER] you have to turn it off. Because you can’t stand up there and maintain yourself as a teacher and feel insecure. And an example that I have is walking around the room, walking from table to table, hearing their questions about the class. A student said, “Are you blind?” I said, “Yes.” And I instantly felt embarrassed. Oh my gosh, I don’t know. It’s not always easy to be called out, even though it’s something that’s very obvious. And the student said: “oh, okay, I just wasn’t sure.” Totally neutral. I mean, the student wasn’t hostile. And at the end of class, the student came up to me and said, “I didn’t know that a blind person could be my teacher.” It’s really cool. So if we can try our best to set aside ego and to walk into this experience like, “okay, they’re gonna love me.” …like, psych yourself up a little bit, it’s gonna go better. I mean, you have the right to be in that classroom. And that’s something that you have to remember when you walk in on that first day.


Emily:, you say half the things I’m thinking, that’s really cool. And I would just add to that, that you have to absolutely have to go into it pumped and ready. And you also have to go into it, knowing your history and knowing that it could happen. So we don’t want to pretend bad experiences never happen, and we’re not ready, I’m ready for them to be hostile. So maybe I’m a little more jaded than

Emily: is. I am totally ready for them to walk out as the individual students have done on me before. But I approach it as: I know, this could happen, but I’m cool. I got this. And I also overtly tell them: I’m blind, and this is relevant to you in the following three ways. And then we just talk about it. I just talk about it. And I don’t open it up as a big let’s answer all your questions about blindness. That’s not the topic of the class, but I do present it to them and explain to them how it is going to be relevant to them in this classroom situation. And then we move on, we get on to the business of doing the cool stuff that we came here to do.

John: And when I mentioned syllabus day, I was not trying to suggest it’s a bad idea to distribute the syllabus and go over the basic ground rules. What concerns me are the people who say, well, they just go through the syllabus point by point and reading it, and it sounds like you’re each doing something much more engaging than that.

Sheri: Here’s hoping. [LAUGHTER]

Emily:: That’s the goal.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about your educational journeys as students and then now as faculty members, what has that looked like for you?

Emily:: I had an unusual educational journey, I don’t know how far back you’d like me to go. But I went to private school from K through 12. And from K through eight, I never used a cane, a white cane. And I just knew that I had low vision. And if you know anything about the blind, there’s lots of terms, but low vision is just somebody who’s not really blind, kind of have a low key… like big, thick glasses. When I made the transition to high school, I also made the transition to using a cane. My vision didn’t get any worse, but my campus was much more complicated. And so I moved from being somebody who wasn’t visibly disabled to somebody who was. And that also meant I became the target of a lot of negative attention. So high school for me, it was fun, in all the ways that high school is fun, but it was the first time that really people had made fun of my disabilities. And then I got to college, and I remember thinking college is really cool, because nobody makes fun of my disability. So I moved in these circles and it gave me a lot of things to think about in terms of my identity. And so now when I teach, I’m aware of how to respond to students who feel that there’s something shameful in the way that they’re made… in their disability, whether it’s visible or invisible. I can respond to that. I can say, “Okay, I’ve had bad experiences, and I’ve had good experiences, but I was always good in school.” I was a nerd, front-row student. And my biggest wake up call when I was teaching college was that not all students love school. I mean, I can’t believe that I have to say that out loud. Like I can’t believe I had to learn that, because I love school. So I thought everybody loves school. Not all students want to be in school. Again, I love school. And then I didn’t know what it felt like to be a C student, because I’ve never been one. And so one of my students said, “When you’re a C student, you’re ashamed to come to class, to know what you haven’t done.” And I had never thought about that before. And again, I’m a pretty empathetic person. It was a shock that I had never thought about that before. So what I have tried to do with my students is really dig into their history, because like I said, most teachers liked me. I did struggle in college with some professors who had never taught a blind kid before. So like one woman said, “Oh, I’ve never taught one of you before.” I was like, “You mean, a person?” [LAUGHTER] And she never learned my name. And she was just a weirdo. But then I had other professors who I had to constantly remind them to help me with my accommodations and things like that. I had very few teachers who just didn’t like me. And I don’t think that I’m anything special, that I’m a good student, and most most of the time we like our good students. I talked to my students about what it’s like to be somebody that your teachers don’t like, and how hard it is to ask for help when you think the teacher doesn’t like you, because now that I teach high school, I see a lot more of that, “Oh, she doesn’t like me, She doesn’t like me.” And some of my students say that about me, “She doesn’t like me.” And I have to really dig through and tell them, “I’m tough on you, but it’s not because I don’t like you. It’s just two totally separate issues.” But again, when a student has a history of being a troublemaker or problem kid, they don’t come into class wanting to be there, and they don’t know how to relate to their teacher. And so I think those are some of the things I’m still figuring out because I’m a relatively young teacher. So in a way, for me, the biggest issue academic was not my blindness, it was learning how to empathize with people at different levels of academic intelligence.

Rebecca: Thanks for sharing that story,

Emily:, something that we all need to think about. Most of us who are teachers like school.

SHEERI: …and most of us are big nerds, too.

Rebecca: Yeah.

Sheri: So I started out passionate about astronomy and physics. I was a big science fiction reader. I read goofy science books for fun. Although there weren’t very many books available to me as the blind kid. I’m fully blind, so I’ve read Braille my whole life. In the 70s, growing up in southeastern Michigan… lovely place to grow up… but it’s not a place where they expect young blind girls to go off to be astronomers. It’s not that anyone said, “Don’t be stupid, you’re not allowed,” but I could read the room. And I could tell when I started to get into higher math in high school, the hesitation that came into everyone’s voices, and the delays that came to me when I said things like, “Oh, well, I guess it’s geometry time.” Anyway, they were like “You could take geometry… we could get that book for you…” And I don’t know, it would have been different, maybe, if they’d said, “No, you can’t.” Maybe that would have created some kind of resistance in me, I would have insisted, but they never did. They were just kind of like, “Uh, you could do that, I suppose.” And being interested in adult approval as I was, I thought I can read this room, I know what it is given to me to do. So I majored in psychology. You remember those MASH episodes? I wanted it to be that…. what was his name? Sidney Friedman… the psychologist who would come out and do the big dramatic save on the traumatized soldier, and I thought, “Oh, okay, I could do that. That’d be cool.” [LAUGHTER] And I ended up in the Peace Corps, teaching English and doing some other things, and ended up in linguistics from there. And I began to see in my classrooms, I began to find students that were like me, in that they had also set aside something they were deeply passionate about. And they had also decided that they could read the room. And they’d also decided that they were going to take a different path than the thing that filled them with fire and joy. And they had shut down, or they felt the fire, but were reading in their lives messages that “You could do that if you want to.” That’s not straight up a disability thing. That’s the thing that we tell young people all the time, we tell everybody that all the time, I mean, just settle down, don’t be going all crazy on me… don’t do these wild things. And so I find so many students that have this deep longing to do something important, or to follow a specific path. And what I tell them, and I think is really true, is that if you ignore that fire, it will go out. If you don’t feed that flame in you, you’ll lose it. And that will be not only sad for you, but it will be sad for the rest of the world. So I try to think about that when I’m teaching and I find a student who’s good at something to be sure and go, “You’re really good at that. Have you thought about pursuing this as a career?” or, you know, “This doesn’t seem to be your thing, what is your thing? Tell me what your thing is.” …and try to remind them that they’re not here just to check boxes, and to grow old and then die. They’re here to really do a thing. And I don’t know what that thing is, but they secretly do. And if you sit and ask people about it, eventually they will tell you where their passion is. And sometimes it just takes a little tiny bit of work to fan that flame in students. And then they can start off on a thing that they’ve always wanted to do. And sometimes it needs to be tempered. Not everyone can drop out of school and take their guitar and travel Europe and be successful. But there’s always ways of accessing that fire that you have burning inside you. And I’m really grateful that I’ve been able to turn it around as an academic and do things that I really love, and not just things that will create a paycheck.

Rebecca: I love that. And I love thinking about ways to do that for our students.

Sheri: Yeah.

Rebecca: So Sheri, one of your research interests focuses on disability and inclusion in space exploration and astrobiology. And your publications on this topic include a Scientific American article on “The Case for Disabled Astronauts,” and you also address the impact of blindness on extra terrestrial communication and colonization. Can you tell us just a little bit about your work in this area. You’ve teased about it a bit, but it’s so interesting.

Sheri: It is so much fun. I’ll tell you the story of how I got started in this. Because I taught this xenolinguistics class a million years ago, my first year teaching at Bowling Green State University, I got a random, almost random, invitation to attend a colloquium that they were having at the Search for Extraterrestrial Institute, you know that Carl Sagan place… oh my God, it was so amazing. And that almost killed me, I was so excited, [LAUGHTER] like the excitement was almost too much from my heart to stand. And so in a desperate urge to not look foolish in front of people who knew Carl Sagan, I read frantically through the SETI literature. And I found a repeated claim in that literature, that any extraterrestrial race capable of building a telescope capable of intelligence and building a civilization, for example, would have some analogue of human visual perception. And I thought, what? Really? You can’t imagine a race of intelligent blind aliens that could build buildings and have science? What is that? And so I wrote what I thought was a really cool paper about the path of the development of science in a blind species. And it was really fun. And we talked about how, of course, they wouldn’t start with astronomy, like humans did, because I’ve never seen the stars like they couldn’t see the stars. So what would they do? And I wrote this cool paper, and I was very excited about it. And I presented it at a conference and we had this lively debate. And we argued… it was back and forth, we had so much fun. And a lot of them came around, like, “Oh, okay, we get it. Yeah, that could happen.” Blind aliens could build a telescope, blind aliens could build rocket ships and fly into space. And I felt fantastic about it. And then my paper was over. And I said, thank you, and I started walking with my cane toward the edge of the platform, which obviously, I just climbed up 45 minutes earlier, and a guy jumped up from the front row of seats, and he came running, like pelting, toward me, and he said, “let me help you down those stairs.” And I thought, “oh, no, oh, no, we have just established that blind aliens could do all these things. But you are unwilling to let a blind human walk down three padded stairs.” And I thought, “This is harder than I thought it was gonna be. It’s not like you can just present people with facts.” And they’ll go, “Oh, all those prejudices and assumptions I had, I guess I’ll just consciously set those aside now because I know better.” That’s not how it works. And so I started thinking about access to STEM fields for disabled people in general and blind people specifically. And I started working in that area. And I started thinking about, “Well, what is the ultimate goal?” For many astronomers and physicists, they all want to go to the International Space Station, don’t they? Well, can they? Well, no, right now, they really can’t. And so I started working with some folks to figure out what are those barriers, specifically? What are the accommodations that we would need to make that possible, given that if we have long-term human settlements in outer space, some of those people will become disabled while they’re there, because space is freaking dangerous and tries to kill you all the time. It’s not a safe place to live. [LAUGHTER] So disability and injury are gonna happen. We will have disabled people in space. And then what do we do about that? If they’re on the way to Mars, and people become disabled? Are we going to chuck them out the airlock? Or are we going to have constructed our environments and our policies such that those people who have acquired some disability along the way can still not only survive, but continue to be trusted and effective members of the crew. And if we’ve got that in place, you can become disabled in space and still keep your job. It’s not a big jump to maybe we need to rethink who goes to space and allow the best scientists and the best thinkers and poets or whoever we need in space to go there regardless of disability. I work with Mission:AstroAccess which sends disabled people on zero-G parabolic flights. So we all get a little taste of microgravity and we do research to see what accommodations we need there in zero gravity to be effective members of a crew. And I don’t think I’ve ever worked so hard or had so much fun in my whole life.

Rebecca: …sounds like a healthy balance of both.

Sheri: Yeah, absolutely.


Emily:, on your blog, you wrote that your experiences provide a different perspective among people who are equally different. And also that the norm itself is a myth. Could you elaborate on that just a little bit?

Emily:: I think the easiest way to think about this is that often when I meet perfect strangers, they assume that I am worse off in the grocery store, Starbucks on campus, say things like they’re sorry for me, or there was a woman who said, “Well, I’m so sorry that you have a guide dog, but I’m happy you could finally find someone to love you.” I thought, wow. [LAUGHTER] I thought, whoa, whoa, I was just at the symphony. And I loved the symphony. And I wasn’t alone. So theoretically, I had found other people who love me as well.

Sheri: Oh my God.

Rebecca: Bizarre.

Emily:: But this idea that, as a disabled person, you’re automatically worse off than other people. And this is when you look into disability studies is part of it as what we call the medical model. And then part of it is what you call the symbolic model where disability some kind of curse or tragedy. And there’s a danger to saying: “Aren’t we all a little bit disabled, because many of us have needs that are not taken care of by the common desire of our society?” So for example, most of us could walk into a building without an elevator and still make it around. There are certain people who if they use a wheelchair, they wouldn’t be able to. But when I look at my group of students, most of them can. If we go to the grocery store, most of them can pick up a soup can and read it, and I can’t. So disability and disability rights are useful designations because they point to a portion of the population that is not covered by the features that we’ve already got in place. However, the fact that I have a disability does not mean that I’m automatically worse off, I’m automatically sitting in a corner thinking about how little vision I have. I remember one time, I went into a bank, and I swiped my card, and the teller congratulated me: “Good for you.” And I said, “Well, I didn’t even buy anything.” [LAUGHTER] So she said, “Well, don’t worry, honey, I run into walls all the time.” And I said, “Well, I don’t, so you might want to get that checked out.” [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Geez.

Emily:: So it’s the idea that my blindness is not a loss of perspective, it is certainly challenging. It is not to say that it’s not challenging, and probably the biggest challenge is dealing with people’s attitudes. And it is exhausting somedays, to be different from others in a way that is not as common. However, I’m not special because of my disability, I’m special because of who I am. My disability is part of who I am. I’m not automatically more saintly, or more insightful because of my disabilities. It’s about how we respond to the hand of cards that were dealt. And that’s kind of what I want to get at is the idea of what is normal. We have typical behavior, we have acceptable standards of behavior. But what’s normal for me might not be normal for someone else, in the sense that it doesn’t mean that my method is wrong. Something that I often feel self conscious about as if I get disoriented when I’m in a public place. Because other people might see me fumbling around and they might think, “oh my gosh, she’s not okay.” But I need that time to figure out where I am. And it’s not helpful for other people to be like, “Go to your left, go to your left.” That’s disorienting. I need to reorient and see where I am. I’ll never forget, I went into a grocery store and there was a mirror on the back of the bathroom door, which I didn’t see going in. But when I came out, or I tried to come out, I was like, “Where is the door?” I could not find it. The mirror was there. Luckily, no one was in the bathroom because I would have been so embarrassed. Because again, it does make you feel like there’s some kind of cartoon just kind of fumbling around. And finally it was like, ‘Oh, I feel hinges, okay, here’s the door. There’s a mirror on the back of the door.” That was crazy. And so I came out. I told my friends “Oh my god, I was trapped in there” and they were cracking up. But again, it’s like Sheri said about the stairs. People want to rush to help you but sometimes help is not helpful. It’s like, “Give me a minute to adjust. And then I will ask you if I still need help, for what I need help with.”


Emily: just made such a really good point. And I think one of the skills that we have learned as disabled people is to be okay with other people being uncomfortable with us, because they’re just gonna have to. If I’m in a meeting, for example, and the material is not provided to me in advance as required in our department, I will leave because I’m not going to be able to participate fully… my time is better used. I could do anything, I could go grade papers, I could go brush the cat, anything would be even more useful to me, than sitting in a meeting where the stuff is not provided, and I can’t participate. And so I was just mentioning that to someone. And she said to me, “I don’t think that’s respectful. I feel really uncomfortable when you walk out.” And I thought, “that’s too bad for you, isn’t it?” I’m sorry, that… actually I’m not sorry… but your discomfort, this cannot control what I do in my life, or where I go, or what I decide I’m going to try to achieve. Because if I… I think I can easily say we… if we allow other people’s ideas of what they’re comfortable with us doing to control us, we would be sitting in a corner doing nothing all day long. So there is a necessary element of defiance in what we do every day.

Emily:: Funny about the meeting, I have the same problem, because I require large print. I was at a meeting one time and there weren’t enough agendas. And they didn’t bring one for me in large print. So I took mine, I said, “Oh,” and I handed it to the professor who needed one, “please take mine. I can’t read it anyway, I would like someone else to be able to use it.” So you learn a little bit of theatrics to get people’s attention, because sometimes nice and respectful, doesn’t get people’s attention, and you can email them and say, “Please don’t forget my agenda.” And when they don’t have it, you can say, “Oh, I totally get it. But please still print it.” And you know, a million things can happen. So compliant and respectful. And I never want to be disrespectful. But there’s a way to say something with a smile that helps people to understand: “No, I’m at a disadvantage here because you literally didn’t print off an agenda for me.” And I’ve even told people: “Send it to me ahead of time, I’ll print it, I don’t care, I just want to be able to participate.” And so it is hard to get up and walk out. And people always assume you’ve got a bad attitude, you’ve got a bad attitude. And that’s where the exhaustion comes from. Because those are daily battles. There’s always the commercials, and they’ll say, “Oh, people who are losing their vision, will say “I can’t see the faces of my grandchildren. I can’t see a sunset. I can’t see any number of beautiful works of art.” And that’s not really what upsets me. What upsets me is when I am shut out of an experience because other people just happen to forget what I needed and there’s not anything I can do to access the things I need.

Sheri: Yeah, I agree with everything

Emily: just said, and I am willing to be disrespectful, or to be perceived as disrespectful if I’ve done my due diligence, and I’ve given it a try, and I’ve been clear and it’s not happening, I will walk out.

Rebecca: Such important reminders about our everyday experiences in rooms and spaces and with people. We really appreciate your time and attention and wonderful stories and contributions today. We want to be respectful of your time too. So we always wrap up by asking: “What’s next?”

Emily:: I have some long term literary goals. I have this book that I’m setting it up being part of Picture a Professor, because it’s a really cool collection. And I have some poetry coming up in another collection pretty soon. For me, I recently got certified as a high school teacher. So that has been on my mind. And I haven’t had time to do much writing. So I’m really looking forward to getting back into regular poetry and having something to submit. My long term goal is a collection of essays. I have a ton of essays that I’ve written, I just want to put them all together. Definitely not a memoir, though, I have a thing about young people writing memoirs way too early. [LAUGHTER] The tentative title for my essay collection is something that a waitress said to me at a restaurant when I was trying to read the menu that was too small. And she said, “Oh, she’s smelling the menu. That’s interesting.” And I said, “I’m not smelling the menu.” So,my mom always said you should call it “No, I am not smelling the menu and other essays.” [LAUGHTER] Long term goal would be an essay collection and then I have a poetry chapbook which is very small, and I would like to put together a full length collection of poetry as well.

Rebecca: Awesome. Lots of wonderful things there. How about you Sheri?

Sheri: I am delighted to be able to say finally publicly that I’ve accepted the position of the Baruch Blumberg Chair in astrobiology, which is a six-month residency at the Library of Congress, funded by NASA. And I’ll be doing that for the first part of 2023, during which time, I’ll be working on all kinds of things related to disability in space, including writing a book about our first zero-G parabolic flight, sort of how that came together. I’ve also applied to fly on our November flight. So hopefully I’ll get my second zero-G experience. And if not, then it’s also fine because then I can play ground crew which is fascinating work. So that is my immediate plan, to go to Washington DC for six months and immerse myself in the Library of Congress and NASA and spend time writing and meeting fascinating and interesting people.

Rebecca: Sounds really cool for both of you.

John: Thank you. It’s been great talking to you and we look forward to sharing this episode with our listeners.

Sheri: 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.


248. Reframing Academic Expertise

Professors are generally represented in popular culture as white male experts who dispense knowledge to their students through lectures. Young female professors are often encouraged to portray themselves as authoritative figures, even when this role does not reflect their personalities and their educational philosophies. In this episode, Rebecca Scott joins us to discuss how she has rejected this stereotype by sharing vulnerability and building classes that rely on the co-creation of knowledge.

Show Notes


John: Professors are generally represented in popular culture as white male experts who dispense knowledge to their students through lectures. Young female professors are often encouraged to portray themselves as authoritative figures, even when this role does not reflect their personalities and their educational philosophies. In this episode, we discuss how one professor has rejected this stereotype by sharing vulnerability and building classes that rely on the co-creation of knowledge.


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 Rebecca Scott. Rebecca is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Harper College, and also a guitarist and vocalist in the band Panda Riot, which just released their fourth album. She’s also the author of a chapter in Picture a Professor, edited by our friend Jessamyn Neuhaus from SUNY Plattsburgh. Welcome, Rebecca.

Rebecca S.: Thank you. I’m excited to be here.

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

Rebecca S.: I’m drinking coffee.

Rebecca: Oh, a coffee drinker….

John: Well, we drink coffee too, once in a while.

Rebecca: Very occasionally, but not on this podcast. [LAUGHTER]

John: I am drinking Irish Breakfast tea this morning.

Rebecca: Oh, it sounds like a good theme. John. I have English breakfast this morning.

John: We’ve invited you here to discuss your chapter on “Reframing Academic Expertise through Vulnerability and Metacognition” in Picture a Professor and some of the other work that you’re doing. But before we discuss this, could you talk a little bit about your institution, and the courses that you teach?

Rebecca S.: Harper College is a two-year college, or community college, in the suburbs of Chicago. And, because we’re a community college all my classes really are introductory classes or don’t have any prerequisites anyway. So I mostly teach Intro to Philosophy, Critical Thinking, and Ethics, then I occasionally get to teach Biomedical Ethics and the occasional honors class. And in the fall, we have a new program that’s a social justice studies distinction. So I’m going to be teaching an Intro to Philosophy class that’s specifically for that Social Justice Studies program at our college.

Rebecca: Your chapter title is really intriguing in Picture a Professor. Can you talk a little bit about or give us a little teaser on how you reframe academic expertise through vulnerability and metacognition?

Rebecca S.: In that chapter, when I was approaching this question of how do we address these kinds of biases against professors who come from marginalized identities, the way that I came to this question is, when I was first starting out, people would give me a lot of advice about, “Oh, you know, you’re young, and you look young, and you’re a woman, and you have to be really careful.” And I feel like a lot of the advice I got was that I needed to be like, strict and I needed to be like, hard, and I needed to take on this authoritative stance so that people would give me credibility. And it just felt really not who I was. It just wasn’t me. And it works for some people, I think, and that’s great. I’m not in any way saying that people shouldn’t necessarily do those things. But for me, it really just was not the way that I wanted to teach. And so I’m always trying to figure out how can I have authority and credibility in a way that feels authentic to who I am. And so this got me thinking about the ways that part of the problem with the sort of stereotypical image of the professor is not necessarily that we don’t have enough different kinds of people occupying the role of the professor, but that the whole concept of the professor is part of the problem. And so in my chapter, I’m thinking about how can we think about not just having different kinds of bodies and people occupying this social role, but what ways do we need to actually change the social role in the first place? And so I think that the kind of epistemic authority that a professor has is often this individualistic, like knowledge is a kind of property that is sort of won through this genius and hard work or whatever, and not thinking about the ways in which knowledge is constructed and maintained in communities. In my chapter, I’m thinking about how do we teach in a way that presents academic or professorial or epistemic expertise in a way that acknowledges the ways in which knowledge comes about in and through communities. And so the vulnerability and metacognition are sort of like two strategies. So for me, like kind of leaning into the vulnerability and modeling epistemic humility when you don’t know things and being engaged in the process of coming to know rather than seeing knowledge is something that you arrive at, like “Now I’m a professor, so I know all the thing and you are the students and you don’t know the things and let me figure out a way for you to have the knowledge that I have,” …because even in, I think, constructivist or collaborative models of education, I think there still tends to be this like, individualized aspect. And there isn’t always like a true sense in which the space of the classroom is co-created, co-constructed by the community that we are all a part of… the professor and the students. That’s the sort of overall approach that I took to the challenge of the question.

