You’re tuned to HybridPod: a show that presents conversations of Critical Digital Pedagogy, listening for ways to empower students and champion learning. It’s the aural side of Hybrid Pedagogy: a digital journal of learning, teaching, and technology. I’m Chris Friend, from Saint Leo University.
In this episode, I talk with Janine DeBaise…
…about her broad-scale approach to teaching. I wanted to have this conversation because of an article Janine wrote for Hybrid Pedagogy back in April 2014 and an attempt at collaboration we had a few semesters ago. We’ll talk more about each of those later on. But to start us off, I want to talk about our expectations of our students and what we think they are—and should be—capable of. There’s been a good deal of chatter online recently (see posts from Sean Michael Morris and Aimée Morrison) about the musings of a one Ron Srigley, who seems to make it a point at every turn to complain to the world about how stupid he thinks his students are. Which is odd, because shouldn’t he, a professor confident in his intelligence, consider that a source of job security and therefore a good thing? But I digress.
The trouble is that Srigley’s complaints are based on the premise that knowledge is held by the few, to be distributed to the masses fortunate enough to take in that knowledge from their teachers. Students are empty vessels, the thinking goes, awaiting pearls of wisdom to be graciously handed down from above. But I can say, as one who has spent a good deal of time in classrooms, both as a student and a teacher, I’ve never met a teacher who knew more than a room full of students. Just ask the students. They’ll be able to tell you what the teacher doesn’t know. The wealth of knowledge and experience that constitutes every classroom, thanks to what students bring with them, amazes me. All we have to do is listen for it. Here’s Janine.
Janine: The last thing you said, it's a really important foundation of my whole teaching philosophy, and that is that all of my students are smart. They're smart, and they're amazing students. They might have a different base of knowledge because they come from different backgrounds. They have different experiences. They're way younger than I am. But that doesn't mean they're not smart and that they're not capable of contributing something to the classroom community. I think that is such an important thing in the classroom -- is to acknowledge that. I think -- I feel that way about my students and I think they know that I feel that about them. And so because of that, they are eager to contribute to whatever is going on in the classroom. So I think that's really foundational to anything that I teach.
Chris: I want to be a bit of a devil's advocate here and push back. What if you were talking to a teacher who believes that the class is all about the content and all about the thing that that is an expert in. And they're like, “but the students don't know this field, so what does their knowledge have to do with my class because my class is all about X and their knowledge is all about Y…” How does that benefit the classroom, I guess?
Janine: Right. But that teacher has to assume that those students are capable of learning that knowledge. That they have, they have ways of looking at patterns, for example, and figuring them out. Right? Like, I can take a course in something completely that I know nothing about, but I'm good at learning. I know how to stop and say, "Okay, here are the overall concepts that we're supposed to be learning, let me get those concepts or hear the details I need to know. So it doesn't matter that I might know anything about X, but I know how to learn about X. I think that's what we're teaching our students, so we have to assume that yes, they're all capable of learning this. They're not -- I really hate it when teachers call their students stupid or lazy or like any those sort of negative terms because that is not my experience. That if you treat students like smart, capable people then that's how they act.
Chris: You mentioned “lazy”, and that brought to mind the word “motivated”. I often hear teachers complaining that their students lack motivation and that they’re not interested in what’s going on. That sort of thing. But, that to me sounds like a cop out. That sounds like an excuse. I'm wondering if you have any thoughts or ideas on what's actually going on when a teacher looks at a roomful of students and says, "Oh they're unmotivated." or "They're lazy."
Janine: I think what happens often is students are motivated by different things than the teacher is. I think one of the big challenges for a teacher is to figure out what motivates my students. That's where one of the things — I do have an advantage because I teach a small environmental college. There's a critical mass of students at my college who care passionately about environmental issues. I already know that even before I meet them. Even before I get a whole group of first-year students, I know that there will be a good chunk of them who care passionately about hydrofracking and climate change and all kinds of environmental issues. So immediately I have that hook. So I think it's a challenge. But where I work it depends on which group of students I get. If I get a group of students and a lot of them are landscape architects, I know that environmental issues might not be the hook. But I've taught landscape architects long enough to know that I have to start talking about the design of a city. The design issues get them excited.
