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HybridPod, Ep. 13: Asking the Right Questions

You’re tuned to HybridPod: a show presenting conversations about Critical Digital Pedagogy, listening for ways to empower learners and enhance student agency. It’s the aural side of Hybrid Pedagogy: a online, open-access journal of learning, teaching, and technology. I’m Chris Friend, from Saint Leo University.

If you’ve listened to this podcast before, or if you follow its associated journal, you know that connecting with students ranks among our most important values, right up there with my personal soapbox of really listening to them. This episode follows that same trend, but through some unusual avenues.

I reached out to a fellow podcast creator, the exceptionally prolific Bonni Stachowiak. I wanted to talk with her about building community, because she’s done an amazing job developing a connected group of people out of the listening audience for her show, Teaching in Higher Ed. I also wanted to get her thoughts on vulnerability, based on something she said on Twitter a while back: "Allowing ourselves to be vulnerable gives us room to fail but then nudge those failures in a forward direction toward greater learning." Bonni taps into the notion of classroom failure in a wonderful way because teachers are only truly vulnerable if there is that risk of failure, and when a lot of teachers talk about being vulnerable in the classroom they aren't actually risking anything. Sam Hamilton discusses this dilemma at length in a 2016 HybridPed article called “Risk Taking is a Form of Playing it Safe” that you should totally go read after listening to this episode. For her part, Bonni says it's actually our students who are putting themselves on the line, and they have a genuine and well-founded fear that by risking too much they are going to irreversibly fail.

But as Bonni and I discussed community-building and vulnerability and failure, the importance of connecting with students quickly emerged as the driving force compelling us toward better teaching practices. We recognized that we have to connect with students if we want to work meaningfully with them. We have to connect students with our course content if we want it to resonate in their lives. And we have to connect students with their own inner compass if we want them to develop into morally responsible human beings. As we discussed these perspectives on classroom dynamics, the act of asking questions kept coming up as the only appropriate solution to each problem.

In his most famous work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire discusses his concept of problem-posing education. Instead of teaching students to seek correct answers for problems we present to them, Freire says we need to help students identify their own questions and find the problems in life and in society that will compel them to learn, grow, and develop their critical consciousness. Problem posing stands as the centerpiece of Freire’s approach to education. And while Bonni and I don’t talk explicitly about this method, we do discover that asking the right questions — from teachers and students alike — can make all the difference in helping us connect with one another and our courses. What set out to be a discussion about community and vulnerability became an argument in favor of asking good questions at every opportunity, even (or especially) when our instincts urge us to do otherwise.

So that’s where we’re headed in this episode. Let’s start by talking about expectations — specifically, the expectations we have of student behaviors. Here’s Bonni.

Bonni:        One of the other real themes that's come out in my teaching, is being cautious about ascribing intent to learners behaviors. And I just watched this great video from Mike Wesch. It's called “The Sleeper,” which is such a great name for a video. And it starts out with him talking about early in his teaching, there's a guy who kept sleeping in his classes and that he gets At first he starts to ascribe some assumptions about himself, the professor, "I must be really boring nothing I say or do matters. This class is meaningless. I'm wasting everyone's time." I can't say that that's where I started.

Chris:        Yeah, it took me years to be able to say those things, shoot.

Bonni:        Mine would be, "How dare you?" You know? "I have so many important things to say how dare you, you know do whatever it is," and usually I mean teaching 12 years I can only really remember once or twice the sleeping but it's that it's the cellphone the texting or whatever. But whatever it is, it is this assumption that we make that what you are doing is supposed to be communicating something to me specifically because your universe… I'm very large in your universe which is often not true, but just how many times we can completely miss what the person is actually thinking and experiencing. And as I'm watching his video I'm thinking you know what the moral of this story is going to be that Mike changed his teaching so the student didn't sleep anymore. That's what we're all expecting, by the way it's a three-minute video.

Chris:        Okay.

Bonni:        So I'm watching one minute I'm going, "Great I'm going to be so inspired when this is over because Mike's going to show me another way to keep students awake," because I'm by the way I'm really good at that so good tell me something I'm already good at.

Bonni:        And you know what the moral of the story is, the student still slept in his classes. And I just love that. I love that that's the moral of story but it there's more to it, it does sort of the fast-forward he's now a game designer he's a game developer. And what he had a passion for was playing games late at night and that's why he slept in Mike's classes and why he continued to sleep even after they went to lunch, but that's what changed was Mike taking an interest in him and saying, "Let's go to lunch, let's talk." And that's part of that same thing learning and discovering the distinct things about one’s students to be able to draw them into community.

