Missing Community

– Jeanne M. Slattery

Jeanne Slattery and an advisee

I have been missing my colleagues and students while we have been online during COVID. Zoom, which has only been available since 2013, helps significantly; we would have needed to email lectures, assignments, etc. if there had been a pandemic 15 years ago. Still, many of the normal opportunities for informal engagement are missing: students dropping by before class, interactions at the water cooler, walks to get coffee, and conversations before and after a meeting. I suspect that these outside of class activities are less frequent than they used to be.

These informal meetings are not just adjuncts to teaching but central to the teaching and learning process itself. These interactions help engage students and create a sense of faculty as real people who care about our students (as we do). Together, we consider problems and alternate ways of responding to them, foster our students’ self-efficacy by recognizing their successes, and model what it means to be a professional in our discipline. Some of these tasks can be accomplished during synchronous class discussions, but we must ntentionally build a Community of Inquiry (Garrison et al., 1999; Shea & Bidjerano, 2010) and consciously build one throughout our interactions. See Figure 1. We are less likely to meet these tasks when our students (synchronous or asynchronous) are online.

Figure 1. Community of inquiry

Community matters. We remember information better when we believe others are also learning it (Shteynberg, 2010). We also feel more strongly when we are in group contexts: scary things are scarier, happy things happier, and sad things sadder (Shteynberg et al., 2014). We can create the cognitive and affective advantages that community offers us when we are teaching online, but it does not come naturally.

My capstone students, for example, had to complete a semester-long research project in Fall 2020. We met synchronously as often and as long as we would normally have done – and I required outside meetings with me – but they didn’t stop by my office before class, and I didn’t see them as they were working together in the lounge outside my office, as I typically would have done. Some projects were very good, but others were weaker than I think they would have been in a F2F semester.

I also have fewer students applying to graduate school this year than typical – although the ones who have applied are doing very well. This change in applications can be explained in several ways, but I wonder whether it is at least partly due to me not seeing them regularly and poking them before class about where they have applied. I have never had an online student ask me for a letter, which is likely a related issue (and that I have taught fewer online courses). One of my students broke my heart today when she said that she doesn’t believe that anyone other than her sister believes in her. I responded to her discussion post telling her that I believe in her, but how much more powerful would my response have been if we had been in the same physical space?

I was talking recently about these ideas with a former student and a long-term colleague. She responded,

I think the thing that made the difference for me at CSC/CUP was knowing my professors, and my professors knowing me. A number of faculty at Clarion recognized me, they encouraged me, they plucked me out of the crowd. Clearly I did something to lead to that recognition but still, if they hadn’t, I would probably be a divorced school teacher in Brookville. I don’t want to offend divorced school teachers in Brookville, though!  I just mean, for me, it would have been such a small life. I would have been unhappy, I think, felt so constrained without maybe even knowing why. And so I am sure staying married would have been a big challenge.

Could I have gotten [the encouragement] I needed with an online program? Maybe???  All of the interactions are so different online.

Online is not an equivalent education. It is more convenient and accessible for some, but I fear that some students may choose the convenience of taking classes online and, reach lower than they can achieve without the intentional mentorship that happens more easily face-to-face.

Missing My Colleagues

When I first came here, most of my 10-person department lived in Clarion. All but one lived within ten miles of Clarion. Now, 50% of the tenured and tenure-track members of my department live in Clarion. Other departments have no one living in our county. How does this change affect our departments, programs, and university?

I suspect, even disregarding the proposed changes in the New U, that post-COVID, faculty, courses, and programs will increasingly go online – in PASSHE and the rest of the US. I also suspect that there will be more students choosing to take courses online. What will be the impact of these changes? I expect some students and some faculty and staff will be lost as a result of this change.

There will be many positive consequences from an increasingly virtual college experience (e.g., college in your PJs, flexible schedules, the ability to live nearer family), but there are also negative ones that we should consider. I am not politically conservative, but this is Senator Sasse’s (2018) view on the cultural shift that has taken place over the last thirty years:

Most of us reading (or listening to) this book are mobile. We’re free from the constraints of place—its annoyances and inconveniences, its potentially burdensome obligations—and we’re free to see more of the world, with its extraordinary richness and color. But what have we lost in the process? Increasingly, we’re shackled to the feeling that we don’t belong anywhere, and we’re not bound to people who can anchor us in a place we can call home. (p. 70)

I think about Granovetter’s (1973) classic research on the importance of weak social ties – those interactions at the water cooler, while walking across campus, before and after a meeting. Granovetter argues, “weak ties, often denounced as generative of alienation… are seen here as indispensable to individuals’ opportunities and their integration into communities” (p. 1378).

I think about all of the ideas generated during passing comments in the hall. This article, for example, has been influenced by passing comments from at least four different people. I also think about how I feel more connected to and more willing to contribute to a group with whom I have both strong and weak ties.

What happens to a university when we don’t feel that we belong to it or to a larger university community? What happens to the students, faculty, staff, and administrators if they don’t feel they belong? Will students graduate in a timely fashion or will they move among online programs without a sense of commitment to any single one? How will faculty, staff, and administrators relate to each other and to the university if there isn’t a larger sense of belongingness? What about our alumni and supporters? Will they contribute their work, ideas, and money if the university is only a vague online presence? These are questions we should consider.

Building Online Communities

We may not have a choice about whether there will be a New U, but we do have an opportunity to consider how we will create and build community among all members of our university – within the individual campuses and the larger New U.

What can we do to create a feeling of belongingness among all of the disparate members of our larger university? A former colleague has begun a “watercooler” movement at her university, sending emails with subject lines like this: “Watercooler until 11:15am” (Frantz, 2021). Morling (2021) suggests using polls and chat in Zoom to create this sense of community in the classroom. At the very least, the next time you’re on a New U call, post your name and school. It matters.

Community matters.


Frantz, S. (2021). Watercooler conversations: Weak-ties matter. Macmillan Learning. https://community.macmillanlearning.com/t5/psychology-blog/watercooler-conversations-weak-ties-matter/ba-p/13702#

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (1999). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2), 87-105.

Granovetter, M. S. (1973). The strength of weak ties. American Journal of Sociology, 78(6), 1360–1380.

Morling, B. (2021). Shared attention, please! NOBA. http://noba.to/k5h4ryxf

Sasse, B. (2018). Them: Why we hate each other – and how to heal. St. Martin’s Griffin.

Shea, P., & Bidjerano, T. (2010). Learning presence: Towards a theory of self-efficacy, self-regulation, and the development of a communities of inquiry in online and blended learning environments. Computers & Education 55(4), 1721-1731.

Shteynberg, G. (2010). A silent emergence of culture: The social tuning effect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99(4), 683–689.

Shteynberg, G., Hirsh, J. B., Apfelbaum, E. P., Larsen, J. T., Galinsky, A. D., & Roese, N. J. (2014). Feeling more together: group attention intensifies emotion. Emotion, 14(6), 1102–1114.

Jeanne M. Slattery is professor and chair of psychology at Clarion University. She is a student-centered teacher, who loves her students, teaching, and learning. She has published Counseling diverse clients: Bringing context into therapy; Trauma, meaning, and spirituality: Translating research into clinical practice; and Empathic counseling: Building skills to empower, and can be contacted at jslattery@clarion.edu

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A Conversation about First Gen students

The following discussion was drawn from a larger conversation about our First Gen students and what we can do to help them succeed, which took place in October 2020. Language was smoothed for readability.

Jeanne Slattery, Psychology

Jeanne Slattery: So, I don’t know who is First Gen who’s not. You can identify yourself if you choose to.  But I’d like us to start by thinking about what kinds of barriers you faced – or that our students face as First Gen.

Tina Horner: My mom worked various part-time jobs always cobbled things together to make ends meet. But she never had a career that she established and built. So, she didn’t have that experience through which to advise me. She had no perspective to tell me that you should get involved in organizations, you should look into some leadership opportunities, you should go to some conferences, you should, you know, just be an involved person on campus. She just didn’t have that perspective to guide me to build more than just an academic resume.

