Dear Evaluated Online

Dear Ms. Scholar, I am thinking about going up for promotion in the near future, but a significant part of my teaching load is online, where students do not regularly complete student evaluations. I only received six responses from one course last term! I suspect that these students overly represent those students who either love or hate me. What should I do?

Ms. Scholar at work.

Ms. Scholar at work.

Dear Evaluated Online, Low response rates should be a real concern for online faculty, especially those early in their careers and planning on going up for tenure or promotion, as they are likely to not be representative of the whole class, with unusually happy and unhappy students over-represented. This matters, as student evaluations and your discussions of them are worth 13.33% of the total in our promotion process (twice that of research).

Can you reasonably argue that a small sample of your class is representative of the whole? If not, who are your evaluations likely to exclude? Who will you be hearing from (or not)?

Discussing your concerns about student responses with members of your department and other online faculty may be an important first step, as they may help you identify a useful strategy for responding to this problem.

Ms. Scholar has not heard such discussions in her department, but she has read concerns about online student evaluations on teaching blogs and in the teaching literature. Sundstrom, Hardin, and Shaffer (2016), for example, reported their observations of moving from paper and pencil evaluations (57% response rate) to online only (less than 30%). When they moved to using micro-incentives for completing the survey, response rates rose significantly – to 84%!

There are a variety of microincentives that one can use to increase response rates to online student evaluations. One of the authors of this last study described her strategy in a response on a teaching listserv:

I am personally a fan of making a content-relevant extra-credit quiz available to the class contingent on at least 70% of the class completing the evaluations.  This way, students aren’t getting credit [solely] for the act of completing the evaluation (credit is tied to demonstrating mastery of course concepts), but the opportunity to demonstrate that mastery is tied to completing the evaluations. (Erin Hardin, February 3, 2017)

Weimer (2016), a respected faculty development guru, questioned whether student evaluations collected using microincentives were done for the right reasons and, therefore, were arguably of questionable validity. She argued that students should complete assessments because

Their instructors benefit from student feedback the same way students learn from teacher feedback. They should be doing ratings because reflecting about courses and teachers enables students to better understand themselves as learners. They should be doing these end-of-course evaluations because they believe the quality of their experiences in courses matters to the institution. (para. 7)

Ms. Scholar believes Weimer’s goal is good, but her logic questionable. How many faculty would collect student evaluations without some incentives? On the other hand, her arguments are a good frame for discussing student evaluations, online or otherwise, with students.

Another approach is drawn from a recent thread on a teaching listserv:

Even a low response rate can provide a faculty member useful information to reflect upon and improve teaching. Faculty should strive to have as high a response rate as possible by letting students know the value of the feedback received. But I’d rather give credit to a faculty member with a low response rate that actually reflects on the feedback and makes appropriate improvements than a faculty member who get a high response rate (even if glowing reviews) and ignores the feedback. (Tom Pusateri, October 14, 2018)

How might you reflect on your student evaluations? Consider what strengths and weaknesses your students describe. Are these realistic? Are you willing to do things to address concerns raised? Will members of your departmental tenure and promotion committees perceive your evaluations – both the number collected and ratings – as demonstrating your commitment to strong teaching? How have your evaluations changed across time or across courses?

Your promotion and tenure documents can frame your concerns about non-representative evaluations in a positive way: being thoughtful about the problem rather than defensive and whiney. Let your discussion help you illustrate that you are a strong and reflective faculty member. The process of identifying a problem and going about resolving it well in a manner supported by the literature can be one aspect of a compelling argument for promotion. – Ms. Scholar


Sundstrom, E. D., Hardin, E. E., & Shaffer, M. J. (2016). Extra credit micro-incentives and response rates for on-line course evaluations: Two quasi-experiments. Teaching of Psychology, 43, 276 – 284.

Weimer, M. (2016). Course evaluations: How can should we improve response rates? Faculty Focus. Retrieved from

If you have questions regarding teaching, student/faculty issues, or other comments/suggestions, please write to: Ms. Scholar c/o Jeanne Slattery <>




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Dorothy Moments

– Renae Shawgo

There is no living thing that is not afraid when it faces danger. The true courage is in facing danger when you are afraid, and that kind of courage you have in plenty.”The Wonderful Wizard of Oz


Renae Shawgo

As one of my mentors is fond of saying, teaching should always include “Dorothy Moments.” As her Teaching Assistant many years ago, I once watched mesmerized as she demonstrated this sentiment on the first day of class by showing a scene from The Wizard of Oz: Dorothy was snatched from her black and white world and suddenly (re)deposited by a tornado in the magical, colorful land of Oz. She said to her students after viewing the clip, “You are Dorothy, and my class is the tornado. It doesn’t matter to me if you think I’m Glinda the Good Witch or the Wicked Witch of the West, since either one is a powerful woman. What does matter to me is that your black-and-white view of the world will grow more complex once you start viewing it through Technicolor!” This rang true for me, for how can any student learn if s/he doesn’t have some disequilibrium or that epiphany, that “Dorothy Moment” of, “Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore!”

I have lived those moments in the classroom, both as a student and as a teacher. Disequilibrium is a challenging, but necessary, part of the learning process, and the “Dorothy Moment” is a concept I try to re-create in my own classrooms each semester, where my students are continually challenged to think critically, write passionately, and read voraciously, but more than anything, they are encouraged to latch on to those “Dorothy Moments” that have the power to change their worlds.