Chris:        This conversation is making me think that community building is almost what a class is about. That our job and our goal is to create a bunch of people who can get together and get stuff done, and that can learn to use each other as resources. Learn to rely on each other learn to benefit each other, so that by the end of the semester... Sure we've made something for class who cares what that is, what we've actually made is connections with other people and we've made that sense of community so we understand how to work with other people.

Bonni:        And then I'm thinking too because after they've graduated while those skills, those writing skills, the critical thinking skills that they have gained are absolutely crucial, how do the vast majority of people — most studies 97% of people — find jobs? Through community. So it circles back around.

Chris:        The conversation you and I just had suggests that most of us have the wrong thing in mind when we think we're talking about what our class is all about. You think yours is all about a business plan; I think mine is all about a portfolio, but maybe that's a distraction. Maybe it's not actually about that. It's actually about what happens on our way there, and that's what's really important.

Bonni:         I get my means and my ends confused. The end to me there are some big outcomes. In the course that I teach more than any other is introduction to business. They’re going to leave that class having written in a team a business plan and they're going to leave that class having a decent vocabulary about business. And so that to me would be the ends, but you don't get to a great business plan that's financially viable, that's something innovative that actually solves problems that are meaningful for the world and does something good and profitable and takes care of our planet, right? You don't do that without learning and discovering how to work with other people, but I think I probably place more the ends as that outcome of the business plan that was able to come forth because of the students versus the students being the end. The community being the end.

Bonni:        I was looking at the definition of community, which it cracks me up because whenever my undergraduates start one of their papers with the Webster's definition I always think we're in trouble and here I am about to do it as we have this conversation. But as you probably already know that word community comes from Latin, the "communitas," things held in common. And instantly when I read that I started thinking about how one of the reasons we must have so many barriers to building community in our classrooms is because we're asking to do the impossible. We're taking, I mean that's the most — In the most delightful way — taking ideally all these people, so different from each other, so different from us, sometimes even just the age gap is enough to to marvel at. And saying okay come together and have things in common? Have values in common, have... What is it that to be a community we are asking people to have in common? 

Chris:        That's true and if we bring together an essentially random group of students or the more diverse our student body becomes the more challenging that is. And if we say that our focus is going to be on the content or the curriculum or the subject matter, then the things that we would hold in common are either going to fall by the wayside or we're going to be held together in a common…ignorance? I don't want to use that word but if the assumption at the beginning of the term is you're here to learn this content, therefore you must not know this content, the one thing that group has in common is ignorance of the subject, which seems like the worst thing to build a community around.

Bonni:        Yet we can't even make that assumption because I'll get students who maybe have been really involved in their parents’ businesses maybe they have a family business and they know more about business in that context than I do. So I had a student whose parents were in the oil industry and I don't... He is the first student that I've ever had, that at least I got to know that well. The oil industry? What could I possibly have to offer around that? So it's a neat exchange when you think about, yes ignorance — perhaps broadly speaking about a course — you could make that assumption. But I even think we would be dangerous when making that assumption.

Chris:        “Dangerous” was the word I was going to say, yeah. I think that's a horrible hazard to assume there. And then I couldn't help but notice you got very excited whenever you mentioned that your student brought in knowledge that you didn't have. I think that, that one quick anecdote was enough to flip it around so that now you were talking about building a relationship with your student on the grounds of trying to learn about each other and trying to better understand what each other has to bring to the conversation and into the classroom. And so it's almost like with that one change of approach you have essentially started building a community of people who want to get to know each other, and want to understand the people better.

We have to be vulnerable to let our guard down and to let our predictability down and actually just shut up and listen to our students for a bit. And say, "Alright who are you? What's on your mind? What do you...? What are you curious about?" To go back to that. And allow the class to develop organically from the people who are in the room, rather than from the plan that we go in with in the first place.

Bonni:        And I think that curiosity can become infectious, when I am curious about the things that they are interested in. I will say by the way there are many things that my students are interested in that I really have to work at. I have no interest in sports whatsoever I really don't. And so how can I translate that to become interested in the students who are interested in sports. Another thing I have absolutely no interest in if it's not apparent right now is fashion.

[laughter]

Chris:        That's why this is a podcast and not a video show.

Okay, self-effacing humor aside, Bonni provides good examples of ways to connect with students, to better understand them, and to invite them in to a learning environment.

Bonni:         It does come back to the social norm, the professor is the powerful figure up there and I do mean up there we're down here sitting down, they are standing up there. they have the power to grade us they have the power to somewhat control what we do and how do we start to break some those social norms? And I think some of this is somewhat vulnerable to do where I will share things that I enjoy doing and it could be as simple as... Instead of just saying, "Come to my office hours.” Well, that's phrasing it like I understand it. That's the world that I live in, is office hours. I say, "Hey we could go to coffee," that's more their language. "We could…I love to walk. There’s a beautiful trail right out at Back Bay we could go there," and then it starts to become a little bit more of an actual invitation that she really means not something that is said in a rote manner. And the other thing I like to do too is I'll sit down a few minutes before class is going to start and they'll probably be twenty percent of the class or, "Hey what kind of music you want to hear?" Sometimes they don't do anything and I feel a little bit like, "Wah, wah.” That didn’t go very well.