Shawn Hoke, Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs

Shawn Hoke: I want to piggyback off of that, Tina, and say, I think it’s kind of an issue of support. If this is all new to you, you haven’t necessarily made any connections on campus, you’re just sitting there, confused, and you really don’t have anybody to go to ask the questions.

I know I felt it as a First Generation student. I know we hear current students say that they’re afraid of looking silly or stupid or they’re afraid of not knowing and they’re embarrassed and they don’t want to go out and ask for help, but I really think that support piece is probably the most important thing, for folks to know they’ve got somebody that they can talk to and that no question is going to be a stupid question.

Jeanne Slattery: I am not First Gen ­– my father actually taught University – and yet I was as clueless as many of you, in part because I think my parents did not want to put any pressure on me. So, part of how I’m framing this is that the ideas that we are talking about here are ones that transcend our First Gen students, although they’re very important to our First Gen students. I want to see every student succeed here.

Amy Salsgiver, Director of Social Equity

Amy Salsgiver: I came from a very small community where the majority of people in the community had not gone to college, you know, and a vast majority of them had not finished high school. I was getting out of my car and was grabbing my book bag and I had a stack of books because it was mid-terms. And a cousin happened just to be walking by to go into her home and she said, “Oh, look at you with your books. You think you’re so smart now, don’t you?” And it was really a shock to me to hear that because I had never said or thought I had acted in that way at all. So, it is it is difficult, especially when your own family is trying to discount you wanting to do something. I just love to learn. I still want to learn new things every day. So, it was really hard to navigate that world for at home and at school.

Jeanne Slattery Are there any good things that came from being a First Gen?

Pam Gent: I guess I wasn’t technically first gen because my dad graduated when I was in fourth grade. He had five kids and he had just graduated. So, we didn’t really have the benefit of, you know, moving up into out of the working class or those kinds of things, but one of the things one of my youngest siblings said to me, “Well, Pam, if you could work, and you could put yourself through school, then we knew we could, too.”

Of course my brother said, “You know, we all knew we were smarter than you. So, if you could do it, anybody could do it.” But it really showed in my family that [going to college] was possible in ways that I don’t think some of my siblings had thought about.

Jim McGee, Director of Wellness

Jim McGee: I wasn’t a First Gen, but coming from an inner city school, out of state. It was very hard to meet people like me, and you know one positive came out of this. What I tell my students is be open minded. Here’s where the magic happens. So are you going to get yourself uncomfortable to get there. And I know once that I was able to do that, I kind of dropped that guard. Things became a little bit easier for me to navigate. To ask questions, to find support. So, I think that was a very much a positive, especially coming from the area that I came from.

Amy Salsgiver: I think I had a gross misunderstanding about what financial aid was and what loans were, and I’m still every month paying the price for having that gross misunderstanding. Thankfully, you know, I’ve learned. And so, I’m helping guide my daughters through that. But I think the language around what financial aid is and what it really means has gotten a little clearer since I was a student, but still not as clear as I think maybe it could be, especially where our First Gens are concerned.

Jeanne Slattery: So, what helped all of you be successful? I mean, you’re here. So, you’re probably a different group than some of our First Gen freshmen. What helped you become successful?

Amy Salsgiver:  I’m only here because I had amazing professors who supported me, helped me, and also, I can’t go without saying this, the staff support, the secretaries, and each of my departments, they saved my life, maybe more than one time. And I still keep in contact with many of them. I would probably not have gone and graduated, let alone with the masters, if it hadn’t been for the support of have a few vital professors and the two secretaries and the Department.

Tina Horner, Communication Manager

Tina Horner: I’ll echo that, too. I had a professor and an administrator who told me that my writing was actually good. Like others have said, I had imposter syndrome. I thought “Okay, who am I here?” You know, I always did well in writing in school, but I just really didn’t think that I was at that college level. Then I had that those votes of confidence from an administrator and an English professor that made me think, “Hey, maybe I do have something here.”

Mark Franchino: I think what everybody’s bringing up is the importance of the advising piece of it.

I’m first generation. My dad went to a trade school for high school. My mom was working full-time at 16. But my mom valued education, so I went. When you send out research stuff about what students are going through, I have a hard time even connecting with it completely because of that support. You know, it makes all the difference. And, oftentimes, you are telling stories about the mentors that you had. I’m sure you put something out that aided in that relationship. So, we tell students all the time, “You know, if you show an interest in something, there’s going to be somebody who’s going to give that back.”

Mark Franchino, Art

My father had to work for whatever he got. So, you never, never had a loan on a car. He bought his first car with cash and every car after that. So when I was looking at schools – that was Syracuse University or University of Buffalo. Even though Syracuse was going to give me $16,000 a year free and clear, it still cost 10 times more than what University of Buffalo cost, so did I want to go into debt, or did I want to do it that way? But I understood those things. So, I had these perspectives from somebody who didn’t go to college, but then was able to contribute something else.

Jeanne Slattery: I think part of what you’re saying, Mark, is that we need to remember that when we’re talking First Gen, we’re talking about all sorts of different experiences, some people with a lot of support and some with very little support.

So, my question is, what should we consider to help First Gens be more successful at Clarion?

Joseph Croskey, Director of University Advising Services Center

Joseph Croskey: We have some nice structures in place already, you know, the coaches reach out to them. There’s the Trio program. There’s the Act 101 program. There’s mentors on Shawn side. Whatever we can do as advisors to encourage students to take advantage of each of those. Just nudges, you know, “it’s time to schedule.” “So have you met with your coach?” If it’s a freshman, that could just be part of the scheduling/mentoring/advising conversation. And to develop that relationship with them so that then you can pursue that next level question. “What’s going on at home?” and those kinds of things.

Pam Gent: And I also think we have to work on our language and what we label things. We used to have a Bursar’s Office and now it’s just Student Accounts. So. that’s better. But even in the letters and the communications we have with students.

And I’ll tell you, when I read stuff from financial aid, I am just blown away. And I’m thinking, I have a PhD and I know how this stuff works. I can’t figure it out. And so, I’m not saying we have to dumb it down. But we have to take people from where they are with the language skills they have and that helped them build the knowledge, instead of just overwhelming them with all these new terms and words and descriptions of things they’re just clueless about.

Pam Gent, Vice President of Academic Affairs

Jeanne Slattery: I don’t always know the names of the people in other offices so that’s on me. I don’t know anyone in Financial Aid. I always say, “Go to Financial Aid; this is above my pay grade.” But that advice was more powerful when I knew the names of people in that office. That’s the only office where I feel like there’s like I don’t know who’s there – at least where I am typically referring people.

Amy Salsgiver: Not only was I a nontraditional First Gen student. I was the parent of two little girls who were one and three at the time. I worked full-time, I went to school full-time, I had two little kids. I was a First Gen and getting involved in clubs and activities on campus just was not in the cards for me. I missed out on that part of the experience, and I wish I hadn’t. I wish there was another way. But, you know, that was the hand, I had to play with.

Jeanne Slattery: But I think part of what a number of you are saying is that our First Gen students face multiple barriers and that we need to be thinking about all of these pieces.

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Cameras in Zoom: Should They Be On?

– Holiday E. Adair and Jeanne M. Slattery

Holiday Adair

There has been a lot of talk lately about requiring students to have their cameras on during a remote session of class. Various blogs, articles, and responses to these communications have been helpful in identifying the pros and cons of instituting such a requirement, with the “resolution” usually being to be clear – to yourself as well as students – as to the reason you are instituting such a requirement. 

I (HEA) taught the last half of Spring 2020 term via remote (on Zoom) but did not have a camera policy because that was the first time I was teaching remotely. To me, it felt more like an emergency situation, something to be gotten through any way the students (and I) could.  For fall, I decided to invite students to have cameras on, but it was completely their option. Many opted not to, and I accepted that. This Spring, I will be in the classroom (perhaps with some students) and will have some students opt to attend remotely. Again, while I will invite them to keep cameras on, it won’t be a requirement. I won’t be able to see them because of the nature of my classroom set-up (e.g., cameras and screens).

Why ask students to make their cameras active?

