Charles Elster

Reflections on Tools for Teaching

May 6, 2015

The workshops were important for me for two reasons. First, it helped me think about improving my teaching of undergraduate and graduate students in the School of Education. One idea I took away was to do a backward-design analysis of my courses to foreground course goals rather than textbook-based content. Second, the workshops informed me about issues, perspectives and materials that would be useful in forwarding the work of the Senate Diversity Subcommittee, of which I am Chair. I appreciated Dr. Callahan’s expertise in the social ecology of classrooms and his willingness to incorporate the perspectives and issues of workshop participants from a variety of disciplines. I found his handouts of real-life SSU scenarios of disruptive moments and Teaching Diverse Students very thought-provoking.

The two most informative and useful sessions for me were those on disruptive moments (hot and cool) and the final session on biases in classrooms and the perspectives of students from underrepresented groups. The session on disruptive moments (hot and cool) was important for me after some disruptive events last fall centered around the Freshman Read. Dr. Callahan pointed out the SSU policy on disruptive students and that CAPS has resources for helping students in distress. He characterized classroom incivilities from cool (use of cell phones, inattention to other students) to hot (confrontational and hostile behaviors). He used social science research to characterize the student, instructor and classroom factors that make these situations more likely. He then gave recommendations for preventing and responding to them. Prevention strategies included setting the climate, realizing that disruptions affect the whole class, thanking students for their attention, and calling students out on their inattention. Responses to hot moments included framing the situation in how it affects the whole class, taking a break to address the particular student(s) involved, and forbidding classroom attacks on people (only ideas). He also discussed threatening situations, in which safety of the class and instrctor is the main issue. The scenarios were thought-provoking.

The final session on biases in class and the perspectives of students from underrepresented groups was the best for me. Dr. Callahan used his expertise as a social scientist to interview SSU students from underrepresented groups (African-American, Latino, disabled, international, gay, English language learners) and presented their perspectives to the group. A big concern of theirs is that “professors should respond better when ‘things happen’ in class.” Dr. Callahan pointed out that teachers at SSU teach to a default audience of white students and that this sometimes puts other students in uncomfortable positions. He also pointed out the experience of minority students in solo status, who become the representative of a group in a class. This is especially true in classes that address issues of diversity directly, such as reading a novel like Beloved (about the slave experience). The instructor should always act as the proactive protector of all students from any kind of harassment or unnecessary discomfort. Dr. Callahan also addressed sexism in STEM classes. He characterized SSU students as low in anti-gay prejudice, but high in modern racism and both hostile and benevolent sexism. He suggested good strategies for instructors: occasional “climate checks,“ setting egalitarian norms, using judicial processes when appropriate.

I enjoyed and found it informative hearing the perspectives of faculty from various disciplines and in various stages of their teaching careers and the issues that they encounter. I was saddened to learn how little background in curriculum and instruction that faculty have (I have such a background since my discipline is education). It will be a good thing if professional development becomes a more central part of the RTP process at SSU. Overall, the sessions were very worthwhile. As chair of SDS, I will work to help make this kind of professional development available to all faculty and staff, especially new hires. There should be incentives for participating in these and implementing strategies in class. I think it is especially important for SSU faculty and staff to understand the perspectives of students from underrepresented groups and to help make them feel more welcome on campus and in our classes.