On Failure and Fear in the Classroom

In a recent blog post, Nicole Matos, an English professor who writes extensively on student experience and pedagogy, shares valuable feedback from students in her developmental writing courses. Matos (2017) prompted this feedback by asking them a deceptively simple question: “What do you really, really wish your professors understood?” (para. 1).

Among the several answers students provided, one strikes me as particularly powerful and especially relevant to any instructor who encounters at-risk or “breakaway” (Jaschik, 2017, para. 1) students: “Don’t take our failures personally.”


Vickless Blog

Matos (2017) identifies the cognitive dissonance this situation creates: “[students] recognized — but also somewhat resented — that we [instructors] tend to hold a deep love for our subject, and unconsciously affirm it above all other demands. But students have fragmented, split lives, with many competing priorities, including finding transportation, maintaining housing, and putting food on the table.” (para. 13).

Matos’s point isn’t always easy for us to accept, especially if we see it as our duty to pre-professionalize students by holding them to the norms and mores of workplace culture.

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Building an Inclusive Classroom: Collaborating in the Classroom

This is the final installment of the six-part series on inclusivity in the classroom.  Other installments are: A Starting Place, Reflecting on Privileges, Knowing Your Students, Questioning Your Assumptions, and Challenging the Status Quo. You can also read more about the ways our faculty use inclusivity practices in their own classrooms in Inclusivity in Practice.

An inclusive classroom must be built on the foundations of collaboration.  When faculty members collaborate with students, they demonstrate their respect for the student experience by giving them a proverbial seat at the table.  In theory, many educators would agree that collaborative classrooms are ideal learning spaces.

Inclusion Blog3

In practice, however, faculty members (and some students) find relinquishing even some control over the course to be at best uncomfortable and at worst unfathomable.  For these faculty members, collaboration might mean starting small:

  • polling students on what is / isn’t working in the classroom
  • giving students a choice on the format or medium for an assignment
  • asking students to be the discussion leader
  • providing different options for questions types on an exam

Such gestures demonstrate that the faculty member explicitly respects the students’ learning experiences and understands their unique needs.  By establishing this conduit for communication, the faculty member works to bridge the divide between themselves and the students in the traditional classroom hierarchy.

For collaboration to work, it must be woven into the fabric of the course.  Collaboration and inclusivity cannot be merely an afterthought or an attempt at ‘good will’ between faculty and students.  Instead, it should be communicated to the students as an integral part of the course on par with the learning objectives.  There are many ways to communicate this commitment to inclusion:

  • include a collaboration statement in your syllabus and assignment prompts
  • create an weekly collaboration learning objective
  • link assessments to the collaboration learning objective
  • build in reflective moments or assignments that ask student to critique their own collaboration

While there are many methods to forefront collaboration in the classroom, I am particularly fond of the co-authoring model wherein the students and faculty member write the course’s foundational documents together.  I have found that such methods not only produce a shared learning environment that promotes inclusivity, but also increases student buy-in and accountability in ways that the top-down teaching method does not. Some examples of co-authoring include:

  • course policies and course schedule
  • classroom ‘bill of rights’ and ‘bill of responsibilities’
  • rubrics (or grading criteria) for major projects or exams
  • assignment prompts, including requirements

Collaboration in the classroom puts into practice many of the aims of inclusivity: establishing mutual respect, including multiple perspectives, demonstrating awareness of differences, and questioning inherited structures.  When we value collaboration, we model inclusivity for our students, and perhaps more importantly, they model it for us.


About the Author

Wehler 2Melissa Wehler, Ph.D. serves as the Dean of Humanities and Sciences at Central Penn College.  Her publications include book chapters in a variety of edited collections where she discusses topics including the gothic, feminism, performance, and culture. She also has a forthcoming article on the television adaptation of Jessica Jones and is the co-editor for an upcoming collection on Supergirl.  She has published on topics of teaching, pedagogy, and student success and has recently launched an open access resource, The Online Lecture Toolkit, developed to support the needs of educators who want to create effective online video content with co-creator, Judith Dutill. She enjoys teaching classes about writing, literature, culture, and film and has won two teaching awards for her student-centered approach.