In English 110 classes at the Venango campus, I am often met with students who come to class intimidated by both the college classroom and the writing process. My approach to English 110, following my department’s student learning outcomes for this course, focuses on skill-building in terms of invention strategies, drafting, revision, and editing. We typically do so through a series of inter-related assignments, focusing on writing as a “recursive process”: assigned readings, in-class writing assignments, revisions of those assignments into college-level essays, and class discussions contribute to the bulk of what we “do” in English 110. Oftentimes, in English 110, students have elected to take the course as a means by which to immerse themselves into a new academic life. Many times these students are returning adult students who lack confidence upon returning to an academic setting. This course aims to help them feel more comfortable in an academic setting while also helping them to build or rebuild their writing skill set.

To assist with this transition, I typically frame the class with a common, recurring theme that will unify all of our writing and reading assignments. I then divide the classroom time into a variety of teaching/learning modes—lectures, collaborative learning groups, discussion, individual writing exercises, media demonstrations, etc. I seek to make connections with my students, to open dialogue with them, and to build community through collaborative learning groups that might facilitate critical thinking and authentic discussion.

One of my most memorable cohorts entered my English 110 classroom in the fall of 2016; the class consisted of a group of “displaced” workers from the local community (largely those back in the classroom due to downsizing and plant closures at Joy Global and General Electric). They were a cohesive cohort of students, all enrolled in English 110, a course designed to help students get more comfortable with college-level writing before taking English 111, our required core course in English.

Most of the students in that section of English 110 knew each other “from work” and most ended up in the same English class in the fall of 2016 in hopes of forging paths toward new careers. I witnessed a massive transformation that semester; I watched 20 students—who’d been quite literally ripped from their comfort zones (jobs, income, families) and tossed into an academic setting—attempt to salvage their lives from the wreckage that layoffs can bring. What this group had in common, I picked up on immediately and used to our mutual educational advantage: work ethic and determination. So we “worked” to build something new.


Her students at work.

I believe good writing takes practice, and that it is indeed “work.” I always ask my students to shy away from romantic notions about writing being “inspired” or related to a “divine” or “muse-like” experience. Instead, I ask them to engage with writing as part of a practice to develop or a skill to hone. For this reason, I also frequently write with my students, and I share my works-in-progress with them. This again creates a sense of common ground where students are encouraged to engage with me, their writing, and writing as a process. My hope is that through my emphasis on students’ active engagement in class, as well as an emphasis on writing as a “process,” students will embrace writing as a positive activity and as a gateway to their future successes both inside and outside of academia.

We “worked” that semester. A lot. They wrote about their job losses, their financial struggles, their disappointments, their fears, their families, and then they wrote about where they saw themselves next. We focused on the rebuilding process, so we researched their majors and potential fields of study, and then we wrote cover letters and crafted resumes. This group met every challenge; they changed dramatically; they blossomed, and it was my pleasure to see the majority of this cohort walk across the graduation stage last spring with their various associate’s degrees, smiling boldly because they’d done it; they made something new!

One of those students from that same cohort wrote me an email a couple months back. In it, he updated me on his job search. He wrote:

“I just wanted to thank you for all the help and knowledge I got from your classes. […]. Opportunities have opened up for me in the past few months. I had been welding for 20 years [before the layoff] and figured my next step was to become a welding instructor. I had an interview at Corry High School to take over for the teacher who [will be] retiring after 30 years [of service]. The interview was a professional interview, one like I never had before, [and] out of 6 finalists I was the chosen one… On Tuesday I was approved from the school board. They will emergency certify me for a year, but then I have to get 70 teaching credits I think within the next ten years. ][…] I sure didn’t expect to be going back to school, but after being at Clarion and with your help, too, Dr Shawgo, I am ready to take it on. As far as the welding, I know I can get the kids ready for the working world. I can’t believe that I will be molding the minds of the next generation. […] I just thought I would let you know [that] being in your classes had a big effect on me moving forward, [toward the] next step of my future. Oh, and I think I did remember some of the FANBOYS in my writing from the “Comma Kings” presentation!”

Now, there’s a “Dorothy Moment”! For my student, yes, but also for me.


Renae Shawgo

In her book Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope, bell hooks appropriately quotes Parker Palmer: “Education at it’s best – this profound human transaction called teaching and learning – is not just about getting information or getting a job. Education is about healing and wholeness. It is about empowerment, liberation, transcendence, about renewing the vitality of life. It is about finding and claiming ourselves and our place in the world” (Palmer, quoted in hooks, 2003, p. 43). Education is powerful and transactional; it transforms lives and moves us from our black-and-white worlds to, instead, worlds filled with Technicolor!

Inevitably, just as some of my mentor’s students viewed her as the Wicked Witch, troubling their comfortable worldviews, no matter how problematic these might be, some of my own students, of course, view me that same way. Some, however, see me as the Good Witch, not as someone who tries to rob them of their power, their comfort zones, or their worldviews, but as someone who guides them to the power within themselves to transform their lives—or even the world around them—through knowledge and education and who helps them find those life-changing “Dorothy Moments.”