[laughter]

Bonni:        But just yesterday, "I'd love to hear some country. I love that too." And I play a song and then they'd share a song that they like that based on that one that they think I might like and it just creates more of those kinds of connections. And lastly, the thing I love to do is create unexpected things in the classroom. One of the fun ones is that if you own some kind of a tablet, Ellen (of Ellen DeGeneres Fame) has the heads up game. And I'll put the vocabulary words for the class in there and then I look ridiculous. There's actually a picture of me on some of my social media holding up — and what's funny to me even more so is just the photograph happened to be taken with me having “socialism” as my...

[laughter]

Bonni:        My husband was like, "Can you blur that out?" And I was like, "Well I kind of don't want to," so it kind of tickles my funny bone a little bit, but they see a word there and they have to describe that word to get me to say it. I mean they don't ever expect a professor… And you look ridiculous well you know.

[laughter]

Bonni:        And I'm not always going to get the words I might just be tongue-tied that day or tired. They might have given the perfect explanation for it and I just miss it so it's a fun way to say, "I'm human I'm going to..." When you clearly described macroeconomics I'm going to accidentally say micro just for fun sometimes — I mean not for fun but accidentally like — that they can see the humanity of me. And I always know that we're in a wonderful place when one of them will volunteer to come up an involved. It doesn't happen every time because usually that's not quite safe enough for them to look that foolish. But when we cross over it I always think we've...

Chris:        We've arrived, yeah.

Bonni:        Reached it, yeah.

Connecting personally with students is certainly helpful, but getting students to connect personally with the course content is another matter altogether. Bonni teaches business classes. How can the subject of business, which is often seen by liberal academics in the humanities as — forgive me, Bonni — almost soulless. How can students connect personally with a course not known for its warmth? Well, human connection thrives on empathy, and Bonni argues that empathy also influences business decisions — and bringing awareness to that influence can help students evaluate their own priorities. She uses a tried-and-true exercise to draw out this conversation.

I still have a case study that looks at dialysis as a scarce resource. And the students have to rank patients A through J, how much dialysis does this X-year-old man who has no children get and then and it's interesting to see their values emerge. They do that on their own first and they get with someone else and they start to go... One of the most interesting patients for me is the person who’s “Daddy Moneybags or whatever...

[laughter]

Bonni:        It’s complete utilitarianism, he could buy — I'm making this up — he could buy 10 other dialysis machine so he... but only if you give him what he needs. So its complete capitalism at its best/worst and it's interesting to see their reactions because you never get middle feelings about that guy. You get the, "We should definitely give him whatever he asks for so we can get all those other opportunities for patients to get dialysis," and you get the, "That is the worst person that's ever been on the planet." [laughs]

Chris:        So is either a savior or a jerk, nothing in between.

Bonni:        Yeah and it's really interesting but that's going to help them remember the definition of economics for years to come. I say that because students will still talk to me about, "You remember that time when we did that thing we talked about the patients?" It's more than head knowledge, it's to their heart, I do like to spend a little bit of time before I even pass it out saying, "This is this an exercise that's going to talk about some real things, real choices that we make as a country in our economy having to do with health care, and then we specifically talk about what dialysis is, "How many of you have had family members who have had or maybe yourselves who have had experience with dialysis?" So I can kind of gauge exactly how difficult might this be. It doesn't mean we don't do it but I kind of like to know if grandma's on dialysis right now and might die tomorrow, like I said, the piece of information for me to know be more sensitive to how we talk about daddy moneybags for example in relation to grandma that doesn't have the millions to give.

Chris:        And again it goes back to knowing the people who are in the room because that's who you're working with. More important, right, than the exercise of the activity the content and all that.

Well now in that conversation or in that example you're basically asking students to be vulnerable because you want to teach them through their hearts rather than their heads. And so be the act in the process of opening up and connecting with this on a more human level is what makes this activity stick, and so the students have to be willing to acknowledge their personal relation to the material and that's when it becomes meaningful to them. Just like whatever it is we're trying to teach them for the semester, we have to find a way to tap into the personal relevance with it, otherwise it's going to be I think what you just called “book learning” and not actually meaningful to them at all.

