Know your limitations and get some help

My academic training is in communication. I am reminded of all the things I do not know every time I have a conversation with my father-in-law who is an engineer or my friend who works as a recreational therapist with physically challenged youth. I like to think of myself as well rounded, but the most important life/academic lesson I have learned is when to ask for help.

This lesson is most important when dealing with students in crisis. We are teachers, mentors, and field area experts, but rarely possess the training or experience to properly assist a student in a time of deep psychological distress. There are as many different profiles of students in distress as there are students. The young man who is away from home for the first time and feels crushed by responsibility, the student who was been the victim of sexual assault, the young women poised to be the first family member to graduate, but riddled with anxiety about what happens next, the high achieving student who appears confident but is actually struggling through a family crisis, and an infinite number of other variations and combinations. The one thing these hypotheticals have in common is that we as faculty members are only a part of the puzzle in supporting the student, not the whole picture.

There arumatter-logoe so many places where students and faculty can find support when dealing with these difficult scenarios.  The Counseling Center is the resource we most often think of, but in many situations Student Judicial Affairs, The Health Center, University Police, or an Associated Students organization like the Gender and Sexuality Equity Center may also be able to offer help.

The first move often falls to you as the faculty member, you need to pick up the phone and ask for help. Even if you call the wrong unit, you can be directed to the right one. When students confide in us or seek guidance about an issue putting them in crisis. What we have to realize is that most often they are doing so because they need some help, and while we may not be the ones to provide it, we can help them get it.

 

Trigger warnings and why you should care

For most of my time at Chico I have taught a course in Freedom of Speech. For the last few years I incorporated a mini-unit on the Innocence of Muslims trailer/movie that inspired worldwide riots in 2012. I would usually let my students know in advance we would be watching the movie since it was the source of such outrage and controversy. In addition, to start each semester I would let students know the topics in the class were controversial by definition and even assigned a rating of “NC-17” to the course in order to give students fair warning. While I was not familiar with the concept to start, I was providing my students with a trigger warning.

Providing the trigger warning was a mistake.

The mistake was not the warning itself, it was making an uninformed decision about whether the warning was appropriate. There are good reasons for warning students in advance about topics which might compel distress. There are also good reasons why mandated warnings are a threat to academic freedom and the intellectual development of students.

I am not going to tell you about your obligation to protect your students from controversy, or expose them to unpopular ideas. I am not going to tell you about how you are ruining the academy by giving your students advance warning about material that might recreate trauma from assault or war, nor am I am going to tell you about your complicity in violence by failing to do so.

I am going to pass on the same advice you likely give your students. Do some research and make an informed decision about trigger warnings rather than simply trusting that what you are doing is right.

For some further reading check out these pieces.

Huffington Post blog on balancing warnings with good content.

Washington Post piece on trigger warnings and guest speakers on campuses.

New Republic essay or trigger warnings and mental health.

US News Debate Club on trigger warnings.

What did they just say?

Last week I shared with you some of what I have learned from when things go sideways in the classroom, when mistakes are made and you have the opportunity to be a role model in working through a problem. Today we deal with the 2nd part, a more sensitive issue, what happens when someone, even you, says something terrible. Maybe a student referred to another student by a sexist name under his/her breath. Maybe a slip of the tongue resulted in you saying something racist. Maybe you realized what you thought was good-natured candor, turned out to a pattern of homophobic harassment directed at another student. Maybe you realize a student does not speak up because they are being bullied away from the classroom.

What do you do now?

There are lots of options, but you can probably guess my first piece of advice will not be “pretend like it never happened.”

The first thing to realize is that you are not alone. The Cross Cultural Leadership Center, the University Diversity Council, the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, Student Judicial Affairs, the California Faculty Association, the Title IX contacts, and your colleagues are all resources to help you figure out what you need to do to help your students.

The second thing is not a course of action as much as it is a mentality. Realize you might be partially to blame. We all have work to do in creating an atmosphere of inclusion in the classroom and no one ever “has it down.” Open your mind to what you might do differently in the future and make a note of it, maybe even share it with the class.