So I think that's why it takes a while if you're new to a college or group of students. It takes a while to figure out what motivates these students. How can I get them interested and engaged and excited? 'Cause once you get them engaged, then the rest is easy. You just kind of step out of their way and let them learn. But that I think is one of the keys to having a successful classroom experience is just figuring out what's the hook with these students. It's hard and I think in this time when we keep raising student enrollment in class sections it's much harder because it can be very individual. If you have 15 students, you have time to think of what motivates each of these 15 students. You can have like a half-hour conference with each student. You’ve got 80-90 students, it's much, much more difficult. That's why I am always pushing to keep down class enrollments for writing classes and to keep down teaching loads for teachers because I think teaching is very individual.
Chris: Yeah. I was thinking, what happens whenever you get your public institutions that aren't targeted for environmental sciences and forestry or you get your more general schools or your community colleges, where there isn't that targeted approach to admissions where you've got a much broader, much more diverse group of students. How do you find, and I think I guess you just spoke to it. It's that it just takes time. I was about to say how do you find what motivates these students and how do you find those individualized interests, but I guess there's no way to do that without just spending time with them and getting to think about it and staying out their way for a bit while they figure themselves out.
Janine: Yeah. I mean it's not a short cut. I feel like there needs to be a relationship between teacher and student. You have to get to know pretty much not just the body of students, but sort of each individual student. Like if I have a student who I know is big into computer games, right? I will talk to the student about that. But that's to me -- it's also tough in a 15-week semester. You've got, what, about a week or two to really get to know them and then you've got to take off with the semester. Again, that condensed time. Again where I have an advantage I teach at a small school. So when I teach a second semester course, I already know probably half the students in the class. So getting repeat students that I already have a relationship with, students that I already know what motivates them, that again is a big help for me.
Chris: You said a second ago that if you got a 15-week semester you've got very little time because after a couple of weeks then you really have to get into it. What do you do during those first couple of weeks if you're just -- because what I heard from you, it's sounds like you're just getting to know your students. You're not actually working on course content.
Janine: Well, they're reading. They're reading and we get into discussions everyday. That’s course content. But we do things like even the first day of class. One of the things I do because I know I'm going to be using some computer stuff in the class -- this exercise takes about 10 minutes -- I’ll say to them, "Okay let's figure out how to arrange ourselves from the most technologically proficient person, to the person who knows the least about computers." So we all stand up, we have to ask each other these questions. Have you ever built a website? Are you on Twitter? You know, questions like that. So we get into this discussion and we arrange ourselves in a circle with the sort of computer geek at one end the person who is on Facebook and nothing else on the other end. That just begins those conversations. At least at the end of that I know okay I know how many people in this room have actually built website before, right? We've had these discussions with each other and I'll say to them look at each other because see these people over here at my right ask them for help. So those kinds of exercises where they're actually up and moving around talking to each other.
Janine: The other way, one of the things I did this year as a sort of getting to know each other is when I take attendance I ask a question. Instead of me saying their name and they say "here", they have to answer the question. I actually didn't do a good job coming up with good questions, but I had students who did. So after about the second day, they took over the questions. I'd get to class and they'd be like, "The question today is what is your animal totem." And I'd be like, "What?" They'd be "So what's your animal totem?"
Janine: So when I took attendance and said their name — so this is, classes hasn't even started yet, right? So just before class they would have to chime in with their animal totem and would get into these discussions. So often, even the 10 minutes before class starts is always a really good time for conversations where we get into these like crazy conversations. But it really helps me get to know them. Like the animal totem question I realized a lot of my students were really passionate about animals and have really specific reasons for why they are. So like any opportunity that I can have to sort of get into this kind of thing.
Chris: Whenever you have the students sort by familiarity with technology and such, I assume that you had them come up with the questions. You just said, "Alright we're going to sort ourselves" and you let them figure it out from there.
Janine: Yeah, that was it. "I'd say we're going to sort ourselves. Go!" and then let them ask each other and figure that out. Yeah.
Janine: Most of the time, with my students that might. I say "Hey! As I was driving to work I had this idea. What do you think?" They're like "Cool!" and then we'll go do it. That's pretty much how it works.