John: How do you sell this to students? Because that’s an approach that they may not be familiar with based on their past educational experience.

Rebecca S.: Yeah, this is always, I think, a really big challenge, especially when you’re trying to do something that’s sort of radically different, and you want to do it in 16 weeks, and they’ve had years and years of education going against it. I also do things with games and play and game-based learning. And I actually have found that cultivating an attitude of playfulness can go a really long way towards breaking down some of the ways of being that students have been sort of trained to be in in the classroom. And so I think that there’s a way in which, if I can open students up to laughing and having fun, and just getting in a different kind of physical and mental space, then can sort of start to chip away at some of that. And I don’t think it’s possible to do in one semester. This is another thing about the problems with stereotypes. There’s not some magic pedagogy that’s going to eliminate racism, you have to accept the limits of what we can do in one class as one instructor for one semester. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I really like some of the work that you’ve been doing related to games in the classroom. And we’re hoping that you might expand upon that a bit. And one of the things that struck me about… I think it was a blog post that you wrote about Dungeons and Dragons in the classroom… that you talked about how the people participating in the game, create the world and create the experience together, and that the knowledge of the space is created together. And it seems really tied to the work that you have posed in Picture a Professor. Can you tell us a little bit about how you’re using Dungeons and Dragons to teach ethics?

Rebecca S.: For me, when I first played Dungeons and Dragons, I was in my 30s already. I’m not one of these like lifers forever with DnD, but I realized how many parallels there were with the players and the Dungeon Master and the teachers and the student, because the Dungeon Master has a particular role to play, or the Game Master in a role-playing game. And it’s an importantly different role than the role that the players have. And I think the same is true, it’s not that the teacher and the student are the same in the classroom. But what’s really exciting about role-playing games, or at least tabletop role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons, is that what the game is about, like what the values are… Is this going to be a game where we mostly focus on strategy and try to get as much money as possible to buy all the cool weapons or whatever? …like, that’s one way the game could go? Or is this like going to be a funny game where we’re just like joking around and getting into high jinks and whatever, are we going to explore some really serious things with identity and characters, like all of those things can be a Dungeons and Dragons game or a role-playing game. And it’s not something that can be dictated from the Game Master. It’s something that comes together through the creative, collaborative storytelling of the game itself. And so I think that there’s just so many parallels with teaching, where the teacher does know more things, and does have a responsibility to make sure that everyone’s involved, everyone’s included, everyone’s enjoying, everyone’s achieving the goals. There’s a certain responsibility of the teacher or the Game Master. And there’s a certain kind of knowledge and a certain kind of expertise. But what the game is, is fundamentally co-created,

John: Do you use that directly or indirectly to help share your teaching philosophy with students?

Rebecca S.: I do always try to share with students why we’re doing what we’re doing. And I’m trying to be intentional about making transparent, especially when we’re doing something weird.you knowe… I’m like, okay, alright, come on, like, you guys, humor me, we’re gonna try this thing. It may totally fail, but we’re gonna try it. So I’ll often talk to students about my teaching philosophy. I’m not sure that I’ve ever actually made that particular idea explicit, and maybe I should. So I think it’s more implicit. But now you’ve made me think that I probably ought to make it explicit.

John: Or maybe have them think about it and make the connections themselves.

Rebecca: Can you talk about how Dungeons and Dragons has unfolded in your ethics class, and what that assignment or activity actually look like?

Rebecca S.: So the way that I’ve constructed it now is that it’s the last four weeks or so of the semester. So it’s after we’ve covered a bunch of material. My dream is to figure out a way to make it the whole semester, but I haven’t quite gotten there yet. So we have several units and we study different philosophers, different ethical theories. So we do Aristotle and we do Mozi, an ancient Chinese philosopher, we do have Simone de Beauvoir and existentialists, they see a bunch of different ethical theories. And then for the last four weeks of the class, in groups, they create a character based on one of the philosophers that we’ve studied or one of the theoretical frameworks that we’ve studied. And so they have to come up with a backstory, like what kinds of experiences would someone have that would lead them to have an existentialist ethics or like, what kind of a person would be a Kantian and they have to pick a class. So they’re like, would Beauvoir be a wizard or a Paladin or whatever. And so they have to pick a class. And then they create their character. And in Dungeons and Dragons, there’s an alignment system. I have my own kind of alignment system, so they have to say whether they’re more focused on contextual factors or universal principles, that they have to pick their alignment for their character. And then we play the game. So I describe a scenario and then they have to say what choices their characters would make in a given situation. So I’m like, okay, you’ve all been called here by the Queen whose son has been kidnapped, and she sends you off to go rescue her son. So they’re all like, “Yes.” But then as they’re leaving the towns, and people say, “Actually, we don’t like the queen, we don’t want a monarchy.” And then they have to decide like, “Okay, do we save the queen’s son, which we made a promise to do, but that’s going to perpetuate the monarchy or do we help these rebels who want to bring in democracy.” And so there’s different decision points along the way, and they have to decide what their characters would do. And then they write reflections at the end of each day of the game, where they say, what decisions they thought fit well with the ethical theories and which ones they think could have been better and why. So they do some post-game reflection.

Rebecca: How have students responded to this kind of an experience?

Rebecca S.: So I’ve done some surveys and things just to ask students, and I don’t think I’ve really gotten anything really negative, everyone seems to think it’s fun. They say that it’s really helpful as a review and as application of the ideas. Some of the students get super into it. So that’s always fun. And I think that’s true with any activity you do. Like, you’re always going to have those students that are just like, “This is my thing” and run with it. So that’s really fun. And those students are not always the students that are necessarily the most engaged in the other parts of the class. And I think that’s really a benefit too of doing these kinds of different sorts of activities, because you have a student that maybe hasn’t had positive experiences with academics so far, but they hear Dungeons and Dragons and they’re just ready to go. And then even the students that are not as familiar with it, they have fun with it, too. And some of them kind of get into it unexpectedly. I also don’t force anyone to play. So one representative from each group plays each day, but I always make sure everybody has the chance to play, but they have the option if they just want to observe and do the reflections, that’s fine. So I think that helps with some of the potential discomfort that some students might have. But what I find overall is that the humor of it is really interesting, and really solidifying of both knowledge and community. So for example… I think I talked about this in the blog post, because this is just my favorite example… but I had a student who was playing a character inspired by Kant, and one of Kant’s principles is you’re never allowed to lie. And so they were sneaking into this goblin cave and the Kant characters, like, “I can’t sneak, it’s a lie, it’s deceptive.” So he goes in and announces that they have arrived at the goblin cave, and everybody laughs because everybody’s in on the joke, because everyone knows that Kant says, “You’re not allowed to lie.” And so there’s this kind of inside humor that is possible. That really is like, “Oh, we learned something this semester, we all now get this Kant joke that, at the beginning of the semester, no one would have understood.” It creates this sort of in-group thing, but not in a negative way. But like a positive way, like we’ve all learned this together. And we have this shared humor now. That I think is really fun.

John: In one of your tweets, you mentioned that you were planning a course that would involve some world building, could you tell us a little bit about that?

Rebecca S.: So I agreed to do some pedagogy through world building for this book that’s going to be coming out. It’s for a case study for the book. And it may or may not actually even be included in the book, but a bunch of faculty are doing some world building and writing about it, and then we’ll see what happens with the book project. So I agreed to do that. And then I’m also doing this class for the Social Justice Studies program. So I was like, “How can I match these up?” And so I was thinking about how to teach with world building, and the first thing that came to my mind is Plato’s Republic. So Plato’s Republic is a dialogue by Plato where he is exploring the concept of justice and he imagines this ideal city that ends up not being ideal in the end, but he’s trying to envision what would justice look like in this city and so he creates this world with its own myths, and with its own laws and rules and education system and marital practices. So I was thinking that it would be fun if we started with Plato, and then had students create their own just world where we think about what is justice? And what would justice look like in all these ways. This is the plan so far… there’s a site called World Anvil that is a world building site that people use for making role playing games, but also novels and things like that. And it’s kind of like a wiki. So essentially, the students are going to be creating a wiki of their world. And so we’ll have to decide what we want to focus on, because obviously, we can’t do everything. So we’ll have to think like, do they want to talk about education systems, do they want to talk about criminal justice systems, do they want to talk about religion? So they could come up with their pantheon of deities, if they want. What would religion look like in a just society? Would everyone have the same religion? Would there be no religion? The topics will be student led, I’m going to have a list that they can pick from, then the readings will be determined by like, we decided to do religion, and I’ll give them some readings, and then the assignment will be to build that part of the wiki, the religion part. And recently, I just started thinking, we’re not going to get very far in one semester. So what if this was like a project that the next time I teach this class, they take up, and we keep building the world. So, it may end up being a long project where each class picks up where the last class left off, which I think would be really cool. This is still in the planning stage,… the next couple of months to really nail it down. But that’s where I’m at so far. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I really love the idea because it involves students in a lot of decision making, and really contemplating the ideas about social justice. So they would need to have some background knowledge, and then have discussions and co-create and co-decide on things and so it seems like a much more active way of engaging with the material, then maybe a traditional paper or other kinds of activities, like quizzes and stuff might have.

Rebecca S.: Yeah, and I think having this project, it’s kind of problem-based learning, in a sense, I guess. It’s a little bit different. But having that sort of shared project, I think, also hopefully will create a different kind of engagement and motivation.

John: It sounds fascinating. Can we go back, though, to your chapter in Picture a Professor? You’ve talked a little bit about vulnerability and how you share that. But could you talk a little bit about how you build metacognition into your classes.

Rebecca S.: So philosophy classes in general focus a lot on class discussions. And I think sometimes students think, “Well, what do I really learn from a discussion?” So going back to this idea of the professor is the one that has the knowledge, like, “Well, I’m here to learn from the professor and not from my classmates…” or they think that a discussion is just saying things, just whatever comes up, and I promise this is going to get to metacognition. And so what I focused on a lot is thinking about how to improve class discussions and how to help students think about what they’re learning from class discussions, by thinking about conversations in terms of academic moves. I didn’t invent this idea, but I’ve really tried to take it and develop it. So this idea that when you contribute to a discussion, you’re not just saying something, you’re asking a clarification question, or you’re posing a hypothetical, or you’re disagreeing with someone, or you’re agreeing with someone and saying why, or you’re connecting to your own experience, right? So there’s these specific things that you’re doing. You’re not just saying things, you’re doing things in a conversation. And from a social justice perspective, you can also do things like welcome someone into the conversation with a question or exclude someone or silence someone. So the idea that saying things does things is, I think, one of the most important ideas I want students to come away with. So I do a lot of work with having students identify what moves they’re making in a conversation and thinking about and reflecting on what kinds of moves are most productive, or are there any moves that we don’t want to make, like fallacy or ad hominem, like illegal move. But having students reflect specifically on what sort of contributions they’re making or how they’re moving a conversation forward. And this is not just for conversations, but also for writing, or you can also identify moves that people are making when you’re reading a text. And this is also a way of recognizing the communal nature of knowledge because one of the move can be to thank someone for helping you see something in a new way. Like that’s a move too, like showing gratitude to someone else, or acknowledging someone’s contribution or summarizing what someone else said or asking them to clarify. So there’s a lot of different activities that might be involved, but they’re all about sort of metacognitively reflecting on academic discourse, whether that’s written or spoken, and specifically identifying the ways in which we see through that, that this is us together creating a community rather than each individual person gaining knowledge on their own.

John: So how do you implement that specifically in terms of students reflecting on that? Do you have them engage in a conversation and then reflect back on their participation? Or are there other techniques that you use?

Rebecca S.: Yeah, I’ve tried a bunch of different things. So I’ve tried a game version, where it have the different moves on cards. And it’s an idea I got from Ann Cahill at Elon University. So she actually had a deck of these cards. And then I’ve tried that where I deal out the cards, and then they have to look for an opportunity to play their specific move. And that works kind of okay, but I haven’t had complete success with that, because students often find it difficult to find the moment for their card, or they want to say something and they don’t have the card for it or whatever. So I think that’s fun as a way of introducing it and practicing it, but it can interrupt the flow of the conversation some. What I did recently in an online class this past semester, is I actually divided the moves into different levels. So things like “connect your own experience,” most students can do that relatively right away. Whereas “identifying unstated assumption” like that’s a really hard move that takes a lot of work and practice. So for their first paper, I use Perusall, and so they comment on the text and respond to each other. But in their responses to one another, they have to identify the move that they’re making. So they’re responding to a classmate and they’re saying, “Okay, I’m going to agree and give a new reason. I’m going to disagree and explain why or I’m going to propose a hypothetical or whatever.” So I have them actually, in their discussion posts, identify the move that they’re making before they make the move. So that’s one way I’ve done it. And then I’ve also just done some things where I have them just write reflections on the discussion and identify moves that have been made or moves that haven’t been made, and why haven’t those moves been made? So things like that, also.

John: Do you have them use tags in Perusall for the types of moves that they make?

Rebecca S.: That’s a good idea, I have not, I only a very basic Perusall user. I was using Discord for awhile. And this is really fun, I actually had to make custom emojis for the different moves. So that was a fun activity at the beginning where they had to come up with an image to associate with the moves, it didn’t really play out fully in terms of the way that I envisioned it. But I think there’s still promise with that approach as well, I just need to pursue it more.

Rebecca: I like the idea of actively having to be conscious of what kind of move you’re making while you’re making it. That does seem like it may work a little bit better in an asynchronous environment where people have time to think about what move [LAUGHTER] they’re making, rather than in a synchronous context. When you were talking about conversations, it was reminding me of a really interesting conversation that we had, on our campus, with our workgroup on accessibility practices, with some students with disabilities, who identified that conversation, like classes that focused on discussion, felt really inaccessible to them or were hard to follow because they were having a hard time pulling out what to take away from the conversation. So you led this little segment about that. So it made me start thinking about how could we slow things down a little bit to be a little more cognizant of what we’re doing and maybe give time to digest what’s happening rather than the rapid fire and not being able to keep up. Although it maybe isn’t a natural flow of conversation, it does make you think more about what it is that you’re doing before you’re acting.

Rebecca S.: Yeah, that’s a really great point. Now that you mention it, I do think that it is often more successful in asynchronous classes. And in the synchronous classes, it’s often more of a after-the-fact reflection, but I think that it could be useful to have students plan out their moves in advance of the class. It’s like in preparation for the synchronous discussion and then, see then maybe not just like, here’s your card, make your move. And everyone’s like, “I don’t know, you have to pose a hypothetical right now?” But if everyone knew the moves that they were supposed to make in the class that day in advance, I think that would actually work really well. So I’m going to steal that and do that. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Yeah, that might be interesting. I think one really good accessibility practice for any kind of presentation or activity is for people to know what’s going to be expected of them in advance so that they do have time to think so I’d be interested to hear, whether or not if you do that, how that plays out. So I know inclusivity is important to you. Can you talk a little bit about how some of the practices that we’ve been discussing today promote inclusivity? Or the ways that you think about setting up activities to make sure that people feel included?

Rebecca S.: Yeah, so I’ve been thinking a lot about inclusivity and creativity and vulnerability and playfulness. And I think it’s always tricky, because I think that sometimes we have this idea that there’s some sort of ideally accessible and inclusive class, that if we just keep opening and opening and opening and opening that somehow eventually it will include everyone equally. And I don’t think that that’s possible, because I think that when you really get into the concrete details of things, something that works really well for one student might be more difficult for another student, and how do you balance and weigh these kinds of complicated decisions? Nothing is ever just straightforwardly more accessible or more inclusive, I don’t think. So, I think it’s much more complicated than that. So the way I’ve been thinking about it is actually through a philosopher that I mentioned in a Chapter, Jose Medina, his book is called Epistemology of Resistance. And he talks about the need for epistemic friction. He talks a lot about the ways in which people who have a lot of privilege don’t encounter enough epistemic friction. So there’s this way in which things are too smooth and too easy, and you’re not challenged enough. There’s not enough resistance that you face if you have a lot of privilege. And he talks about the kinds of… I don’t want to say benefits, because that’s not quite right… but, the ways in which having a marginalized or oppressed identity can create the opportunity for developing certain virtues, certain epistemic virtues, not to say that it’s a good thing, like, obviously, it’s a bad thing. But what he does is he kind of flips things on its head where he says, we often think about privilege as benefiting people who have privilege. But there’s also ways in which privilege isolate you and prevent you from being able to know things or learn things or develop certain skills. So to get back to inclusivity, I’ve been thinking about being a teacher is about managing epistemic friction. So the idea that at certain times, certain students in certain contexts actually need a little more friction, and certain students need a little less friction. And so rather than thinking about creating some ideally open space, it’s about managing the kinds of friction that students run into. So some kinds of friction are unjust and should not exist. They’re not even friction, they’re just obstacles. But some kinds of things that are difficult or uncomfortable or challenging can be really good and beneficial for learning. But it’s really tricky to know which students need what and you always have to be very careful about presuming that you know what students need, of course, but I’ve been thinking about designing classes in terms of eliminating unjust epistemic friction, but creating opportunities for certain other kinds of friction, and thinking about accessibility in terms of that, like, is this a productive kind of challenge? Or is this an unfair or unjust kind of challenge? Because it’s not about whether it’s difficult or not. Learning is difficult. It’s like, is it the right kind of difficulty? Is it the right kind of challenge? Is it fair and just and promoting of the learning rather than the opposite of that, if that makes sense.

Rebecca: I like the word choice that used of obstacle versus a challenge. An obstacle is something that it shouldn’t be there… [LAUGHTER] versus a challenge is something that we would hope students actually do experience as students, because challenges can help us learn.

John: How do you set students up for this, because some of those discussions could be somewhat challenging for people who don’t want to have their beliefs challenged, who have really deep beliefs, and are resistant to learning new things, [LAUGHTER] or new experiences.

Rebecca S.: This is where I think that modeling some epistemic vulnerability is really important and humility. And so, for instance, I teach critical thinking, and I had this activity all designed, and I was excited about it and I thought it was gonna be great. And it was terrible. And I said to the students, at the end, I was like, “Well, that didn’t work at all. Like that was a disaster.” And then I’m like, “okay,” then it was like, “You guys, I have another class in 15 minutes. I have another section.” I’m like, “Quick, what do I do? How do I make this better? How do I save the next class from this terrible disaster?” It wasn’t that terrible, but it was just awkward and didn’t really work. And then they were like, “Oh, well, the problem is that you thought that we wanted to talk about these things. But we actually don’t care about these issues that you think we care about. We want to talk about these other things like ‘Do aliens exist?’ or whatever.” And I was like, “Oh, okay.” So in the next class, they ended up debating whether a hot dog was a sandwich. And I thought, this is so silly. Why are we talking about this? But they got really into it. And I told the next class, by the way, the last class sucked, and I changed everything. So here we go on the fly. And so I let them know that I made a mistake or I was wrong. I miscalculated how things would go and I made a change. And now we’re going to try it. And at the end of that class, there was this student and he had changed his mind about whether a hot dog was a sandwich. And he was really resisting admitting that he changed his mind. And so it was just like, I’ll call him John. John. His name’s not John. So I’m like, “John, you were wrong about whether a hot dog was a sandwich. He was like, “No.” John, you were wrong, right? And then everyone’s like, he wouldn’t say it, and I’m like, “Can you say ‘I was wrong?’” …but it’s really funny at this point, everybody’s laughing. And then finally he stands up. And he says, “I was wrong about whether a hot dog was a sandwich.” And everybody laughed and laughed. And I feel like it’s a really tiny way to admit that you’re wrong. But for me to admit times when I’m wrong, and then to celebrate students when they are willing to change their mind, even about something silly, it’s not going to get people to be totally open to changing their mind about controversial topics by the end of 16 weeks, or whatever. But it’s like, a little opening into practicing that habit of being willing to say, “Yeah, I was wrong about that.”

John: That reminds me of a podcast I listened to recently, I think it was Planet Money, or Planet Money Indicator, where one of the issues they were discussing is whether a burrito is a sandwich or not, because in New York State that affects its taxable status. So, it was actually a major political issue.

Rebecca S.: That’s so funny. I’m actually having my critical thinking students debate whether hot dogs are sandwiches right now in my asynchronous class, and actually, there’s not enough friction at the moment. They’re all like, “Yes, the hot dog is a sandwich, because it’s meat between two pieces of bread.” And I’m like, “No, the whole point is for us to practice disagreeing with each other.” So maybe I can throw in the podcast, or I can find some article.

John: I’ll include a link to that in the show notes. You discuss vulnerability a few times, might that be a little bit risky for a younger female professor in terms of the known biases that exists in terms of student course evaluations?

Rebecca S.: I think it’s really important for me to say that, yeah, I’m marginalized in the sense that I’m young-ish, female, professor in philosophy in particular, where there’s not a lot of women. There’s also things that I can do that other faculty can’t do. I have a lot of privileges as well. And I’m white and certain personality things, I think I can, like, get away with things. Everybody’s different. I don’t think there’s any wrong way necessarily, I’m not saying everybody should do what I do at all. I don’t think that that’s true. But at the beginning I was talking about what felt authentic to me. I think I needed to find a way to be able to be myself in the classroom. And so I don’t think that I can give some sort of universal prescription that will work for everyone. And I do think it’s risky. But I also think that the risks are unavoidable. I was saying before, that we’re not going to eliminate sexism or racism, oppression in the classroom, because our classes are part of the world. And those things exist in the world. So while I think it’s risky, I also think that it’s just risky to exist, [LAUGHTER] and that we are vulnerable, whether or not we want to admit it. This actually comes from Judith Butler, but there’s not really like whether we are or aren’t vulnerable. It’s just how do we manage our vulnerability. And so I think it’s not even necessarily about being more vulnerable. It’s just a different way of managing the inevitable vulnerability of being human. And being a teacher is super vulnerable. Being students also, humans are vulnerable, and that’s beautiful and scary. And so I probably framed it in terms of more or less, but when I think about it, I don’t actually think it’s about more or less vulnerability. It’s like, how do we manage it? Do we acknowledge it? Do we not acknowledge it? And I don’t think necessarily that we need to acknowledge it all the time. And different people are going to have different ways of thinking about it. But I do think it’s important to acknowledge epistemic vulnerability to a certain extent, because I think that it’s true that no one knows everything. And I think it’s harmful to perpetuate an idea that there is some sort of place you’re going to get to where you don’t need to continue learning. So I do think that epistemic vulnerability is important to acknowledge; other kinds of vulnerability, I think, may or may not be, it depends on the person.