The third thing to do is realize that, unfortunately, this happens all the time. A 2013 publication in the Journal of Diversity in Higher Education reports on great research and highlights some best practices. Click here for the short version or here for the full version. Some great starting points include “Reactive usage: Turning overt conflict into a learning opportunity” and “Proactive usage: surfacing underlying or covert conflicts for learning.”

We would never give our students the problem solving advice “ignore it and it will go away,” so let us practice what we preach and engage the difficult problems in our classrooms, even when they make us feel uncomfortable.

Did I just say that?

Prior to this year, I taught the large lecture public speaking class which includes a live streamed/recorded version of the lecture. Everything I said was public and viewable in an archive. We had a string of technical problems until one day I thought everything was going well, I even commented on how well things were going in the lecture. Then I realized no one was complaining because all the online students were locked out. There was no one to complain because they could not get in.

I lost it.

raidersI got red in the face and let loose a stream of profanity more befitting an Oakland Raiders practice or 1970s basic training. I did this in the middle of a recorded lecture, a lecture on public speaking. We have all said things in the classroom we wish we could take back. The question is: What do you do next?

Fortunately I have done something like this enough times (I am not kidding; it is a bit of a problem for me) to have developed a system for this:

  1. Realize your class is looking at you to model behavior for them. Mistakes are made and the wrong words come out all the time. Think of what you would want them to do and let that inform your subsequent behavior.
  2. Acknowledge that something happened in the moment if you collect yourself in time. This is one of the best ways to defuse a situation and sometimes turns into a teachable moment where you can reflect on a mistake with the class.
  3. Follow up with a class announcement through Blackboard if the situation warrants it. This is an easy way to document your response to a mistake and model good behavior for your class by dealing with it rather than ignoring it.
  4. Follow up with your chair or supervisor if necessary. If what you said is likely to result in a student complaint or if you would like some advice, get in touch with the people you work with and let them know.
  5. Move on. We have all caught ourselves dwelling on that one bad student evaluation or that one mistake. The students are here because they want an education and you can help them with that. Deal with the problem and move on; don’t spend your semester reliving one moment.

Got a great teaching idea of your own? Showcase at the CELT Conference in a SLAM session (10/8 at 9:30am) facilitated by Ben Seipel or be on the lookout for a poster session invitation. Remember to Register!

Got an idea for a tip? Pass it on to us!

 

Get your students engaged

This tip is brought to you from our partners in the Office of Civic Engagement.
If you are interested in learning more, check out the discussion led by Ellie Ertle at the CELT Conference at 2pm on Friday the 9th. While you are thinking about, be sure to register for the conference!

“In the end, higher education should be devoted not just to the spread of knowledge but to the pursuit of virtuous action. It should have an impact on how students make the important choices that shape their lives.” – Thomas Ehrlich, Civic and Moral Learning

What did you see on your way to work this morning? Perhaps on your drive you struggled with traffic as high school students crossed a busy intersection, chico bridge crossed the bridge on campus and saw the dry creek bed or saw someone sleeping in Children’s Park. As faculty, we are fortunate to live and work in a beautiful place that, like communities everywhere, has wonderful assets along with real problems to address. Fortunately, Chico State brings a bounty of intellectual resources and people-power that can be channeled to positively impact our community while expanding student learning.

Simply put, civic engagement is about connecting students with real problems and opportunities in the community and world in which they live. Chico State faculty have a rich history of helping students be solutionaries – whether it is working with community leaders to address local issues, teaching lessons in schools, or engaging students in service learning projects. In doing so, we create space for students to learn more about themselves as well as about how they can use their unique talents to impact the world for the better.

Chico State values civic engagement and education for the public good. It may seem intimidating, but there are resources on campus to facilitate these opportunities for your courses. The Office of Civic Engagement (OCE) can help you incorporate civic engagement into your curriculum in a way that works for you, your class and your students. Visit OCE’s website for more information or email us at oce@csuchico.edu.

 

Why do I keep doing that?

examsExams have been central to higher education for as long as there has been higher education. We often take them as a given in our course planning and structure the end of the semester around a comprehensive final. Take a moment to ask yourself why you give exams.

Got an answer?

