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.

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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.

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!

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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.

Creating Syllabus Policies

By Melissa Wehler, PhD, Dean of Humanities and Sciences

The syllabus functions as a contract between the students and the faculty member regarding the academic experience in the classroom and the standards for that experience.  Often, when writing our syllabi, we get lost in the legalities of our policies, trying to out-maneuver that loop-hole driven student just waiting on our rosters. (The old adage that faculty “can write a student’s name next to every syllabus policy” comes to mind.)   While it’s important that we are clear and concrete in our policies, it is equally as important that we use this document as a space to demarcate the learning environment: what are your standards for student work and engagement? how do you see your role in the classroom? what standards do you have for participation? how should students conduct themselves in discussion?  Focusing on these questions help us to build an engaging learning experience not simply avoid a disastrous one.

When creating policies for your syllabus, keep in mind some best practices:

Keep the audience in mind. Since students are the audience, you will want to use clear and specific language and avoid being overly long, complicated, or detailed. Try to keep them to a short paragraph and consider using bullet lists.

Read for tone.  The syllabus establishes the classroom guidelines, and as such, the rules for behavior and performance.  Syllabus policies should have a positive tone even as they create these parameters. 

Consider the course.  Each course will have its own unique set of policies that are tailored to the way you teach it.  For instance, if you teach discussion-based courses, you might want to create a discussion policy.  Or if you teach a presentation-based course, you might want to have a policy on professional dress or appearance.

Remember the level. The level of the course will also help you to establish behavior, performance, and participation expectations.  For example, if you teach an introductory course, you want to have a stricter attendance policy, so that these new students acclimate to this reality of campus life.

Avoid distractions.  It may be tempting to change fonts or colors, but these attempts to draw students’ attention to the seriousness of your policy can instead negatively communicate something about you.  Instead, use bold on certain parts of a policy to help students locate the information quickly.

By keeping these best practices in mind, you will help students to not just to understand your standards for academic work, dialogue, and engagement, but to see themselves reflected in the learning experience you are building.

 

About the Author

13240559_10101056173646389_348591978591550789_nDr. Melissa Wehler serves as the Dean of Humanities and Sciences and Professor of English at Central Penn College.  Her academic writing has been published in several essay collections where she discusses topics including the gothic, feminism, performance, and culture.  She enjoys teaching classes about writing, literature, culture, and film and has won two teaching awards for her student-centered approach.

Wehler Publishes Article on Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

Dr. Melissa WehlerOn June 5, 2017, Dr. Melissa Wehler, Dean of Humanities and Sciences and CTE@CPC blog contributor, published an article entitled “Students’ Self-Fulfilling Prophecies: Five Ways to Break the Cycle” in Faculty Focus, an online teaching newsletter. Faculty Focus is published by Magna Commons and reaches an international audience of higher education professionals.  The article provides educators with practical tips on how to help students break negative self-fulfilling prophecies in the classroom, including providing opportunities for metacognition, flipping roles, creating check-in points, building in moments for dialogue, and pointing it out.

Wehler’s other publications include book chapters in various edited collections, including “”The Haunted Hero: The Performance of Trauma in Jessica Jones” in Jessica Jones Anthology (McFarland, 2017, forthcoming), ‘Be wise. Be brave. Be tricky’: Neil Gaiman’s Extraordinarily Ordinary Coraline,’” in A Quest of Her Own: The Female Hero in Modern Fantasy (McFarland, 2014) and “The Haunted Transatlantic Libertine: Edmund Kean’s American Tour” in Transnational Gothic: Literary and Social Exchanges in the Long Nineteenth Century (Ashgate Publishing, 2013) where she discusses topics including the gothic, feminism, performance, and culture. She also will be co-editing a collection about CW’s adaptation of Supergirl (McFarland, 2018, forthcoming). She enjoys teaching classes about writing, literature, culture, and film and has won two teaching awards for her student-centered approach.

Building an Inclusive Classroom: Reflecting on Privileges

By Dr. Melissa Wehler, Dean of Humanities and Sciences

This is the second installment of the six-part series on inclusivity in the classroom.  The first installment, Building an Inclusive Classroom: A Starting Place, provides an introduction to the topics covered in the series.