Baum, L. F. (2012). The wonderful wizard of Oz. New York, NY: Penguin Classics.

hooks, b. (2003). Teaching community: A pedagogy of hope. New York, NY: Routledge

Dr. Renae R. Shawgo is an assistant professor of English at Clarion University where she teaches writing and literature classes on-site in Oil City, Pennsylvania, at the Venango Campus. She resides in rural Grove City, Pennsylvania, where she shares a two-story dwelling with eight other people, yes, eight, including four teenagers, three rambunctious kiddies under the age of eight, her awesome husband, and the family pet, Buddy the Dog. If she’s not found grading papers, she is usually in the kitchen making some calorie-filled dessert for the family; her baking hobby is only slightly offset by her obsession with running 5Ks. Dr. Shawgo thoroughly enjoys coffee (and other highly caffeinated beverages), good books, and good conversation. Though teaching and being a wife and mother take up most of her time, she continues to dabble with poetry and prose and vows to someday publish a novel of her own. She is obsessed with Dystopian literature, film, and television, and it wouldn’t be uncommon to find her discussing the latest episode of The Walking Dead or HBO’s Westworld on a Monday morning, that is, if she’s not discussing baseball and the Cleveland Indians instead.

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“Regular and Substantive” Interactions in Online Courses

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Jeanne M. Slattery

– Jeanne M. Slattery

In 2017, the Department of Education ruled that Western Governors University had to pay back over $700 million in federal student aid (U.S. Department of Education, Office of Inspector General [USDOE-OIP], 2017). A key issue in this ruling was the 2008 amendment to the Higher Education Act (HEA) of 1965 requiring that distance education programs provide “regular and substantive interactions” between students and faculty.

Since learning of this ruling, I have worried whether my online classes meet this federal standard. “Regular and substantive interactions” is poorly defined, so feels capricious (thus, my anxiety), although most of us would probably recognize courses that have significant faculty/student interactions and those that fail to meet a reasonable standard.

Will the current Department of Education enforce this ruling? Perhaps not. Nonetheless, I want to offer courses that are as strong and effective as possible, and the frequency and nature of faculty/student interactions is one part of this process (Chickering & Gamson, 1987; Ragan, 2009). This ruling is only an impetus to consider my course’s quality. Lowenthal and colleagues (Dunlap & Lowenthal, 2014; Kilgore & Lowenthal, 2015) recommend three types of instructor presence in the online classroom: social presence (to help students see the instructor as a real person), teaching presence (strategies to build student understanding), and cognitive presence (constructing meaning through sustained communication).

I taught Forensic Psychology online this past summer for the first time, which was a good opportunity to consider this issue. Like my only other online course, I used a range of assessments and activities: five tests, optional and ungraded quizzes, weekly discussion boards, and a paper (and a proposal for that paper). Because I use rubrics to give feedback and also give written feedback on discussion boards and papers, I would probably pass muster. (Again, I’m not clear how the standard is being operationalized.) Nonetheless, my goal is not just to meet the requirements, but to do the right thing. On the other hand, I  don’t want to make my classes so labor intensive that I’m overwhelmed and stop teaching online.

What have I done?

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Figure 1.  Entry page for Forensic Psychology course

What am I doing to offer an online course with “regular and substantive” interactions – without creating a course that is onerous for either my students or myself?

1. Personalized D2L site. I have tried to personalize my D2L site in a number of ways to make me more “visible” to my students and them to me:

  • I’ve posted photos of myself in my syllabus, on our course homepage, and in my Overview module on the Content tab (the last of these is the photo at the top of this blog).
  • One requirement of my students’ introduction discussion board was that they include a picture in their profile (I posted directions for doing this on the Content tab). They earned two of 400 points by doing so – so enough points to get them to do so, but not so many that I felt bad about it – but I appreciated “seeing” my students, even when a student had only posted a photo of Brooklyn.
  • In one or two places I use D2L to “call” my students by name. This is easily done using the {firstname} command (see Figure 1). Everyone who goes to the Start Here module, for example, sees their name. I also used this command both in my Welcome announcement and my closing announcement to the class.
  • I intentionally use warm and welcoming language throughout my syllabus. I want my students to feel comfortable “coming to class,” to recognize that I am available to help them, and that I believe that they can succeed. The quote below is from my syllabus, but email me and I’ll share my syllabus – or give you access to my course.

“Office hours.” I am looking forward to working closely with you this semester, and you can expect me to play an active role in the course. Our correspondence will be primarily through the Discussions and Announcements areas. I will post announcements every week, join you in class discussions to help you understand course concepts, answer questions in the Virtual Office Hours Discussion Board in D2L, and provide detailed feedback on major assignments. I will email you if there is a time-sensitive issue.

If yours is a general question, please post it in the Virtual Office Hours Discussion Board so everyone can profit. Answer each other’s questions if you get there first. If yours is a more specific question, email me. I generally respond to email within 24 hours. If I don’t, I missed your email; email me again. Please reach out to me if you need help—that’s why I’m here!

I will also set up in-person meetings – for those of you in or near Clarion – and scheduled discussions online. If you would especially like to “talk” with me make sure that I know when works for you. I’ll try to make this work. (from my Summer 2018 PSY 370 syllabus)

2. Opportunities to meet. In my syllabus and on my D2L site I offer to meet my class in person, by phone, or via Zoom and, while I received many emails, I only had one phone call and two in-person visits (no Zoom). It’s the offer that matters.

I also subscribe to my Virtual Office Hours Discussion Board, where I encourage students to ask their questions about the course (I tell them to email me more personal questions). This Discussion Board makes me accessible and allows me to easily and quickly respond to my students’ questions.