Why ask students to have their cameras on during a class session? Al-Dheleai and Tasir (2019) report that

Research in education confirmed that students engage in learning when they feel connected with others and when they play an active role in their learning process. Therefore, social presence (SP) [is] considered as an important component of effective learning in both face-face and online learning environment. (p. 13)

A “community of inquiry” creates presence (social, cognitive, teaching, and learner) and is key to enhanced learning (Garrison et al., 1999; Shea & Bidjerano, 2010). Encouraging camera use will likely increase social presence, by helping all parties become known, leading to more effective learning in remote-offered courses. Camera use may encourage learner presence by increasing learner engagement. 

Faculty more concerned with the practicalities of teaching may insist on camera usage in class by students because it prepares them for the post college world – whether they will need to transfer those video skills to remote meetings for work or generalize the social skills learned by always being on camera in future face to face professional encounters. For classes with a performative requirement (e.g., speech, art appreciation, acting), requiring camera use might be a necessity for assessment and engagement with others in the class. 

Figure 1. Contributions to a community of inquiry.

When institutions had to move to remote instruction in the spring of 2020, teaching and learning centers on campus encouraged “normalizing” the remote experience as much as possible (Marek et al., 2021). One strategy was to stay in visual touch with students by requiring camera use. When some faculty balked at this as an invasion of privacy, others countered that students are “required to show” their faces (and themselves) in class all the time. Faculty reported that “cold-calling” a student whose camera was off with a question led to too many instances of awkward silence meaning the student was really not there. 

Why give students a choice about cameras?

Although arguments for requiring students to have their cameras on make sense and are persuasive, arguments against this dictate are more compelling. First, there are the practical ones. We teach at public state universities, where many students are first generation college attendees coming from poor to working class families. Many are commuters from rural locations. Access to internet can be unstable; in adding camera use, the increased demand for data transfer makes it even more unstable. Students with limited means may have older technology that does not have the requirements needed for video use (such as a webcam or built in camera). Students with limited resources are at a disadvantage in a learning community that demands the latest in technology.

At some institutions, socioeconomic status may correlate with race or other legally protected variables, so requiring students to use the camera discriminates against those without the means to have a camera or adequate bandwidth to keep their camera on during class. In addition to personal characteristics, when the camera is on, students unintentionally reveal the status of their living situation. At this point, requiring a camera does become an invasion of privacy and is no longer the equivalent of being present in a face to face class.

Students in lecture-style classes often do not see the faces of all their classmates since they are sitting in single facing rows – they could if they chose to turn around. In Zoom (or other meeting apps), they are faced with a sea of faces for the whole session. One respondent (under the username of “Frankie”) to an Inside Higher Ed post  points out that “Zoom empowers students to reveal what they want to reveal – possibly decreasing judgements” (Reed, 2020).  When students decide to turn their cameras on or leave them off, they decide whether or not to release personal information. Being able to make this decision evens the playing field a bit for disadvantaged students. 

Jeanne Slattery and her students

Lännström (2020) pointed out that the research on the use of cameras and performance in class is not as straightforward as claimed. She remarked that seeing all classmates can actually be more distracting and reduce attention to the material. Faculty who want to see their students to judge attention and comprehension (getting similar feedback from the class as one would in a face to face environment) really do not get “good data,” especially in classes with more than about 7 to 9 students. With more students, the faces seen on the faculty member’s monitor get smaller and, often, create multiple viewing pages that the instructor has to scroll through to monitor more than the same few students who appear on the main viewing page. 

Students at Stanford University (Nicandro et al., 2020) conducted an informal poll in the spring to determine student response to faculty requiring constant camera use. Over two-thirds of the respondents reported feeling uncomfortable with this requirement. They felt self-conscious and concerned about the privacy of their space. They reported feeling confused about the consequences of not using one’s camera because the faculty member did not say what would happen if a student did not have their camera on. Some reported experiencing shame at being “called out” during class for violating this rule. Students could think of no good reason for this as a rule in a class. Others reported feeling considerable social anxiety when they needed to have their camera on.


Considerable research suggests that when we are transparent about our goals, we can help students engage with class material and achieve their goals more effectively (Winkelmas, 2013). Rather than only being busywork, when we are transparent about an assignment, the assignment gains meaning and becomes purposeful. Do we have a purpose in asking students to turn on their cameras? For me (JMS), my purpose includes that my courses work on building listening skills; will help them become more successful in class, as they are likely to multitask less; and prepares them for a future where they are likely to need to learn to be effective in virtual interactions. I’ve added this language to my syllabi and will discuss these ideas with my students on the first day of my classes. Of course, I will also discuss ways of handling their social anxiety (e.g., choosing Speaker rather than Gallery mode in Zoom.

Different classes have different expectations, though. In a recent conversation with faculty teaching psychology in a doctoral program, all faculty believed that camera use should not just be a suggestion for their courses, but a requirement, as building and assessing interpersonal and clinical skills are essential in that context (Slattery et al., in press). One take-home point is that camera use can be ethical and appropriate when suited to the course – and camera use explained.

Why do you require cameras in your classes?

So then what is the guidance on camera usage for remote instruction? The Center for Teaching and Learning at Oregon State University shared an infographic that lists the pros and cons of a camera requirement as well as some general advice. They suggest:

  • Establish expectations for turning on cameras early on and explain why. 
  • Set norms for synchronous meetings and the use of video camera. 
  • Turning video cameras on should not be mandatory. 
  • Have short conferences to have face-to-face with students. Encourage, but do not insist on the use of video camera for discussions, virtual office hours, and consultations. 
  • Ask students to make themselves visible if they are asking/responding to a question; otherwise, use chat. 
  • In larger classes, some professors tell students to turn their cameras off during lectures. (Amobi, 2020)   

We believe that creating a community of inquiry and developing freely-chosen class norms about camera use will enhance student engagement and commitment to the format of the class (Garrison et al., 1999; Shea & Bidjerano, 2010). Some students will decide that camera use is optional and should only be required when asking/answering a question and while in breakout rooms and small group meetings. Creating a trusted community in the classroom will probably enable students to feel more confident about opting to turn their cameras on. Other ways to create community can be found in Slattery (2020). 


Al-Dheleai, Y.M., Tasir, Z. (2019). Web 2.0 for fostering students’ social presence in online learning based interaction. Journal of Technology and Science Education, 9(1), 13-19. https://doi.org/10.3926/jotse.552

Amobi, F. (2020, June 1). Should you require students to turn on their Zoom cameras? Oregon State University Center for Teaching and Learning Blog. https://blogs.oregonstate.edu/osuteaching/2020/06/01/should-you-require-students-to-turn-on-their-zoom-cameras/

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (1999). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2), 87-105.

Lännström, A. (2020, August 20). Should we require students to turn their cameras on in the Zoom classroom? Online Teaching, Online Learning Blog. https://www.wabashcenter.wabash.edu/2020/08/should-we-require-students-to-turn-their-cameras-on-in-the-zoom-classroom/

Marek, M.W., Chew, C., & Wu, W.V. (2021). Teacher experiences in converting classes to distance learning in the COVID-19 pandemic. International Journal of Distance Education Technologies,19 (1). https://doi.org/10.4018/IJDET.20210101.oa3

Nicardo, V., Khandelwal, A., & Weitzman, A. (2020, June 1). Please let students turn their videos off in class. The Stanford Daily. https://www.stanforddaily.com/2020/06/01/please-let-students-turn-their-videos-off-in-class/

Reed, M. (2020, May 13). Should showing faces be mandatory? A new question posed by technology. Inside Higher Ed Blog. https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/confessions-community-college-dean/should-showing-faces-be-mandatory

Shea, P., & Bidjerano, T. (2010). Learning presence: Towards a theory of self-efficacy, self-regulation, and the development of a communities of inquiry in online and blended learning environments. Computers & Education 55(4), 1721-1731.

Slattery, J. M. (2020). First day online. Hand in Hand. https://handinhandclarion.wordpress.com/2020/08/10/first-day-online/

Slattery, J. M., Knauss, L., & Hunt, M. (in press). Ethics in Action: Being “present” on Zoom. Pennsylvania Psychologist.