Measuring Time: Course Workload in the Online Domain

At the turn of the century, prognosticators and provocateurs alike were quick to point to perceived shortcomings of offering credit-bearing college courses in the online domain. “Sage on the stage” had long been supplanted by “guide on the side,” but the concept of asynchronous teaching, or providing and facilitating instruction without static meeting times and locations, seemed difficult, if not impossible, to quantify. Three hours of classroom time each week, coupled with outside reading/homework requirements, has often given way to some generic conflation of the two that is difficult to assess in a meaningful, holistic fashion. Additionally, students can end up with radically different “classroom” experiences not just across disciplines and departments, but within them as well. This gives legitimacy to student gripes about rigor, frustrating their (and our) expectations of college-level work.

Our faculty have begun investigating solutions to the problems that often result from inconsistent course workload expectations. Rigor—mentioned above—is somewhat of an elusive concept, as the subjectivity inherent in each of the various disciplines engender multiple definitions. Fortunately, there are technological tools that can help us evaluate rigor (specifically, how it is divided between classwork and outside work) in our courses. A particularly useful one is the Rice University Workload Estimator. This tool allows an instructor to set the parameters of a course (semester length, number of exams/reading assignments/writing assignments, etc.) in order to produce an estimate of the number of hours of outside work students are being asked to complete. Read More

Building an Inclusive Classroom: Challenging the Status Quo

This is the fifth installment of the six-part series on inclusivity in the classroom.  Other installments are: A Starting Place, Reflecting on Privileges, Knowing Your Students, and Questioning Your Assumptions. You can also read more about the ways our faculty use inclusivity practices in their own classrooms in Inclusivity in Practice.

The history of admissions processes and policies in higher education is a study of economic, social, and cultural gatekeeping with all the trappings of racism, classism, and misogyny you would expect to find in such a milieu. Even as higher education strives for inclusivity, the gatekeepers and the gatekeeping inherent in higher education continue to uphold this status quo.  Against this backdrop, inclusivity in the classroom represents a paradigm shift from the exclusionary gatekeeping devices of the teacher-centric model (sage on the stage) towards a learning-centric model (guide on the side).

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Reuse vs. Recycle: The Ethics of “Double-Dipping”

A few years ago, an article from Chronicle of Higher Ed posed the question, “Can scholars plagiarize themselves?” (Lang 2010).  Lang argues that despite academic policies that penalize students for “double-dipping” or self-plagiarism, this practice is frequent among academics. We recycle parts of conference presentations or adapt pieces of an article or book for different purposes. We may have sliced up a dissertation chapter into a few different articles or conference presentations, or we may even use a previously published article in a published book (depending on the copyright provisions of each publication).  With this in mind, Lang questions whether it is hypocritical of us to suggest that students should not reuse their writing from one class to another.  Lang argues that there is value in adapting and revising work for different audiences and contexts.  Our students may not make such polished arguments about the ethics of “double-dipping,” but they, too, will often protest, “How can I plagiarize myself?”


Rovan Blog

Lang makes a valuable point, but his argument overlooks an important distinction between ethical and unethical recycling of ideas. This distinction is key in explaining these issues to our students.  When academics reuse ideas, we do not simply present the same paper at multiple conferences or republish the same article in two different journals.  We adapt, revise, reframe, and restructure our ideas. We may recycle research, combing through file folders for an article we read years ago that will help to illustrate our point. We may return to earlier ideas with a new perspective or new research that helps us to reexamine those ideas.  But each time we reuse material, we turn it into something new. We do not merely reuse, we recycle.

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Building an Inclusive Classroom: Questioning Your Assumptions

This is the fourth installment of the six-part series on inclusivity in the classroom.  Other installments are: A Starting Place, Reflecting on Privileges, and  Knowing Your Students.  You can also read more about the ways our faculty use inclusivity practices in their own classrooms in Inclusivity in Practice.

Reading the news, you will learn one thing for certain: millennials are dangerous.  They seem to destroy, ruin, or kill everything, even things that I didn’t realize were so very precious to our existence.  Of course, these accusations are not anything new.  Older generations have long maligned the youth with indictments of bringing the end to civil society.  What they do reveal, however, is the persistence of the generational divide and the lines on which such divides are drawn.  They intimate the presumed values of an older generation giving way to the equally presumed values of a younger generation.  They provide a context for understanding, explaining, justifying, and defending a changing cultural landscape.


