The Office of Faculty Development

January 2017 Tuesday Tips

17 January 2017:

Faculty across the nation are struggling with how to address, or not address, election results and new administration priorities in their classrooms. Some students are excited about where the nation is headed and are concerned about retribution for speaking up. Other students are deeply concerned about themselves or loved ones and what new policies may mean for their lives. Instructional faculty can be in a difficult position as students will come to your class after the inauguration with varied expectations, compounded by the fact that you have your own opinions about where the nation is headed. One place we can set up norms and guidelines is in the syllabus which is why I am bringing this to you now, before your Spring syllabi are finalized.

In the campus “Free Speech Training” many of us attended I learned an important lesson that may help in syllabus creation—we can have a civility policy. Regulating speech is extremely difficult and for good reason, but there is a good argument to be made that maintaining an atmosphere of civility is critical to the educational environment of the classroom. San Jose City College (PDF) encourages such wording and the campus has drafted some possible language that might be a good starting point for your own policy. Look for some material specific to Chico in the coming weeks.

When I was involved with the Chico Great Debate we hosted conversations on hot button issues every semester. One debate featured Tea Party Activists and Occupy Wall Street protesters engaging over use of public land. We also hosted contentious debates on affirmative action, private security forces, the death penalty, and everything in between. There were always moments of tension, but setting the expectation of civility prior to the debates made a difference for us, and it can for the classroom as well.

You awake from your holiday hibernation, heat up some coffee or tea, turn on a cranky computer to sort through a backlog of emails. Feeling accomplished after accepting some Linked-In requests and correctly identifying some spam, you remember that you do indeed teach courses and point your browser to Blackboard Learn…and then…the horror…. CHANGE!

Blackboard Learn for CSU, Chico Logo.

Yes, Blackboard has been updated and not everything is where you remember it. The adjustments are designed with students and instructors in mind. You can find more details on the ATEC, but I want to draw your attention to a few key issues that are not immediately obvious:

  1. The new design is mobile friendly. Data analytics reveal a steady increase in mobile access of Blackboard. Nationally, 56% of students access Blackboard with a mobile device and our old interface was not conducive to mobile access.
  2. The new interface separates Organizations from Courses and Faculty from Student tabs to make it easier to organize your work.
  3. The old design had not been updated since 2012 and the list of issues with accessibility as well as inconsistencies with new product designs were growing by the day.

There are other changes as well including, we are sure, some unwelcome ones and we welcome your feedback, but overall the changes really were designed to create a better and more accessible experience for you and your students. Speaking of your students, remember their access to courses starts today!

24 January 2017:

Welcome Back!

This week you will have a flyer entitled L.E.A.R.N. in your mailboxes from the Campus Incident Response Team. The flyer is a quick-start guide for managing contentious classroom discussions. It is designed for you to keep in a notebook, post it outside your office, or clip it to the board in a classroom. As a companion the team has also produced an extended guide which you can find on the new “Our Democracy” page off the University main page. To save you a click, we are also posting it here as today’s teaching tip. Good luck out there!

Contentious classroom discussions can be difficult for everyone involved. As an instructor you are often balancing the roles of teacher, peacemaker, and arbiter. This is the extended version of the L.E.A.R.N. quick-start guide distributed to campus.

Listen to what your students are saying. Listening can be hard, especially if someone is saying something with which you strongly disagree. However, it is a precondition to everything that should come next. Listening allows us to understand, find meaning and agreement, and opens the possibility of reaching a better solution.  In the same way that you want your students to listen to you, be open to being challenged by your students.  If you make a mistake, apologize.  Learn from it.  Unsure how to get started? Watch this short informative video about active listening.