Winkelmas, M. (2013), Transparency in teaching: Faculty share data and improve students’ learning. Association of American Colleges and Universities. https://www.aacu.org/publications-research/periodicals/transparency-teaching-faculty-share-data-and-improve-students

Holiday E. Adair is professor of psychology at California University of Pennsylvania. This is her first blog post! She has spent the last 15 years conducting student learning outcomes assessment on her campus. She can be contacted at adair@calu.edu

Jeanne M. Slattery is professor and chair of psychology at Clarion University. She is a student-centered teacher, who loves her students, teaching, and learning. She has published three books – Counseling diverse clients: Bringing context into therapy; Trauma, meaning, and spirituality: Translating research into clinical practice; and Empathic counseling: Building skills to empower. She can be contacted at jslattery@clarion.edu

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Honoring Your Struggles and Triumphs

This is the text of Dr. Foster’s commencement speech for the College of Arts and Sciences and the College of Health Sciences and Human Services, Clarion University, December 14, 2019.

Ellen Foster

Good morning to you, graduates, and your family and friends, and to all of my colleagues on this stage and in the audience.

I am privileged to have this opportunity to speak on behalf of your faculty; thank you.

Dear graduates: Today you share a very special common ground: You have come a long way on a journey that most likely did not unfold the way that you thought it would, but it HAS unfolded, and you are now here, moments away from walking across this stage and having your degree conferred.

This is a major moment, and it’s more special to all of us because you have brought yourself HERE – and yes, those of you in the livestream are here too — to share this experience, after you have endured another round of final exams and final projects and final discussion boards. You could, you know, be sleeping in or packing up for your next move. But you are HERE, and we are so glad that you are.

Only you know the particular stresses and sacrifices that have brought you to this day: the hours worked, the family occasions you’ve had to miss, the disappointments that you faced and overcame, the working to the very moment of a deadline to find that your internet connection has rather inauspiciously crashed … but you managed, and here we are.

I want you to know that we have such great respect for you in achieving this day. I also want you to know that we simply love what you have done for yourself: You have educated yourself, and that is a brave and difficult thing to do.

I also want your family and friends to know that we are so proud of what you have made happen for yourself – because while it does take a village (they sacrificed and struggled too), ultimately, you had to do the work.

So, graduates, please know that I have in mind a million variations of the struggles and triumphs that you’ve experienced, and I hope to honor those.

Days like today are made for reflection – reflection on what you have achieved, excitement and nervousness about what lies ahead – and your faculty too reflect on this day – for instance, we see your name among the list of graduates, and recall you in our classes, remember your best and your worst days, and think of all that we have experienced together.

When you came to Clarion University, you put yourself in a position to learn, and to learn means to brush up against something new or, sometimes, to run right into it: a concept that pushes you, a perspective that you had not thought about before, ideas and bodies of knowledge that sometimes seem irreconcilable. You might look back to English 111, a course I’d bet you’ve all taken – first-year writing – and remember just how new it all was … but then you were researching topics and writing papers for so many other courses – and you knew how to do it.

You might remember other firsts: giving your first injection, meeting a client for the first time, taking the lead on an experiment, setting off on the first day of your internship, creating art that speaks your name, having that “a-ha!” moment when something finally clicked.

With any luck at all, you became comfortable with the often uncomfortable messiness that is learning, and you came away from those encounters with a little more understanding of the depths of inquiry – the many ways that biologists, and sociologists, and psychologists, and musicians, philosophers, mathematicians, historians, writers, and geologists and physicists (and more!) approach their disciplines, seek discovery, and help the rest of us make sense of it all, or at least help us to better understand how much we have left to learn.

In learning the professions of nursing, medical imaging, speech pathology,
audiology, rehabilitation, criminal justice, sports management, counseling – and
more! – you brought together the arts and the sciences to work closely with that
most complex of organisms – your fellow human beings, particularly in their
moments of pain and crisis, their least lovable and most complicated moments.
A little discomfort – like realizing just how little we know even when we know a
lot — seems a small price considering the pay-off – which for me, and I hope for
you, is a desire to find out, to know some more. That’s the push that leads to
innovation and invention and discovery – and I hope that YOU will be the next
someone to find better ways to care for patients and clients, to respond to crises, to
move the technology forward, to find the ways to effectively address the root
problems of the inequities in our society, to add a new piece of knowledge to the
puzzle that is life.

You may think that this is a lot to ask, and it is, but then, there’s this: You can do
it. You’ve already shown your faculty that you can succeed, even when you weren’t so sure that you would. We know you, and we know just how resourceful,
capable, creative, compassionate, resilient, involved, and wise you are.

Dr. Dale often says that Clarion is small but mighty. You ARE mighty: You have
the knowledge and skills to change the world, and you will, day by day.
We know you will do it. We’re proud of you. Congratulations!

Thank you.

Ellen Foster is professor of English at Clarion University and director of the Integrative Studies program.  Working with our students brings moments of joy that she will never find anywhere else:  the light bulb flashes of insight in class, the sight of a familiar, not-to-be-forgotten name in a graduation program, the swell of pride among all at a graduation ceremony.  While we won’t join together in the ceremony this semester as we did last December, we ARE joined together by our shared sense of purpose and commitment to our students’ achievements.  Congratulations to all the graduates!

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Trying to Get Students to Take Responsibility for Their Learning: Are Sophomores Different?

– Paul Woodburne

Paul Woodburne
Paul Woodburne

Earlier this year, I reported on how I adapted Maryellen Weimer’s (2013) book, Learner Centered Teaching, to my graduate class in Economics and to several upper level undergraduate classes (Woodburne, 2020).  I made these changes to my courses because I wanted to find a way to encourage students to take more responsibility for their own learning.  As I reported in that HiH, my graduate students and seniors’ responses were very positive; however, responses were not positive in a sophomore-level course (three sections over two semesters) in which I also tried the same method.  This edition of Hand in Hand explores this discrepancy.

What do Students Want?  My Starting Hypothesis

I assume students are pretty good natural economists in that they do not knowingly act in ways that are not in their best interests, and that they follow incentives that get them where they want to go most easily.  

I made the following initial hypotheses about incentives to which students respond.  I hypothesized that students want to:

  1. Do the minimum work to get the highest possible desired grade;
  2. Reduce course-related stress;
  3. Avoid cramming for in-class exams and writing take-home essay exams at the last minute;
  4. Exercise some control over the process.

If incentives are good, students ought to follow them. 

Embedded in my hypotheses is the hidden assumption that sophomores are able to effectively identify and respond to their own deadlines.

Structure of My Course

As I reported then, my version of Weimer’s (2013) approach included very few mandatory assignments, mostly responding to program assessment, and many optional assignments (e.g., content questions, chapter or article summaries, and self-reflection on the class process).

My new approach allows students to complete the assignments they want to earn the grade they want.  I gave students all the assignments and grading scales at the start of the term.  I encouraged them to complete assignments on an on-going basis, as we completed the lectures for that material.

I divided the course into three segments, each corresponding to material covered prior to the old exams.  I designed the structure so that students could turn in their assignments at any time up to the end of the relevant segment of the course.  I hoped the incentive of not having to do big take-home essay exams while preparing for exams in other classes would encourage them to submit assignments on an ‘as-you-go’ basis.   

Principles of Macroeconomics (Econ 211)

Sophomores usually take Principles of Macroeconomics as part of the lower core of the COBAIS curriculum.  In the Spring of 2019, the two sections were almost three-quarters freshmen and about 10% were juniors and seniors.  In the Fall of 2019, the single section had 10-15% freshmen, which was more typical.  Some of what I report applies more to one semester than the other, but I will try to make comments that are true of both classes.

In the Spring 2019 section, I gave no incentive for assignments turned in early.  The vast majority of students turned in the assignments for the first class ‘segment’ all at once on the last possible Friday, although some students told me they had had the assignments finished, but were waiting to turn them in. As a result, they had no opportunity to rewrite or to learn from past mistakes, which had been a primary goal to this teaching approach.  This pattern continued through the second segment, but improved marginally in the third course segment.