It may be a very good answer. Sometimes accrediting bodies demand specific objectives be met through exams or the exams may prepare students for a particular goal. However, for many of us, we do not have a good answer or we may give exams assuming they assure students learn concepts. A growing community is questioning the relationship between exams and learning (Jaffee, 2012; Struyven, Dochy, & Janssens, 2005) while proposing alternatives like low-stakes assignments and clicker quizzes (Dobson, 2008; Leeming, 2002; Weimer, 2011). These are not great fits for all classrooms, but we should take a minute and ask ourselves: Why do I keep doing that?

A more creative take on a similar topic appeared recently in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Follow the link if you want to make a choice: Final Exams or Epic Finales

 

Spring Cleaning

spring cleaning checklistIt was spring cleaning time at my house last weekend, complete with an elaborate 30-point color-coded checklist taped to the refrigerator that was pleasing to no one in the family but me.  By the end of the day, though, we all noticed how much the quality of light in the living room had been improved just by washing windows that hadn’t been cleaned in years for a while. Here’s a modest checklist for spring cleaning your courses:

  • Review and update Student Learning Outcomes. Of course, some of these are determined by departmental and/or General Education requirements, but where you have options, consider what you really want students to remember from the course when you run into them five years from now. Is the course set up to focus on and achieve those most meaningful ends?
  • Replace outdated materials. Readings and films that were cutting-edge in the 1990s can be hard to give up, especially with limited budgets for replacing them.  But a couple of hours spent seeking out fresher content pays off well in student engagement and our own sense of currency. (And eliminates those cringe-worthy moments in class watching videos with Clinton-era soundtracks.)
  • Improve accessibility.  Whether it’s reformatting an article PDF, or adding a statement about accommodating students with disabilities to a syllabus, making our courses more universally accessible is the right thing to do, and it’s not very difficult. Help is available from both TLP’s accessibility guide and the Accessibility Resource Center’s faculty support services.
  • Plan ahead for funding next year’s projects. There are good campus sources of faculty funding for course innovation, conference travel, and research, but you have to be ready when the calls come.  Don’t get caught by unexpected deadlines. We’ve put together a handy one-page Faculty Funding Sources at a Glance; post it prominently and get the jump on next year’s proposals.

*  Authored by Dr. Katherine McCarthy.

 

These students want off the bus

It’s Week 12 and tomorrow is tax day Tax Day; we may be forgiven a certain lassitude.  At this point in the semester we and our students can feel like travelers stuck on a bus trip that is taking way too long.  No matter how fascinating we all found each other at the beginning of the journey, things may have gone a bit stale. Here are few quick tips for re-energizing your semester.

  1. Try something unexpected in class. One instant way to change the energy in the room? Music.  Choose a piece of music to have playing as students enter the room—to hint at the topic of the day, to reduce anxiety before a test, or to reboot after a unit break.  When I team-taught a super jumbo version of an introduction to religion class a few years ago, my colleague and I selected pieces to set the tone for our alternating lectures, David Bowie’s “Rebel Rebel” for my religion and gender session, k. d. lang’s “Constant Craving” for his on the Buddhist Four Noble Truths. It was a great way to build an affective relationship with so huge a group.  Or ask your students to build a musical soundtrack for the topic under discussion, as this high school history teacher does.
  2. Shake up your relationship with classroom technology.  If you regularly use clickers, video, live Tweeting, or even just humble PowerPoint, try going dark for a session.  Or the reverse: fold one digital element into an otherwise low-tech class. (The incomparable and indefatigable Instructional Technology Consultants in TLP would be glad to help you think though an activity.)  How would learning be reshaped by changing the way you, the students, and the course material interact?
  3. Feed your mind. We work at a university, where smart and creative people are doing smart, creative things every day.  This is the forest all around us, but too often we can only see the giant task-shaped tree right in front of us.  Check out the University Calendar, which you can conveniently filter according to your own proclivities: arts, athletics, lectures, tours, you name it. Tomorrow’s Middle East Studies Symposium and next week’s Turner Print Museum Student Print Exhibition do not relate directly to my area of teaching or research, but I suspect they will make me proud of our students, teach me something new, and help me remember why I chose an academic life—all of which are likely to make me a better teacher.

* Authored by Dr. Kate McCarthy.