John: And I would think it would also help to nurture a growth mindset in students when you acknowledge this epistemic vulnerability, letting them know that that’s just a normal part of learning, that there are many things they don’t know, but they can get there.

Rebecca S.: I share with them sometimes my own experiences of writing a dissertation and how difficult it is to get critical feedback. I don’t think necessarily everyone needs to do that. But I think that, for me, opening up a discussion where if I’m about to give them feedback on their writing, talking about what it’s like for me to get feedback on my writing and how that can be hard. And here’s sort of what I do when I’m about to read comments on something. Sometimes I need to take a minute. So, there’s ways of sharing that depending on your comfort level, but I do really think that acknowledging our humanity can be a really good and powerful thing.

John: We know you teach in a community college with a very high teaching load. And you mentioned you have a baby in the background there. But you also are playing with a band and you’ve released your fourth album, how do you record with a band and create music while also being a full-time faculty member with a heavy teaching load?

Rebecca S.: I’ve no idea. [LAUGHTER] No, I, you know, don’t sleep… No. Well, to be honest, and talking about, like acknowledging humanity and vulnerability, the last year has been incredibly difficult with a new baby. And it has been really, really, really hard. I have done it somehow. But I don’t actually think that the last year has been my best year of teaching, having a new baby. And I think that acknowledging that that’s okay, I’m still doing the best that I can, and things are going to get better now, both like daycare, and like, whatever, having a lot of support. I mean, you don’t do these things alone, also, I think. And so, I mean, I’m really lucky to have my husband who largely works from home. And he’s takes care of the baby a lot of the time, and he’s also in the band, and then having the ability to get a babysitter sometimes. So there’s a lot of ways in which the way that it works is the result of luck, and privilege and support. But then also, I think that if you’re doing things that you really care about, and that you love, you try to find ways to make it work and you just find ways to be more efficient. And like with teaching, one of the things I’ve realized is my impulse to want to reinvent everything all the time is not always what serves students the best. And so thinking about what I want to do, because I’m really excited about some new idea, sometimes doing the thing that I’ve done a million times that I know works is actually better for students and for me. And so thinking about that, too, like, my approach to teaching was always like, “Oh my God, every semester, I’m gonna do something wild and crazy and completely different, every single time.” And it’s unsustainable for me, but it doesn’t actually serve students. So I still do my experiments, and I think I always will, but I think being more deliberate. Okay, I’m going to take on this one project, I’m going to redesign this one class…

Rebecca: …and not like ten?

Rebecca S.: and not all of them.

John: And not redesign everything in the class, which I think Rebecca and I also have a tendency to try to do.

Rebecca: Yes, I’m trying to be more sustainable, my new approach.

Rebecca S.: And I think that oftentimes, it is better for students, I think that sometimes it might not be exciting for me, but it’s their first time experiencing it. And so I think that’s important to keep in mind.

Rebecca: Or you rotate between the things that you’ve invented, so that you stay interested, they’re still well established.

John: And the second time you do things you often have learned from past attempts at doing them, and they often result in better learning outcomes for students.

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

Rebecca S.: Yeah, so I guess I’ve already talked a little bit about what’s next in terms of like this world building class I’m working on. I’m also writing a bit about my role-playing game for ethics. I’m also working on something more about cultivating playfulness. So I’m interested in thinking more about exactly what it is about playfulness that I think is so meaningful and important and how that can be serious play. So I’m really interested in thinking more about these connections between playfulness, creativity, and inclusivity.

Rebecca: That sounds really exciting.

John: It does, and are you working on your next album?

Rebecca S.: Not yet. It just came out June 10. So we take a long time to write songs. So expect another one in like four or five years. [LAUGHTER]

John: We were doing a little bit of research on your work, and I ended up spending a lot of that time listening to music while Rebecca was actually reading your blog posts. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca S.: Nice. Awesome.

John: I enjoyed it, it was really nice. Thank you.

Rebecca S.: Thank you.

John: Well, thank you. It was really great talking to you.

Rebecca S.: Yeah, thank you so much for having me. This was awesome.


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.


247. Picture a Professor

What does a professor look like? In popular culture the professor is white and male—a sage on the stage. In this episode Jessamyn Neuhaus joins us to discuss the role context, employment status, and embodied identity play in our teaching realities and experiences.

Show Notes

  • Neuhaus, J. (2019). Geeky Pedagogy: A Guide for Intellectuals, Introverts, and Nerds Who Want to Be Effective Teachers. West Virginia University Press.
  • Neuhaus, Jessamyn (forthcoming, 2022). Picture a Professor: Interrupting Biases about Faculty and Increasing Student Learning. West Virginia University Press.
  • Harlow, R. (2003). ” Race doesn’t matter, but…”: The effect of race on professors’ experiences and emotion management in the undergraduate college classroom. Social psychology quarterly, 348-363.
  • Garcia, Nichole M. (2018). “You Don’t Look Like a Professor.” Diverse Education. March 29.
  • Jessamyn Neuhaus twitter: https://twitter.com/GeekyPedagogy
  • Pittman, C., & Tobin, T. J. (2022). “Academe Has a Lot to Learn About How Inclusive Teaching Affects Instructors.The Chronicle of Higher Education. February 7.
  • Mejia, Donna (2021).  Explaining Fumble Forward. YouTube video/ April 19
  • Pictureaprofessor.com
  • Hogan, Kelly A. and Viji Sathy (2022). Inclusive Teaching: Strategies for Promoting Equity in the College Classroom. West Virginia University Press.


Rebecca: What does a professor look like? In popular culture the professor is white and male—a sage on the stage. In this episode we discuss the role context, employment status, and embodied identity play in our teaching realities and experiences.


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&hellip

John: &hellipand Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer&hellip

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


John: Our guest today is Jessamyn Neuhaus. Jessamyn is the director of the SUNY Plattsburgh Center for Teaching Excellence and a Professor in the History Department at SUNY Plattsburgh. She specializes in the study of pop culture, gender studies, and teaching and learning. Jessamyn is also a recipient of the State University of New York’s Chancellor’s Award for Teaching Excellence, and the editor of Teaching History: a Journal of Methods. She’s the author of Geeky Pedagogy: a Guide for Intellectuals, Introverts, and Nerds Who Want to be Effective Teachers. And Jessamyn is the editor of Picture a Professor: Interrupting Biases about Faculty and Increasing Student Learning, which will be released by West Virginia University Press this fall. Welcome back, Jessamyn.

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

Rebecca: Today’s teas are&hellip Jessamyn, are you drinking tea?

Jessamyn: I’m drinking coffee. I need to mainline that caffeine as much as possible. And I’m drinking Green Mountain Coffee Island Coconut,

John: &hellipand I am drinking English breakfast tea this morning.

Rebecca: Ah, we match today, John. [LAUGHTER] But mine’s decaf.

John: Since we’re recording five podcasts today, I have six cups of tea in various thermoses here with me, because I’m not going to be leaving this room for quite a while. We’ve invited you here today to discuss Picture a Professor. Could you tell us a little bit about the origin of this project?

Jessamyn: Sure, I’d be glad to. I think it really started when I was doing the research for Geeky Pedagogy. And the first chapter in Geeky Pedagogy is about awareness. And it has four kinds of realities that all instructors need to be aware of and cultivate awareness of: identity matters, learning is hard, who our students are, and who we are. And when I was researching that chapter, I read a 2003 article by Roxana Harlow, a psychologist, it’s a 2003 article in Social Psychology Quarterly. And she used the phrase “disparate teaching realities.” And that really stuck with me because of the way it foregrounded: this is a reality&hellip that people’s teaching context shapes their labor as an educator, and that they are not equal, that they are disparate, they’re not the same, that we do not have the same kind of teaching workload, depending on all kinds of circumstances in our individual contexts. Employment status really matters. Embodied identity really matters. Department culture, student population and discipline, all those things really matter. I think too, one of the origins of this project was my background in popular culture, and studying popular culture, and the way that the primary representation of college professors in popular culture is very, very limited. And also, not coincidentally, kind of opposite of myself, the professor we see most of the time in movies and television is the white guy. And he is usually, if he’s being depicted as a good educator, he’s super dynamic and performative. And students are sitting entranced as he lectures and they magically learn, just because he’s such a wonderful classroom performer. So as an introvert, and someone who’s never going to be a kind of super dynamic, high energy, always entertaining performer, that stereotype was lodged in my head, and writing Geeky Pedagogy was a way that I was trying to address and dismantle that super professor stereotype. So as my scholarship of teaching and learning continued, I increasingly became aware of all the intersecting aspects of our identity that might play a role in our teaching work.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about the title: Picture a Professor?

Jessamyn: Sure, an early version of this project, a working title or phrase that kept coming up was “you don’t look like a professor.” Hearing that phrase is a common experience, as explained very well in an article in Diverse Education by Nicole Margarita Garcia. She wrote an article by that same name, “You Don’t Look Like a Professor” and she points out, very compellingly, that no matter what the intention of that statement, the result is the negation of one’s expertise and authority. It’s an undermining of the knowledge and abilities that someone has in their role as an educator. Again, it’s not necessarily the intention of the random stranger or the student or the colleague who says, “You don’t look like a professor.” That might not be their intention, but that is the function. You don’t look like a professor, so someone else does. But as the collection started to come together, and I was working with the authors, and I was talking to the contributors about a title, it started to take, I guess, what I would think of as a more positive direction. So at first, the whole collection acknowledges that reality, that those stereotypes are there, and that that disempowering and disrespectful response happens. But then what? What are you going to do with that? How are we going to respond to that? And every contributor to this volume, while acknowledging that reality, also believes in the ability of students and our world to rethink and remake that stereotype&hellip to challenge it and to re-imagine it&hellip remake the role of the professor, even more than just diversifying the image that might be on our TV screens or movie screens. These authors are arguing for really reimagining our roles and redistributing power. They believe in the transformative power of education. So, Picture a Professor really is the nod to the strategies that are being explored in this volume, and that we can, collectively in higher education and as a culture and society, we can picture a professor as anybody, in any body, moving past the gendered and racialized and other kinds of embodied aspects of that stereotype to reimagine what’s possible.

John: You collected a very interesting and diverse group of authors in this collection. How did you find all these authors? How did you select them?

Jessamyn: I put out a call for papers on Twitter. And that really was probably the most important way. I also utilized some of my own networking and connections to reach out to potential contributors. But a big percentage of the people in this selection found me and found the call for papers through my Twitter account. And I think we may have talked before about this, I was really late to social media. Twitter was my first foray in 2019. Because I had just written Geeky Pedagogy and so wanted people to read it, that I was willing to do the unthinkable, [LAUGHTER] which was go on social media to try to get people connected with that book. But it turned out, to my surprise, that it’s been a really great way to connect with a lot of different people in academia and higher education in a way that hasn’t been possible for me working at a small, rural, very isolated, really small state university, and also just being kind of naturally adverse to conferencing and networking anyway. Twitter’s really been my most important personal pedagogical learning network since 2019, and of course, the pandemic just upped that a thousandfold. When I was even more isolated here in Plattsburgh, New York, it was a way to connect with all kinds of people that I wouldn’t just happen to meet otherwise. And that helped me get a lot of interest in the book. I had way more submissions than I had room for. And that was not easy. I’ve been on the receiving end of that email saying, “I’m sorry, this isn’t going to be&hellip” &hellipmany, many times. So I knew exactly how discouraging that could be. So it was a good problem to have, but that was a process, letting people know that there wasn’t gonna be room in the volume for their piece. So I had the luxury of really choosing a highly diverse group of authors and I mean, diverse, not just in issues of identity, but in academic disciplines, in stages of their career. This volume has authors in all stages of their careers, and geographically, so I guess I’m really proud of that.

Rebecca: I love that. In some ways, this book may function as a really key piece of activism so that when they pick it up, and it says picture this is a professor&hellip Like, we have a whole new version. You kind of describe that a bit when you’re talking about the title. But I love that when you open the volume, it’s everything counter to this stereotype. Can you talk a little bit about what you’re hoping that this project will achieve?

Jessamyn: Especially since the pandemic, there has been increasing awareness and attention paid to what many people are terming: the need to humanize higher education&hellip which always begs the question: ”what were we doing before that?” [LAUGHTER] But that recognition of students’ diverse experiences and the really pressing vital need for inclusive teaching practices, recognizing students as individuals in unique life circumstances, framing diversity as an educational asset and increasing our pedagogical practices that maximize opportunities for everybody to succeed, and which I 100% agree with. But also, in addition, as human beings, because students are people and human beings just like us. As human beings, students bring expectations, assumptions, and stereotypes about college teaching and academic expertise into the classroom. If we’re going to talk about: “We need to humanize higher education,” that also includes recognizing and dealing with the human, gendered, racialized, and more, stereotypes about what college teaching and learning looks like. So for example, a recent Chronicle of Higher Education, co-authored with one of the contributors to Picture a Professor, Dr. Chavella Pitman and Dr. Thomas Tobin&hellip they recently published an article that got a lot of buzz&hellip very rightly so&hellip in the Chronicle of Higher Education about, “Hey, if you are going to recommend inclusive teaching practices, keep in mind that embodied identity matters and teaching context matters, and how any one person might implement a teaching strategy really can be influenced by their employment status, their gender presentation, their ethnic, racial identity, their speaking voice, their discipline, their department culture.” That was a gap that I saw in the scholarship of teaching and learning and teaching advice, generally&hellip otherwise, very, very excellent advice and evidence based practices that failed to adequately acknowledge and recognize that our individual teaching context also matters. That was part of Geeky Pedagogy, too, that being an introvert, being not necessarily socially skilled, plays a role in how I’m going to do some of the things that, yes, the evidence shows this is something an effective instructor and educator does. So what does that mean for me, though? How can I make it work for me in my teaching content? So my hope for the Picture a Professor project&hellip what I hope it can do&hellip first, is empower and inspire college educators who recognize their own experiences in navigating student preconceptions and biases, and stereotypes about expertise and authority. But I also hope, and it’s certainly intended to help all readers recognize those systemic inequities in college teaching and how that shapes what can happen in individual classrooms and at the same time, gather strategies for their own classrooms as well, things that you can do right now. And this was something James Lang recommended the first time around in Geeky Pedagogy, and I resisted. But this time, I was like, “Yes, that’s a good idea.” [LAUGHTER] He recommended that each chapter have a bullet point list of teaching takeaways and Picture a Professor does that. And those teaching takeaways are insights and actionable strategies that will help anyone teach more effectively with the caveat that of course your individual context matters, and you will have to adapt and shift and change and some things may work better than others. That would go against the whole premise of the book to say everything works for everyone all the time. There’s nothing like that with college teaching. There’s no magic elixir you can swallow and then magically, this will work for everyone, every student all the time. That’s not how teaching and learning works. But those teaching takeaways really are thought provoking and insightful and should inspire anyone reading to think about how it might be adapted and used in their own classroom.

John: English breakfast tea though, is is a very nice magic elixir, but it may not solve all those problems.

Jessamyn: Caffeine is the magic elixir, yes.

John: &hellipwhich has long been used in higher ed.

Jessamyn: Yes.

John: Your book is divided into four parts: the first day, making connections, anti-racist pedagogies, and teaching with our whole selves. Could you tell us a bit about some of the topics that are addressed in each section?

Jessamyn: Yes, absolutely. Each section offers specific actionable strategies related to that title of the section. So the first section about the first day is all about the vital central importance of the first class meeting. And that’s a great way to start the collection because it takes this truth from the scholarship of teaching and learning, which is that the first day, really the first five minutes, of an in-person class and the first time a student logs into an online class. In some ways, those are the most important five minutes of the entire term. Because first impressions matter so, so much, and it’s so, so vital for students to be engaged right away. In addition, though, the first day takes on even increased importance when an instructor is navigating student expectations and presumptions and assumptions and stereotypes about “what a professor looks like,” or how a college class works. So the strategies that are explored in this section, they all take that foundational good teaching, effective teaching practice, plan extremely carefully for your first day, your first few minutes. And then, in addition to having a fantastic first day, here are ways to interrupt those biases to acknowledge and work with and help students overcome those stereotypes using things that we know work. So active learning, very careful preparation, going to your classroom and scoping it out if it’s in person before the first day so you’re very familiar with the physical space. Engaging students immediately with the content, which has this two-pronged effect. So one, you get students engaged right away&hellip it demonstrates that you care about their learning, you love the content, and you’re going to get them engaged, which is of course helpful for their learning. Also, it demonstrates your expertise, your knowledge, and it gets students right away from the first day knowing I know what I am talking about, and I love this subject, and I’m going to get you to engage with it as well. So that’s some strategies from the first day. Part two, making connections, similarly takes concepts that the scholarship of teaching and learning has shown are vital to student learning: building trust and building rapport with students and the authors take those strategies, explore for how to do them while also contending with student assumptions and expectations. So they look at things like encouraging student metacognition, collaborative rubrics, co-creating a grading rubric with students, and experiential learning&hellip all evidence-based effective teaching practices, and the authors build on those to show, and also these are ways to help students picture you as the professor. Part three digs into some specific anti-racist teaching strategies as ways we can increase student learning and at the same time, challenge stereotypes or de-center a certain limited depiction of professors from the student and instructor standpoint. So like I was saying about the purpose of the selection, humanizing higher education, anti-racist teaching strategies are important for creating inclusive classrooms for our students. They are also important for helping to chip away at the disparate teaching realities that instructors face as well. So that section it was important to me to include that for those reasons. Part four, teaching with our whole selves, gives specific teaching strategies for disrupting bias that students may bring into the classroom, while paying close attention to helping instructors be successful professionally in the classroom helping students learn. So there’s some reflective aspects to those essays, instructors reflecting on the ways they’ve been able to use classroom practices like picking a bias index, for example, in the discipline or creating classroom communities where fumbling forward&hellip that’s Donna Meija’s phrase&hellip fumbling forward is normalized as we struggled to learn, or like Dr. Pitman’s final chapter on the review process and the ways that women faculty of color can proactively get a wide range of feedback about their teaching, and include documentation and evidence from the scholarship about the different biases that women faculty of color face&hellip how to include that in your review process, working towards professional success.

Rebecca: So everyone wants to know, when exactly can we get this book?

Jessamyn: The release date that West Virginia University Press is saying is November of 2022. I’m hopeful it might be out a little bit sooner. And you can also see a lot more information about each author and a detailed table of contents at our book website, pictureaprofessor&hellip all one word&hellip pictureaprofessor.com.

John: And we will be interviewing a few of the authors in there. So there’ll be a little bit of a teaser for some of that information coming up over the next several months.

Rebecca: I know I’m really excited to read it when it comes out.

John: I’ve had it on preorder since I saw you tweet about it.

Jessamyn: And I couldn’t be happier that it’s coming out close to Viji Sathy’s and Kelly Hogan’s book: Inclusive Teaching. That book is going to be a real game changer on inclusive teaching practices to build inclusivity in the classroom. So I think the West Virginia University Press series is really addressing significant major issues and gaps in the scholarship right now.

John: It’s a wonderful series. And I think we’ve interviewed most of the authors now, actually, and we’re looking forward to seeing more coming through. And we did have a chance to meet Viji Sathy and Kelly Hogan just a couple of weeks ago here at the SUNY CIT conference. And it was really nice to see them in person after reading their articles and interviewing them on the podcast a few times.

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

Jessamyn: Well, in the immediate future, there is a bonus chapter to Picture a Professor that I promised in the introduction that I wrote. I don’t actually have a chapter in the book, besides the introduction, and that was because I got so many outstanding contributions and proposals that I took out my chapter to leave more room for other people to be published. So I promised in the introduction to include my bonus chapter, which is going to be on student course evaluations and how that intersects with these stereotypes about being a professor. It’s an issue that a number of the authors mention and discuss, but not as the sole focus. So that’s the bonus chapter that will need to be done by November so I need to get going on that. [LAUGHTER]

John: So will there be a Picture More Professors coming out?

Jessamyn: I certainly hope so.

John: Well, thank you. It’s always great talking to you.

Jessamyn: Thank you for having me. I love Tea for Teaching. Everybody should listen to it all the time.

Rebecca: And we can’t wait to read the book.

Jessamyn: 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.


246. Embedding Career Competencies

Students generally enter college to advance their employment prospects. In this episode, Jessica Kruger joins us to discuss how explicitly embedding career competencies in the curriculum can engage and motivate students. Jessica is a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Community Health and Health Behavior and is the Director of Teaching Innovation and Excellence at the University of Buffalo.


Rebecca: Students generally enter college to advance their employment prospects. In this episode, we explore how explicitly embedding career competencies in the curriculum can engage and motivate 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&hellip

John: &hellipand Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer&hellip

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


Rebecca: Our guest today is Jessica Kruger. Jessica is a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Community Health and Health Behavior and is the Director of Teaching Innovation and Excellence at the University of Buffalo. Welcome back, Jessica.

Jessica: Happy to be back.

John: We just saw you at CIT.

Jessica: &hellipgreat conference.

John: It was nice seeing everyone back in person again. For me, and I think for Rebecca too, this was our first conference in person in at least a couple of years.

Rebecca: Yeah. Yes, it was. Refreshing.

John: Speaking of refreshing, our teas today are&hellip Jessica, are you drinking tea?

Jessica: Iced Tea.

Rebecca: &hellipthe best kind during the summer.

Jessica: Exactly.

Rebecca: I have some nice piping hot Ceylon tea again.

John: And I have spring cherry green tea.

Rebecca: Is that a new one for you, John? Or you just haven’t had it in a while?

John: I haven’t had it in a while.

Rebecca: That sounds good&hellip

John: It is very good.

Rebecca: &hellipif you like cherries, which I don’t. [LAUGHTER]

John: It’s spring cherry, it’s not just cherry, these are spring cherries.

Rebecca: &hellipthe best kind.

John: &hellipfrom the Republic of Tea&hellip actually from Harry and David. But it’s produced by the Republic of Tea for Harry and David.

Rebecca: So we’ve invited you here today to discuss your work in incorporating career readiness into the public health curriculum. Why should there be an increased focus on incorporating career readiness in our courses and degree programs?

Jessica: I like to tell people, it’s not just our job to teach students really cool things, it’s our job to help them get a job. And so ultimately, by incorporating career readiness skills, we’re equipping our students to go out into the world and get their first job. And really, in public health, there’s so much work to be done. And so if students aren’t ready to do that interview, or send out their resume, or even talk about their experiences that they’ve gained in the classroom, they’re not going to land that job.

John: Has it been hard to convince other faculty of the need to provide this career readiness for students?

Jessica: So myself and another faculty member have been incorporating the career competencies in our courses, we both teach a 200- and a 300- level public health course. And, in those, we are getting students anywhere from sophomore, juniors, or seniors. And I think it makes sense in our profession where many students go out and get jobs after their bachelor’s to have them start thinking about this early, even as early as their second year in our courses.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about the kinds of careers that your students in your program pursue?

Jessica: Yes, so we have students working all over. And I’m really proud to say we have a student who’s actually working at a safe injection site in New York City, which is one of the first that has been opened. We have students working locally in health departments, working for hospital systems, and local nonprofits. And so our students are really going out there and doing what needs to be done, especially what we’ve seen over the past two years with the pandemic. We’d had so many students work in contract tracing, and also with local health departments, and it’s growing. Public health is becoming more recognized. And that’s why we need to continue to prepare our students for what’s next.