Building an inclusive classroom begins well before the first student registers for the class or a textbook is selected for the reading list.  In the classroom, a faculty’s identity—privileges and disadvantages—is represented in explicit and implicit ways.  Explicitly, our identities are represented by our bodies, our language, and our appearance (yes, even if we teach online).  For instance, whether or not I choose to confront my gender or race in the classroom, my body still signifies them.  Implicitly, the knowledge, belief, values, and skills that inform our actions, behaviors, and attitudes have come from our lived experiences.  The course materials I select, test questions I write, and syllabus policies I create are the culmination of my experience—positive and negative.

To create an inclusive classroom, therefore, we should recognize and acknowledge our socially conferred privileges (and disadvantages) and how they influence our pedagogy. When we talk about socially conferred privilege, we are referring to the social systems that provide certain persons or groups special advantages or rights on the basis of an unearned status.  Commonly, we talk about privilege through the lens of race, gender, ability, religion, age, and class, though it’s important to recognize that these are far from the only privileges that faculty confront personally and pedagogically.

In the classroom, inclusivity begins with the faculty member who establishes the basic parameters of the class, which are based on their own unique circumstances: their training, experiences, and philosophies.  Because courses begin in the personal, we must acknowledge our own socially conferred privileges as part of our pedagogy.

By no means an exhaustive list, here are some ways to help start this process:

Take a personal inventory.  A personal inventory will help you recognize (perhaps for the first time) your socially conferred privileges. A personal inventory can focus around a specific set of privileges such as race, gender, or ability or it can be a mixture of different types of privilege.  You can use a pre-created inventory (such as this one from Routledge or the lists provided by Barnett).  You can also generate a personal inventory by listing out privileges you experienced in the span of a week or a month.

Seek out resources.  Start locally.  Campus resources such as the Center for Teaching Excellence and the Diversity Office provide training and materials specific to your campus life and culture.  Then, think globally.  Professional organizations, such as the American Association of University Professors, also have resources for faculty about diversity, inclusion, and privilege.

Invite conversations.  Conversations about privilege are happening informally on college campuses all of the time, but faculty can also find ways to ‘invite’ these conversations: create a brown bag series, invite guest speakers, or organize a book reading.  Faculty might also organize a viewing of a documentary or webinar followed by a moderated discussion. Remember, if you invite conversation, it’s important you listen to learn and not listen to respond.

Acknowledging and understanding more about our personal privileges helps us to recognize where these privileges manifest in our pedagogy.  Once we are able to see ourselves more clearly, we are also able to see where our personal privileges have created gaps in our teaching approach.

Here are just a few areas to consider:

Challenge privilege.  For instance, avoid normalizing certain behaviors in the classroom that privilege one student or student group over another, especially with ‘good’ and ‘bad’ labels.  For more, see Goodman’s lists about ways to challenge privilege identity in the classroom.

Representation matters.  Course materials should be representative not only of the subject being taught but of the subjects being taught.  Course materials (textbooks, articles, studies, tests, examples) should incorporate a range of experiences and identities that reflect the students in the class.

Vary approaches.  Part of ‘unpacking the invisible knapsack’ means that just because it worked for you as a student or that it worked/works for some students, doesn’t mean that it worked/works for others.  By varying your approach to teaching (lecture, small group, discussion, flipped), you build opportunities for different students and different strengths.

Appeal to the experts. When a difficult situation, conversation, or topic comes up in class, give the students the scholarship and allow them to do the deep digging.  Not only is it a great exercise in critical thinking and problem-solving, but it demonstrates that this conversation is historical, robust, and on-going.

Listen actively.  Listening doesn’t just refer to answering questions or responding to a point during discussion.  It includes reading body language, word choice, and tone.  It can also mean ‘listening’ to the silences: the emails not returned or the questions left blank.  Responding to these moments validate students’ experiences whether through positive feedback or an acknowledgment of their concerns.

Conversations about privilege inside and outside of the classroom can be cloaked in feelings of shame, guilt, and blame; however, personal discomfort with confronting privilege is no excuse to shy away from the topic—just as students, peers, and even ourselves cannot ‘opt-out’ of systems of privilege.  Instead, by recognizing, understanding, and challenging privilege personally and pedagogically, we, as educators, make the first concrete step in creating an inclusive classroom.

References

Adams, M., L. A. Bell, and P. Griffin, eds. (2007).Teaching for diversity and social justice: A sourcebook. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge.