In the Spring 2019 section, most answers to the main content questions were very short and did not appear to use the available course materials (e.g., textbook, class notes, graphs, nor did they take advantage of in-class practice assignments).  Out of 217 assignments during the first segment (32 students at seven assignments each), 62 (29%) were never turned in and 68 (31%) were not written at a passing level, but were eligible for revision.  Only 23 assignments were revised.  About eight students were responsible for nearly all of the incomplete work, while the same four or five students were responsible for nearly all of the revisions.  Almost no one who revised work in segment 1 needed to do so in subsequent segments.  Thus, quality rose a little, even if early submission rates did not.

In Fall 2019, I tried to incentivize early turn-in following dismal results from the prior term.  I gave students a 15% penalty if students turned in assignments more than two class periods after the material was covered in the course.  After the first segment of this class, I changed the incentive to one where I offered a 15% bonus if the assignment was turned in within two class periods of covering the material.  Giving a penalty felt like I was raising the price on an advertised product; people tend to respond better to a reward than a penalty. Unfortunately, the existence of, or alteration in, the bonus, appeared to not alter the behavior of the majority of students.

Where Did I Go Wrong?  Why Did My Strategy Fail?

As an economist, I have to believe incentives work. If I am surprised by their decisions, there are a limited number of reasons: 

  1. I did not correctly identify the incentives students would use.
  2. I did not implement the incentives I planned.
  3. Students did not have good information about class requirements.
  4. They had poor information about themselves.
  5. Maybe the strategy did not fail.

Reason #1. I did not correctly identify the incentives students would use.

Apparently, simply getting a bit of an easier workload and control over the process is not enough of an incentive to alter student behavior.  After the change in incentive structure, some students were VERY concerned about whether they had earned the bonus on assignments.  The change from penalty to bonus appeared to marginally improve early turn-in rates in the second and third segments of the class.  As noted above, this incentive did not alter the behavior of the majority of students.

Reason #2. I did not implement the incentives I planned.

Incentives are all about perceived costs and benefits.  Ideally, incentives should be costless to implement and to follow, and benefits should be valued by the person receiving them.  If costs are too high to me or to the students, the incentives will not work. 

My stated plan was to assign zero points to assignments that were below the minimal ‘C’ level, giving students the chance to redo them for full credit.  However, I could not carry through.  Many students never picked up or redid assignments that earned zero points; thus, many students never knew their scores.  I eventually gave those assignments mid-‘D’ level points. I did not announce this, but I did make this change after one student contacted me and said that it seemed harsh to be given no points for assignments. In retrospect, I should not have relied on students to pick them up after class.  I will hand them back moving forward.

Reason #3. Students did not have good information about class requirements.

I believed I provided students good information about some parts of the class. Options for earning grades, deadlines, and specific information about failing to meet deadlines were clearly described.  I repeatedly made clear that ‘optional’ material was only optional vis-à-vis the points they wanted to achieve.

However, students pointed out to me that often they were not clear as to when a question had been fully covered and when an assignment would be due.  Also, they noted out that the first couple weeks went by without a question being posed, so that most questions seemed to come all at once.  Responding to this, I have created some questions that can be answered early on.  I have narrowed the focus of other questions so there is less confusion as to when I have covered the material relevant to a given question.

Last, it occurred to me that educational methodology includes modeling good examples.  I have now created a good model answer to a representative question, so that students know what a good answer looks like.

Reason #4. They had poor information about themselves.

Students can make good decisions only when they have good information (self-awareness) about their ability to meet deadlines.  In this case, I think these students underestimated their power to identify  and meet deadlines.  On their final exam responses, most students suggested that they (“like all students”) tend to procrastinate and do not really knuckle down until the due date is pressing.  Many students suggested more due dates and less flexibility.  A good number of students suggested the very path I had structured the class to avoid.

In looking at myself as the location of poor information, I conclude that perhaps meeting deadlines is much more difficult for these students than I had assumed.  The students who pushed me to have more due dates are in agreement with current economic research.  Behavioral economist Dan Ariely (2008) summarized nice experiments he and others have performed on due dates for papers in class.  Even undergraduate students attending premier institutions are not able to set deadlines on their own.  Ariely’s experiments varied the rules for three otherwise-identical classes, where each had three papers due.  Paper quality was best when deadlines were fixed, and set by the professor.  

If a student cannot create their own rigorous structure to avoid procrastination, and there are few dates set by the instructor, perhaps outside structures can do that job. The football players in my class report having many  hours of football practice.  One student wrote that he took 1-2 days and cranked out all the assignments he could for my class in the limited free time he had. In these cases, the outside structure of practice time forced students to identify and follow deadlines, and avoid procrastination.

Reason #5. Maybe the strategy did not fail. 

If I take seriously the idea that students are good natural economists, I have to accept the consequences.  A tenet of economic theory is that different people will behave differently given the same information and incentive structures – depending on their goals and the perceived value of rewards. 

Economics relies heavily on the calculation of costs and benefits.  Perhaps students did, in fact, get the grade they wanted or were willing to work for.  For those students who did improve, the cost of getting a better grade was worth it.  For students for whom the additional points simply did not seem worth the effort, answers to former exam questions remained brief, many reflective pieces remained a paragraph or less, and other ‘optional’ assignments remained undone.  I had one student tell me he only wanted/needed a ‘D’.  He seemed almost surgical in his precision with which he did the minimum needed to earn that grade.  What surprised me about him was that it is not that hard to improve from a ‘D’ to a ‘C’, but he deliberately did not do so.


As reported in my prior piece, junior and senior business undergraduates and MBA students like my modification of Weimer’s (2013) process, and thrive on it.  These students reported in their final reflection and in unsolicited emails, that they like the ability to redo questions, recover from a bad score, and actually learn that which I was trying to get them to understand.  

I also liked it.  I got three things I wanted out of the process.  My students did about as well as in the past, they took some responsibility for their learning, and I got a smoother grading schedule rather than sporadic bouts of intensive grading. 

I remain hopeful that I can modify Weimer’s (2013) process for my sophomore-level classes, as the approach still seems worthwhile.  I continue to tinker with the class.  For example, I have realized that I do not need segments related to the old exam schedule.  Perhaps more and shorter course segments will create deadlines that are do-able for sophomores.


Ariely, D. (2008). Predictably irrational: The hidden forces that shape our decisions. Harper.

Weimer, M. (2013). Learner-centered teaching: Five key changes to practice that will foster student engagement (2nd ed.). Jossey-Bass.

Woodburne, P. (2020). Getting students to take responsibility for their learning. Hand in Hand. https://handinhandclarion.wordpress.com/2020/02/23/getting-students-to-take-responsibility-for-their-learning/

Paul Woodburne is a professor of Economics at Clarion University. He challenges his students to think critically and deeply about economic issues. He has written an intermediate money and banking text that he uses in his classes. About six years ago two freshmen in the dorms heard horror stories about how difficult his classes were and got together for mutual support and study. They found they liked each other and, having graduated and gotten good jobs, are now happily married.

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A Game Changer

– Joseph Croskey

Joseph Croskey

It is that time of year. Leaves are falling and autumn is here. The spring schedule will be available soon, and students can begin registering for class on Monday, November 2nd. 

In days of yore, faculty would post availability on their door, and students would come by and sign up for a time. Then email made this process simpler. Or did it? I used to go back and forth trying to schedule an appointment, wasting valuable time trading emails for what seemed like eternity, and then finally, when you think a time will work, something else appears on the calendar and you have to start the process over. This hassle can be avoided.

An easier way to schedule

There is an easier way: online scheduling tools are now readily available. You’ve probably used Doodle to find a time for many people to meet.

There is also a software solution to help your students choose a time to meet with you that works in their schedule. There are many actually. Some people use the feature built into Microsoft Outlook. Others use these options: Calendly, YouCanBook.me, or Appointy.

What students see in Appointy.