John: For those listeners who aren’t familiar with safe injection, could you talk about what that is?

Jessica: The first facility was opened in New York City. This allows for individuals who use injectable drugs to go into a place that is clean and monitored and inject safely. Someone is there to monitor them, provide them clean supplies, and even help them if there is an overdose. So this is a harm reduction technique that prevents deaths.

Rebecca: Can you talk about the ways that you have employed career readiness into your courses?

Jessica: We use the framework of the NACE Competencies and NACE stands for National Association of Colleges and Employers. And these are competencies that were set forth by actual companies, employers out there, saying what they actually want in a new graduate. So there are actually eight different areas, things from teamwork, leadership, ensuring that students are able to be critical thinkers, have career and self development, include equity and inclusion, and be proficient and technology. And so what I’ve done is incorporate first starting at the syllabus level, incorporating some verbiage saying: in this course, you’re going to learn career competencies, and we’re going to cover seven out of eight of these career competencies. Because I’m teaching a 200-level course, I’m not focusing on the skill of leadership, that’s a little bit higher level that I’m working at in this course. But in every assessment that I have in class, I have not only the objectives, why we’re doing it, but I include what competencies we’re working towards, and how they can talk about this in a job interview&hellip to a internship site. So it’s not just that you’re writing a paper, you’re working on those written communication skills, and you’re able to articulate that

John: How have students responded? I would imagine it would increase their motivation a bit when they see how directly applicable these skills will be for them.

Jessica: It all comes down to transparency, because the more transparent and applied students feel that their assessments are, the higher quality I tend to see their work. And so by telling them, you’re not just writing a paper for me to read, you’re writing a paper to practice this skill. And you’re also going to do a presentation, because in public health, you need to have excellent written and oral communication skills. And hey, you’re also going to make a poster on Canva, because you need to know how to use technology. And so by kind of stringing these competencies together, it allows students to see that what they’re doing is not just for a grade, but to help them build those skills.

Rebecca: Can you walk us through a specific example?

Jessica: Yeah, in this course, I have students do a variety of writing samples on different problems. So, in public health we’re very applied. In one of the papers, students are talking about how public health has been influenced by other areas&hellip philosophy, psychology&hellip and so they could just see it as a paper, a 1.5 page paper, or thinking about it from a career readiness standpoint, they’re learning how to write succinctly and to whatever audience&hellip so, in this case, a lay person learning about public health. And so in writing this, I include why they’re doing it. And when I’m giving the example of what I’m looking for in the assessment, I often have the students reflect on what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. I think it’s important for them to think about that, why am I writing this paper? Why are we doing this? &hellipto improve your skills, to work on that written communication. Another example that I think is probably maybe a little bit more applied here is students write a paper, they record a short pitch of this paper using Flipgrid. So they’re doing written communication, oral communication, and in that little flip grid that they’re doing, they have to dress professionally, practice that skill, and give feedback to peers. And so all of that together, which is seemingly not a too arduous of an assignment, is really hitting on a lot of those career skills.

John: Have other faculty in your department picked up on the use of expanded career readiness in their classes?

JESSICA :Yes, one other faculty member has joined me and currently we are studying the effects of this on our students. So what we have done is ask our students at the end of the semester to complete a short survey asking them about how they felt about including career readiness into their courses. And overwhelmingly, students are so appreciative that we’re thinking about this, preparing them for what’s next. And it also shows that we care, we’re not just there to be a sage on the stage. We’re there to help them get ready for that job, that grad school, or whatever else they choose.

Rebecca: Do you have other findings from your research so far? I know you’re early in this process.

Jessica: Another major takeaway from this research is students wish they had this much earlier. They wish that we started talking about it day one. And while we could have told them about the career design center on campus, they’re not forced to practice this in their courses. They’re not tying this to that NACE Competency framework. But really, when we think about it, career readiness is everyone’s job. In our University of Buffalo, we’re working to create a career ecosystem, meaning that faculty are really on the front lines of this. They’re the first people that students are going to go to for career advice. And not all faculty are equipped to have that conversation. But at least, at the very minimum, being able to direct them to the Career Design Center and other resources that are available through the Career Design Center, I think is key. One simple way that I’ve introduced students to the actual physical Career Design Center on campus is I have them go take a selfie. They have a great little selfie station, and that’s one of their first things that they do in my course. So I can start to put a face to a name. And they can also learn about why it’s important to have a professional selfie. So they can put on their digital profiles like LinkedIn.

Rebecca: I found in some of the classes that I teach, I’ve in the past done assignments where we do professional email communication related to the work that we’re doing, or reports that might be common to the discipline. And students have responded much more positively to those kinds of writing assignments, because they can see the practical application and can connect the very specific, like, I can see how I’m doing this skill, and it’s gonna result in me being able to do this other thing. We just don’t always articulate that when it maybe is a little more abstract, when it’s maybe a more traditional paper and how that might tie to the kinds of work that they might do as a professional.

Jessica: Most definitely. And I’ll say this really was not much effort, I did not change what I was doing in my courses. I really just added a sentence or two to each of my assessments, relating it back to the NACE Competencies, I also brought a little bit more awareness to what we were doing in class. When we would do group work, I’d say, “Oh, you know what? You’re working on teamwork. That’s great, because in public health, we work in teams, and this is also related to the NACE competencies.” So it doesn’t have to be like a capstone course where you’re deliberately working on resumes or other career competency. But I think weaving this in, adding to it, and really raising awareness about some of these skills can really help students go to that next level, or start thinking about what they need to do to build some more skills before they leave our universities.

John: You’ve already answered this partly by talking about teamwork and other skills that can be done in any class. But what about those instructors in a course on abstract algebra? How would you build in, say, career readiness into that, other than the types of things you’ve already mentioned?

Jessica: Well, I think teamwork and technology would be two very easy competencies to weave in to any sort of course. Also, if you’re doing advanced level math, you’re probably using critical thinking skills. And you’re probably talking about what your findings are. So you’re hitting communication, you may not have much on professionalism, or career and self-development, but still, you’re hitting five career competencies, and not having to add anything, but really just highlight what you’re already doing.

Rebecca: Were you surprised when you sat down and looked at your syllabus and your learning objectives and looked at the NACE competencies and put them side by side and how well they aligned?

Jessica: Yeah, and in fact, it’s interesting, because in public health, we have an accrediting body called CEPH. And our CEPH Competencies for preparing students at the baccalaureate level actually align perfectly with NACE. And so it made sense, once you sat it down to say, “Oh, I’m already doing a lot of this.” And yeah, it might take part of my class time the second day of class to bring in one of the career designers so they put a name to a face, but it’s not taking away any time from my instruction. And by adding the transparency in that connection. I think it’s created more of a caring environment for my students. They know I care about what happens to them after this course. And more students have come to me than ever, asking about what’s next, whether that’s grad school, or how to apply for that first job. And that’s really rewarding. Now, I know not all faculty want more meetings with students. We all have busy schedules. But it’s also great to build those connections, because those are the students who are going to continue to be connected, have mentorship and be successful.

John: And we’ve always been preparing students for their future lives and careers. But we haven’t always been that transparent about it. And it sounds like that’s a really good approach. For someone who wants to start building this into their courses, how would you suggest they get started?

Jessica: I think one of the first things is go have a conversation with someone in your career design center on campus, see what they’re offering and see how you can collaborate with them. I found that our Career Design Center at University of Buffalo has so many resources so that faculty can literally plug in modules on career development that are already created for them. It was also really enlightening to learn what it’s like to be a student, to go to the career design center. And so sitting down with someone and understanding some of the intakes that they do, some of the questions, and even some of the tools that they have, really helps give you an overview of everything that can be offered to students. So when that student comes to you and says, I’m thinking about this career in biostatistics&hellip Oh, great, I don’t actually know a lot about biostatistics, but you should go to the Career Center, because they have a great tool where you can see what your life would be like as a biostatistician. And so first learn about your career design center on campus.. Second, I think it’s important to start slow with any new thing that you’re doing in your course. It may be that you dip your toe in the water and just connect some of what you’re doing with career competencies. So when you have students work in teams, say, you know, teamwork’s important. This is actually what people care about when you get a job. And here’s how you might want to talk about your experience in teamwork, if you don’t currently do this outside of the classroom, and provide them some of those prompts. And then if you want to dive in, and really incorporate your NACE competencies, I think for most professions, in most disciplines, the alignment will be there. And it’s not a ton of effort to highlight that, especially if you start with just your assessments and maybe highlighting some of those and then moving towards other things by maybe adding some career readiness modules, or having your students go to your career design center, take a selfie, whatever they have to offer.

Rebecca: Sometimes it’s really exciting and nice to have some ideas of ways to connect with students that are just so straightforward. [LAUGHTER]

Jessica: I’ll also say, while our students have grown up in a digital age, I find that technology tends to be their weakest category when we think about the NACE competencies. And so if your field uses any technology, talking about how to be proficient in that, how to be a lifelong learner, and how sometimes it’s hard to learn something new, but you have to if you want to keep up into the field,

Rebecca: One of the things that I have been doing in my classes that students have appreciated is when there are things like free online conferences related to the discipline, assigning them as an assignment. And to do that, and to talk about what that experience is like and encourage them to connect with professionals in the field. And a lot more opportunities for that kind of an experience has been offered over the last [LAUGHTER] couple of years.

Jessica: That’s a great way to incorporate that&hellip talks, and even as you introduce a new topic, having them recognize that maybe after this class, you’re not going to be an expert, but here are ways that you can build this skill that you may need. And it might be going out and trying something new, it might be connecting with another center on campus. But recognizing there are resources there for you.

Rebecca: I think underscoring the idea that you need to continue learning in your field is something that students don’t always immediately recognize without us pointing out. They don’t recognize that one of the things they might want to ask in an interview are what the professional development opportunities are, or ways to grow as a professional in their first job.

Jessica: Most definitely, and how they want to do that and how they can identify those areas of growth. That’s something that’s not often transparent. We send them out into the world and say, “Great, you’ve got this degree.” But there may be many areas where they can become a little bit more proficient or dig a little bit deeper into a topic. I want to also highlight that I think that this is so important for our first generation and our URM students. In our undergraduate program, we have about 37% of our students being underrepresented minorities or first-generation college students. And if we don’t talk about this, no one else is going to talk about this. And by becoming someone to turn to about career readiness and about asking those questions of “What do I do for my first interview?” or “How do I prepare for this internship?” &hellipwe’re not going to be able to build that for those students because they might not have someone at home to turn to. As a first-generation college student myself, I found that no one was talking to me about this. And so I think it’s critical in higher education that we think about this as an equity and inclusion component within our curriculum.

Rebecca: That’s a really good point. I’m glad that you underscored that Jessica.

John: And one other thing that I think many people have been doing is bringing in guest speakers&hellip and you can bring in some recent graduates to talk a little bit about some of those pathways. I think we’ve all learned how easy it is to bring people in remotely to give presentations. We don’t have to physically bring them to campuses anymore.

Jessica: Yeah, I think that’s really powerful having career panels. And it’s great to connect with our graduates. I love when they say that what they’ve learned in the class actually helped prepare them for what’s next. We’re not just shooting from the hip here, we really talk to our graduates, understand where we need to focus and continue to improve our program as we continue to grow.

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

Jessica: Ah&hellip summer is upon us. And so it is my time to write up all the papers that I’ve been sitting on over the semester. One of that is the paper on incorporating these competencies into our courses. And I look forward to sharing the results when we get that out there. But I’m really interested in how we work with faculty to help them think about adding career competencies to their courses. Because I don’t think this just has to happen at the undergraduate level. I think the graduate level is also key. I teach both grad and undergrad courses. And as I’m revitalizing our graduate capstone, I really think that this is perfectly aligned, along with our competencies for our accrediting body. And so really, it’s all come together for me, and I’m really excited to see what other folks think about it as the word begins to spread.

Rebecca: Sounds like a really exciting opportunity. And I think you’re right, graduate school is a great place for some of these conversations to be happening.

John: Well, thank you. These are things I think we should all keep in mind, because even if we’re not thinking about career competency as being important for our students, students certainly are. It’s always great talking to you.

Jessica: Thank you very much.

Rebecca: Thanks, Jessica.


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.


245. Higher Ed’s Next Chapter

During the past two years, faculty have experimented with new teaching modalities and new teaching techniques as we adapted to the COVID pandemic. In this episode, Kevin Gannon joins us to reflect on what we have learned during these experiences and what we are in danger of forgetting. Kevin is a history professor who has recently accepted a new position as the incoming director of the Center for the Advancement of Faculty Excellence at Queen’s University of Charlotte. He is also the author of Radical Hope, a Teaching Manifesto, which is available from West Virginia University Press.

Show Notes

  • Gannon, K.M. (2020). Radical Hope: A Teaching Manifesto. West Virginia University Press.
  • Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education model. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2-3), 87-105.
  • Whiteside, A. L. (2015). Introducing the social presence model to explore online and blended learning experiences. Online Learning, 19(2), n2.
  • Lewis, S., Whiteside, A. L., & Dikkers, A. G. (2014). Autonomy and responsibility: Online learning as a solution for at-risk high school students. International Journal of E-Learning & Distance Education/Revue internationale du e-learning et la formation à distance, 29(2).
  • Whiteside, Aimee, Amy Garrett Dikkers, and Karen Swan, eds (2017). Social Presence in Online Learning: Multiple Perspectives on Practice and Research. Stylus Press.
  • Cate Denial, Clarissa Sorensen-Unruh, and Elizabeth A. Lehfeldt. (2022). “After the Great Pivot Should Come the Great Pause.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. February 25.
  • Mays Imad. (2021), “Transcending Adversity: Trauma-Informed Educational Development.” To Improve the Academy: A Journal of Educational Development. (39(3).
  • Hanstedt, P. (2018). Creating wicked students: Designing courses for a complex world. Stylus Publishing, LLC.
  • Hidden Brain Podcast.(2022). “Do Less.” June 6.
  • Leidy Klotz. (2021) Subtract: The Untapped Science of Less. MacMillan.
  • Betsy Barre (2021). Student Workload. Tea for Teaching podcast. April 14.


During the past two years, faculty have experimented with new teaching modalities and new teaching techniques as we adapted to the COVID pandemic. In this episode, we reflect on what we have learned during these experiences and what we are in danger of forgetting.


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…

…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.


Our guest today is Kevin Gannon. Kevin is a history professor who has recently accepted a new position as the incoming director of the Center for the Advancement of Faculty Excellence at Queen’s University of Charlotte. He is also the author of Radical Hope, a Teaching Manifesto, which is available from West Virginia University Press. Welcome back, Kevin.

Kevin: Great to be here with you both again.

And we just saw you a couple of weeks ago when you provided a closing keynote address at the SUNY CIT conference. It’s nice to have a chance to talk to you a little bit more.

Kevin: Yeah, it was great to be up there with you all in Oswego and I miss the Oswego weather now that I am here where it is 100 degrees outsideinf Des Moines right now.

Rebecca: That’s a little toasty.

Kevin: Yeah, it was not what I ordered, that’s for sure.

Rebecca: So dare I ask, what our teas for today are? So today’s teas are… Kevin, are you drinking tea?

Kevin: I am actually drinking a Diet Coke. Usually about midday, I moved to the cold and bubbly caffeine. So we have made that transition.

Rebecca: Cold seems necessary based on just the temperature outside.

Kevin: Indeed. [LAUGHTER]

And I am drinking a wild blueberry black tea from the Republic of Tea in a new mug that our graduate student at the teaching center had given us just a couple of weeks ago, as a thank you for working with us. And I don’t know why she was thanking us… she made it so much easier over the past year.

Rebecca: Yeah, big shout out to Anna Croyle for all her hard work on the podcast over the last year. And I’m drinking… is it Ceylon? How do you even say that? Ceylon tea?

Kevin: That’s how I’ve always said it. So if it’s wrong, I’ve been wrong. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Me too. It’s one of those where you read mostly and not say out loud. [LAUGHTER]

So we invited you here to talk a little bit about where higher education is going. You talked a little bit about that in the closing keynote address here and we thought it would be nice to get your opinion on the lessons that we’ve learned from the pandemic and where you see higher education as going, or where it should go, over the next few years.

Rebecca: Yeah, those might be two really different things. [LAUGHTER]

Kevin: Right. And I think that’s maybe where a lot of the stress and the angst comes from… that we’ve identified some places that a lot of us think higher education should go or at least a direction or a set of clear directions in which it should head. But we’re not at all certain that that’s actually how it’s gonna play out. And that dissonance between those two things can be unsettling. And I think that, at least from my perspective, that’s where a lot of the kind of stress and anxiety looking forward in higher education is coming from. And we’re obviously coming out, and not even completely out, but sort of coming out of one chapter and into a new chapter and landscape that’s been fundamentally reshaped by COVID, by pandemic pedagogy, and as a sort of immediate context. But of course, all of that unfolding in the larger context of defunding higher education and the sort of slow motion societal collapse that we find ourselves in as well. And I think there’s a lot that’s been laid bare by that. There’s a lot that I think folks sort of knew about intellectually, or were willing to sort of name but now feel much more viscerally and real and immediately, but we’re also really, really tired [LAUGHTER] and stretched thin. What’s the line that Bilbo Baggins says in The Lord of the Rings… “like butter that’s been scraped over too much toast.” [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: That’s exactly it, right.

Kevin: Right? And I think that’s where a lot of us, if not all of us, are in some way or another. And so of course, just as we know when we talk about student learning and cognition, the less cognitive bandwidth we have available to do these sorts of complex tasks, the harder those things are. And I think on a macro scale in higher ed, I think that’s where we find ourselves too, facing some of our most difficult problems with less bandwidth available to address them than ever before.

Rebecca: Yeah, it’s kind of funny, less bandwidth, but a lot of momentum and a lot of phase two.

Kevin: Right.

Rebecca: It doesn’t always line up.

Kevin: Right? Like the cars going really fast over the cliff, but we can’t steer it. It feels like, and that’s not…

Rebecca: Yeah.

Kevin: …not a comfortable place to sit.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about some of the things that we’ve learned in higher ed during the pandemic?

Kevin: This is a conversation that could, of course, go on forever. But I think one of the things that we learned, that’s central to so much of what we’re trying to figure out now is just how much learning or teaching and learning are social endeavors, are community endeavors. And that’s not to say that they have to be done in the same physical space at the same synchronous time, but that sociality, a sense of community, are vital to any sort of meaningful learning. And of course, we’d learned that mostly in the absence of those thing with the shift to emergency remote instruction and then the ways in which what we were trying to do and COVID either partially or completely shut places down was so attenuated, and for folks who didn’t have a lot of experience in online teaching and for students who didn’t have a lot of experience of being online learners, we lost that community piece, that sociality. It became a series of sort of atomized, fragmented, maybe conversations, but not even really that. I think a lot of what ended up happening was instructors sort of broadcasting things out, like we would send out radio signals in the hopes that some alien civilization would pick up on them, and maybe they’ll land somewhere. And I think that’s how a lot of us felt by a good year or so into this thing. And so I think what we’ve realized now is that, yeah, we lost something really meaningful. We did the best we could speaking broadly. And moving all of higher ed online in about two weeks, that’s not something that we should scoff att. But we also risk permanently embedding some of the things that really frustrated us during that pandemic period, if we’re not attentive to addressing those things now. So I think everything else that we need to, I guess “everything’s” probably too broad a word, but so much else that what we need to address in higher ed springs from that fundamental reality about sociality and community. And in particular, the difficulty of trying to do what it is that we do, either personally, or institutionally, when those things are missing.

We had that initial period where everyone moved to remote instruction for a while. And then even when we came back, it was to classrooms with a lot of distance separating people, and with masks and, in general, a lot of barriers that were not there before. And it’s been quite a bit of a challenge. I think we’ve all tried many things to build community in whatever modality or whatever mix of modalities we’ve happened to be teaching in. What are some strategies that we can use to build communities more effectively in our classes?

Kevin: So I think one of the things that I’m really interested in now, and something I think offers a lot of promise, and I actually talked about this in the talk that I gave when I was with you at Oswego, was the research that we have from the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in the online world, and in particular, the sort of very venerable community of inquiry model, but in particular, the work that’s been done on social presence as a key part of that, so building social presence on the part of both instructors and learners in an online class. And it seems to me that the insights that underlay the idea of social presence for fully remote asynchronous learning, apply very well in pretty much any teaching and learning space we find ourselves in, either online or on-ground, synchronous, hybrid, or asynchronous. And in particular, I’m really indebted to the work of Amiee Whiteside and her colleagues who talk about what are the components that underlay a meaningful social presence, that is, social presence in the sense of to what degree are the people that are in the space recognized by one another as full human beings, not just avatars or not just user names on a discussion board thread? And one of the most important things that underlays this social presence is what Whiteside and her colleagues called interaction intensity. One of the problems that we had in trying to do pandemic pedagogy was like, “Oh, we’ll do discussion boards,” “oh, our students will be ‘communicating.’ they’ll be talking with one another.” But if you’ve ever taught online, you know that it’s very easy for these sorts of discussion board assignments to become very sort of pro forma empty exercises, respond to a classmate, put two comments here, and students resent them almost as much as we resent having to read them [LAUGHTER] as instructors. So those are interactions, but they’re not what Whiteside and her colleagues would say are appropriately intense interactions. That is I’m not expending a whole lot of cognitive or emotional or socially present labor to engage in those sorts of interactions. And so they’re not really accomplishing what they’re supposed to in that we say discussions help build community in a class. Well, not if they’re designed in a way that doesn’t prompt this idea of interaction intensity. So what are the interactions, whether it’s between individual learners, whether it’s between the instructor and students, or whether it’s between students and the particular course material or ideas that you’re addressing? And whatever online or in-person space this is, what are those interactions like and how intense are they? What kind of cognitive labor are we asking students to do? How are we asking students to invest effort, motivation, and the sort of cognitive lifting to do what we would call higher-order tasks of analysis, of synthesis, of creation, as opposed to just sort of rote memorization or regurgitation? And so that’s one example of what I think is a broader thing that we need to be paying attention to is how are we cultivating all across our higher educational spaces, how are we cultivating that type of interaction intensity, that meaningful work to connect and to engage? Because as any faculty member will tell you, other than money, the other two resources that are the most scarce for us are time and energy or emotional energy, and I think the same is true for our students. So if we’re asking our students to contribute both time and emotional labor to a class, we need to make sure that it’s worth it. There needs to be, and I hate to use the capitalist metaphor, but what return on that investment are students getting? Because that’s going to be the calculus by which they allocate energy and prioritization to the various paths that all of their instructors are asking them to do. And so what social presence research and in particular, this emphasis on interaction intensity, has us think about is what are we asking our students to do? How are we asking them to do it? And is it worth it? What is the return for that? In that sense, it’s us making a promise to students that these are meaningful tasks that we’re asking you to engage in, that go toward your accomplishment of the learning goals for this course, and the overall goal of making this course a meaningful space. So we’re not going to waste your time with stuff that isn’t contributing to that. And so I think being really intentional and informed by a scholarship that’s already out there, in many ways, is going to be of enormous assistance to us moving forward.