Chris: [laughter] Lesson planning on the highway. That’s the best.
Janine: Right. The funny thing is I plan stuff way before the course begins, but then when I get the actual real students in the classroom, it always changes because, you know, say I have a student who plays the bagpipes, we're like let's figure out how we can do something with that. I don't know. Or I have a student who -- one year I had a student who is really into interpretative dance. So I said to her "Cool! You want to teach one of our classes?" And so she did. She actually got us all doing interpretative dance. So it's always very exciting I think for me the first day of class. It's to find out oh what kind of -- what cool talents students have this year?
Chris: So it sounds to me like you treat the entire semester as an opportunity to uncover what your students have brought with them.
Janine: Oh I like that. That's a good way of saying it. Yeah, so it's a process of discovery. It's not just me uncovering, but they do it with each other. One of the other things they do is for every class they have what used to always be reading in a book, it's now today sometimes it might be a TED talk, something on YouTube or something on the internet, but some sort of assignment. Something they're going to read, or look at, or listen to and digest. Then they have to write, what I call a short paper. So it's an informal paper, one-paged and I do make them print it out, and they come to class bringing those papers with them. So in the 10 minutes before class even begins, we start exchanging papers. The rule you need someone's paper and you can write on it. You sign your name at the bottom to say you read it. So by the time class actually starts, we're already reading each other’s papers and we take maybe the first five to ten minutes of class doing that. That's an opportunity for students to sort of contribute to the class discussion before class even begins. I think it's especially important for my introverted students that they're really comfortable writing their thoughts on the piece of paper that everyone is going to pass around and read. Whereas they might not be as likely to just jump right into class discussion. That way they contribute right at the very beginning of class. Those short papers help us get to know each other, 'cause we're all reading each other’s papers and it also helps shape the classroom discussion.
Janine’s short papers work well as a way for her students to get to know each other and for in-class conversations to flow from student interests. She carries this same approach into other situations, as well.
Janine: I talked about getting to know my students in the classroom. Another important thing that I do is I asked to get to know them outside the classroom. So every Wednesday morning, I have breakfast in the cafe on campus with a colleague who has a similar teaching style to me even though, he's a scientist. And students know that they're always welcome to join us for breakfast and most Wednesday mornings, we have a whole table full and we get into all kinds of really interesting discussions. And if students joined the table who haven't had me before as a class, they usually end up signing up and taking a class with me. And I think that kind of open conversation, getting to know students informally, where we get into crazy, crazy debates about any kind of topic. I think that's important, it spills over into the classroom. So I think as a teacher, I’ve always tried to really get to know my students outside the classroom and because I'm on a small campus, if that really works.
As though getting to know her students so personally and thoroughly wasn’t enough, Janine tries to work with others to have their classes join forces, getting to know other groups of students from around the world.
Janine: I'm always looking for colleagues who want to sort of collaborate with my students on different things. Especially because for my students the whole point of putting work online is to reach other people. We don't use Twitter to talk to each other because we can do that in the classroom. We use Twitter to talk to other people. So particularly, if my students hold a Twitter chat, we want to invite other classes. If we build websites we want other students, other people, other places reading them. We've done a couple of things, have a colleague, Bernardo Trejos in Taiwan and his students take courses in -- let me see if I can get this right -- ecotourism. They talk about how tourism can be sustainable and things like that. So there have been times where we sort of invited them to a Twitter chat or have done an interactive activity with them.
Pete Roarbaugh’s students in Georgia, his students, my students hosted a game Twitter vs Zombies, so they actually built the game. They were in the rules committee together. We booked them into groups and they get into Google Docs and that's how they exchanged things. That was a pretty intense week. We would have Google chats with — Pete and I with a couple of his students and a couple of my students. I find that's the part the students like the best, when they can be sort of in a like a Google Hangout and actually video chat with students who are in another place. I'd like to do more of that because it's worked for certain elements, but I've not yet found a situation where I could do a whole course line collaboration with another group of students. That's my goal that hasn't happened yet. It's just worked for some elements, not all of them. So that's something I'm still thinking through.