 

 

Final Presentations

When they return from spring break, many of our students will begin work on final projects that they will present to the class. These can be remarkable works of creativity and collaboration demonstrating powerful learning outcomes. They can also be grueling exercises in PowerPoint reading that make the semester end with neither bang nor whimper but with “I already gave my presentation, do I still have to come to class?”

When done right, final presentations—by individuals or groups—are an excellent way for students to synthesize and extend learning and practice the real-world skill of getting a group of people to understand something important.  There are many resources for designing good final project assignments; this overview from Stanford’s Teaching Commons lays out some good guidelines and creative ideas.  And since you have been modeling good presentation techniques all semester, your students know what an effective presentation looks like.  But how useful are these final presentations for the rest of the class?  Too often the rest of the class checks out, literally or mentally, from sessions devoted to presentations other than their own. But those last class sessions need not be a waste for all but presenter and instructor.  If the presentations are good—and should we presume anything else?—they should be just as valuable to the students as any other class session.  You may need to help them see this, though.  Here are a few possible strategies:

  • Make completion of a response to the other presentations a required component of the student’s own project. This can be as simple as asking them to fill out a feedback form with “One thing I found interesting in this presentation…” for each project, or as elaborate as requiring peer feedback on each presentation.  If you score the presentations with a rubric, consider having the students complete one for each other.
  • Beyond attaching points to paying attention, try giving added legitimacy to student presentations by entrusting them with real course content. With adequate guidance, students can do the heavy lifting on key course concepts or applications, which makes real the students’ transition from novice to something-beyond-novice learners.  If appropriate, you can use material from the presentations in a final exam.
  • Foreground the importance of interacting with other students’ projects by moving the presentations online and devoting class time to responding to and connecting the projects. PowerPoint, video or other presentation formats can be attached to blogs or discussion threads in Blackboard to facilitate responses. Students might also post viewing guides or follow-up questions for their presentations, so that in-class discussions are primed and ready. Here’s an article from Faculty Focus that lays out this process.

This time next week you may have toes in the sand, hands in the garden, or at least a triple latte at your side while you move through the next stack of papers.  Keep your eyes on the prize.

*  Authored by Dr. Katherine McCarthy.

Ever fail spectacularly in front of your students?

Ever fail spectacularly in front of your students? Now that our lectures can be fact-checked in real time, it’s harder to maintain the illusion of omniscience, and sometimes we just plain blow it: the syllabus with the mysterious missing week, the tech-focused class with the colossal tech fail, the carefully crafted exercise that leads students to the exact opposite of what we hoped they’d discover.  These episodes are awkward and embarrassing, but they may have pedagogical benefit.  It turns out that one of the most powerful things we can do to promote long-term learning in our students is to make it safe to make mistakes along the way.  How better to do that than to model failure and resilience ourselves?

You’ll be hearing more from CELT in the coming months about academic tenacity or “grit” and the “growth mindset” that fosters it; this is an area of research led by Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck, whose TED Talk you might enjoy.  If we believe intelligence is a fixed attribute, that we have a certain amount and that’s that, we tend to be discouraged by setbacks and avoid challenge, Dweck’s research shows, as failure seems only to demonstrate lack of intelligence. With a growth mindset, the belief that intelligence can grow over time, failures are simply instructive steps along the way to a larger goal.

What if we could not only share this idea with students but demonstrate it? Surviving the classroom mishap good-naturedly is a beginning, but we might also let them in on our own learning processes and their many blind alleys and dead ends.  Our students, I suspect, believe that we were born knowing all we do about our subjects, that our disciplines’ citation formats are coded in our DNA, and that we produce research by sitting down for two hours of cheerful typing and pressing “publish.”  Opportunities to bring students in on the two-steps-up, one-step-back nature of academic work might be easier in the graduate seminar, but it can be done in other settings as well.  Rather than one giant all-or-nothing assignment, try assigning challenging projects in scaffolded steps, any one of which might involve a useful mini-failure. Or pause mid-lecture to let students in on the errors of your own—or the field’s—prior understanding of a concept, or limitations of current theories.  In one course I still trot out an embarrassing “how I used to teach this concept” handout that students love, that makes me cringe, and that, once we identify the problem, always cements their understanding of the idea.  Here’s a summary article on academic tenacity if you’re interested in reading more.

*  Authored by Dr. Katherine McCarthy.