All of these software scheduling tools offer a free version. You set your student/office hours or availability in time increments of your choosing (e.g., 30 min). Students can schedule an appointment whenever and from wherever they want, 24/7, but will only see the times you are available. Some of these tools offer integration with your Microsoft Outlook or Google calendars, either automatically or through Zapier. 

Advising online

I was speaking with a student, who said that when she looked in the catalog, preparing to schedule, she was overwhelmed by the number of courses available, then frustrated because some are not offered and it was unclear when they would be. She found it helpful that that some advisors identify the classes students need to take and that some advisors discussed prerequisites and the degree audit.

Joseph working with a student.

Advising students online means that faculty can share their screens in Zoom to help students with the technical aspects of reading a degree audit, searching for courses, and adding a course to the shopping cart. Success Coaches help with those technical aspects now, but students appreciate when their departmental advisor can help them.

I attempt to respond to her concerns when I meet with students, whether we’re meeting face-to-face or online. I also ask ‘how are things going’ and get them talking about the activities they are involved in, to uncover the things that motivate them so that I can advise them better. This usually results in me being able to recommend the general education courses that can support reaching graduation and their goals in constructive ways.

As one colleague said, these tools are a game changer! Try an online scheduler to see if it frees up precious time that you can use to enhance your teaching and advising.

Joseph Croskey is a faculty member and chair in the Student Achievement and Success Department responsible for the University Advising Services Center in Becht Hall. He is also the Director of the Act 101 Program and Associate Director of the Honors Program. He currently serves on the Faculty Senate and as CAP Chair for APSCUF. He enjoys working with students in and out of the classroom as they develop and grow. He is certified as an instructor for the United Nations Peace on Purpose program and the Search Inside Yourself Leadership program. He and his wife Kathy have a wonderful 3 yr old dog, three grown children, and five grandchildren.

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Brian Roberts: View from the Back

– Jeanne M. Slattery

What is a university education supposed to do? I walked out of Dr. Brian Roberts’ master class knowing that an education should help us see further and with greater understanding and empathy than we would otherwise have. I learned that the learning process should make one a bit uncomfortable while still feeling safe – and began thinking about how I make others comfortable or uncomfortable in the classroom and why.

Brian Roberts

I visited Brian’s Literary Experience class, a general education class aimed at students who will likely not take another literature class. I expect he wants them to be more likely to take another class or at least learn to read more thoughtfully. In this particular class, he focused on James Baldwin’s Sonny Blues.

Brian began by warning us that he would be showing graphic photos and videos that had degrading, misogynistic, and racist speech. Consider how such a warning might positively change the nature of a class. No one left, but this warning allowed his students to engage more fully. See: safe but uncomfortable.

How do you put a man like James Baldwin in context? (Brian clearly indicated that Baldwin must be read in context.) Brian shared a series of photographs of James Baldwin and provided a brief, superficially-contradictory biography of Baldwin, a biography that illustrated the depth of Baldwin’s humanity and the ways that his spirituality influenced his life and writing. Baldwin must be understood as a Black man from Harlem, an openly gay Black man from Harlem, who was a teenaged minister and prodigy. Baldwin died of AIDS in 1987.

Brian planned to spend his class talking about James Baldwin’s short story, Sonny’s Blues, and he did, although a casual observer might have missed that in the first half-hour of class. We watched a section of Baldwin’s interview, “On being black in America” (1960), which Brian followed by two music videos, Rick Ross’s “Hustlin’” (2006) – “Everyday I’m, everyday I’m, everyday I’m hustlin'” – and NWA’s “Dopeman” (1988):

If you smoke ‘caine, you’re a stupid motherfucker
Known around the hood as the schoolyard clucker
Doing that crack with all the money you got
On your hands and knees searching for a piece of rock
Jonesing for a hit and you’re looking for more…

Brian used these videos to ask us to consider who we are – especially but not only the Black community – and where we are going. What sort of life should we live? Why? Or, as he observed, what would James Baldwin say about the Black community today?

Together, these three videos offered a complex and complicated backdrop to a discussion of Sonny’s Blues, a story where the narrator discovers that his brother had been picked up for using and selling heroin and, thus, needs to come to terms with who he wanted to be as Sonny’s brother and as an honorable member of their community. Who did the narrator want to be? What is the greater community’s responsibility to Sonny? For Baldwin – for all of us – context matters.

Education should engage

Brian chose music well to make his points. And, while jazz or blues might have been a more fitting accompaniment for this story, as it was the music of the period and the story, Brian chose music that was more accessible to his audience/students. It was more than accessibility, though, as his choices underlined major concerns raised by Sonny’s Blues, including discrepancies between Baldwin’s vision for Black community and our current reality. (In his later, longer class, Brian did end with jazz.)

Brian is a charming and effective storyteller, but he does not spoon-feed his students. He engages them – passionate, loud-voiced, large-gestured, and very human. He read passages from Sonny’s Blues and asked his students to decode them. Why, for example, is the narrator unnamed – and why do the other members of his family only get referred to by their roles? He held his students responsible for thinking about and evaluating the story, asked them to make connections to previous stories they had discussed, and pushed them to draw conclusions and defend them. He made them think and feel: How would James Baldwin feel about being part of a community that produced “Hustlin'”?

Brian made it to only the third page of the Sonny’s Blues: stories should be savored and considered rather than rushed through. Quality, not quantity.

Education should affect and transform

I was frankly uncomfortable during the music videos, but I think that is as it should be. Subtract the interview and videos, and I might have been able to stay in my comfort zone. And I shouldn’t be allowed to remain in my comfort zone. College should be about challenging us to think differently. Like the narrator in Sonny’s Blues, we have to see the world differently, to admit that we are all connected, that Sonny’s behavior affects and is affected by his family and the larger community.

Brian is a Black man, talking to a room largely filled with white students. He needs to help them feel safe enough to be able to feel uncomfortable and yet still learn. That balance is a difficult one that he must play with daily. Seeing him work with his students, I wondered if and how I help my minority students feel safe enough to embody their blackness – or brown-ness, yellow-ness, gay-ness, etc. – rather than feel they need to ignore it or believe that their lived experiences are irrelevant or token to our discussions.

How do I hope to be affected by Brian’s master class? Obviously, his questions were meaningful and important, and I have been thinking about them, but I also want to use emotion, safety, and discomfort more effectively to get my students to engage with the course material. I want to pay attention to how I make room for my students’ experiences, yet challenge them. If they stay firmly in their comfort zones, they can circumvent the ideas I want them to play with. I want more. Brian did more.

Jeanne M. Slattery is a professor of psychology at Clarion University. She is a student-centered teacher, who loves her students, teaching, and learning. She has published three books – Counseling diverse clients: Bringing context into therapy; Trauma, meaning, and spirituality: Translating research into clinical practice; and Empathic counseling: Building skills to empower. She can be contacted at jslattery@clarion.edu

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What Trump Can Teach Us About Teaching

– Mark Mitchell

Mark Mitchell

Whatever you think of Donald Trump, he has done two things that not all professors can claim to do: His audience is happy to hear him speak for hours, and his followers seem to have learned what he wanted to teach them. I argue that Trump has at least three things to teach us.

First, even a long lecture effectively convey information when the lecture:

  1. arouses an emotion, such as anger;
  2. repeats a key idea, often by using a slogan or a very concrete metaphor, which is also repeated through other media; 
  3. lets the audience believe they are an ingroup that is learning something that others either don’t know or are conspiring to keep secret;
  4. often calls for some kind of audience response—a chant, a groan, or a cheer; and
  5. does not appear to be scripted.

Second, trustworthiness does not necessarily depend on honesty.  Trump’s trustworthiness appears to come from his claim that he could be doing something more enjoyable or more profitable, but he has decided to serve the country instead.

Third, perceived expertise does not depend on knowing or reading a lot. Trump does not bother with verbal footnotes documenting the academic sources of the evidence supporting his claims. Instead, he convinces his followers with evidence that is prefaced with “I heard,” “Someone said,” or “They say.” So, where does Trump’s perceived expertise come from?  It comes from self-promotion, being visible, being rich, dressing well, and claiming to have access to secret information.

What does this mean for your own teaching?