Empathize with their position, especially when it is difficult. In the contemporary political environment this is often the missing piece. In the moment of a contentious classroom discussion it can be difficult to fully grasp why students feel the way they do, but making an effort is important. Try to consider why people feel the way they do rather than just focusing on what was said, but do so without casting judgment.  Assume the best of others.  If a student says something alarming or seemingly out of place, ask about it.  Listen for the subtext; sometimes the most important thing is under what is said.  Or, offer a tentative interpretation about the student’s feelings and intentions.  Question in a manner that requests more information or attempts to clear up confusions.  This part of the process can also be taken off-line with an email expressing empathy or a follow-up office hour visit. Empathy is a powerful teaching tool. This recent podcast is a great primer on why teaching with empathy is so effective.

Assess what to do. Take a minute compose yourself. We have been conditioned to respond immediately and avoid silence, but you need to fight the impulse to act immediately. If things get heated, take a time out.  Spend five minutes writing about what you feel.  Then resume the conversation. This can be awkward, but it is okay to tell your class everyone should take a moment to process what was said and consider how to move forward. This tactic will be helpful for them and it gives you a minute to compose yourself. Your solution does not have to be perfect, but taking a minute will make it better.

Respond directly, redirect the conversation, or end it. There is no one path forward from a difficult classroom conversation. Instead of having a go-to tactic, try being aware of the options at your disposal in a contentious classroom. You can respond directly and engage the topic at hand. This is a great option if you feel well equipped for the conversation and you feel the conversation can be productive for the class. You can redirect the flow of the classroom, frequently toward the usual classroom content. This is a good tactic if you feel a conversation is headed in an unproductive direction and it does not shut you off from following up later with a Blackboard or in person announcement to start the next class. The last resort in a contentious class period is to end class early. This should only be reserved for situations where the rest of class will be unproductive and/or people in the class feel like they might be at risk. This tactic re-centers your control in the classroom. If you end class, you should follow up with any student who may feel isolated, with an explanation to the class, and consult with your department chair.

Negotiate how to move forward. You have so many options as you consider what should happen next. You can seek advice from your chair or from colleagues. You can communicate through Blackboard or in person to start the next class period. You can follow up with individuals or groups from the class. In some situations you may want to contact Student Conduct, Rights, and Responsibilities to get a better understanding of your options. Writing down what happened for your own purposes is a useful exercise regardless as you can make a note of details you may not remember later. The most important thing you can do is seek advice. You may be shaken up following a contentious classroom incident and getting guidance from someone with a clear head and a different perspective is the best thing you can do for yourself and your students.

31 January 2017:

Welcome to the second week of the semester!

As students settle into the rhythm of their courses they will also be settling into old patterns. You have the opportunity to intervene and many of you do by highlighting the behavior of historically successful students. Maybe your course is supported by Supplemental Instruction through the Student Learning Center and you know if they go regularly, they will probably pass. Maybe your course uses online videos and you know students who watch in advance of the class always do better. Sharing this information with students is almost always appreciated and can lead to student success, but it is our responsibility to make sure we are sharing the right information. When I taught the public speaking course I assumed the students who failed were getting low speech grades. It was actually much more common that if they were failing they were missing the weekly quizzes. This information changed the advice I gave students and how I trained my Teaching Associates.

In light of that, I have homework for you. Go back through grades from one or two semesters to look at some landmark assignments like the first exam or project. Even if you are not fluent in statistics you can probably draw some conclusions about early success and overall performance in the course. You may find similar markers like attendance or one of the things mentioned earlier. You may be quite surprised. I am urging you to be intentional about it rather than relying on assumptions. This will start to give you markers for when students are headed for trouble. In some other Universities, like Georgia State(opens in new window), they have used information like this to radically improve student performance. In my conversations with colleagues around campus they are often surprised to learn the number of students who fail their courses or that there is an achievement gap between Under Represented Minority students and non-Under Represented Minority students. We can only unravel these dynamics when we pay attention to why students do well and why they don’t and then fashion solutions. Most of us share advice at the beginning of the semester about how to do well and when students are headed for trouble, let’s be sure we are giving the right advice.

Digging into these dynamics can require help from Institutional Research, your Assessment Coordinator, or a colleague, but it is almost always worth it.

A free speech banner.