Rebecca: One thing that I’ve heard a lot of instructors talk about over the past year is this big gap between students who are really achieving and those that just aren’t, they’re not able to, and maybe a lot of that’s tied to mental health and other things, perhaps, but we don’t necessarily know. But a lot of faculty have talked about this, like big gap, like there’s a hole in the middle. What strategies can we think about institutionally and individually as instructors as we move into the fall to make sure that students aren’t just completely left behind or never get to finish their education or barely begin it?

Kevin: So on the personal level, I think anything that we can do to humanize our instruction. And again, no matter what space we’re in, how are we making these spaces human spaces, spaces for actual human beings and not just brains on sticks, so paying attention to what are the affective dimensions of our courses. Are our courses and our learning spaces welcoming spaces, inclusive spaces, the old idea of seeing courses as a barrier or a weed out space, it was never tenable, but it’s clearly untenable now. But one of the things I worry about is, we’re not going, I don’t think, be able to pedagogy our way out of all of this individually. And I worry that the emphasis might be so much on “here are things that you can do in your individual classrooms, which are great and wonderful,” and we need to be doing them. But they’re not going to fix everything, because these are systemic problems. And so systemic problems demand systemic solutions. And so this is where we have to be thinking institutionally, what kind of resources are we allocating to and for students, and it’s going to be everything, I think, from additional academic support, supplemental instruction, emergency grants, food security, all of these things that are going to have to be in place, and a lot of schools are sort of doing or at least making gestures at doing, but we need to be thinking a lot more systematically and strategically about doing those things. And we also need to be advocating in the communities of which our institutions are apart, because we’re not separated from them. We don’t exist in a vacuum. And the barriers that are in front of many of our students are barriers that come from these larger systems of inequity and deprivation that they are coming out of, and then entering our campus spaces already having their experiences shaped by those things. And of course, we know those barriers don’t exist in any sort of equitable way at all. So this is institutional, systematic work. And I worry that in, again, not post COVID, but in this next chapter, are institutional leaders going to be so nervous about their own institutions’ survival, that they’re scared to take on what for some of them might look like social justice oriented type of work? Is that going to be seen as too political or too activist? And are we going to damage our ability to attract funding? Or are we going to get the wrong kind of attention. And I think ethically, that’s a disastrous way to go about it. But I also think practically, that is a non-starter as well. Schools that run scared from these sorts of things in the next couple of years, are schools that I don’t think will survive.

We often talk about humanizing, or creating a more human presence. And we often talk about that in terms of just humanizing the professor. Would it help if we also focus a little bit more on bringing the students’ humanity and their lived experience into the class because maybe one way of bringing students back in is by helping students connect their own lives and their hopes for the future with what you’re doing in their classes. I think everyone advocates that to some extent, but might there be some ways of using that to help reach out to those disengaged students that Rebecca was mentioning?

Kevin: What a radical concept, recognizing students as actual human beings. Crazy talk, right? [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I can’t believe we’re even having this conversation.

Kevin: But I think what this underscores is that I just said we’re not going to pedagogy our way out of all of these problems. But having said that, and put in that caveat, I think systematic and intentional attention to our pedagogy ,that is what’s the larger sort of philosophical lenses through which we’re looking to view our work? John, you get right at the heart of that question. How do we see our students? Because our students know what we think of them, even probably better than we know what we think of them, sometimes. What we do, the choices we make, the ways in which we engage or not engage with our students send very clear signals to them. And so I think one of the things that is super important for instructors to be doing in this moment is thinking very intentionally about how am I with my students. And so if we’re going to talk about social presence, in what ways am I present? What does that present look like to others? And can my students trust me? Do my students think that I trust them? What am I saying to my students, and all of the sort of broad ways, textual and otherwise? What am I telling them that I think about them? What am I saying about the reasons that they should be taking this class? What is this class going to do for them? So absolutely, being more attentive to the full and complex nature of the students who are sharing this space with us. I mean, we’ve always known that that is a good pedagogical thing to do. We’ve always known that that helps increase, for example, students’ motivation and interest in a class, which leads to more meaningful learning. But I just think ethically, at this point to0, students are our allies, students want what we want, they want our institutions to successfully fulfill the promises that we’ve made. Students may not define successful in the way that we might define it for them, or that may look different depending on where they are in their particular journey in our institutions. But we want the same outcomes. We want that success. And so recognizing that commonality and inviting students to help do that work with us, as opposed to either passively off to the side or in opposition to us, seems like a much better strategy going forward. And so some of that conversation, I think, in the coming year, you know, maybe there’s a sort of a back to the basics kind of nuts and bolts emphasis on just good effective pedagogical technique for humanizing instruction. When Ken Bain talks about the promising syllabus, boom, there’s a way to frame the sort of formal statement of the class, the first formal context some of our students may have with the class. When we talk about creating a good climate for discussion, collaborative expectation setting, you know, what are we doing for tone setting the first day of class, all of these sorts of bread and butter, nuts and boltsy kind of things are well worth revisiting and thinking about systematically in ways that we might not have been able to do the past couple years quite frankly,

Rebecca: I know one of the things that your talk had me thinking about Kevin is all the ways that we need to humanize all the other spaces on our campus and all the processes that feel like checking this box, go through this door, shove around that corner, go to that office, oh nope, you got to go to that office. Nope, just kidding. It’s this other office. Processes that aren’t streamlined or with the student experience in mind, maybe they work for the administrative shuffle that might have to happen, but not always thinking about the student as the human that needs to experience the process also. So that’s something that I’ve been thinking a lot about is ways that maybe the social presence idea needs to take form in other places outside of the classroom as well,

Kevin: Absolutely. Because if it doesn’t, what students are getting is one space on campus that is attentive to these things. And then a whole bunch of other spaces on campus that are not, and that dissonance is going to be more telling to students than anything else. So yeah, we’re talking culture change, institutional culture change, which again, may seem like a really heavy lift, given everything. But I don’t think it’s so much additional work as it is a way to focus what we’re already doing to make it more intentional and meaningful, like bringing a coherence to the things that we’re doing anyway, or should be doing anyway, I think that’s the way to approach this kind of work. So one suggestion I always offer to folks on campus on the student services side and the administration side: do a communications audit. How are you communicating? Like, what are the literal examples of the reminder emails you send to students to pay their bill, to register, to drop by the drop date… you know, all this administrative stuff that we bombard students with… read those communications with an eye towards tone, with an eye towards that kind of, I hate to use the phrase but the customer service aspect of this? Because oftentimes what we find is that a bulk of the communication that we’re doing with students, that kind of routine, everyday communication is carrying a very impersonal, almost adversarial, stance that feels punitive, as opposed to supportive. And even if we don’t mean it that way, if that’s our regular constant mode of communication with students, then what are we doing? And what are the consequences of that? Yeah, absolutely. All across campus, as I said in the talk, and as I firmly believe all of our campuses are teaching and learning spaces. Our students are always learning no matter where they are. And so the question we should all have whatever unit or office we’re in is, “Well, what are we teaching and how are we teaching it?” And I think answering those questions in an honest and systematic way can go a long way towards doing that sort of culture change work that I have in mind.

At that conference we mentioned earlier, one of the things that came up in discussion is how some of our campus offices are named, which ties into that communication issue. We have a “Registrar’s” office, and we have a “Bursar,” those are not things that make sense to people, unless they’ve already had some experience with college and maybe simply renaming offices in ways that make sense to students and their role in the university could help a little bit [LAUGHTER] with some of those issues.

Kevin: Absolutely. And, you know, we should be able to answer the question, why would a student need to go to this place? Is the answer to that self evident? If I’m a student, why would I want to go to the registrar’s office? If I don’t know the answer to that right off the bat, that’s an institutional problem. So again, whether it’s the name of the office, or the way in which the services that they offer are communicated to students, there’s a lot of work that we can do as institutions to do this better. As you mentioned, John, some students are going to be familiar with those terms, who come from families where they’re not the first in their family to go to college, for example. So a lot of times the way our campus environments, in terms of the actual workflow of doing business, a lot of times the way that our campus environments are laid out rewards cultural capital, and, as a result, exacerbates the already existing inequities that we see.

Rebecca: I think one thing that students often complain about too, is the sheer quantity of communication, and trying to sort through it all, and when they’re already overwhelmed. And you mentioned before about having to make choices of where to prioritize time and effort and energy and emotional labor. And so sometimes it’s not on email, I sometimes feel that way as well.

Kevin: Yeah, I was about to say… absolutely.

Rebecca: So not only the quantity of what goes out, but also maybe more than one way to get that information.

Kevin: The institution that I’m at now, before I take my new position, has moved some of that communication into text messaging that students can opt in, and I think if students are able to opt in or something like that, that’s great. But I think, to your larger point, so many times individual units are communicating with students without any awareness of what other units are doing, too, which leads to all of us getting carpet bombed by emails. And so one way out of that, again, if you’re thinking about doing this sort of communication audit is compare your results. How many times a week are you communicating with students? And in what ways are you doing that? And might there be ways that you could partner up or collaborate across the unit, so you’re not redundant. And I think sometimes what we might find in institutions is that we’re actually communicating to students at cross purposes with one another, or at least tacitly undermining some of the messages that we might be sending to them. But yeah, when we complain that students don’t ever check their email, like I have a Google account where I sign up for something, or I join a fantasy football league, I use that address, because that’s where all the spam goes. And if I open that inbox, I just look at all the stuff that’s there, and I’m like, “Nope, I’m not even going to deal with that.” So if that’s our student’s university email inbox, with all the stuff that they’re just getting bombarded with from various campus units, I imagine that largely the same thought process is occurring there. And that maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that they’re not checking their email, because we’ve made it much more complex and less, I don’t want to say fun, but a much more onerous process for students to wade through that stuff. And again, this may sound like a simple how big of a deal is email really, right. But it’s like the accumulation of all of these things. And I think that we, as faculty and staff felt this over COVID to, like I can’t do one more email right now, in the objective scheme of things. A 30-second reply to an email is not that big of a deal, but I’m looking at it like I gotta roll this boulder all the way up the mountain and I’m not going to do that. So being attentive to that and being mindful about that, even seemingly esoteric point, I think can make a significant difference.

We talked a little bit about some of the lessons that we’ve learned and things that we might want to take forward. Are there some things that we learned early in the pandemic, that we might be in danger of forgetting as we move forward into what seems like a return to something resembling, I hate to use the word normalcy, but as we move back to more on-site instruction.

Kevin: I think we’re in danger of losing a number of insights that are really hard won insights that we should not lose, that I think it would be a disaster, in fact, if we’d lost. So one of them, I think, is the discovery very shortly into this sort of shift and the pandemic pedagogy, that flexibility and compassion are much more effective than they have perhaps been given credit for across most quarters of higher ed. And again, that’s not to say that from here on forward, we all sit around in a circle and sing Kumbaya, but rather the idea that you can ask students to do really hard things, you could do what people would call rigorous education, but you can’t do it in a space where students feel that the adverse consequences of taking a risk and not succeeding outweigh the benefits of taking a risk and succeeding. I don’t know if that was the most coherent way… but the risk-reward analysis… if students are in a learning space that they see as rigid, as inflexible, as one that is not compassionate, where’s the motivation to do the really hard stuff, the risk taking that we know underlays successful learning in higher education. And so I worry that there’s this rush to “get back to normal,” back when deadlines were deadlines, and not all this mushy crap. If we just rushed to reimpose all that structure, without attention to the shortcomings of those structures, without sufficient attention to were those structures actually facilitating learning or acting as barriers to learning. I fear that we’ll lose that in the rush to sort of reimpose structure on what many folks have seen as a structure-less environment over the last couple of years. I think that it’s entirely possible the pendulum may swing too far back. I’m also deeply concerned that, on the administrative institutional strategy side, that we will lose sight and lose the urgency of the attentiveness to the humanity and well being of not just students, but faculty and staff, just because things might be getting “back to normal.” That next academic year, things will look at least superficially like they did before COVID, full classes, mostly in person and all that kind of stuff. It will be very easy to say that, “Oh, we made it past all of that and things are good now” …without reckoning with the fact that the faculty and staff are absolutely depleted by the last few years. And you can’t just all of a sudden return, “Oh, let’s do all sorts of new strategic things. And let’s do this. It’s business as usual.” I know university administrators are loath to say “this year, we’re not going to do anything new.” Because that sounds like a surrender. But what I would say is, this year use the year to refocus on sustainability and effective mission-driven work. And you can’t do that if you’re starting to pile all this other stuff on. And yes, it’s easy for me to say because I’m not a provost. And I’m not a president, but provosts and presidents right now who are not attentive to how little capacity the faculty and staff have right now are courting disaster for themselves and for their institution, and I think, ethically, are failing as leaders as well, and so I worry deeply. And in the United States, the way we wrestle with our history is often to pretend bad things never happen. And I feel like that’s in danger of happening here. Like, oh, COVID was awful. And man, pandemic pedagogy sucked, but we made it through. And now we’re just going to soldier on as if it never happened. We don’t want to think about this bad time that we had this negative messy thing. I’m not saying that we have to sit in the misery and despair of a global pandemic. But what I am saying is if we’re not remembering what that was like, and how that has changed people, then we are going to fail the people that we work with, or that work for us in our community. And to me, that’s a real threat right now. And I worry a lot about the sort of what I see is kind of a general refusal to recognize that faculty and staff capacity, which was already attenuated pre-COVID. Let’s not get that twisted. But where we are now is a real dangerous point, and becomes even more dangerous, because there’s this illusion of normalcy, that people are laying back over the situation that’s covering up some really dangerous faultlines right now. And I worry a lot about that. That, to me, I think, is probably the most urgent and dangerous lesson that we are are potentially forgetting.

Rebecca: Yeah. [LAUGHTER]

Kevin: My new position is going to ask me to do a lot of leadership development with my new faculty colleagues. And so I’m dipping back into a lot of the literature on institutional level leadership and governance. And it’s fascinating and interesting, and it’s a new set of problems to solve. But it also, really, I think, just sort of drove home to me again, just how much higher ed leadership sometimes is like capitalism in general, like, if you’re not growing, you’re dying. If we don’t have a 5% growth in the GDP, than our economy is dead. But can you keep growing like that? Is that sustainable? And what are the costs of that? And so this coming year, if institutions are saying, hey, let’s do this new strategic initiative, on top of everything else… like yes, I see how there’s a sort of culture of higher ed leadership that places a real premium on these things, and also a stigma of if you’re not innovating, you’re dying, or you’re withering on the vine, but Cate Denial and Clarissa Sorensen-Unruh, and I think there was one other co-author, wrote a really good piece in The Chronicle, and they call it for the great pause in higher education. That’s anathema, I think, to a lot of institutional leadership, but I think it’s obligatory this year. For example, if you’re in an institution where you’re already trying to recover from an enrollment dip over the last couple of years and your faculty’s burnt out, because you’ve been teaching HyFlex and remote teaching and faculty have been doing that for two years, and many of them have never done it before, so of course, the capacity to continue to do that is depleted even further. If you’re an institution that’s gone through all of those things, and is experiencing now the faculty and staff attrition that those things bring as well and then you decide”, oh, here’s a couple really big ticket strategic items that we’re gonna do for the upcoming academic year,” like, really, is that what you want to do right now, in this moment? Make a major shift to academic programs, or we’re not going to offer three- credit classes, we’re going to do four-credit classes now? Really, that’s what you want to do this coming year, in this moment, that’s a priority. And of course, that example is completely hypothetical, he chuckled. But that’s the sort of decision making process that really worries me, because I just can’t see it ending well, and I can’t see it doing anything but harm in a setting and among a community that cannot handle any more harm.

Rebecca: Yeah, I really appreciate that focus on sustainable work, sustainable systems, sustainable procedures, sustainable everything.

Kevin: Yeah, we’re not going to wellness app our way out of this.

Rebecca:I don’t think a wellness app is going to solve the fact that my daughter has been in 11 quarantines, and I’ve had to figure out how to manage all that. [LAUGHTER] I don’t think that’s gonna work.

Kevin: Mays Imad has written a lot about the collective trauma that we have all undergone as a result of COVID. And I think she’s spot on. And whether it was something that people felt directly or whether it’s the constant disruption, Rebecca, that you’ve been subjected to and your family has been subjected to, or even if it’s just the sort of I have seen all this other trauma unfold in my community, and in my friends, we’re all affected by that and to act as if that hasn’t been a thing, and to say, yes, we need to pay attention to self care this year, self care will be really important, and there are a lot of good wellness apps that you can download for your smartphone or tablet that will help you with this. Like, if that’s all you got, then what are you doing? if that’s what you tell your faculty and just sort of assume that they can pick up the rest from there. And you sit back and say, “Well, I’ve done my duty.” Oh, my gosh, no, not at all. But yet, that’s what’s happened in a lot of places. And that’s what worries me. There’s so much that’s tenuous right now, and so much feels unsettled and raw still. And there’s a sharp edge to so much of the exhaustion, that I worry about irrevocable consequences that come from trying to whistle past the graveyard about all this… which is super optimistic. I know, the guy who wrote a book on hope is talking about the impending collapse of higher education. But again, the things that we say we do in higher education, we’re critical thinkers, we’re sharp people, the capacity to reason our way through these problems. There’s so much capacity in our institutions and leaders of institutions who are not able to draw upon that collective capacity are failing their communities and their institutions. If any place is going to have the tools to work through some of these… Paul Hanstedt calls them the “wicked problems” that we face, right, if any institutions gotta have that, it’s got to be colleges and universities. Will we pick up the tool, though, is the question.

Rebecca: Yeah, the key is, is the collective, bringing the right people to the table and asking folks what they need? And what would help and figuring it out together

…without additional meetings, because that could push some people pass the breaking point, I think.

Kevin: Well, we need to ask what labor are we asking folks to do? Because in order to get through the next year, and in order to redress the problems that we face, there’s some other stuff that’s going to have to go. And so a successful leader, whether it’s a department chair all the way up to a university president are going to be able to answer that question: What is it that we’re going to let go right now to give people the capacity to untie these really complex knots that we’re going to be working on this year,

I’ve seen several podcasts recently, I’m trying to remember the name of the person who was interviewed. One was recently on Hidden Brain, but I’ve seen it on others as well, about the power of subtraction, that we always look at things to add a patch on to fix something which involves doing more and sometimes the most effective solution is to trim out some things or reduce some of the other things that we’re doing that perhaps don’t need to be done in the same way. There may be some ways of simplifying our work and perhaps cutting out some of the things that seem duplicative and focusing on the things that are really essential for the institution and also maybe in our classes, trimming out some of those extra things we keep adding in as we try new techniques. And often we add to the cognitive load facing our students making it sometimes perhaps a bit too challenging as we tried to modify things. We talked to Betsy Barre a while back about that as one of the challenges that a lot of students face during a pandemic, because faculty started learning about evidence-based teaching methods, focusing on retrieval practice lots of low stakes tests, and actually increasing student workloads quite a bit because we’re now requiring students to do the work that we always hoped they did or we always wished that they had done,

Rebecca: dreamed, dreamed… [LAUGHTER]

…imagined they had done.

Kevin: Right.

So yeah, I think that applies in many areas. It may apply in our own classes, it applies to administrators, and I think in our lives in general.

Kevin: Well, that’s another area where some of the scholarship we have about effective online teaching and learning helps us. And here I’m thinking of the work that’s been done on literacy load, how much text do we ask students to read in an online class as opposed to a face-to-face class? And of course, the answer is, if we’re not careful, a hell of a lot more. And of course, what are the effects of that, this increased literacy load? And so what is the broader equivalent of a literacy load? What’s the load that we’re putting on our students right now. again, we have tools that we can use to think about this in a critical way, to address this in a reflective and intentional way. But individually, or class by class isn’t going to cut it again, systemically. What can we subtract? It’s okay to not do all the things. I mean, we’re not doing all the things anyway, we’re just being honest about it. [LAUGHTER] This is what it comes down to.

Rebecca: Yeah, we have to think about our own cognitive load and cognitive lifts as well, not just the cognitive lift of students and the work that they’re doing. There’s work involved with implementing all kinds of things in our classes and stacking them on top of each other and [LAUGHTER] managing that too.

Kevin: Well, and I think that there’s something to that when we look at some of the things that have bedeviled us about student choices and strategies that may not have been effective for students. And this is beyond my expertise. And I don’t know if there’s been research done in it. But my own intuitive sense is, and I’ve experienced this, over the past two and a half years, I’ve been so immersed in the sorts of big ticket really complex things like “Hey, train all your faculty colleagues how to do HyFlex instruction, teach HyFlex courses yourself, do all these things,” that where I dropped the ball was like routine email. I had emails I would just forget to reply. I had a date-sensitive reply for a speaking engagement and I literally forgot to reply. And they were just like, “Well, sorry, we’re not going to bring you to campus anymore. We didn’t hear from you.” And I’m like, “Oh, my God, I totally ghosted this guy.” But I would see the email or occasionally remember, and then my mind was like, “Nope.” And so what happened, I think, was all of my cognitive bandwidth was taken up with so many of these things over here, and then like, basically tried to exist in everything that’s happening in our society, and what could not fit, what I literally had no ability to do, was put things on my Outlook calendar correctly, [LAUGHTER] and reply to routine emails. And I was horrible at it. And I still kind of am, to be honest. And those were not things that were true to that degree before COVID. And so I wonder when we look at students now like, “Why don’t they read the syllabus?” …maybe that’s where that bandwidth depletion is manifesting. I’m sure there’s research on this, I’m sure the psychologists can tell us a lot more than I am sort of incoherently jabbing out right now. But I wonder if going forward that we’re going to be seeing a lot of this, this sort of routine, mundane, seemingly small things, but that add up to a real cumulative weight that can really provide significant barriers in the way of student learning, or in the way of our own effectiveness as teachers and colleagues.

I’ve seen a lot of that myself this year. And if it wasn’t for Google sending me a reminder saying you have not replied to this email from three days ago, or you have sent this and you have not yet received a reply from this person, do you want to send a reminder. If it weren’t for those reminders, I would have missed so much more than I actually did. And that was not generally an issue before the pandemic. And I think part of it is, you mentioned this transition to HyFlex or bichronous or the various modes that we’ve used to connect to students both in the classroom and remotely. It’s a lot more work in many ways doing this. Where do you see that as going? Do you think we will be doing as much of this sort of mixed mode instruction where some students are in person and some students are remote? Or do you think we’ll move back to something a little bit more traditional?