Many of your students come from precincts in which over 85% of the voters voted for Trump. How can you use the tactics that led to Trump’s success to improve your teaching? 

I am not suggesting that you ramble during your lectures, abandon grammar, make up stories about famous people talking to you, make politically- or factually-incorrect statements, and never admit your mistakes. However, you may be able to use some of Trump’s techniques more effectively than you do now. For example,

  1. Could you repeat your important points more? Could you do a better job of referring students to Ted Talks, YouTube videos, Netflix shows, or websites that echo your message?
  2. If you lecture, are you arousing an emotion in your class—and is that emotion sometimes anger or outrage? Do you engage the audience by asking many rhetorical questions and by asking questions that call for an audience response? If, for example, you wanted to students to avoid a particular error, you might attribute a statement containing that error to someone else and then pause to let students shout the name of that error (e.g., “Correlation is not causation!).”
  3. If you have given the same lecture many times, have you worked on ways to make it seem more spontaneous? You may be able to do this by adding more pauses to make it look like a thought has just occurred to you or that you are reacting to the class’s reaction. If pauses make you uncomfortable, you can just say, as Trump says, “This just occurred to me” or “I just thought of this.”
  4. Do you try to sell your class on an idea using techniques that advertisers use to sell a product? For example, do you take advantage of the principle that a scarce resource is a valuable resource, perhaps by saying, “I just learned this,” “Few people know this,” “A few years ago, nobody knew,” or  perhaps even “Students at most other schools don’t know this”?
  5. Are you giving your students stories and concrete, easy to visualize examples like “the wall” – or are you relying too much on statistics and abstractions? Similarly, while you are focusing on providing the supporting evidence for your main point, are some of your students missing the main point?
  6. Do you tell students how hard you are making it on yourself by assigning certain papers but that you are making that sacrifice to help them?
  7. Are you selling yourself as well as Trump sells himself—or are you selling yourself short? Although professors like to talk about ideas and teaching philosophies, students rarely say, “I like Dr. X’s class because of how it is taught and because of the interesting ideas that were discussed.” Instead, they are more likely to say “I love Dr. X.” 

To sell yourself like Trump, realize that many of your students want to become rich and are eager to identify with someone they see as rich and successful. To be perceived as a rich and successful professional, dress like one: Research supports the idea that students learn more from a professor who dresses well (Gurung et al., 2014; Kashem, 2019). In addition, act like you are successful. Being modest may get you labeled a “loser” – and letting it be known that you are not very wealthy may make students think that you are not a very good professor. To many of your students, a professor who is poor is a poor professor.

Obviously, the Trump approach does not teach many skills and virtues—from critical thinking to honesty—that you would like students to develop. However, using some of Trump’s tactics may help you and the key themes of your course connect with your students.


Gurung, R. A. R., Kempen, L., Klemm, K., Senn, R., & Wysocki, R. (2014). Dressed to present: Ratings of classroom presentations vary with attire. Teaching of Psychology, 41(4), 349-353.

Kashem, M. A. (2019). The effect of teachers’ dress on students’ attitude and students’ learning: Higher education view. Education Research International. 1-7. 10.1155/2019/9010589.

Mark L. Mitchell is professor emeritus of psychology from Clarion University. He has written several books including Research design explained (now in its 8th edition), Writing for psychology (in its 4th edition), and Lifespan development: A topical approach.

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Silence is Not Okay

– Jeanne M. Slattery

Jeanne Slattery and her daughter

We are facing big problems. How are we going to prevent the spread of COVID-19 this fall? How can we get impulsive 18-year-olds, with immature prefrontal cortexes, thinking about the future and possible negative consequences, so they wear masks (Romer, 2010)? How can we effectively engage students in online and remote environments?

I am also worrying about the tinderbox created by our country’s racial unrest and political discord. I imagine that a number of us will have students raise difficult discussions of race in class. Some of us will handle this situation well, but others will respond with a short period of awkward silence, then move on, with neither students nor faculty member saying anything about what happened. Some of us will, probably out of embarrassment, quickly shuffle papers at the end of class, avoiding eye contact before leaving the Zoom room.

There are likely to be many opportunities for “awkward” conversations but also opportunities for more thoughtful and engaging ones. Although we may not know how to respond, ignoring the comment or outburst can be problematic, as our silence may be seen as implicitly endorsing the racist statement – or at least saying that we don’t care. Our silence makes our classrooms less hospitable for students of color – and passes up an important opportunity for discussion that may be appreciated by all students, not only students of color.

What can you say? Sometimes, it can be more helpful to say that you don’t know what to say than to pretend expertise. Rather than only saying that you don’t know and moving on, however, listen carefully and calmly, paraphrasing your students’ concerns.

James: I’m not racist. I don’t see color.

Ayesha: Erm…

Professor Brown: James, I think you are saying that you’re trying to look beyond color but, Ayesha, James’ comment doesn’t really seem to sit well with you.

Ayesha: James may be well-intended, but he seems to be saying he is only willing to see part of me. That he is unwilling to consider how my life is less free than his.

Professor Brown: You’d like him to see all of you, including the ways that you are less free…

Some students are willing to be outspoken in class, but others may be tired of having to constantly fight the fight. If Ayesha had remained quiet, even after the prompt, Professor Brown might have said, James, some people might feel that you were only seeing part of them and dismissing their experience. She might then watch both Ayesha and James’ reactions for indications that she was on track.

These conversations may be especially difficult because they raise feelings of tension, anxiety, awkwardness, fear or guilt; highlight differences in worldview; ask students and faculty to disclose bias and become aware of it; and open students and faculty to public challenge (American Psychological Association, 2018). A series of factors may make such conversations especially difficult: power differentials between racial groups, fears about recognizing or admitting privilege, lack of self-awareness, feelings of inadequacy, politeness protocols, and a colorblind perspective.

You don’t need to know everything. Listen to and validate your students’ perceptions and experiences with an attitude of cultural humility; cultural understanding is a process rather than an end-product (Waters & Asbill, 2013). Commit to listening to and learning from your students and colleagues. These discussions may be difficult but are opportunities to come to understand other perspectives. We can model strategies for creating and engaging in productive conversations about race.

Where should we have these conversations?

Discussions about race and diversity should be incorporated across the curriculum, no matter the subject. Each of these discussions can “prepare your future professionals to be anti-racist” (D. Ford, as quoted in Weissman, 2020, para 7).

Some conversations will come up spontaneously before, during, or after class. Others can be easily introduced. When Colin Kapernick took a knee during the national anthem, I discussed that photo with my students and considered alternative interpretations of it, in order to build empathy. I shared Chimamanda Adichie’s TED talk when talking about meaning-making and the multiple meanings we can make in our life. I talk about redlining; Sandra Bland, Henry Gates, George Floyd, and responses to the police; Bryan Stevenson and the death penalty; racial differences in risks for mental illness; and tone-deaf politicians.

Literature professors can discuss Black authors. Astronomers, historians, and philosophers of science could consider why astronomic systems from Africa and South America have been omitted from history books. Nursing and sociology faculty can discuss differential rates of death during childbirth and from COVID-19 infection. Mathematicians can use these statistics to help students interpret tables and graphs. Political scientists have no end of things that they can discuss. Regardless of what you teach, these conversations tell your students that your class is related to and can make a difference in the real world.

Inclusive teaching

We can talk about making a change, but that needs to be matched by actions supporting an inclusive classroom (Sathy & Hogan, 2019). Such classes level the playing field for all students. As you choose readings and design your courses, consider asking, “Who is being left out as a result of this decision?” Consider how your readings, assignments, and course design include all students. In general, greater structure, clarity, and transparency – for example, outlining your course goals and connecting assignments to them – is an important part of this process.

Consider how you talk to students about race and other things. About ten years ago, as we talked about objectifying relationships, several female students talked about a male professor who did not call on them when they raised their hands. Was this because he did not see them? The student who first raised this issue was a tall, assertive, athlete; she was not easily missed – and attributed his behavior to her race and gender. His ignoring them silenced them and quashed their interest in his course and discipline. What would have happened if he had taken their questions seriously? What would have happened if I had ignored, invalidated, or ridiculed their concerns?