You can hear the sense of playful experimentation in her tone, right? Janine constantly works to re-think her approach to class, trying new things, improving on old ones, and asking her students what did and didn’t work in the semester. And that’s the crux: When Janine tries something in her classes, she has no guarantees that it will work, only the hope that it might. And that’s her entire approach to designing a course. I brought up that idea with her to get her to say more about it.
Chris: I do want to talk a bit about the “things that just might work” concept.
Janine: You mean instead of best practices
Chris: Yes. Yeah, 'cause you wrote in article for Hybrid Pedagogy, where you basically took to task the phrase “best practices”. I mean, you start off by talking about colleagues who invoke the phrase “best practices”, not just use it, but invoke it, because boy is it not weighted. So throughout your piece, you say, "yes, but." Throughout the piece you present an argument that best practices is too prescriptive and kind of following from everything you've been saying so far about your classes you want to be responsive to the students that you have and so if you set out to follow this list of best practices that other people have said are the right way to do things, what if that's not appropriate for your students? Or what if that's not taking into consideration the situation that you're working within, and so you created this idea of “things that just might work,” which sounds terrifying. Because it's got that “just might” phrase in there. I kind of wonder, how do we encourage teachers to take that concept seriously? How do we get people to say things that just might work, sure, let me give that a shot because of that risk of failure.
Janine: You're right. Teaching that way means that as a teacher you're pretty vulnerable. I mean, you know that you might do something and it's not going to work. That happens to me all the time and I've been teaching what, for like 35 years or something. But that's 'cause I'm always changing my teaching methods. So I think you have to sort embrace that vulnerability and be willing to say to students, "Okay. Hey! That didn't work. Let's sit down and talk about it. And how can we do this better next time?" 'Cause I always treat my students as well as they're kind of co-teaching the course with me. So, if I come up with an idea and it doesn't work, then hey they're going to help me fix it and change it and make it into something that can work. And the other thing too, is when I come up with an idea that's new — or usually I didn't come up with it, I read it somewhere in the internet — I bring it to class. And I say to students, "What do you think? Do you think this could work?" And I get their input. So I don't just get their input cause I going to get their buy-in, because then they become sort of co-teachers and they care about working. Often they have good ideas of how to change things to make them work. Like the simple thing with their taking attendance and asking a question. I said, "Oh that's a cool idea" I read it -- who knows where I read it, somewhere in the internet — and I didn't come up with good questions. My students made it work. Because they were like, "No, no. Janine, that's a lame question. Here I've got a better question. "Where's the weirdest place you ever woke up?" Yeah, things like that.
Janine: Like one student particularly last semester, she just came out with the best questions.
Chris: That one would only come from college students. That's fantastic.
Janine: Right. Exactly. My questions were like "What's your favorite color?" and they were like, "What?" You know, "That's a boring question. We have better questions." Okay good, you guys go with it. So I think the way around the -- and I think that's part of my problem with best practices. They often seem things that are handed down by administrators and used almost as weapons. “Here's how you have to do it.” They come from outside the classroom. Whereas when I say, well I can bring to class things that just might work. What I have to do is invite my students into that conversation. "Hey, what do you think? Do you think this guy is - What do you think? Is this going to work?" And often they think about it and sometimes they'll say "no". They're like "No, it's never going to work" and I don't do it. But more often they'll say "Well, how about we change it and do it this way? Or hey, yeah we’re willing to give it a try."
One semester, after she had seen techniques used in MOOCs and thought some of them would be fun to bring in to her on-ground classes, she tried to MOOCify her courses by adding many of those components to her classes simultaneously.
Janine: The first time I "MOOCified" my class and brought in all these online elements at the very beginning, this semester I said "Hey, here's my idea. What do you think? Do you think it's going to work?" and I'd put all the whole syllabus into Google Docs and they go and put the comments and things. And they were like, "Yeah, let's give it a try.” And at the end of the semester, we sat down and we'd looked at the things that didn't work. I had this crazy system that they're writing memos a million times a week and they're like "Janine, way too many memos. Next year, you cut that out,” and I'm like, “Yes, you're right. Getting rid of that for next year." So those conversation I have them throughout the semester and especially at the end of the semester where they tell me "This worked, keep it. This didn't work, get rid of it" and I've done that my whole teaching career. I mean my students are responsible for saying "Yes, we like that book. It worked, keep it" or "No. That book, it didn't work. That's too long. It was too dense. Nobody read it, get rid of it." And I think that just a really important element of teaching.