Barnett, P. E. (2013). Unpacking teachers’ invisible knapsacks: Social identity and privilege in higher education. Liberal Education. vol. 99, no. 3. https://www.aacu.org/publications-research/periodicals/unpacking-teachers-invisible-knapsacks-social-identity-and

Goodman, D. J. (2010). Helping Students Explore Their Privileged Identities. Diversity and Democracy.  American Association of Colleges and Universities. Spring 2010. vol. 13. no. 2. https://www.aacu.org/publications-research/periodicals/helping-students-explore-their-privileged-identities

Flaherty, C. (2016). Racial literacy as a professor’s responsibility. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/06/20/aaup-sessions-center-professors-role-and-responsibilities-regarding-classroom

Maher, F. A. & M. K. Tetreault. Diversity and privilege: We need to understand how privilege works before we can make diversity work. Academe. AAUP. January-February 2009. https://www.aaup.org/article/diversity-and-privilege#.WLcMB2_yuUk

McIntosh, P. (1989) White privilege: Unpacking the invisible knapsack. The National SEED Project. https://nationalseedproject.org/white-privilege-unpacking-the-invisible-knapsack

 

Melissa Wehler, Ph.D. serves as the Dean of Humanities and Sciences and Professor of English at Central Penn College.  Her academic writing has been published in several essay collections including Demons of the Body and Mind,  Transnational Gothic,  and A Quest of Her Own: Essays on the Female Hero in Modern Fantasy where she discusses topics including the gothic, feminism, performance, and culture.  She enjoys teaching classes about writing, literature, culture, and film and has won two teaching awards for her student-centered approach.

 

 

Bringing the “Back Row Student” to the Front of the Class

By Dr. Melissa Wehler, Dean of Humanities and Sciences

The under-engaged student is perhaps the most elusive types of students you will encounter during your teaching career.  More often than not, they are the disembodied names on your roster, the ghostly presence of a student that you might begin to think was never real at all.  When they come to class, they are usually late, sit in the back row, put their headphones in, and their head down.  In an online class, they tend to vanish suddenly and quietly, reemerging to take an exam or submit an assignment.  These “back row” students present some interesting challenges, but also some of the most rewarding teaching experiences.

Here are some quick techniques on bringing the “back row student” to the front of the class:

  • It starts on the first day. Setting the right tone of the first day is crucial to engaging the under-engaged student.  Ask them to weigh-in on the “rights” and “responsibilities” for the class.  Allow them to vote on any negotiables such as assignments, readings, and topics.  By doing so, they have a hand in their learning experience and feel more responsible for its outcome.
  • Give it a personal touch. Whether you are online or face-to-face, find ways to engage students in the learning process.  Send a personal email.  Respond to every student at least once on a discussion board.  Come to class early.  Stay late.  Even the smallest gesture can make a big impression.
  • But don’t take it personally. Too often we don’t engage the ‘back row student’ because we take their non-participation personally.  We see their texting, yawning, or ignoring as an indictment of who we are as educators and human beings.  Rather than put ourselves out there (even as we ask them to), we shut down.  Instead, take a quick survey (I like the “Keep doing, Quit doing, and Start doing” survey) to refocus on the classroom experience from the student’s perspective.
  • Move it! When you stand at the front of the class, you are going to engage the students in your direct sphere of influence.  Walking around the rooms and through the aisles helps you communicate to students that you are targeting each one of them with your message.  In an online class, this might mean doing a weekly ‘check-in’ post to let students know that distance doesn’t mean distant.
  • Move them! If possible, on the first day, ask students to move into the empty seats in the front rows by using a “light touch”: a joke, an anecdote, or a simple “I’d appreciate it.”  If they try to move back to the last row, ask again (and again) until they realize that there is no “back row student” in your classroom.  Moving online students can be difficult, but there are ways to do it.  Create a quick video response to a discussion board post, ask a follow-up question, and write on students by name if they are being too quiet.
  • Round robin. Have students complete a quick feedback assessment and go around the room to ask for their responses.  Make it clear that you can’t “opt out” of participation even if you have to “come back to them”—demonstrating that students can’t hide from engagement. For online students, you can rotate a discussion leader position for each week, so that everyone has the chance to share in the responsibility.

When we can engage an under-engaged student, we may make a positive, lasting impression. As faculty members, we play a crucial role in the acculturation of a student to college and eventually to the world beyond it.

Melissa Wehler, Ph.D. serves as the Dean of Humanities and Sciences and Professor of English at Central Penn College.  Her academic writing has been published in several essay collections including Demons of the Body and Mind,  Transnational Gothic,  and A Quest of Her Own: Essays on the Female Hero in Modern Fantasy where she discusses topics including the gothic, feminism, performance, and culture.  She enjoys teaching classes about writing, literature, culture, and film and has won two teaching awards for her student-centered approach.