Kevin: That’s the million dollar question right now. And I think that’s something a lot of institutions are wrestling with. I think you have some institutions where you might have administrators who are saying, “Yeah, we’re gonna keep doing HyFlex in certain selected areas, because it’s worked really well. And you have some programs and some disciplines for which that’s an ideal sort of solution. And here, I’m thinking of advanced undergrad and graduate programs in particular. And then you have some places that are like, “Yeah, we’re gonna keep doing these things because students have told us they want to be flexible, but they don’t really know what that looks like and they haven’t communicated that effectively and their faculty is like, “Oh, my God, please don’t ask us to do this.” And I think a lot of institutions are kind of in that space, that there’s this sense that “okay, we’re going to be doing some of this going forward, but we don’t know what that looks like and we don’t know quite how that’s going to happen…” which is, of course, a really stressful place to be for everybody involved, and I think underscores the urgent need for collaboration and communication in ways that we haven’t often done well in institutions even prior to COVID. I think too, as I said in the talk that I gave up at Oswego a couple of weeks ago too, learning has always been hybrid. And I think coming to terms with what that really means, in combination with the expanded set of tools and skills that a lot of us picked up during the last two years, hybridity is going to mean something different going forward than it has up to this point. But that, in some ways, is a difference of scale as opposed to actual nature. I think we have a lot more preparation as instructors for that than we realize. But using that awareness and that preparation and those skills intentionally in an environment that helped us do that, is going to be what’s really important. I think it would be a mistake to say that “Oh, students loved all the convenience of online and hybrid. So we’re going to offer every one of our classes multimodal or HyFlex or if you’re traveling for any reason, just Zoom into class, and we’ll all of us will still use it. Like that’s a mistake. That gets into that territory, where if the only tool you have is a hammer, everything’s a nail. There’s no one size fits all solution. But I think one of the things that we did learn during COVID Is that we did a lot of what I call micro adaption. At my own institution, we were teaching HyFlex, but a lot of our instructors made all sorts of micro adaptions within that modality depending on the nature of their class, who the students were, what the contextual needs were. And I think that those are the things that offer really rich opportunities for us to learn from going forward. But again, what that requires is faculty voice, and not just our full-time faculty, all of our faculty, and in particular, our adjunct and part-time colleagues who are teaching the large-enrollment 100 level courses, who experienced the whole continuum of these things. It’s those voices that have to be at the table when we have these institutional conversations about what does hybridity look like for us, for our institution, for our community, for our faculty, for our students, and for our mission, because that answer is going to be different depending upon the place.

Rebecca: As we wrap up our conversation, I want to ask, what are you hopeful about, Kevin?

Kevin: I am hopeful that we actually are able to untie a lot of these knots. The collective capacity within higher education to solve seemingly intractable problems is there. What I’m hopeful is that we figure out and I say we, especially for those of us who have at least semi-administrative or leadership position, that we are able to figure out how to honor that capacity and to affirm the colleagues who have that capacity and enable them to do the work in ways that are sustainable and not self destructive, which again, is another one of those really complicated knots that it’s hard to untie. But I think the capacity, and the willingness, is there across our higher educational spaces. It’s a matter of doing it in ways, again, that are sustainable and collaborative. Those are things that higher ed has not always done really well. But we have a context now that requires it of us. And I am hopeful that places will rise to that challenge, because I’ve seen what faculty, what staff, and what students have done for the last two and a half years. And it is amazing and resourceful, even if it was messy and chaotic at the same time. And I think out of that comes a set of aptitudes and a greater understanding of the stakes involved to lead to, I think, meaningful solutions that will work and not just in the short term. So it may seem counterintuitive to be hopeful right now, but I actually find myself remarkably hopeful.

As you note in your book, we got into this ultimately, because we are hopeful for the future. We always end with the question. What’s next? [LAUGHTER] …which is kind of what we’ve been talking about.

Kevin: Right.

But what’s next for you?

Kevin: Well, for me personally, it’s moving a whole bunch of crap to Charlotte to start my new job. And I found a storage unit for all the books that seem to have accumulated in my faculty and my teaching center offices over the last 18 years I’ve been at Grandview. So yeah, figuring that out. But I’m at a point in my career where the educational development piece is most of what I do now. I still teach, but I always saw myself as a history professor who does some of this other stuff, too. And that’s shifting now. And so my professional identity and the way in which I’m spending my time and the tasks that I am working on and entrusted with are different than, certainly they were at the beginning of my career, but even in the ways that I sort of thought of myself as a faculty member and a member of an academic community. And so, for me, processing what that means and experiencing that in this new position and feeling what that looks like and trying to make sense of it in a way that resonates still with kind of who I think I am as a teacher, as a historian, as a scholar, as a person. That’s kind of where I am right now. It feels a little unsettling… that transitions, I guess, are never easy, but I find myself in this sort of transitory space that is both fascinating and a little bit frightening.

As is true of so much we’ve experienced in the last few years. [LAUGHTER] We wish you luck there.

Kevin: Thank you.

…and it sounds like a wonderful position.

Kevin: Well, I’m excited to start it and it is going to be a wonderful position and I’m thrilled to be a part of a community. The folks that I’ve met there have been wonderful to me so far, so it’s going to be great once I get this damn move done.

…and Charlotte is a wonderful place to live

Rebecca: Well thank you so much for sharing your thoughts, Kevin. It’s nice to talk to you again.

Kevin: Well thanks for having me back on. It’s great to be with the both of you.


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.


244. Unlearning

To deepen our understanding or improve our skills, it is often necessary to question our preconceptions and unlearn some of our past practices and assumptions. In this episode, Lindsay Masland joins us to discuss her unlearning journey. Lindsay is an associate professor in the Department of Psychology and the Associate Director of Faculty Professional Development in the Center for Academic Excellence at Appalachian State University.

Show Notes

  • Blum, S. D. (Ed.). (2020). Ungrading: Why rating students undermines learning (and what to do instead). West Virginia University Press.
  • Jesse Stommel’s website
  • Stommel, J. (2018). How to Ungrade. Blog post, Jesse Stommel. March 11.
  • Hattie, J., & Timperley, H. (2007). The power of feedback. Review of educational research, 77(1), 81-112.
  • Wisniewski, B., Zierer, K., & Hattie, J. (2020). The power of feedback revisited: A meta-analysis of educational feedback research. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 3087.
  • Hattie, J., & Clarke, S. (2018). Visible learning: feedback. Routledge.
  • Pittman, C., & Tobin, T. J. (2022). “Academe Has a Lot to Learn About How Inclusive Teaching Affects Instructors.The Chronicle of Higher Education. February 7.
  • Chavella Pittman and Tom Tobin (2022). Include Instructors in Inclusive Teaching. Tea for Teaching podcast. Episode 231. March 16.
  • Prentis Hemphill


John: To deepen our understanding or improve our skills, it is often necessary to question our preconceptions and unlearn some of our past practices and assumptions. In this episode, we explore one faculty developer’s unlearning 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 Lindsay Masland. Lindsay is an associate professor in the Department of Psychology and the Associate Director of Faculty Professional Development in the Center for Academic Excellence at Appalachian State University. Welcome, Lindsay.

Lindsay: Hi, thanks for having me.

John: Are teas today are… are you drinking tea, Lindsay?

Lindsay: I am not because I’m one of those people that can’t have a lot of caffeine in the afternoon hours and this is afternoon hours for me, so I am drinking store brand seltzer. So, very fancy.

Rebecca: It sounds very fancy to me. [LAUGHTER] It sounds perfect. I’m celebrating the fact that it feels like it’s a summer day here, which is magical. And so I made iced tea fresh.

John: And what type of iced tea is this?

Rebecca: This is English Breakfast iced tea.

John: Very good.

Rebecca: Decaf.

John: Lady Grey, by the way, makes a superb iced tea.

Rebecca: It does, you’re right.

John: I had that for the first time at the English P=avilion in Epcot when we’re at one of the OLC conferences, and I had to ask them what the tea was because it tasted superb. I had never had it as an iced tea before.

Lindsay: Sounds like I need to branch out because I am in the south, you know, and we do like our iced tea. And I mostly have iced tea that I brew the tea myself, but it’s always English breakfast tea. I hadn’t thought to branch out.

Rebecca: Yeah.

John: Since this was an English pavilion, it was probably acceptable to try that.

Rebecca: You didn’t say what kind of tea you were drinking, John.

John: I have a black raspberry green tea today from the Republic of Tea.

Rebecca: Oh, that sounds nice.

John: It is good. I haven’t had it for a while.

Rebecca: I don’t usually think of raspberry and green tea together. I always associate that with black tea. That’s all… That’s the whole thought. [LAUGHTER] There’s nothing more there. And welcome to our land, Lindsay. [LAUGHTER] It’s the end of the semester. So we invited you here today, Lindsay, to talk about unearning. Can you talk to us a little bit about what unlearning is?

Lindsay: Well, I guess I should first say this is not my term. There are probably other people who could more likely say that this is their term. But I just know that when I think about my own experiences as a faculty member over the last 11 years (that’s how long I’ve been in academia), and then a faculty or educational developer for the six or so, that the main thing that’s happened for me is recognizing how much that I used to believe was true, that simply wasn’t serving me anymore. It wasn’t serving my students, for sure, but it also wasn’t serving me just as a person. And so to me, that’s what unlearning is, is when you have those aha moments, the achievement of threshold concept moments, if we want to connect to some of that language from faculty development, where you realize this is not something that I want to continue to believe or live out.

John: And I think this also applies to our students’ experiences and to our role in teaching students… that they come to us with a lot of preconceptions, as we come to teaching with a lot of preconceptions, and some of those don’t hold up very well. So I think it’s a great topic to be discussing. What are some things that you have unlearned, since you’ve been in this role?

Rebecca: Or are in the process of unlearning? [LAUGHTER]

John: Yes.

Lindsay: Yeah, I think that’s a really important caveat is that I feel like we never arrive, I think as teachers as humans. And so we’re always in the process of doing something I think a lot of the times, we’re thinking about being in the process of learning. But simultaneously, I think we should be in the process of unlearning the things that don’t serve. So I think one major thing that I was kind of socialized into is… my background is Psychology, my PhD is in Educational Psychology with a concentration in Quantitative Statistics, and I only bring that up because I think it’s really important for understanding, I guess, the baggage [LAUGHTER] that I brought in some ways to the teaching role, because psychology, especially when I was getting my PhD and the time before that really overprivileged a quantitative “objective” view of the world. And so that is what I was socialized into. We didn’t learn any qualitative analysis, for example. And so that’s kind of what I was carrying with me. And I also think… I don’t want to blame it on psychology, I see why psychology is that way… because psychology at one point kind of split off from philosophy hundreds of years ago. And one way they were able to distinguish themselves from philosophers was to say, “Well, we have science and we collect objective observations about things that feel really non-objective, because psychologists study feelings and behaviors and ideas and thoughts… things it seems like you shouldn’t be able to quantify those.” But like, our whole shtick is that we can. And so I bring that with me, I think, into the teaching, into educational development. And I don’t think that was very helpful, [LAUGHTER] necessarily, because what I think ends up happening is you start, at least I know I brought kind of a deterministic way of thinking, like, “Okay, we just got to figure out what are the evidence-based teaching strategies, and I’m going to learn those, and then once I become a faculty developer, I’m going to teach those. And then if we all just do that, everything will be great.” Because that’s a very, like, if then we measure this, we do this, we get this clear result. That’s the whole thing with psychology is trying to predict behavior. And so if you bring that into the classroom, it’s like, I’m going to design in a way that’s going to predict everybody’s behavior. So I think that was something I needed to unlearn. When I realized, you can’t predict behavior, [LAUGHTER] that teaching choices are not deterministic, they are contextual, and that you really need to bring some chaos theory [LAUGHTER] into your understanding, honestly, of teaching. So I think it was when I started to read some books seriously about chaos theory, and also about different types of statistics that were intentionally modeling either context or randomness. And I was like, wait a minute, we’re taking a math equation, and we have like a thing in the math equation that is measuring “randomness.” I was like, what’s that? But it made me realize, like, wait a minute, okay, if the physicists and the mathematicians are doing that, we need to get on board.

John: This really resonates with me, because my background is that I’m an econometrician. And I got interested in this by doing some research on what techniques seem to work in my classes and in other classes. And those error terms, though, I’ve always taken pretty seriously. But in recent years, I’ve become much more interested in behavioral economics, which introduces all the ways in which we don’t behave in ways that are entirely consistent with the economic models that we normally teach in our classes. Actually, I’ve been bringing in more psychology into economics, which is probably even more deterministic than psychology ever was.

Lindsay: Yeah, that’s a good point. But it’s so funny, because in so many of these models, we’re always trying to reduce the error term, or control for the error term, like make it irrelevant by our methodology, we’re going to control for the error. And I think once you start teaching, you’re like the “error,” first of all, that’s like a really problematic label [LAUGHTER] for your students, but the “error,” it’s like, that’s where it’s at, like, we need to actually be designing for that, because there is variation in ourselves and in our students. That’s, I think what successful teaching is. But, it’s important, because I’m seeing this discussion right now a lot on social media is people are expressing their, what I would call righteous frustration about certain teaching strategies, assessment strategies, belongingness strategies, any of that… certain strategies being kind of like heralded as the ideal, and then other people responding like, “Well, I can’t do that. That’s not feasible for me. So does that mean that I’m not going to ever be a good teacher?” Because that’s not effective. And to me, I’m like, “Okay, this is just all playing out now in our discussions, is people are starting to embrace the idea of context or interactions.” I mean, I think about it in terms of statistics. And in statistics, we have things called main effects where there’s one variable, and it seems to affect everybody equivalently. But most of the time, there’s also an interaction where different variables are interacting. And anytime there’s an interaction, you pay attention to that thing, not the other thing. And so I’m kind of excited that people are getting angry about “Well, I can’t ungrade…” …for example, or something like that… things that are a lot of people are talking about, I’m like, “Well, good, let’s have a discussion about that.”

Rebecca: As an artist, I really appreciate you coming to my site.

Lindsay: Actually, this connects well to unlearning. My day job, I guess we can call it, is an academic. But I have a second kind of life after my day job, which involves being on the stage, I have a lot of theater and dance activities that take up my time. So I actually have this whole artistic side of myself. But one of the things that I was kind of socialized into was keeping those separate. Academia is for serious people and art is not serious. And I want to really make it clear that I don’t believe that, but like, that’s what I was socialized into. And then it was a big unlearning, honestly. I stepped away from theater and dance for like 10 years, when I was finishing my PhD, and up until getting tenure. And in retrospect, I think I was doing that to be more serious. I was always saying to students, I get tenure, I’m going to do a musical again. And I did it. And I’m even getting emotional thinking about it. I was like, how did I live without this part of myself for 10 years, and that was really damaging. And I was like, I shouldn’t have had to do that. And I don’t want anybody to have to do that anymore. So, I think it’s really important because that was damaging to kind of live without that side of myself and now they’re together and I feel like a whole person again, because I’m bringing the subjective and the objective in together.

Rebecca: I think it’s important to remember that we’re all human. And that often gets lost when we’re thinking about teaching or we’re thinking about scholarship or we’re thinking about a trajectory. As a faculty member, the humaness and the things that are outside of the Academy are often lost or not attended to, at least during that tenure process.

John: And I had a very similar experience in terms of playing music up until the time I was in grad school. My band got together and went on tour, and I stayed in grad school. It was probably 15 years or so before I started playing again, and it’s gone back and forth a few times. But it is much more interesting when you can be that full person. And going back to the analogy with empirical studies, most of the variation in most studies of teaching is in that random component. And those random components are the people, the instructors and the students in that relationship. And it’s important not to forget that. So this is a really good point, it’s really easy to forget in our day-to-day work. So it’s good that you’re focusing in this direction, I think we all probably should focus more on being that whole person, especially now.

Rebecca: And we’ve all had those experiences of that randomness, because you might have two classes that feel entirely different, but it might be the same subject, the same syllabus, the same teacher, but the students in the room are different, the time of day might be different. So therefore, the context is now different.

John: What are some of the other things you have unlearned?

Lindsay: So another thing that I guess kind of follows on from that unlearning the obsession with objectivity is also disentangling or coming to understand what is my proper role in the classroom. And so starting in academia, I think a lot of people have this kind of experience, I guess I was 29, maybe, or just turning 30, when I was in my first tenure-track position, which is the position I’m still in, I’ve been at the same institution the whole time. And so I’m a female, I’m still in the same decade as some of the students that I’m going to be teaching. And I also am somebody that has a young face. I’m not tall, kind of like pint-sized, in some ways. [LAUGHTER] And so I have all of these kinds of status things that are, I guess, in some ways, possibly working against me, in terms of me thinking I can…I would never use this phase now, but… control a classroom, I think that’s kind of what I was thinking is like, “Oh, gosh, I’m going to do this.” And so I think you’ve kind of come at it with a lot of like, I’m the authority and I know this stuff and so that’s why you should trust me to grade you. I guess that’s kind of the unspoken thing that’s being shared there. That’s not to say I was extremely strict, because I don’t think that’s true. But I do think that I felt like my job was to show that I was smart. And I can’t fault myself for that, because that is your job in grad school, to show the people looking at you that you’re smart. That is your job in college. And honestly, it’s your job in K through 12, [LAUGHTER] the way a lot of the systems are set up. I’m not saying it should be the job, but a lot of the reinforcement systems are set up, that is what you’re supposed to be doing. So I can’t get mad at myself for being reinforced doing that for the first 30 years of my life. So that’s why you have to unlearn it. Because if you’ve been reinforced and rewarded for a certain way of being, of demonstrating your expertise, and I have a right to be here, then it’s going to be hard to turn that off. And then the other thing that connects to that is when I started to really think about my values, my pedagogical values, and what I was trying to live out in my teaching, what I was trying to bring to the classroom table, I realized that like expertise and being an expert and authority that was not on the list. That was never on the list. And so if that’s true, then that’s not a value for me, then why would I be doing things that are about reinforcing authority or reinforcing my expertise? So I think that’s another thing that I had to unravel and am still unraveling,

John: When you start as a new faculty member, might that be something that is perceived as being important in terms of affecting your student evaluations, and perhaps affecting peer evaluations, who’ve also been trained in that type of perception of the sage on the stage, the scholar who’s the expert in the room, I think those incentives continue on and it’s a lot easier to break that once you get past that tenure stage.

Lindsay: I think that’s so true, and that’s one of the things I struggle with a lot in faculty development. Before I was the Associate Director for Faculty Professional Development, my kind of stair step into this position was as early career programming coordinator. And I still have that role right now, we kind of pulled that into my position. But so what that means is that in addition to doing things like new faculty orientation, I’m working really closely with brand new faculty in learning communities and book clubs, and one-on-one consultations. And I continue to struggle with wanting to tell them: “Go break the rules, like go do this. Go live out your deepest values, because I know that, at least as a person, you’ll feel better because you’ll be living aligned to your values.” But then the other side of me is like, that feels irresponsible in some systems. And so that’s why in my non-early-career-focused work, I’m working to change systems of teaching evaluations, systems of promotion and tenure and reappointment, those kinds of things… though, I mean, I think it’s a both/and… we can work on them in both ways, and recognize that it’s inherently problematic for me to encourage that. So I do spend a lot of time with both the early career folks that I work with, but also anybody is talking about get really clear about your own personal margin for error, I guess, if we want to keep going with this statistical metaphor we’ve been using… but really just like the margin for you to get in trouble, like, what realistically could happen to you if you break these spoken or unspoken rules, either at your department level, your college level, et cetera. And as long as you’re really clear about that, then you kind of know like, “Okay, how far can I push it,” and then I say push it as far in the direction of your values. And if that means, like, being radical or progressive, as far as you can go without threatening other things that are important to you. So I totally agree, John, that it’s really hard to be saying, like, go break rules and say, but that might have dire consequences for you. [LAUGHTER]

John: My advice to junior faculty depends very much on which department they’re in and the culture of that department. And I let people know that what they want to do is really good and it’s really consistent with what we have learned about effective teaching. But some of it may have to wait until they get past that tenure threshold, unless there’s some type of revolution in their departments, which isn’t always likely.

Lindsay: Yeah. And so I guess what I’m trying to do is to plant the seeds of that kind of, in a lot of cases, it is more progressive pedagogy, or just more aligned to the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, which is not always necessarily what I would call progressive, but it’s at least aligned to something, either evidence or values. But I guess my thought is, if I kind of plant those seeds, and then some of the early career faculty can run with it, because they find themselves in a department where they can do it, the other ones who have at least heard the message, and then maybe they will circle back to that when they get to a point where they feel more safety. But I know like even in my own department, because part of my time is in a Center for Teaching and Learning, but the other part is, I am a regular faculty member, and we even had to do some of that work in our own department. I mean, so we’re psychology, we’re the people who do the science of teaching and learning at a science level. That doesn’t mean there are people in my department who do that, per se, but at least everybody who’s a psychologist, at least in grad school, learned about cognition, motivation, emotion, we learned all the things that we talk about. So we have I say, a step up in our department, even though that’s true,that we have that privilege of knowing some of that information, we still were really in that sage on the stage expectation. And like even our peer review of teaching form, if you looked at it was really a form about entertaining public speaking, I would say. Like, that’s what the behaviors that were being measured. And so we had to go through a whole process that took, I’d say, at least two years to read, design that form, and get the buy-in from everybody, senior faculty and junior faculty alike, to approve, to adopt that form. And that form is more aligned to concrete behaviors that connect to the science and every behavior is like footnoted and hyperlinked, and things like that. And that’s kind of what we needed to do to get everybody on the same page about what does teaching excellence even possibly look like and how is it different from entertaining public speaking? So I totally agree that I guess that’s another data point for our idea that context matters, context matters in that case about how progressive can you be.

Rebecca: I really appreciate the thinking through that in terms of tension or in terms of risk, and really thinking about that that context matters for each person, and that they have to determine that for themselves, and really know that for themselves, and that it’s an individual choice. And those choices might be limited by your context. And that we might not have had models that demonstrate how that might be or how we might want those values to play out in a system. So I think it’s interesting that you’re talking about having to define values, but maybe not always having a model who had those same values.

Lindsay: Yeah, that’s a good point. When I think about the things that I would most like faculty to learn from me or from other faculty developers, it’s not actually the teaching strategies. It’s really about how to be self reflective. And how do I do that? How do I figure out what my values are? How do I figure out what my risk is? And then how do I put those two things together? And I feel like that’s maybe something that’s somewhat new in faculty development, because old models were really about: “come to a workshop to learn how to do this formative assessment technique” or something like that, but that completely ignores the context and the risks and the person who we’re asking to learn to do these things. Maybe it is an “evidence-based practice,” it’s in a journal somewhere, but it would fall totally flat, given this person’s personality, or given this person’s own neuro-divergence, or whatever we want to talk about in terms of the actual instructor themselves. And so that’s kind of what I am really interested in right now is figuring out how to best scaffold people into doing that. Because then it’s not about looking at some new teaching strategy and being like, “Oh, that’s awesome” or “Oh, that’s not awesome. So I’m going to bad mouth it.” It’s more “Does that work for me? No, it doesn’t.” And that’s fine. [LAUGHTER] I decided, “Oh, I totally see why that would work for so and so, but it doesn’t work for me.” And we’re all okay with that. But I feel like we have some distance to travel, [LAUGHTER] both as instructors and as people who do faculty development,

Rebecca: one of the things that’s often associated with expertise and authority in the classroom is grading and assessment. Can you talk a little bit about where you have been unlearning in that area?