3. Survey of attitudes and beliefs. I surveyed my students about their attitudes on the criminal justice and legal systems at both the beginning and end of the semester (using SurveyMonkey). This survey included questions related to the five weeks of our course. Each week I gave them the results of their survey – and at the end of the semester a comparison of their attitudes and beliefs between the beginning and end of the course. What am I saying to them? I’m curious about what you think and how you’re changing – and hope you are, too.

4. How are we doing? survey. As I discussed in an earlier post (Slattery, 2015), in the last week of the semester, I asked my students how the course had gone: What went well, what didn’t, what should we change? Does it matter to you when someone asks how something went? It matters to me.

5. Announcements. I post frequent announcements in the course: 17 in my five-week course (See an example in Figure 1). Next time I teach this class I might create another discussion board where I post my Announcements – allowing conversations about my announcements.

6. Videos. I created a series of short videos for the class (almost two for each of the 15 chapters assigned). I also recorded a welcome video, a tour of D2L, and videos on formatting papers in Word and using Turnitin. Students can both see and hear me in most of these videos. Early examples are included in an earlier blog (Slattery, 2015).

None of this is rocket science, but it doesn’t have to be. What I did – all of what I did – required a fair amount of time, but it will take less the next time I teach this course.  Many are not time intensive and are tweaks of things that I was already using in my face-to-face courses. Start small and implement the pieces that you’re ready for.

I don’t find teaching online as rewarding as teaching face-to-face, but the things I’ve described here are not only helpful for my students but also make this mode of teaching more rewarding for me. Just as students want real interactions with us, I want and need to have more substantive interactions with my students.

Interested in finding out more? Talk to me – or Darla and Sue in the Learning Technology Center (LTC) – for more information on regular and substantive interactions, additional examples, and help with your online course development.


Chickering, A. W., & Gamson, Z. F. (1987). Seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education. AAHE Bulletin. Retrieved from

Dunlap, J. C., & Lowenthal, P.R. (2014). The power of presence: Our quest for the right mix of social presence in online courses. In A.P. Mizell & A. A. Piña (Eds.), Real life distance education: Case studies in practice (pp. 41-66). Greenwhich, CT: Information Age Publishing.

Kilgore, W., & Lowenthal, P. R. (2015). The Human Element MOOC: An experiment in social presence. In R. D. Wright (Ed.), Student-teacher interaction in online learning environments (pp. 373-391). Hershey, PA: IGI Global.

Ragan, L. C. (2009). 10 principles of effective online teaching: Best practices in distance education. Faculty Focus. Retrieved from

Slattery, J. M. (2015). Strengthen an online course: Videos and midsemester course assessments. Hand in Hand. Retrieved from

US Department of Education, Office of Inspector General. (2017, September). Western Governors University was not eligible to participate in the Title IV Programs: Final Audit Report (ED-OIG/A05M0009). Retrieved from

Jeanne M. Slattery is a professor of psychology at Clarion University. She loves teaching and learning and describes herself as a learner-centered teacher. She has published three books, Counseling diverse clients: Bringing context into therapy; Empathic counseling: Meaning, context, ethics, and skill; and most recently, Trauma, meaning, and spirituality: Translating research into clinical practice. She can be contacted at

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Career Development Across the Curriculum


Erin Lewis

– Erin Lewis

What did YOU want to be when you were growing up?  Thinking back to my own childhood, careers such as pediatrician, teacher, and, of course, rock star all crossed my mind.  Those perspectives changed slightly by the time I was 17, but like most traditional incoming freshmen, I had a limited exposure to careers and did not receive much guidance to conduct any sort of career research as a high school student.  I selected a college major based on something I was good at (music) and something I enjoyed (teaching) and then went through the motions of successfully obtaining a music education degree.  While the degrees may be different; the process I used to plan and prepare for my career is not unlike that of most of our current students.

In career development, we often talk with students about how their majors may not necessarily be their careers.  Like many of the individuals who work at Clarion University, I am a perfect example of this scenario.  Throughout the four years of my undergraduate degree, quality time was spent on teaching me how to be an effective teacher, but very little time on teaching me HOW to actually prepare to find a job as a teacher.  In fact, this was not talked about in my classes – even student teaching. Fortunately, I connected with my career center thanks to a referral from one of my peers, and I became one of the few students who actually felt prepared for teacher job fairs and filling out the standard application.

When do OUR Clarion University students connect with their Career Center?  Well – in most instances, students don’t seek out their Career Center because they think they are already prepared.  However, we know from an Association of American Colleges and Universities survey that employers disagree (Jaschik, 2015).  In 2015, 400 employers and 613 students were surveyed. Students rated their preparedness of career readiness skills—including communication, ethical judgment, critical thinking, teamwork, creativity, and other skills—considerably higher than employers rated students’ preparedness in those same areas. Partnerships between faculty and the Career Center can help students consciously build these skills and more accurately assess their career readiness.

Even before it was trendy or common to do so (Beverly, Hayes-Sauder, & Sefton, 2016), the Clarion University Center for Career and Professional Development staff started to embed career development into the curriculum to better reach our students.  What began in 2007 as a partnership with Dr. Chad Smith—who assigned a résumé review to all students enrolled in Management 120—has become a four-year career development plan for all students across all majors at Clarion University. See Professional Development Plan.