In the classroom, these debates often serve as an obstacle to building inclusivity in the classroom.  First, their seeming frivolousness belies a more serious conversation about changing social mores. It’s easy to scoff at the death of cereal, but less so when it comes to paradigm shifts in the workplace.  The classroom is not immune to such changes, and in fact, is often the incubator of them.  Second, these debates consciously and unconsciously create and reinforce assumptions we have about our students.  They presume to tell us about who are students are: their values, beliefs, goals, habits, and attitudes.  And, if we do not get to know our students, we may rely on these external narratives to influence our classrooms and the relationships with them.

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Powerpoint Top 10

Top 10 Best Practices for PowerPoint

During our training today, we created a top ten best practices for using PowerPoint.  The faculty and staff who attended the training would like to share this crowd-sourced list with you. 

Powerpoint Top 10

Start with instructions and objectives.  The first few slides of a presentation should include the learning outcomes you are going to address.  These outcomes provide students with a “map” to the following presentation.  You should also give instructions on what you want students to do with the information (note-taking reminders, critical thinking questions, and the like) to give students guidance on how they will use the information.

Think like a designer. Presentations are a visual medium, which means you need to take full advantage of this delivery method.  Create slides that forefront visual learning with icons, infographics, and other visual elements.  Visuals provide another point of entry into the material and give students another opportunity to understand, remember, and apply the information.

Build in pauses.  When building a presentation, you should strategically incorporate places that prompt discussion, reflection, and critical thinking.  These “pauses” will allow students an opportunity to work with the materials you just presented, ask follow-up questions, and actively engage with their peers.  Pauses can take the form of 1-minute papers, a series of reflective questions, or a quick poll.

Grab their attention.  Professional presenters know how to grab your attention at the beginning of a talk by giving you a startling statistic, asking a provocative question, or providing an anecdote.  Beginning your own presentation with an attention grabber engages students and readies them for the material.

7 x 7 Rule. No more than seven lines per slide and seven words per line.  This rule helps to reduce the amount of text per slide, so that students can focus on your instruction rather than trying to read from the slide.  It will also prevent you from using the slide as crutch (rather than as a tool!).

Remember the white board.  Slides can be like whiteboards in the sense that they offer you a space for publicly displaying ideas.  Like whiteboards, you don’t need to / want to write down everything you say—and you especially don’t do it in long form.  Instead, keep your slides clutter free and use bulleted lists to provide talking points.

Think before you animate.  Animation has many useful applications, but it can also be a distraction if it is overused or used incorrectly.  Students might be watching text flying in from all sides while trying to learn a new theory or concept.  Before animating a slide or an element, think about your purpose in doing so: do you need to control the flow of information? do you want to emphasize a point?  draw attention to a particular visual?  These questions will help you make good choices when choosing to animate.

Make use speaker’s notes.  The speaker’s notes (located at the bottom of each slide) will help you in a variety of ways, including providing yourself with important presentation reminders and using later as a transcript for the presentation.  Students may also avail themselves of your notes (if you provide them) while studying or trying to learn (or re-learn) a concept.

Get to know “presenter mode.”  Presenter mode (located under Slideshow>Set Up Slide Show) provides faculty with an opportunity to see their notes during presentation.  This mode will help you to stay on track with your presentation and focused on achieving your stated outcomes.

Say no to karaoke.  While you may be encouraged to read from the screen at your local karaoke bar, you don’t want to bring that same habit into the classroom.   Reading from a slide can undermine your ethos in the classroom by suggesting to students that you need to read from the slide in order to be certain of what you are discussing.  It also suggests to the students that you don’t see them as capable of reading the information for themselves.  And, finally, it’s just plain boring.

Stay tuned for upcoming training sessions on this and other tech topics!


A special thank you to those in attendance, including Dr. Matthew Ademola, Kim Bateman, Dr. Brant Ellsworth, Ben Lipschutz, Dr. Marcie Rovan, and Dr. Melissa Wehler.

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