Lindsay: I just want to point out that was a beautiful segue. I love that Rebecca. Yeah. And so ungrading is something that, honestly, I’m pretty new at, but like many threshold concepts, it’s one of those things that when you learn it, it can’t be unlearned. And also, you can’t turn off thinking about it, and it shows up in everything. So that’s how it’s been for me. So I’ve only really been dabbling with ungrading the past academic year. But I have been moving towards that, I’d say for five years, probably. And so for me, it was just reading. I read the book, edited by Susan Blum on Ungrading, of course, as many people have, but it was also just reading Jesse Stommel’s posts, and all of the things that he links to there… just questioning “what are grades?” It kind of brought that kind of naive look to it. But I don’t think I recognized how ubiquitous grades were and how we just assumed that’s just part of it. That’s just what you do. And that’s funny that I hadn’t questioned that because my scholarly expertise even before coming to all of the teaching and learning was academic motivation. That’s what my PhD is in. That’s my master’s thesis… even all the way back to my honors thesis was about motivation and learning. So it’s kind of blows my mind that I had not stopped to disentangle grades before, because they’re an extrinsic reinforcer. And so maybe that’s why it was so powerful for me when I read some of these arguments as saying, “Okay, is putting a letter or a number on to an assignment, actually accomplishing important things?” And I think the answer can be yes. But just simply asking the question, that’s not something that people had done before. And I was somebody that before I did ungrading, I did a lot of feedback. So I’m well aware of work by like John Hattie, and other people that show that quality of instructor feedback is one of the things that are within our controllable factors that can move learning forward the most. It has the biggest effect sizes in learning, the quality of feedback. And so like, I knew that, and so I was always assessing work with that in mind and giving a ton of feedback, but I was ending it with putting a letter grade on it, or a number, or something like that. And so reading about that made me really question, does actually putting the letter grade as the cherry on top, does that actually add anything else to what I’m doing? And I was like, wait a minute, it’s not. And in fact, there is, again, scholarship of teaching and learning research that shows that when you give students the feedback and the letter grade, at the same time, they orient their attention to the letter grade, and sometimes never even process the feedback. And so we’ve seen all types of experimental manipulations, where if you give the students just the feedback first, and then you let a period of time pass before you unhide the letter grade or something, students actually engage with the feedback and the quality of their work improves. So if we know all that stuff, I do all that stuff before I’m grading, but I just had never sat there and said like, well, what would happen if you stopped doing that? And that is what has happened for me in the last year. And so that’s one of my most current unlearnings. And so I did it in two graduate courses. Well, one graduate course first as an experiment, because that was a 10-person cohort. And I thought, first of all, it’s really small. And second of all, they’re graduate students. And so it seemed like a much lighter lift. And then this past semester, I did it with a new grad class, it’s a statistics class. So a lot of times when people talk about ungrading, they say that really only works in writing-focused courses. A lot of people who are English professors use it. And so I was like, “Well, I’m going to do it in statistics.” And so I tried that. And then I also tried it with a 50-student undergrad course this semester.

John: Could you tell us a little bit about how you implemented this in your statistics course? Because this is something I’ve considered for my econometrics class, but I’m not really sure how I could implement it very effectively.

Lindsay: Sure. So I think it’s important to say that the statistics course is a graduate statistics course. And so I could not say that you can do exactly what I did, because it’s a different context, right? And the context is probably pretty important too. So the graduate program that I’m affiliated with is a master’s and specialist level school psychology program. So the students go through three years of training. And at the end, after they take a test and stuff, they are licensed to be K-12 school psychologists, not school counselors, that’s different, school psychologists who are doing database decision making in schools. So these are not PhD level, but not undergrads. And the other thing that it’s important to know contextually, is almost no people go into school psychology wanting to do statistics. So none of them are like, “Oh, yes, I love math. And I love statistics. I’m going to be a school psychologist.” So I’m just rare in that all those statements are true for me, but almost nobody, [LAUGHTER] almost nobody else is that true for. So, that’s important context, because I’m talking about 10 students, I see primarily women, because that is who school psychology field draws, who are math phobic, and who in their heads are thinking, “I’m never going to do stats again after this class. I’m just going to get through this. And we’re going to move on.” And so for me, the goal there is to make them realize the power of statistics in their day-to-day future career as school psychologists. And so getting really clear with myself about like, “What’s the point? What’s the goal? Who are these people?” See, notice, I haven’t said anything about a teaching technique or an assessment or anything, yet, it’s just like, what are we trying to do here? And for me, it’s them to not be afraid of statistics anymore, and to be able to use it in their day-to-day lives. And I should say the third one is for them to recognize the power of statistics for social justice and how they could, for example, in their future schools, identify disproportionality in suspensions. Meaning what if your school over suspends black children when compared to white children for the same exact conduct offense or something like that? I want them to know how to point that out using numbers. Because we do know a lot of people seem to believe numbers more than words… not saying it’s okay, but they do. So I want them to be able to use that. So because that is my focus, what that allowed for me to do is really trim down my curriculum. And so I don’t teach a lot of statistics that most people would think surely you teach this, and I’m like, I don’t, because they’re not going to use that as future school psychologists. So that’s one thing I would say is important is cut out anything you can cut out, [LAUGHTER] that’s possibly feasible, because you need the space just in your semester to be able to do this kind of stuff. The next thing that I do, and I did this before ungrading, but it connects them, is the whole class is set up to be really scaffolded. And to follow like an I do, we do, you do approach. And so what we will do is if we’re learning some specific statistic of the day, or the week, or, you know, of the two weeks, first off, give them a general overview of it, not a mathematical way, but in a problem-based way. So what if this is what a school wants to know the answer to? This is the statistic you use for that, now let’s kind of figure it out. And then we will all work through together solving it. And then I will put them into groups. I’ll give them a new data set. But it’s the same exact thing we just did, y’all go do it. And then the homework assignment is again the same exact assignment, but a new data set. And so all that’s like really intentional scaffolding. So hopefully, by the time they have to do it themselves, they totally know how to do it. Now, where does the ungrading come in? In a class like that, to me, it kind of feels like, especially with graduate students, adding letter grades on to a process that has gone from, we’re all working together, then you’re working in groups, then you’re gonna do it yourself. And there’s tons of feedback and community the whole time, it feels almost insulting to put a letter on the end of that deep cognitive work, because by the time they get to doing it themselves, they should know what they know and don’t know, they should know what they’ve mastered and what they still need help with because we’ve been doing it so much. And so it almost just feels natural to when they then turn in that individual work, if there’s something they missed the boat on, I just like, “Hey, you didn’t do this right. Here’s how to do it properly.” And then we’re going to use that skill again later down the road. To me putting a letter or a number on that doesn’t help them anymore. But the real important thing about all of this is that if we never came back and did that one statistic again, why would they ever read the feedback in the first place, because now we’re moving on to a new unit. So at the end of the course, I have some kind of culminating assignment where they pull it all together. And in order for them to be able to make the case that they have earned some certain grade at the end of the semester, one of the course objectives is the ability to use feedback appropriately. So they have to go engage with previous rounds of feedback in order to create a final product that they could use. lobby for an A for. So that’s kind of how I do it.

John: Since you do have to assign a grade at the end of the course, how do you go about that process?

Lindsay: One big thing that I have learned, not unlearned, but learned, about ungrading this year, is that the true ungrading where we never put any letters on anything until the very, very end, when our institution requires that of us, at least for me, and for my context, I think that works best with graduate students. I’ve found over the last year of doing it, that if we have a list of learning objectives, and I also have a list of skills and dispositions that we’re trying to cultivate in them as future school psychologists, if I give them that list, they are very accurate at assessing whether they’ve got an objective or they don’t. So it’s like I never have to change the graduate students’ grades unless they have been too hard on themselves. And then that kind of feels like a gift of like, “Well, this is what I see. You’ve actually mastered everything. So how could this be anything other than an A?” So, that’s good. Undergrad is slightly different, right? They are in a different place, they need more support. And also, they’re not like grad students who have all truly willingly gone on, where undergrads… obviously college isn’t compulsory, but societally it feels kind of like it is. So with the undergrads I’d say what I’m doing there is something that should better be labeled collaborative grading, not ungrading. And we started to see some discussion about this of ungrading from an equity perspective. Some students are so focused, or have been so reinforced… so we connect back to what I was saying about how you reinforce your whole life. They’re so reinforced by a system that does put letters on work, that it requires a lot of unlearning for them and it may be too much to ask within a single semester and usually within a single course. It’d be different if a whole institution was doing ungrading and that institution was set up around preparing students to be successful in ungrading. Then I think we could totally get rid of all the grades. But that’s not my context. In my 50-person class this past semester, there were two students who had experienced ungrading before, 48 who hadn’t. I was kind of excited about the two, honestly. But there were 48 who hadn’t. And so to me, it felt irresponsible to throw them in that deep end. So what we did is a whole bunch of assignments, heavy feedback, all of that. But on the more high-stakes, or slightly more summative types assessments, I did include a rubric, but it was a rubric that didn’t have points, the levels were not included, approaching expectations, meets, or exceeds expectations. And so a lot of people have talked about like kind of a two point rubric or things like that before. So that was my variation on it, just you didn’t do it, you did it but it’s not there yet, or you get it. And so I did include that feedback for them, because I felt like they needed that level of structure, but I didn’t feel like putting letters or numbers on at that point were helpful. But we did bring in letters ‘cause three times during the semester… so at the third, two thirds, in the end… they did a process reflection, which is really common to ungrading where basically the instructor scaffolds the students thinking through their body of work up to that point. Now normally in ungrading, that kind of thing happens at the very end. So they’re thinking about the body of work for the entire semester. I was thinking the cognitive load of that is going to probably be too much for my undergrad students. So let’s have them do it first, just a third of the way in, and they’re going to think through: am I meeting learning objectives? Am I’m meeting habits and dispositions? Can I give evidence for why I think that’s true? And then I have a table at the end of that process reflection that says, from my perspective, as the instructor, these are the kinds of behaviors or benchmarks or assessment types of feedback you would receive that line up with an A. These are the ones that line up with a B, so kind of self diagnose, based on all of this. And so they do that, and we’re only a month or so into the semester. And so then I give them feedback on whether or not I feel like they’re on target with that letter. And so we did that two times during the semester before the final time, which gave us the chance to get on the same page about what letters mean. But it still feels kind of like ungrading to me, because I never put a letter on a single thing that was turned in, like one assessment or one assignment. It was always assess your body of work against these learning objectives and levels of quality, assess your body of work. Next time when I use it with them. I might not call it ungrading, I might call it collaborative grading.

Rebecca: I think sometimes the use of “ungrading” when there ends up being a grade is super confusing.

Lindsay: [LAUGHTER] That’s such a good point, because now there are a couple of colleges where they truly don’t have grades, but the rest of us it’s like there is a grade at the end, y’all. [LAUGHTER] And so I think you have to have a really small cohort that you can spend so much time individually making sure everybody understands like, “Well if it were up to me, there wouldn’t be a letter at the end, but there is…” …making sure everybody internalizes that. But most people don’t teach in a tiny context like that and don’t have that luxury. So that’s why I’m kind of thinking that this kind of collaborative periodic benchmarking of your body of work so far still to me does what Jesse Stommel says ungrading is. One of his definitions is that kind of skeptical eyebrow raised at conventional grading systems. To me, collaborative grading is still the skeptical eyebrow raise. But it also is respecting the context that is our students’ reality and our own reality.

Rebecca: …really cultivates a reflective practice too. And in some ways it’s like reflective grading, reflective practice, or something, you know? [LAUGHTER] I’ve been thinking about this a lot, too. I was experimenting this last semester with such things. And I was really uncomfortable with the term ungrading when there was a grade, ultimately.

Lindsay: Yeah, and you know that bit with reflection, like we’ve known for a long time that metacognition is really strongly correlated with student achievement. And so way before I’d ever heard about ungrading or untraditional assessment and things like that, I was already doing even scholarship in teaching and learning around like, “How can I kindly force my students to reflect? How can I gently get them to actually read my darn feedback? …because I had some statistics from my LMS that showed that only 10% of my students were spending more than 30 seconds on their feedback. And these were on like really comprehensive projects. And the LMS only triggers a view of the feedback if it’s been 30 seconds or more. And I was like, it would take anybody more than 30 seconds to read the feedback, and they’re not doing it. So I’ve been experimenting for a really long time with adding on assignments where you couldn’t complete the assignment unless you read my feedback. And you’ve probably heard of these exam wrappers… is what they’re frequently called. Yeah, I got rid of exams a long, long time ago, but I still had that wrapper thing where it was like, go and tell me what one of your strengths is, according to your feedback. Like you cannot answer that thing for a grade… this is back when I did grading… unless you could read the feedback. So yeah, I think that reflection is where it’s at. I think honestly, that’s what I think this whole upgrading thing is about. it’s about two things: it’s about questioning unquestioned assumptions and assessment. And then it’s also about leveraging the power of self reflection.

John: I think for undergraduates, providing those breaks in the process of the course can allow students to do some course correction, because students tend to procrastinate, as we all do. And if they know that the final evaluation occurs at the end, there may be a tendency to put off doing that reflective practice and the course correction that might be helpful for them ,until it’s sometimes too late. So giving them that feedback that perhaps has a little bit more weight to it, or may be perceived as having more weight in terms of its impact on their overall success in the course, I think is really helpful.

Lindsay: Absolutely. And I will say one thing that I learned this past semester doing it and I added it to what I call my “to fix” document. I have one of those for every course, just a bulleted list of things like “Don’t do that again.” And one thing I added just like a few days ago, because I was turning in final grades a few days ago, was add to the rubric… so that rubric of suggested grades have these behaviors line up with As and these behaviors line up with Bs… add to the A category, “shows evidence of responding to feedback.” That wasn’t one of the things. And there were people where I was like, I’m not convinced that you listen to that three-minute recording I did about your paper because you didn’t necessarily change it. And so I’ve already been reflective myself about that should be one of the learning objectives is learning how to use feedback. And so I’m already going to be changing that in my course.

Rebecca: Leading up to our conversation you mentioned student-centered teaching is one of the places that you unlearned, too, can you tell us more about that?

Lindsay: Yeah, so this one might feel like a little bit of a left turn [LAUGHTER] because we’ve been talking about things that are I feel like usually squarely associated with student-centered teaching, thinking about the student and the instructor as a whole person, me ceding some of my authority, me doing collaborative grading like that all sounds super student centered. But the unlearning piece around student centered connects back a little bit to the risk and margin discussion we were having. But it also connects to something that we have seen is that the people who seem to be the most student centered, will sometimes kind of martyr themselves in service of that value that they hold. And so it will become clear that all of their pedagogical values are about the student. And one thing I have learned is how important it is to support faculty in selecting pedagogical values that are about the teacher as well. And this connects to Chavella Pittman and Tom Tobin’s Chronicle article and I know you all interviewed them about inclusive teaching. And it’s so funny because for a few years I’ve been doing a faculty workshop called “Inclusive Teaching Includes You Too.” And so when that came out, I was like, “What? That’s what I think too.” So, I was like, so excited. Like I immediately messaged Tom and I was like, “This is so funny when this kind of thing happens that the same idea comes out of totally separate areas.” But for so long we’ve talked about student-centered teaching and there’s always this like implicit thing that like teacher centered is bad. But I think for a lot of us, especially those of us who have been at the forefront of student-centered teaching and have continued to like “How much more student centered can I be? How much more student centered?” We’ve gotten to a place where we are thinking that the instructor is irrelevant. Like, I’ll do anything for my students, I’ll make any choices, because it’s for their learning. But I want to make sure that we don’t forget how important we are too. Because if we only do this for the students, and we don’t do this for ourselves as teachers, and really value how important we are to this whole system, then we’re going to end up in that martyr place, we’re going to end up in a place where we’re making choices that lead us to burnout, that do not respect boundaries. And so I’m starting to think about bringing us back to instructor-centered teaching, but redefining what instructor centered means. And that it doesn’t mean sage on the stage, expert on the stage. It means human in the classroom, right? It means I know who I am as an instructor, I know what I bring to the table. And that is at least as important as everything that students bring to the table.

Rebecca: Imagine that, humans in a room, all treated as humans.

Lindsay: I know it sounds so obvious when you say it, but it’s like, but we’re not living in a way that makes us think we believe that. If there were like Martians watching us, they’d be like, What are these beings doing? [LAUGHTER]

John: I think that’s especially relevant now as we’ve come through the pandemic, where there has been so much emphasis in professional development on student-centered teaching. And I think a lot of faculty are experiencing a tremendous amount of burnout, because much of that has involved a lot of additional work on their part. And that sort of balance is important and forgetting your own human needs is not going to be very helpful in the long run if you’d like to continue to be helpful for students.

Lindsay: That’s the ironic thing is that if you are too good at being student centered, you will run yourself out such that you are no longer available to be with students at all. That’s the ironic thing about it. So learning how to set these boundaries, which a lot of times does involve saying no to students, which I think is something that a lot of people think we can’t do if we’re student centered, we say yes to everything. So I think a really important thing for us to be able to do is say no to our students, which feels strange for somebody who has typically conceptualized themselves as a student-centered teacher, it feels like you’re supposed to say yes to everything the students asked for. But there’s this amazing quote from an embodiment practitioner named Prentis Hemphill. And this is what they say… they say, boundaries are the distance at which I can love you and me simultaneously. And I think teaching a lot of the times is love work, even if we don’t like to call it, that it is kind of like living out our values, living out our love for teaching and learning. And that in order to do that the best, I have to have boundaries so that I can teach you and me simultaneously. I can love, I can learn, you and me simultaneously. But I think that will be a huge transition for a lot of students-centered teachers is recognizing that boundaries are empowering, not always limiting.

Rebecca: I think that’s a perfect moment to end on. So we always wrap up by asking what’s next?

Lindsay: That’s a good question. My hope is that nothing is next. [LAUGHTER] We’re coming into summer, we’re also going through some changes on my campus that may or may not have impact on what our year will look like and things like that. And so instead of overthinking about that, I just want, in some ways, to ignore the liminal space I’m in about academic career stuff and say, “You know what, this is a great opportunity for me to not work.” And so I typically teach classes in the summer, it’s not a requirement, it’s something I do extra. This is the first time in six years I have not taken on any summer courses, I’ve taken on summer faculty development, but I’ve tried to put it all in May, or the very beginning of June. So for me, my hope is that what’s next is a lot of reading and gardening and pondering and playing with my new little puppy.

John: That sounds wonderful. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: That sounds like you’re putting the instructor first a little bit here.

Lindsay: Right? I mean, I am trying to live out my values and values or boundaries, joy, ease, so like that sounds like that. Yeah,absolutely.

Rebecca: That sounds perfect. Thanks for joining us, Lindsay.

Lindsay: Absolutely. It was great to talk to you all.

John: It’s great talking to you. We’ve been following you on Twitter and have appreciated all your posts and we’re glad we finally had this opportunity to talk to you and I hope we’ll talk to you again soon.

Lindsay: Absolutely.


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.


243. Trauma Aware Pedagogy

Since the start of the pandemic, there has been much discussion about student disengagement in their classes, but little discussion about why student engagement has declined. In this episode, Karen Costa joins us to discuss the role that ongoing trauma has on students and all members of the academic community.

Show Notes

  • Costa, K. (2020). 99 Tips for Creating Simple and Sustainable Educational Videos: A Guide for Online Teachers and Flipped Classes. Stylus Publishing, LLC.
  • Jaschik, Scott (2022). “Provosts Stand Firm in Annual Survey.” Inside Higher Ed. May 11.
  • Thompson P. and J. Carello, eds. (forthcoming, 2022). Trauma-Informed Pedagogies: A Guide for Responding to Crisis and Inequality in Higher Education.
  • Brown, A. M. ProQuest (2017). Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds. AK Press.
  • My Fest 2022
  • Brown, A.M. (2021). Holding Change: The Way of Emergent Strategy Facilitation and Mediation. AK Press.
  • Lang, J. M. (2021). Small Teaching: Everyday lessons from the science of learning. John Wiley & Sons.
  • Darby, F., & Lang, J. M. (2019). Small Teaching Online: Applying learning science in online classes. John Wiley & Sons.


John: Since the start of the pandemic, there has been much discussion about student disengagement in their classes, but little discussion about why student engagement has declined. In this episode, we examine the role
that ongoing trauma has on students and all members of the academic community.


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 Karen Costa. Karen is a faculty development facilitator specializing in online pedagogy, trauma-aware teaching and supporting ADHD learners. Karen holds graduate degrees and certificates in higher
education; trauma and resilience; trauma-informed organizations; and neuroscience, learning, and online instruction. She is the author of 99 Tips for Creating Simple and Sustainable Educational Videos, and has served as a facilitator for the Online
Learning Consortium, the Online Learning Toolkit, and Lumen Learning. Through her business, 100 Faculty LLC, Karen offers supportive, fun, and engaging faculty support and development to faculty from all over the world. Welcome back, Karen. Thank
you for having me back. It’s been a couple years, believe it or not,

John: It seems like it was just yesterday, it was like right after we got that announcement about campuses shutting down for a couple of weeks until COVID was over.

Karen: I looked back at my calendar, and I think it was April 2, 2020. So early COVID days, there was so much we didn’t know. And here we are two years and change later, still dealing with so many challenges. Yeah, wild.

Rebecca:: …with this very small pandemic. [LAUGHTER]Today’s teas are… Karen, are you drinking tea?

Karen: I feel that I should be, but I’m not. I wish I could say something clever here. I wrote a book with the words “simple and sustainable” in the title. I’m a simple person. I drink water all day long out of my water
bottle. And I have nothing interesting to share. I can say that I’m very proud that I kicked my diet coke habit… not that I’m judging anyone that still carries that. I have simplified [LAUGHTER] over the past couple years, down to water pretty

Rebecca:: And water is the foundation of tea.

Karen: Oh, there you go. Thank you. [LAUGHTER] I feel better?

Rebecca:: How about you, John,

John: I have something not quite as simple, but pretty close. It’s just a simple peppermint tea today.

Rebecca:: That sounds good. Sounds like the perfect kind of tea for the day, I have a hot cinnamon spice for the day…

Karen: Interesting.

Rebecca:: …which is not my normal choice.

John: When we last talked to you, as you noted, it was very early in the pandemic. And we talked about trauma-informed pedagogy during what we hoped would be, as

Rebecca: said, a relatively short experience. But now we’ve had a little bit more experience with this pandemic and with trauma on the part of pretty much everyone involved in higher ed or in anything else in the world.
So we thought it might be good to revisit the issue of trauma-aware pedagogy. It might be helpful if we start with a review of what’s meant by trauma-aware pedagogy.

Karen: Yeah, it’s surreal that I’m coming back here a couple years later to talk about this. And it’s strange that so much has changed and also it feels like so little has changed as well from a couple of years ago. So
it’s wild… this work. When I spoke to you in 2020, I had been doing this trauma-awareness work on a much smaller scale. And to be honest, I had felt like there really wasn’t a ton of interest in it. I would find other people who are interested
in it and get so excited: “Oh, you want to talk about this.” And then the interest level soared. And I have been sharing this work with so many educators over the past couple of years. And they have helped to inform the way that I think about
trauma-aware pedagogy. So it’s been really wild. In short, in honor of, again, keeping it kind of simple, trauma-aware pedagogy, for me, it’s about looking at trauma through the lens of pedagogy and looking at pedagogy through the lens of trauma.
It is not about being a clinician or aiming to be a therapist for our students. I am always very clear about that with people. We want to have a very clear scope of practice, very clear boundaries. I am not, certainly, a clinician. However, pedagogy
is my area of expertise. So I work with faculty to help them develop a fundamental awareness of: what is trauma? We hear that word tossed around, what is it? And how does it show up in our classrooms? How does it show up on our campuses? It shows
up in our relationships, it shows up in our relationships with colleagues, with administrators, with students, and how does it impact students’ ability to learn? And we can work around that. There are strategies that we can use in our classrooms
immediately to help address some of those things. Certainly one of the things I would add is that I’ve been talking more about this concept of collective trauma over the past six months or so, really with this idea that, again, as you mentioned,
this is still ongoing. And there is really, in my awareness, there is no end in sight. And we see this intersecting with so many other social ills and challenges and climate change. So we are being called to ask questions about the very fabric
of society and higher education. So I’m absolutely still talking to folks about the impact of trauma on student learning and in your classroom. And also, I would say, now, much more of my work is around this idea of collective trauma, and what
is the future we want to create for higher education and the world? That wasn’t very simple, but… [LAUGHTER]

John: …it’s a relatively complex problem.