Since this plan got started in a Management course, it may not come as a surprise to know that career development is embedded into the curriculum throughout the College of Business Administration and Information Systems. At every level from freshman to graduate student, there is some sort of assignment, classroom presentation, or a combination of both, in which students must participate with their career liaison, Josh Domitrovich, in order to receive a grade, participation credit, or bonus points.

The same four-year plan that works for Business majors is adapted to meet the varying needs of Psychology majors.  Students who take Abnormal Psychology (a 300-level class) receive classroom presentations on cover letters and résumé writing and are then assigned to meet with a Career Center staff member to receive feedback using a rubric. One thing that makes the psychology collaboration special is how it has evolved and progressed over the years.  What started as just a one-class partnership has expanded to junior and senior Psychology majors meeting with their career liaison for career consultations and mock interviews. Many attend professional development events to earn a digital badge.  Assignments take place in several courses, build across each other, and can be customized to individual students and their needs. For all of these tasks, students earn a grade toward their class requirements.

According to Dr. Jeanne Slattery, this collaboration has benefited both the faculty and students.

“I have always felt our work together to be a true collaboration. Each semester break when we meet, Erin is considering what she can do to more effectively help my students meet their goals. My students and I appreciate that Erin has been willing to tailor her collaboration with them to their particular goals – work or graduate school, interviewing or résumés.  My students, who are generally anxious about graduating and getting jobs, have felt well-prepared as a result of this work, especially relative to their fellow students in other departments and majors.  I don’t have the time and expertise to work intensely with my students on career issues. My heart is in the right place, but I can only do so much. Erin’s “co-teaching” has been very helpful – and appreciated.”

Partnerships and true collaborations extend beyond the classroom for faculty in the School of Education.  They have united resources, contacts and time to partner with the Career Center to create a one-day mock interview event for student teachers.  Additionally, students in ECH 417 and ED417 participate in résumé reviews with their career liaison Diana Brush prior to going on their field experience.

Here’s what a recent graduate, Aubrey Monte, says about her work with the Career Center:

Collaborations are also happening in Nutrition and Fitness.  Bill Bailey, director of the Center and career liaison to Healthcare, Life Sciences, and Exploratory has worked to build partnerships with ATSW 402, Nutrition and Fitness Seminar 402. Similar to the collaborations in Business, Psychology, and Education, Dr. Carol Brennan-Caplan’s students experience a classroom presentation on résumé writing and interviewing skills, complete résumé reviews with Career Center staff, and are required to earn a digital badge by participating in professional development events.

These partnerships and collaborations all have ONE thing in common: faculty endorsement.  Over the past few years, our office has conducted several student-based focus groups to learn more about how to increase student participation at career events and how to engage them to utilize our services , as well as investigating the best ways for students to receive information from their Career Center.  Consistently, students report that when faculty encourage them to go to something, visit an office, offer bonus points, or just require an assignment, they are more likely to do it.

The Career Center staff are committed to growing the four-year plan across Clarion’s campus to reach even more students.  Over the past three years, we have created new curriculum-based collaborations with more than 40 faculty, including faculty in Communication, English, Math, Chemistry, Education, Business, Library Science, Athletic Training, Nutrition and Fitness, Nursing, Speech-Language Pathology, and the Honors Program, to enhance what is already being done in the classroom, without creating additional work for faculty.  We welcome the opportunity to talk with you about how we can partner to help your students!


Beverly, E., Hayes-Sauder, M., Sefton, R. (2016). Embedding career management competency into curricula. National Association of Colleges and Employers. Retrieved from

Jaschik, S. (2015). Well-prepared in their own eyes. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from

Erin Lewis has worked in career development at Clarion University since 2007. She is the career liaison to Arts, Communication, Languages and Public & Human Services, as well as, Environmental & Natural Resources and Math. Erin lives in Clarion, with her husband Mike, an Oil & Gas Administrator for the US Forest Service, and their three children, Jesse, Tyler, and Lacie.  In addition to her work in Career Development, Erin is a classically trained singer, teaches private voice lessons, and performs on a regular basis throughout Western Pennsylvania.

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Dear Grossly Unequal

Dear Ms. Scholar, Recently I read that my university’s 6-year graduation rate for Black students is 1/3 that of White students. Any thoughts on this? What should we do?


Ms. Scholar at work.

Dear Grossly Unequal, Yes, our 6-year graduation rate for White students is 53%, for Blacks is 17%, and 28% for Hispanic students (Institute of Education Sciences, 2018). We are doing badly by our minority students. These numbers  also hurt us as a university, as poor graduation rates affect funding from PASSHE and is a problem that Middle States has focused on in their reports.

Our minority and White students mostly come from different populations, which may partially explain the problem. In Ms. Scholar’s observations, our minority students are more likely to run into financial problems, come from an urban environment, and travel further to get here. As a result, they may have difficulties scheduling on time, getting the classes they need, and buying their texts. They may feel less comfortable here and prefer to return closer to home.

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Figure 1. Deficit-minded explanations of equity gaps and equity-minded questions (Finley & McNair, 2013).