Obviously, there are a range of ways that we can respond to each other. In general, assertive listening and communication are more helpful for all parties involved, while silence, intentional ignoring, or ridicule interrupt connections. See Figure 1.

Figure 1. Our ability to communicate takes place on a continuum

Discussions of racism cannot take place in a single conversation – nor can such discussions be just an item to cross off your checklist. The changes I’m describing should be part of a transformative practice, requiring ongoing reflection and engagement in and out of the classroom.

You will make mistakes, but perfection is not the goal. Here and in our other classroom discussions, mistakes are an essential part of the journey. Listen and be vulnerable and assertive rather than silent. Learn from your mistakes. Inclusive teaching can help resolve concerns about social justice raised by students of color and others and close the gaps in achievement, retention, and graduation among students of different racial and ethnic groups (Kuh, 2008; Sathy & Hogan, 2019). Sathy and Hogan concluded, “inclusive-teaching methods won’t harm students who don’t need the additional structure, but will help level the playing field for those who do” (para. 70).


American Psychological Association. (2018). Facing the divide: Psychology’s conversation on race and health. https://www.apa.org/education/undergrad/diversity/

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

Romer D. (2010). Adolescent risk taking, impulsivity, and brain development: Implications for prevention. Developmental Psychobiology, 52(3), 263–276. https://doi.org/10.1002/dev.20442

Sathy, V., & Hogan, K. A. (2019, July 22). Want to Reach all of your students? Here’s how to make your teaching more inclusive. Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/interactives/20190719

Waters, A., & Asbill, L. (2013). Reflections on cultural humility. American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/pi/families/resources/newsletter/2013/08/cultural-humility

Weissman, S. (2020, June). What role should higher education play in combating racism? Diverse. https://diverseeducation.com/article/181962/

Jeanne M. Slattery is professor and chair of psychology at Clarion University. She is a student-centered teacher, who loves her students, teaching, and learning. She has published three books – Counseling diverse clients: Bringing context into therapy; Trauma, meaning, and spirituality: Translating research into clinical practice; and Empathic counseling: Building skills to empower (2nd ed.). She can be contacted at jslattery@clarion.edu

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What did we learn our first week?

Teaching online has raised many problems that veteran faculty have not had to solve before. These are some of the things that faculty are reporting doing to reach our students more effectively during COVID.

How to teach

Ellen Foster (English): “I can get to something close to a classroom experience — more so than I had hoped, really — with camera, blackboard, and so on. (This is in grammar.) BIG relief, and quite a joy to me, actually. Students overwhelming approved the use of the blackboard.”

James Lyle (Communication): “I’m not using a blackboard but my laptop has a touch screen with a white board that I’m using. My observation is that the students are taking more notes with that as opposed to me just talking or using a PowerPoint.

Chris McCarrick (English): “I can make Zoom mini-lectures. In the process, I learned how weird it is to watch myself “teach.””

When to record and why

Crystal Sheedy (Anthropology): “To record or not record? That was the question I kept asking myself after CU made the announcement that classes would be remote this semester. I already had students reach out to me about holding synchronous Zoom lectures. Most explained that synchronous classes on Zoom would allow them to create some structure in their lives. Others explained that they preferred synchronous because it was the closest to face-to-face instruction that they could have.

“But—I asked myself—should I record them? I realized that if students did miss a synchronous Zoom class, it would be like them missing a class if they were taking the course in-person. Nonetheless, because we are all currently in a perpetual state of uncertainty, I decided to record my synchronous lectures via Zoom.

“As I tried my best to make all my courses as close to “face-to-face” instruction as they could be, this uncertainty pushed me to be more creative with asynchronous components to hopefully account for the unplannable. I save my recorded lectures to Zoom’s cloud—so my students will have a transcript—and post them to D2L when they are ready. If a student is unable to attend a synchronous Zoom lecture—perhaps they become sick or need to tend to a sick relative—they will now have the option to watch the recording when they have the time.

“However, I decided not to record our class discussions for two reasons. First, I provided an asynchronous option for synchronous class discussions—in case a student needed to miss a synchronous class discussion. Second, because I am using “breakout” rooms in my courses, when the “host” pops into a room, the camera stops recording.

“I am not sure how my decisions will play out as the semester progresses, but hopefully, it will help some students keep up with the work in my courses.”

Transcripts in Zoom Recordings

James Lyle: “I didn’t realize Zoom makes a transcript of a session (at least when you save your the Cloud). The transcript is surprisingly accurate.”

Why transcripts? Transcripts increase accessibility and help students return to a specific part of a class. As Amanda Lockwood observed, Zoom’s transcripts have trouble with chemical names – but transcripts can be edited and corrected before posting.

Building community

Jane Schuchert Walsh (Sociology): I found that students who might be hesitant to respond out loud seem comfortable responding in the chat. This is something that I had not anticipated. While I would prefer out loud responses, this is a good first participation step and helps me to know a little bit more about what students are thinking.

Ellen Foster: “In English 199, the first core course for English majors, students decided to make a Snap for the class … and they invited me to join.  So, I guess that I will soon be learning about Snapchat. 🙂

“What their decision suggests to me:  Even in this live remote environment, they are building their community, taking purposeful steps to connect with each other in the ways that we hope our majors build their networks of friendship and support.”

Breakout rooms

You can randomly assign students to breakout rooms pretty easily. Paul Woodburne assigns students to particular breakout rooms. Students must have an account with Zoom, however. Accounts are free for university faculty and students.

If you want to share an announcement with students while they are in breakout rooms, you can broadcast it using the breakout room widget. Unfortunately, this is present only relatively briefly. If you want them to work with a document, consider uploading the file to the chat before they go into breakout rooms or post a link to a Google Doc.

Gallery view in Zoom

Typically, Zoom shows no more than 25 people in gallery view at a time. Sue Homan pointed out that there is a setting in the zoom desktop app that you can check to see up to 49 web cams on one screen. This is most helpful if you have a large screen or you’re only scanning your class for movement or emoticons. Like some other Zoom features, this feature has software and hardware requirements.

Taking attendance

Sue Homan (LTC): “Zoom’s chat feature also works well for taking attendance for a relatively small class. Have students type their names in the Chat, or better yet, answer a ‘question of the day’ as soon as they enter the ‘class’. Good way to gauge participation and understanding of material from the previous lesson. Chat is auto-saved to your meeting folder in Documents > Zoom.”

There are a number of other ways that you can take attendance while on Zoom: downloading a report with screen names and times on Zoom (Ellen Foster), using a Zoom poll (Yasser Ayad), posting a link in Zoom’s chat to a Google form with a question students have to answer (Marcy McConnell), or recording students as they enter the Zoom room (Paul Woodburne and Jeanne Slattery).

If you want to take attendance in a fully online class, you might track tasks completed in a module (Jen Boyer), track discussion posts (Laurie Pierce), or check the Classlist to see when a student was last on D2L (Jeanne Slattery).

Dress codes

Kim Schwabenbauer (Nutrition): “I learned I’m going to have to make a “please wear a shirt policy” for my class composed primarily of first year students. I gave it two days hoping the first was an anomaly, but when it occurred on Thursday again I realized I’m going to have to address it. That was a new one!”

Humility and kindness

Amanda Lockwood (Chemistry): “I’m trying a flipped lecture. I have recorded my lectures for the week and posted them (in small chunks). During class we go over practice problems and questions.

“Wednesday did NOT go well but Friday was better. It’s hard not being able to see them. I don’t know if they have finished the problem, and I should move on or wait. So far that’s been my biggest class issue – not seeing them (but it’s only week 2). Because I’m recording lectures in advance, I’ve been getting confused as to where I am in lecture… I think I have a plan for this week though.”

Jeanne Slattery (Psychology): “Many of the faculty I’ve talked to this week have struggled and made mistakes in one way or another. I went to the wrong Zoom room for a meeting I was chairing – and then my headphones didn’t work!!! Our students are probably having much the same sort of difficulties as we are. We need to be especially kind to each other and to our students this semester.”

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