Karen: Yeah, I did my best.

Rebecca:: Maybe we can start with a little bit of conversation about the impact that trauma has on student learning and some strategies we can use in the classroom and then move up to these bigger institutional kinds of
conversations and system conversations.

Karen: Yeah, absolutely. So, trauma shows up in the classroom… one of the primary ways is how it influences what we call executive function. So those are things like focus, concentration, time management, the ability to
prioritize… Did I already say decision making? …if not, that’s one of them. So we talk sometimes about executive function skills as the little CEO in the brain who is directing everything. And trauma really puts a stress on those executive functions,
our brain actually diverts resources away from executive functions toward survival mode. And I always remind people, that’s really not a bad thing at all, right? That’s why we’re still here, because we learned to focus on our immediate survival.
That is why we’re still here. However, in higher education, when people are focusing on their very survival, that certainly impacts their ability to succeed in that traditional higher education learning environment. So we can come at this from
a lot of different angles, that, again, as I was just talking about, that really begs the question about what is the higher end of 2022 in the future going to look like but in the immediate, what I’ll say is that faculty can do things like simplifying
their messages, not sending out huge info dumps of information, being very mindful about not overloading students. We can offer appropriate supports, such as task lists for each week of a course. Students and faculty that I work with and me, we
love checklists. So things like that can be very helpful. When people are having a tough time deciding “what do I work on next?” …offering, for example, videos with assignment tutorials, to clarify expectations, being flexible with deadlines,
oh, this is such a big one. It does and doesn’t baffle me. There were formal policies put in place in 2020. Faculty were told you really need to take these late assignments, we need flexible late policies, we move toward pass fail. We are two
years into this pandemic, we have report after report after report about the mental health challenges that people are facing… life threatening mental health challenges. And those policies, those flexible learning policies vanished, probably sometime
around spring 2021 or early 2021. And that’s wild to me, like it’s just completely out of alignment with all of the [LAUGHTER] science of learning and the realities of the mental health challenges that folks are facing. This is difficult stuff
to talk about. I literally was just reading a report an hour ago, we just saw record numbers of overdose deaths, looking at the 2021 data. This is the context in which we are all learning. So anything we can do to be more flexible, to be more
supportive, to direct students to additional resources, is going to relieve some of that burden. We cannot do it all, we cannot fix trauma writ large with our pedagogy. I do think we can help to mitigate it. At the very least we can be a kind
word in the midst of this storm for our students.

Rebecca:: There’s a lot of conversation happening about disinterested students. But what you just described, Karen, I think is what faculty are responding to… the inability to plan and make decisions and manage time. And
that comes across as being disinterested in learning, but maybe it’s just not being able to function in our current system.

Karen: I would argue that we are functioning in the way that we were designed for lack of a better word in that we are focusing on our very survival. So one of the analogies that I give people is: if you’re teaching and
a building in this building catches on fire and your students are all running out of the door, and you stop and say “Why aren’t you focusing on my lecture? Why aren’t you focusing on this group activity?” or “We’ve got a big test coming up. We’ve
got a review session right now, what are you all doing? Where are you going?” That is the mindset that so much of this student “disengagement” framing and discussion and discourse comes from. Why aren’t students paying attention to these things
that are not related to their immediate survival? And instead, they are very interested and focused on these things that are very much related to their immediate survival. And when you frame it that way, I think it helps people… well, people who
are willing to face that reality. To consider it in a new light, it feels like we’re blaming students for running from a burning building, for focusing on their very survival. And I would add, we are then putting a pressure on faculty and staff
to put out a fire with their pedagogy. Whether you’re in the classroom or teaching outside of the classroom in a tutoring center or a library, it seems that there is this energy of what teaching strategies can you use to stop students running
from this burning building. And again, we’ve got these students whose very fundamental human rights are being stripped from them, and a huge increase in eco-anxiety, which another way we can frame that is, eco-anxiety is looking at the reality
of climate change and our general failure to act on that. And we wonder why students are not interested in the upcoming exam. I think students are interested in the realities of their lives, and that higher ed is going to have to figure out how
to speak to the realities of our lives.

Rebecca:: I think related to that is also the reality of faculty lives.

Karen: Yeah.

Rebecca:: There’s a lot of focus on conversation on supporting students and not necessarily on focusing on supporting faculty, staff, and all the people that make higher ed run.

Karen: Well, if I may, this morning, there was some data that came out from Inside Higher Ed report, I think it was called the Provost Report, I’m sure we can put it in the show notes. And something like only 4% of Provosts
interviewed said that they strongly agreed that there was a specific plan in place to support faculty and staff mental health. Only 4% strongly agreed with that. How is that not 100%. We have seen this coming…. again, I see a report every day
that is talking about faculty burnout, student burnout, broader mental health issues, and this is not being addressed on campus by our leadership. I really see my work is at the intersection of faculty and student success. And this is a really
big challenge. And to be honest, I am increasingly telling faculty and staff to stop investing their time and energy in places and people who are not investing in them, and to think about how they can create smaller, more inclusive spaces and
communities, regardless of what their administration is not doing [LAUGHTER] in order to protect their wellness and to start working toward creating a better, more inclusive, future for all of us, because so much of our leadership just is not
showing up to do that work.

John: I think one of the reasons why the official policy on campus is to back away from the request for faculty flexibility with deadlines and so forth, is a recognition that faculty have been overwhelmed. But yet, I think
a lot of faculty are still being quite a bit more flexible, and that adds to the stress that they’re dealing with. Because when you have lots of students turning in lots of work at random times, it makes work a little bit more complicated. Do
you have any strategies that might work well for faculty who are trying to be flexible, but still trying to find time to deal with their everyday stress?

Karen: I’m so glad you brought that up. Because yes, absolutely. I agree with you. And I want to come at that from two angles. And I might forget the second as I’m talking about the first. But, the first thing I want to
say here is that institutions could choose to invest in supporting faculty through reducing their course loads and reducing class sizes. Now I know some people that are listening to this just said, “Oh my gosh, Karen, that’s never going to happen.”
It could happen. We make choices about our values through where we invest our time and energy and money. And if your institution, for example, is invested in, I don’t know, I’ll throw out proctoring technology and spending tens of hundreds of
thousands of dollars on these tools that we have increasing amounts of data that they don’t even work, number one, and that they do harm to students, particularly students of color, and students with disabilities. So If your institution is investing
in those, they can certainly choose to re-invest instead in creating systems and structures that allow faculty to have more time to do the work of inclusive teaching, which includes adapting to deadlines and giving students flexibility. It doesn’t
mean you get rid of deadlines, it doesn’t mean you get rid of structure. It means that we meet students where they are and help them as best we can. I want to direct my answer first to leadership and say if this is something that research and
science is showing us that we need in light of the findings we have right now about this mental health crisis in faculty and students, then start investing in faculty and students. So the second thing I would say is to the faculty: we cannot sit
around and wait for leaders to do what is right, we have to act in this moment with what we have. So I’m taking a breath here because there’s so much work to do. And I’m just watching people continue to suffer and struggle. And it seems like the
theme is that leadership is not showing up for people. And what people tell me, time and time again, is that my institution has betrayed me, it has failed me, and I have just lost faith. Okay, I had to get that out. What I invite faculty to do
is to do what they can. So trauma-aware teaching is not self sacrifice. So it is not: “I am going to make myself sick, or put myself into worse burnout or into burnout to take care of my students” …because that in the long run does not take care
of your students. That means that you’re not able to do your work, and you’re not able to support your students as effectively, and we don’t want that. So the first thing that I tell people about trauma-aware teaching is that we have to take care
of ourselves. That is our responsibility as humans, that is our responsibility as educators. And this is murky and messy, but we do our best to take care of ourselves. We say no to whatever we can, perhaps, that doesn’t immediately impact our
wellbeing or our students wellbeing. And we focus on what we can do. We find supportive communities to talk about this in a real way, to talk about the hard stuff. I have been part of communities of faculty who have been able to show up together
and just cry at what is going on and listen to each other and listen to each other’s family stories and life stories. And then we carry on with the work of teaching. So do what you can, this is not about being some perfect teacher, there are things
I could probably do to be more flexible and inclusive, that are just not within my bandwidth. I have a book chapter coming out in a book called Trauma-Informed Pedagogies about this concept of a scope of practice for educators. And I think that
might help some people to put a very practical structure around this. And what it really causes us to ask is: “What belongs to us?” and “What are we qualified to do?” amd “What is not ours or what can I refer to somebody else?” But we cannot do
everything for everyone. We can do the best that we can where we are and continue to take care of ourselves. And I know that so many faculty are doing that already and have been doing that. So, know that it is not your fault if your institution
does not invest in supporting faculty and students. Do what you can where you can and take care of yourself.

Rebecca:: I love that advice. I think there’s some struggle, though, probably for faculty, depending on their position… that some faculty can easily do that and others can’t or can’t do as much or can’t be as flexible
because of their own circumstances. And then students say: “But XYZ faculty does this. Why can’t you do it too?” Do you have some advice for how to handle some of those situations and to support one another?

Karen: Absolutely. So I’m an adjunct myself. So I think that would be one category of folks that we might be talking about here. I have chronic illnesses, I have disabilities, I have ADHD. And I also carry many privileges
that protect me from some of those particular challenges. So again, we can only do what we can do where we are with what we have. In that case, depending on your relationship with those students or with your students in general, one of my pieces
of advice is to talk to and be transparent with students. And perhaps I would have a conversation with them about how faculty, in general, are not always going to teach in the same way and the pros and cons of that. And I also might enlighten
them into the fact that different faculty have different resources at their disposal and different expectations. I would start by being transparent with students. And then I would certainly, to the extent possible, be raising my hands… I say that
to people a lot, raise your hands to whatever extent you can with what power you have, to administration, in meetings,amongst leadership to say this is the reality of what is happening. This is what my students need. This is the bandwidth that
I have to give it to them and the limitations that I’m facing them. And we need to invest in faculty and students. The more of us that are pushing for that… Do I expect them to listen? No, but I long for the day when they will. And I will continue
to ask, for as long as it makes sense. And the other thing I would say is to faculty who do have that privilege and power, we need your voices to be advocating for us on campus. So we need you to be calling for an investment in faculty and students
in a way that supports the least resourced among us.

John: Over the course of the pandemic, faculty became much more aware of student trauma that had always been out there, but it became so much more obvious. Do you think that’s something that faculty will carry forward
into the future, or as we move more to traditional classroom teaching, will people forget some of the inequities that our students face?

Karen: I would like to believe that we are facing a future where we will have the luxury of forgetting, I do not think that is the future that we are facing. If I’m being completely honest, I think that what’s coming is
going to be… I’m mindful of saying this… but I think that what’s coming in terms of climate change is going to make the past two years look not as difficult. And they were incredibly difficult. I think we are going to face increased challenges.
I say to people, pandemics are a symptom of climate change, we can expect more and more intense and more frequent pandemics, in addition to all of the other life threatening, species threatening, impacts of climate change. So I don’t think we’re
going to have the luxury of forgetting, I will say that the vast majority of faculty that I work with are incredibly caring, are curious about what they can do to support students. That’s not where my concern lies. I’ve been reading a lot of the
work of adrienne maree brown. She talks about and writes about a system called emergent strategy, and it’s about shaping change. And I’ve been really diving into her work, thinking about how do we shape change in higher education. And one of her
mantras is “small is all.” So we get together in these small communities. And we make these small choices and changes, whether it’s raising our hand and a meeting, or giving a student an extension, and we recognize that every small act matters
and builds towards something bigger. And the faculty that I work with are doing that work right now. What I’m trying to figure out is where do we go from here? If our leadership and administration are focused on this idea of “it’s post pandemic,
it’s the new normal, everything’s wonderful, everybody’s back on campus, isn’t this great?” …and they are refusing time and time again to address the realities of our lives. Where do we go from there? And again, I’m increasingly finding myself
telling people: “think about where you are investing your time and energy, and if that makes sense for our current reality and the future that we want to create.” And I hope that administration and leadership will start to get on board more with
that. I think faculty and staff, by and large are, with some exceptions, are already doing so much of that work.

Rebecca:: Karen, what’s the future that you want to create?

Karen: You know, I’m hosting a workshop on this, part of My Fest 22, a group of educators are putting this together. And we’re gonna get together for 30 minutes, because small is all. And we’re going to talk about emergent
strategy. And one of the questions is: “What is the higher education that we want to create?” I will say that as somebody who is fairly newly diagnosed with ADHD, that I have been part of communities in the past couple years, with fellow ADHD-ers
where we get together online, which is accessible for me, and we ideate and we create and we’re weird, and we’re wonderful, and there’s not really these rules and boxes that we’ve so long been forced into. And it’s just like an explosion of creativity
and goodness. And I was at a conference recently. There was a lot of sessions, it wasn’t for ADHD folks, but the session I went to was about ADHD folks. And later in the day, the conference organizers said this was our most engaged session. One
of the things I think about is having our ADHD learners, our disabled learners, our neurodivergent learners, really centering them in the future of higher education. We are the ones who are coming up with new ideas. We are the ones who see connections
between ideas that other people, neurotypical people, don’t see. We are the ones who have often suffered greatly and been let down by institutions and been so savvy and strong in adapting and figuring out how to do it with no support. And I would
love to see a higher education that starts to center these learners and these educators. Because the sky is the limit, there are no bounds to our brains. So I would love to see a higher education that does that. An example of that: I like to go
really big and out into outer space and then bring things back down to planet earth for people. We have long had these centers for… sometimes they’ve recently been called Centers for Disability, but they were long the Disability Center, Center
for disabled students, different names, but they’ve been focused and grounded in that accommodations model. We’re starting to see centers for neurodiversity pop up. And they are not just for students who have a formal disability diagnosis, they
are for all students, because we need to educate non disabled or pre-disabled folks. And we need to educate folks without learning disabilities, about the gifts and challenges of these populations. And they are centered around… I use the term
strength-based, challenge aware, so they’re not deficit based. And I really think these could be sort of hubs for a new, brighter, more colorful, more interesting, more inclusive, higher education. They are few and far between right now. But when
I talk to campuses about ADHD, people get very excited about this idea. I was at a workshop with a school in New Jersey a couple of weeks ago, and someone said, “I’m starting that on this campus.” And I was just like, “Oh, my gosh, this is emergent
strategy.” This weird lady named Karen showed up to talk to your faculty, and you got this idea. She learned it from somebody else. And now this person feels motivated to create the center on their campus for neurodivergent students. What could
be next? Those are the reasons to be hopeful when we see those small connections and people sharing and building off of each other’s ideas. And I could go on and on, but that was the first thing that popped into my mind for a future for higher
ed. So I’m gonna trust that it came into my mind for a reason. But there’s so much there. And I think that question is really important for everybody to ask themselves. So I’m glad that you asked me. Thank you.

John: Could you comment a little bit more on the focus that many faculty and administrators have had concerning student disengagement during the pandemic?

Karen: Yeah, my primary goal is to really help us reframe this idea of student disengagement, which often is equivalent to student blaming, and putting the weight of the world on faculty and staff. As I mentioned, that
Provosts’ report, I have never, other than when it came out of my own mouth, heard anybody talk about provost engagement or provost disengagement, I would like to see that on the cover of the Chronicle, or on the front page of Inside Higher Ed.
Why aren’t we talking about that when only 4% are saying we have a concrete plan in place, which leads me to believe 96% aren’t doing that work. So let’s talk about provost disengagement with the realities of students and faculty and staffs lives,
I would like to have that conversation. So we got to be curious about the systems here. Why are we so hyper focused on this conversation about student disengagement? One, we got to reframe the fact that students are very engaged in taking care
of themselves and their families and communities. And why aren’t we focusing on leadership and their engagement? Higher Ed doesn’t live in a bubble. What about our elected representatives engagement with the reality of students and faculty and
staff lives, the judicial systems engagement, we could go on and on here, but we zone in on students, and we blame students and then again, we wonder why faculty aren’t putting some pedagogy on it to fix it all. So that was the main thing I want
to invite people to think about is whenever you hear that phrase, student engagement or student disengagement, to think about systems, to think about power, to think about whose engagement we aren’t talking about, and to be really critical and
thoughtful about that conversation,

Rebecca:: I really agree with you, Karen. I’m always thinking about the design of things as a designer. And so what was this designed to do?

Karen: Yeah.

Rebecca:: …and what does it support? And how does the design need to change if we want things to change?

Karen: Right.

Rebecca:: …but we have to be willing to redesign.

Karen: Yes, I love that. And I have that design background as well. And we have to be willing to redesign. Is this the higher education that we need in this moment in time? That’s a scary conversation to have. I’ve been
prepping a workshop and one thing I have in there is what I’m calling “the great letting go.” But I think we’re going to have to let go of some really deeply held attachments in higher education and in our teaching, to redesign for the world that
we have now for the students that we have now, for faculty and staff. We are entering into what I suspect is going to be a really intense volatile era. And all hands need to be working toward, again, creating, imagining this brighter future. And
I’ve been saying this a lot lately, higher education was built to exclude me, it was built to exclude, I would say, most of us who are currently teaching and learning in it. And so many of those systems and structures that were built around exclusion
are still how we do business and how we teach and learn. So I talked before about where are you going to invest your time and energy? I’m very careful lately about where… it’s something I learned in the pandemic, and I had learned it before, but
I learned it even more. Where do I have power? Where don’t I have power? Where do I want to invest my time and energy? Who do I want to spend time with? Who do I want to learn with? And I want to be with people who are looking to create that more
inclusive, more colorful, brighter, higher education.

Rebecca:: I think there’s probably many of our listeners who are ready to do that too. [LAUGHTER]

Karen: Oh, absolutely, absolutely.

Rebecca:: There’s many of us that would like to see change and are working towards change, so we’re glad that you’re speaking out, Karen.

Karen: And that’s why I have adrienne maree brown’s books next to me. Sometimes I just hold on to them, adrienne maree brown’s books: Emergent Strategy, and then I recently got her book Holding Change. So I think one of
the critical conversations we can be having right now is how do we shape change? That is a question that adrienne maree brown is asking. How do we work toward this higher education that we want to create and a world where people all have enough,
and where everybody can show up as their weird and wonderful selves and be supported and learn together? And do that in service of not only humanity, but the entire planet and all species. What does that look like? And emergent strategy is a tool,
it’s a tool to help us shape change. When you’ve got no resources, when you’ve got an administration that does not seem to be willing to acknowledge these realities, people who are interested in protecting the elite, rather than opening up these
systems, what are you going to do? How are you going to move through your day? And I feel like why I’m so drawn to emergent strategy is it gives me answers about how to do that work. Small is all. What can I do? What small thing can I do to move
this idea or conversation or energy forward in this moment. And I do the next best thing. And that’s been so helpful for me.

Rebecca:: I love the idea of taking these small steps. It makes it much more manageable. Yeah, exactly.

John: And making small changes that make your classes more inclusive so that they do work for everyone, no matter what challenges they face, can do a lot to help our students.

Karen: Absolutely. There’s a book series, I know Jim Lang, and I think Flower Darby did it online, called Small Teaching. So these ideas are out there, they’re circulating. And I think the more of us that are gathering,
again, in these smaller, inclusive communities. Divest from the spaces that are not supporting us, take your time and energy away from those and put them to where this work is already being done. So many of our marginalized communities have been
doing this work for centuries. Let’s invest our time and energy more mindfully to intentionally shape change in higher education.

John: It’s also very similar to Tom Tobin’s notion of the “plus one” strategy, make small changes and do it incrementally and it can add up to a much larger change over time.

Karen: Yeah, and we can do that in our classrooms. And I think we can also do that in this broader work as advocates for higher education as a whole and moving again toward a more inclusive system or redesigning the system,
as we just said: plus one, small teaching, emergent strategy. We have systems in place that we can look to to do this work.

Rebecca:: Culture changes when the people involved in the culture make a change.

Karen: Yes.

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

Karen: I have some fun things planned coming up. Again, I’ve been really focused on doing the work that just feels right in my body and that has a spark. I mentioned that emergent strategy workshop coming up. I am the,
I guess, person who will be welcoming people but not actually facilitating a Zine workshop. Remember Zines from the 90s? We’re going to get faculty together to do that work. And I also have imminently, hopefully, some really cool workshops around
what we’re calling climate action pedagogy or CAP for short. So helping faculty to infuse principles of climate action into their classroom. It will involve if you couldn’t figure it out already, it’ll be relying on principles of emergent strategy,
which is really exciting. And then I’m taking time off this summer. I’m very excited for that and protective of that time. So, good stuff coming up, again, very focused on small communities, supporting faculty and students, investing in faculty
and students, and doing whatever small thing I can where I am. I don’t know what’s coming, I get absolutely overwhelmed at times, and hopeless at times. And what I find really is critical for my mental health and for my work, is to just ask that
question, take that time to feel that way, and then to ask that question: “What can I do? What small thing can I do?” …and the future is really quite terrifying, but what I’ve realized lately is that I’m gonna go out swinging and fighting. And
I’m not certain about really anything, but I know that I’m going to do everything that I can, while I can to make this world a better place.

John: We very much appreciate all the work that you’re doing.

Karen: And to you all I want to say that, I was sharing with

Rebecca:, earlier, I’ve been working on a podcast, it’s going to be 10 episodes, and I know how many episodes you all have recorded, and I knew it was going to be more work than I thought it would be. But it’s definitely
like that, and then some. So thank you all for investing your time and energy into holding this space for educators. And I have a new glimpse into how much work it is. And we so appreciate all of the work that you do.

John: It’s a lot of work, but it’s also a lot of fun. And we get to talk to some great people like you.

Karen: Good.

John: Thank you.

Rebecca:: Twice. [LAUGHTER]

John: Three times.

Rebecca:: Three times, yeah.

John: Actually, we first talked about 99 Tips for Creating Simple and Sustainable Videos….

Karen: Oh my gosh.

John: …which is something that our faculty have loved.

Karen: Okay, that was lost in the pandemic brain. So that’s interesting. People send me things that I’ve written or said, and I go: “That’s really nice. I have no recollection of that, but it’s really nice.” [LAUGHTER]
Our brains make choices. [LAUGHTER] Thank you. Third time’s the charm. It’s great to be here with you again.

Rebecca:: Well, thank you so much for joining us. We always appreciate having you and value everything that you do.

Karen: 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.