While these may be barriers to timely graduation, such explanations come from a deficit mindset and focus more on problems in students rather than problems our institution can control (Finley & McNair, 2013). See Figure 1. Finley and McNair suggest, instead, that we should engage in a process of inquiry, exploring barriers to success and considering ways that we can address these barriers. They suggest we ask ourselves questions like these:

  1. How do underserved students connect their college learning with future workforce preparation?
  2. What learning experiences do underserved students value in developing the skills and competencies they view as important to employers?
  3. What factors do underserved students identify as barriers or obstacles to their participation in high-impact learning experiences? (Finley & McNair, 2013, p. 21)

We can also ask our students of color to reflect on such questions and listen to their answers.

Another way of addressing graduation rates is to increase the number and availability of high-impact practices (e.g., internships, service learning, student research, first-year seminars, study abroad experiences), which are reported to increase engagement, student retention, and graduation rates, especially among minority and other underserved students (Kuh, 2008; Finley & McNair, 2013). High-impact practices alone won’t be successful, however. They must be associated with meaningful interactions among students of color, faculty, and other students. Student reflections on their work and intentional connections between learning goals and teaching processes also increase retention and graduation rates (Clayton-Pedersen & Finley, 2010).

Ms. Scholar also wonders whether we are more likely to reach out and support people who look “like us.” And many of our faculty are White. Do our minority students receive (or perceive) the same amount of support as our white students? Ms. Scholar has had students of color claim that their hands were ignored by some faculty members.

Ms. Scholar also wonders whether our minority students see themselves in the readings, authors, photos, and examples used in our classes. (See, for example, Berchini, 2015.) Do we communicate that there is a place for our students of color at the table – or that they don’t belong? When Ms. Scholar’s daughter was younger, she counted the number of male and female characters in her daughter’s storybooks. Although she had attempted to provide a positive, girl-affirming (and person-affirming) set of books, she was dismayed to discover that the main characters were overwhelmingly male. In our classrooms, do we work toward a diversity of voices, images, and examples? Do we feel that we are being affirming and welcoming when we only minimally address diversity issues?

Reconsidering our teaching practices may help us structure our universities, programs, and classes to better serve the diverse needs of all our students, so that all of our students can learn well, meet their academic and personal goals, and graduate on time. We can improve our graduation rates.


Berchini, C. (2015). Why are all the teachers white? Education Week Teacher. Retrieved from

Clayton-Pedersen, A. R., & Finley, A. (2010). What’s next? Identifying when high-impact practices are done well. In J. E. Brownell & L. E. Swaner (Eds.). Five high-impact practices. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges & Universities.

Finley, A., & McNair, T. (2013). Assessing underserved students’ engagement in high-impact practices. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges & Universities.

Institute of Education Sciences. (2018). IPEDS. Retrieved from

Kuh, G. D. (2008). High-impact educational practices. High-impact educational practices: What they are, who has access to them, and why they matter (pp. 9-11). Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities. Retrieved from

If you have questions regarding teaching, student/faculty issues, or other comments/suggestions, please write to: Ms. Scholar c/o Jeanne Slattery <>


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Get It Wrong

(This was the Freshman Convocation speech at Clarion University in August 2018.)


Leah Chambers

– Leah Chambers

When I was asked to provide some words of wisdom at today’s convocation ceremony, I had no idea what I was going to say—nor what I could say that you had not heard before. You have likely already received advice from your friends, family, and co-workers to make the most of these next four or five years, to go to class, to talk to your professors, and to do your work. That’s all great advice, and you should take it seriously. But right now, you also have a lot on your minds. In three days you will be moving from class to class heavy with books, dreams, and worries about this first year—you are likely worried about getting this all right. So that’s why I’m going to take a less conventional route today and give you advice you likely haven’t yet heard.

I hope you get it all wrong.

I hope that you spend a lot of time being wrong.

I take the crux of this idea from writer Kathryn Schulz, who published an entire book on the subject. In her TED Talk, which I often share with first-year students, Schulz, says this: “we all kind of wind up traveling through life, trapped in this little bubble of feeling very right about everything.”  What she means by this is that, at this moment, if I asked each of you to give me an example of something you are wrong about, you’d likely have trouble. You may be able to recount a time in the past when you got something wrong—like a question on a test or the date/time of a friend’s party—but in the present, it is difficult to discern anything we are wrong about. We are each in our own little “bubble” of rightness and correctness.

And it feels good.

It feels safe.

But I want you to pop the bubble. Let yourself be wrong. I’m not telling you to intentionally fail exams or to purposefully give incorrect responses during class discussions. But I am encouraging you to be honest and to write and say, “I don’t know” instead of just making up a response to appear right. Is this difficult? You bet. Because the entire enterprise of schooling is built on correct answers. You have spent the last 13 years earning praise and awards and good grades for getting it all right. The student with all the wrong answers doesn’t get the “A.” And Schulz points out that very early on, we are taught what to think about the kid with the “D” or “F’ on her paper, and we learn very quickly the shame associated with our own failures.

But what research has shown over the years is that the student who always gets the “A” is really stuck in that bubble of rightness and can’t think of or conceive a world outside of that bubble. And I say this with the firsthand knowledge of a Type A, slightly OCD, overachieving, high school valedictorian who spent a solid two decades striving for correctness. So I urge you then to think of that bubble as bubble wrap. That rightness—your sense of what is true and correct about the world—protects you. It keeps your ego or pride from getting injured because, hey, being wrong sucks. But it can also suffocate you; living in the bubble can prevent you from taking the risks and chances that are, I think, essential to living a full, happy, successful life.