Chris: A part of me wants to strain your humility a little bit and ask if you could give an example of something that just blew up in your face. Something that didn't work because you're making this all sound so easy. Even your example so far of things that didn't work, they're like "Oh yes, nobody read that book. Oh come on." That's not a failure, that's…
Janine: Why? To me that's a failure. For every student to read every thing. And they do, though! They might, I have great students. I love my students. So you want an example? Oh gosh, something that really didn't work.
Chris: I guess I'm looking for something epic or cataclysmic or something like that to show how - "You know, if we try these things out, maybe something is going to go really wrong and that's actually okay" or even, they'll go really wrong and we'd learn from that.
Janine: Wait, I think I have one. Okay. So originally, when my first — so when my students first started putting things online. I was so excited about it. I was like "We want the entire world to read our website to be in a part of our Twitter chat." So I was always saying "Invite everybody. Put it on Facebook. Put it on Twitter. Invite everyone." and that was always my big mantra. "Invite everyone. We want everyone to see our stuff."
About a year into this, we do these things, we call them "CONVAs". My students, we had a long argument about the name. Conversation Opportunities with Nifkin’s Virtual Audience is what it stands for. But what they are, are just Google Docs. But my students come up with a topic, we invite everyone to participate, come in, add something to the document, add a paragraph, add a sentence, change something around and then sign your name at the bottom and say where you're from so we can see how many outside participants we have. Originally I thought it was going to read like an essay when I came up with an idea and instead my students made it much more into a conversation. They think it's disrespectful to edit someone else's ideas. So instead they just add your idea into a different color. So these CONVAs have been something we've done almost every semester for a couple of years now. And they're conversations, and we put it a topic. It might be a vision for environmental education or the other topic might be food or topic like that.
And I'm always thinking "Invite everyone. Invite everyone." and my students, I mean what? They're 18 years old. They invite everyone. And I'm like “What can go wrong with that?” So one time, one of my students, innocently put it on the 4chan board. And in his defense, it was a literature board. So anyhow, so one evening I'm at home and I open up this Google Doc to look and see what nice discussion my students might be having about environmental education, I think that was the topic. And oh my gosh, it was just, the Google Doc was just flashing with all kinds of porn and nasty porn images, and insults. And I was like "Oh my God". For me it was as if it was a group of angry people had come bursting into the classroom. I felt it was an attack, a violation, I was horrified, I was like "Oh my God. Oh my God.” So in my panic, the first that I did was to send e-mails to all my students telling them not to go look at the Google Doc.
Chris: Because of course that works.
Janine: Wait no what I need to do is go to the commission and shut it down and go back to earlier. So when I figured it out, I shut down — I shut it down reverted to earlier version and I this is okay maybe the problem is gone. So now I open it up again, I did that, in the meantime I keep sending this emails to my students, these panicked emails. And then of course I opened it up in the whole thing start happening again. Then it occurred to me, I just need to shut it down and open up a new link somewhere, so I did that, but I was so horrified. I got the class the next day and my students thought it was hilarious. “It was great Janine, we got like a dozen of panic emails from you. Have you never been on the internet? Don’t you know this is how are things are on the internet?” They were like, “It’s about time you know, we knew you were kinda innocent, it’s about time you figured this out, that there are a lot of nasty people on the internet.” They just thought it was like a good learning experience for me. So now I don’t say share it everywhere. I’m like, “Okay, share it in appropriate places.”
Chris: Everywhere but 4chan. For the love of god, everywhere but 4chan.
Janine: Yes that was quite the experience. I could say, I have a college-aged son also thought it was funny. He was in the living room while I was doing this panic mode. He said, “Mom how do you not know? That happens on the internet.” That was quite the learning experience.
Chris: So something tells me that your students were a lot more empowered and self-confident after that particular moment were there so you learning something that they took for granted and they watched you as you figure it out.