Right now, many of you may be sitting here pretty certain about what you want to be when you grow up. You’re going to be a nurse, or a teacher, or a computer programmer, or a business owner, or an accountant, or a journalist. Maybe. Or maybe you’re wrong.

And right now maybe you’re dating your high school boyfriend or girlfriend, and you’re certain this is the person you’re going to marry one day. Maybe. Or, as Schulz notes, maybe “something else” will happen instead.

What’s great—and scary—about embracing uncertainty is that it opens you up to more opportunities and possibilities than you might have ever imagined. And that’s what I want for you—I want MORE than you can consider and conceive in this very moment. I want you, in the next four or five years, to find your true passion—to hone in on what really makes you tick—and to be open to the fact that it may have nothing to do with the major you’ve already selected.

I know that may sound a little fluffy or idealistic. And I also know that your generation, Generation Z, is, as a whole, more pragmatic. Most of you were in elementary school during the Great Recession of 2007-2009, and it’s likely that you have experienced firsthand, both in your families and in your communities, the financial struggles associated with that. You want economic and job security, and truthfully, who can blame you? I will be paying off student loan debt until 2033, when my youngest child will graduate from high school. I understand your desire to be able to provide for and take care of yourselves and your future families. As a first-generation college student from a working class family, this was also my wish. But please—don’t let this desire for financial security be your only compass, or this journey that you are about to begin may become less meaningful, and in the long run, less satisfying.

When I was working on my master’s degree, I had a job as a professional writer for a company that matched people for different positions in new home sales based on how they responded to a personality survey. So I spent my days looking over their survey responses, making guesses about what they’d be good at, and then writing a report in which I would either recommend that the person be hired or not hired for a particular position. The money was good—especially for a single graduate student living on her own in metro Detroit. Three months on the job, I was offered the opportunity to stay on full-time, for more money, after I earned my master’s degree.  The offer was appealing. It was more than enough money to take care of myself, and it also meant that I could stay close to my family. But it was a job—not the career I had envisioned—and the work felt rather meaningless. I didn’t feel good about what I was doing. If anything, I felt guilty because the reports I wrote often prevented people from getting jobs. So I left and got more serious about applying to doctoral programs.

Five months later, I moved six hours from home to take a position as the Assistant Director of the Writing Center at IUP-Punxsutawney. At the time, I felt completely uncertain about that decision. I hadn’t planned to move away to earn my PhD. In my head, I was going to school in Michigan. But all of my acceptance letters were from other states. That wasn’t supposed to happen. I was also very close to my grandparents—having lived with them for most of my life. I had never been to Pennsylvania, and all that I knew about Punxsutawney was from watching the film Groundhog Day, which, as it turns out, wasn’t even filmed there. I knew very little about where I was going—except that I was putting 360 miles between me and everything I DID know. It was a risky journey that started with hundreds of questions and zero answers. Coming from a busy, diverse suburb of Metro Detroit, the adjustment to life in rural PA was also a struggle for me. It took a long time for me to feel at home here, but when I started teaching first-year students at this university in 2010, I knew I was exactly where I was supposed to be.

Don’t be afraid to change your major—research tells us that about half of you will anyway. Don’t be afraid to walk the less-beaten path—to make a tougher decision to pursue something about which you are truly passionate and about which you truly, truly care. I care about teaching. I care about my students. I care about this university. And most mornings—maybe not every single morning—but most mornings, I want to go to work.  I hope that you all find and pursue your passion.

Opening yourself up to the possibility that you are wrong also allows you to see the world as it isn’t—to see the potential for change. Schulz calls this the “miracle” of your mind—that you don’t just see what’s here, but that you also see what’s not here—that you can envision your communities and this world as places that could be different and that could be better.  And when you dwell in a place of uncertainty and possibility, you are also more likely to take the risks that are necessary to effect change, to create, and re-make your world—not just on personal level, but in a way that also positively affects others.


Anneliese Welch and a student at the Workshop

Seven years ago, Rich Lane and I applied for a grant to open a family literacy center here in Clarion. Our dream was for the community to have a place where learners of all ages, pre-K through adult, could receive free homework help, tutoring, GED preparation and other educational assistance that would be provided by Clarion University students. We saw that the community needed a place like this, and we wanted to make it happen. The Clarion Community Learning Workshop has now been open for five years and has provided educational services and programs for over 1200 individuals from Clarion and the surrounding communities. Over 600 Clarion University students from a variety of academic programs have served at the Workshop since 2013.

Creating the Workshop was a risky endeavor. A month after we opened, people actually weren’t banging down the door for free homework help. Go figure. And there were a few times when we thought, “Maybe this was a mistake. Maybe we got this all wrong.” It didn’t feel good to consider that we might fail and how that failure would reflect on us. But our potential regret was heightened by the time, energy, effort, and resources provided by several of our colleagues at the University who really believed in our project. We didn’t want to fail them, either.  And although it all worked out in the end—it turns out there IS a market for free homework help—we had to become comfortable in a very uncomfortable and uncertain space for nearly a year. We had to keep moving forward all the while knowing we could be getting it all very wrong.

Creating the Workshop also meant taking an honest look at the world around us and seeing it as it wasn’t—and as it had the potential to be. This means asking questions: Why doesn’t a place like the Workshop exist? How could it happen? How can WE make it happen? When you live in a bubble of rightness, you don’t tend to ask a lot of questions. The world just IS—it is not as it COULD be. And right now, perhaps more than ever, we need to not only be able to see the possibility for change in our communities and our country, but we need to be able to risk our sense of rightness and correctness to put ourselves out there to make the change happen.