Janine: That happens a lot though, as I tell them I went to college in grad school using a typewriter. Right I’m older than — I’m fifty-four, so in most ways they’ll be more be technologically proficient than I am, most of the time. That’s one of the reasons we do — in it the beginning we get into a circle to see who in the class has the best skills. Because I have lean on them. And I’m always saying, “I’m not sure about this. Ask someone else in the class.” And I saying that in real life when you get a job, your supervisor doesn’t know everything, right? What do you do? You ask your friends, you Google it, you figure it out, right? So I expect my students to contribute and I absolutely do not expect to be the most technologically proficient person in the room because usually, I’m not. My students are science students. They’re pretty good with technology.
Since I’m in America, and it’s 2016, and we’re on the subject of disasters, let’s talk about politics, shall we? Remember those “short papers” Janine talked about earlier? They’re the ones her students write before coming to class, and they share and discuss them before class really gets started. Those papers are designed to be rather open-ended, allowing for her students to set the direction of the conversation based on what’s on their minds.
Janine: And students know that in the short papers they can bring up ideas, and I think with my students, it’s always, “I think we need a class where we go outside.” That’s usually a big one. They bring in current events. Like this fall, there's no way politics are not going to come into classroom. That's going to happen. But they do it in a really intelligent, articulate way, so.
Chris: Okay. So, with politics sneaking into your class, you don't teach any political science course?
Janine: No. no. Not capable of it.
Chris: So... My brain is screaming “relevance” here. I'm trying to figure out what your response is to people who would say, “But politics has no place in a literature or writing class, why are you talking about these things?” How do you then bring them back around into the purpose of your course?
Janine: So the course I teach in the fall is a writing course and pretty much anything is relevant. Students choose their own topics. So if we get into a political discussion in class, they can choose that as their topic. I usually have a few students who want to choose it as a topic. I think it's a tough topic, because I think you need to really know what you're talking about. But I always have a couple of students who will choose that because the students read each others’ papers. So when they write a paper they know that their goal is to educate the rest of the class. So if I'm a student who feels passionately about Bernie Sanders, for example, and I really want to educate the rest of the class, I'm going to spend a lot of time and effort to write a really solid paper on that topic. Then of course in some of my courses, we also, the things we write we put them in the internet. We're not just educating each other. We're educating theoretically the rest of the world. Particularly in the hybrid course I teach in the spring, my students pick topics and they build websites and they put things on YouTube and they have Twitter chats. So anytime politics is certainly relevant, especially with environmental issues. So they can choose. They get to choose their topics. I don't know. It would be hard for me to think of anything that would not be relevant when we're talking about writing, reading and thinking.
Having students choose topics that interest them — rather than topics defined by the instructor, curriculum, or textbook — allows Janine’s teaching to respond to the experiences of her students and ensures relevance. Not relevance to a course outcome or relevance to a theme, but relevance to her students’ lives and current thinking. By empowering students to choose what they are passionate about, what they want to achieve for the semester, what they will discuss in class, and how they will do various assignments, Janine ensures that her students get practical experience working with material that is personally engaging, on projects that are inherently purposeful. Her approach to teaching is quintessentially responsive, requiring students to set the direction and tone of her classes. It also creates personal buy-in from her students, allowing them to achieve a lot in a single semester.
Chris: So you are creating your MOOC. Okay. So you're doing in class learning. You're doing local community service learning and you're hosting an open online course. In 15 weeks.
Janine: Yes, when you put it that way, it's sounds a little ambitious.
Chris: But you make it work.
How’s that for setting a high bar?
You've been tuned to HybridPod, a production of Digital Pedagogy Lab
Just because the show is over doesn't mean the conversation ends. Janine and I are each accessible through Twitter, and so is the show itself. So along those lines, @HybridPod and @chris_friend would like to thank @writingasjoe for talking with me for this episode.
To hear more episodes, you can subscribe to HybridPod in your favorite podcast listing service. But the best place to go is our home on the web: Find us at hybridpod.audio, where you can hear all our episodes and add to the conversation online. That's hybridpod.audio.
Thanks for listening!