All of that being said, I DO like to be right; and if you need confirmation of that you can ask my husband or probably any of my colleagues in the front row. I don’t think the positive feeling we get from being right is something we can completely abandon or change or deny. But I have learned over the years that being able to say “I don’t know” or “I was wrong” has allowed me to become a better teacher, a better colleague, a better friend, and a better parent. I don’t have all the answers. And it drives my daughters, who are 9 and 3, absolutely nuts when I can’t answer their questions. And you know children ask a TON of questions. It would be much easier to lie to them and to just make it up as I go along. And I’m not saying I’ve never done that just to have some peace and quiet. I’m sure your parents occasionally made up some explanation to one of the 9,000,000,000 “but why?” questions that you asked as a child. But making it up just to be right serves little purpose as it teaches children that all questions have pretty simple answers. It also teaches them that their parents are near-perfect human beings who are never wrong. But…no pressure.

Knowing all the answers also serves me little purpose in the classroom, where my goals are to get students to see themselves as knowledgeable and to get them to ask questions as much as they seek answers. This means I often answer their questions with more questions. Admittedly, they find this irritating, and it takes a few weeks for them to figure out that I’m not being sarcastic or flippant when I respond to a question with, “I don’t know, what do you think?” I’m just being honest.

In my personal and professional relationships, at home and at work, I do my best to stay out of that bubble of rightness—as cozy, safe, and inviting at it sometimes appears—because I want to make this community a better place; because I want to continue to grow as a teacher and a scholar, and because I want to push my students to see a world of possibility and not plans. And that means I have to ask questions, take risks, get it wrong, ask more questions, and try again.

Starting this semester, I hope you will start to pop the bubble of your rightness and open yourselves up to being wrong. It may take years for you to find comfort in uncertainty and in strangers and for you to ask questions as often as you provide answers. But now is an excellent time to start practicing. At this moment you’ve already admitted, merely by being here, that there is more for you to learn—you’ve owned up to the fact that you don’t actually KNOW everything. And at this moment you are also surrounded by hundreds of complete strangers whom you also know little or nothing about. As scary as this may sound, there is no better time to push aside certainty, and to free yourself from what you think “will” happen in order to embrace all that “could.”

Leah Chambers has been an English professor at Clarion University since 2010. She specializes in teaching composition to first-year students and is also the coordinator of CU’s Freshman Inquiry Seminar Program. Her research interests include student retention and developing classroom strategies to support students through their first year. She lives in a small town 15 miles west of Clarion, PA with her husband, Tyler, an 8th grade Science teacher, and her two daughters, Ava and Mia. When’s she’s not teaching or writing about teaching, she enjoys running, baking and spending time with her children.

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A New Beginning

– Ray Feroz

Without a good relationship, our effect upon one another is nonexistent or destructive. –William Glasser

New Image

Ray Feroz

One of the things I love about working in academics is that we have a regular time-limited season (semester) and when it is over we can put the past behind us to start a new season, another semester.  In this respect we are like a baseball or football or soccer team – there is a season, a break, and a new opportunity to do things differently.  This may seem like no big deal, but if you have worked in a job that does not afford these fresh starts – e.g., post office, fast-food, hospitals, banks – you can deeply appreciate our situation in academia with our fresh starts and new hope.

This fall at Clarion University we have gone above and beyond the normal start-over with both a new president and interim provost!  I am delighted with this fresh-start opportunity to all work together to make Clarion University a better place.

These fresh starts can enable us to change the total direction of our professional – or personal – lives in the new semester or even in the next moment.  Let me suggest for your consideration one such change strategy:  Look for the good and accentuate the positive.  We can make a conscious effort to truly value and understand others – both the content of their communication as well as the process or feelings behind the content, to move toward mutual understanding and, as the Gestalt therapists say, participate in a shared journey.  Have compassion and seek to understand deeply.  Civility is the result.  We are members of a community of scholars, colleagues all.

We all make mistakes – I have certainly been guilty of not always taking the time to deeply understand others.  I have made assumptions and rushed to judgment.  Sometimes we find ourselves in roles where an in-your-face approach is almost expected.  And, sometimes we must be unyielding in our opposition to darkness.  But mostly there is light out there and I can truly say that I sleep better at night when I try my best to understand deeply and work collaboratively.

The Dalai Lama said:

If you want to be good to others, have compassion.  If you want to be good to yourself, have compassion.

Pause and think about these words.  Notice that the secret to happiness seems to be in valuing and understanding others – being in touch with the feelings and purpose of those who populate our lives – family, friends, colleagues, students, and even strangers.  If we can better understand and care for them, the upshot will be a salve for our own spirit.  What a nice gift to others as we start a new academic year, and to ourselves.  And the workplace – and world – will be a better place.

Ray Feroz is Professor and Chairperson of the Department of Human Services, Rehabilitation, Health and Sport Sciences at Clarion University, where he teaches courses in rehabilitation administration, human services delivery systems, and substance abuse. In 2017, he spearheaded the development of an online Opioid Treatment Specialist Certificate. He went to school at University of Pittsburgh, Boston University, and Kent State University, and is a US Army Vietnam era veteran. He has four children and eight granddaughters.

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