Bonni:        And one of the other things that it does is help them see how differently other people can view the very same set of patients. That is something I wish that I felt better about as we get later into the class by the way one of the case studies that I've had challenges with in recent years and what I would consider to be failures is a case study about liability. And I give an example of a former neighbor of ours he was climbing up his ladder and doing the Christmas lights, fell off, and he has an injured shoulder. He’ll never be the same again. Constant pain and I mean his... Ladder falls I think for people who haven't experienced, you don't really realize that that's can be a lifetime injury. I have been telling our four and a half year old son about that and to be more careful — matters of being safe. And in a what tends to happen in recent years that I just, I wish I could get better at is that we really end up talking about race and ethnicity without really talking about race and ethnicity because then we start talking about Christmas tree light hanging businesses. And here in Southern California where I live if you're talking about a Christmas light hanging business you're talking about predominantly Hispanic people. I mean I have... The owner might be Caucasian but I just...

Chris:        But the labor.

Bonni:        The labor. I mean it's, I don't know what the percentage is but a hundred percent of what I've ever observed Hispanic people actually hanging the lights. And I've gone into that case before, and we've talked about if you're the business owner how would you want your business to be structured corporation, sole proprietorship, LLC? And I'm trying to teach the head stuff about liability. And that the greater your risk might be because if so and so falls off the ladder you're exposing yourself to the medical bills and what I get and I hesitate to even say this because it'll sound like I'm insulting my students but really to me it just represents a grave failure on my part for not knowing what to do next. Is that it becomes about, "Well what do I care? What's the guy...? What's going to happen? Is he going to go tell someone? He is just going to get deported anyway so I don't care."

I was just like, "Holy cow," you know. We're a Hispanic-serving institution there is going to be proportionally more Hispanics sitting in that classroom as the person says that and I don't... It feels like we just all of a sudden went from zero to a hundred in a direction I don't know how to take us back from safely without losing my mind. And that will never be helpful, we see it all the time that, that is not what changes minds about more sensitivity to people that are different than me. It's not because you yelled at me to get me to behave myself. In fact if I successfully yelled to get that student to shut up all I've done is just shut it up but then you know it spews out somewhere else and so how do we do it? It's messy, it's messy. So I think sometimes I look at the economics case study and I think, "Look how good I did, more sensitive people are walking out of this room today to see differing viewpoints." And then I get to that case study about it and I go, "There's just not enough time an intro to business to unpack people's racism around I guess the working class which in the neighborhoods where we are here are predominantly Hispanic.

Chris:        Yeah good job, that's a doozy.

Bonni:        It's tough.

Chris:        What you're noticing there is clearly a difference in values and it's clearly a difference in the way people perceive…. Gosh, that is a hard one because I want to say things like the rights of others. The equality of the value of human life and that sort of thing, the sensitivity toward others etc. And yeah, and it's interesting how those very very abstract concepts that sound like they're better positioned for a philosophy class in that one example all of a sudden become so very real and so very relevant in the middle of business 101. And that in order to have a meaningful discussion about those things, in order for the students to learn it with their hearts you have to get into those values, you there's... You can't just brush it under the rug like you were just saying. If you shut it up then you're missing the opportunity to have that meaningful conversation where 

Bonni:        And part of it is that the greatest teacher in this respect that I admired unfortunately passed away a few years ago from cancer, Elizabeth Leonard, would be telling me right now you flip it into questions. You cannot yell your way out of what I call racism, you can't yell, argue, cajole. Ask a question. Ask a question to the person who just made the statement. Let them answer a little bit not in a harsh way, but for what they've just said. Open it up to some other people in the class what do you think that looks like for that person and then I think the one thing I always hesitate to do… I work at a religious institution and it feels incredibly manipulative for me to bring in like, "What would Jesus say?" But it is kind of helping them see their own faith, how it enters into... Those are their values. those are their beliefs. And when we live our lives separate and apart — this is how I behave in this context in business, and this is how I believe when I'm with my family or I decide to go to Temple or to church or whatever. That is a really stressful way to live we live shorter lives and much less productive meaningful lives. To help them leave a little room to reintegrate one's values which might include a belief that we don't treat other people that way that we don't treat people like objects and then and then to bring it back in, but it's hard. It's tough because it's...  Talk about things being messy and talk about being vulnerable.

I hadn't planned on sharing. It is not on my notes because it's hard for me to talk about because it feels like any other professor would be able to do such a better job than I do when inevitably things like that come up. But it's that confidence that comes from, first of all we don't have to solve it in the 50 minutes that we have together. We are allowed to in the next class say, "You know last class we talked about this. I'd like to go back a little bit and talk about the guy that just fell off the ladder. He has a name by the way. Can we share his name?” I can fail in that moment and I can still bring it back and try again. And I can even talk about that I failed. “You know when that came up I was uncomfortable and I wish that we would have talked about it a little bit more but this is our chance to do it. I just like to circle back.” And to not let the tyranny of the content rule over the importance of potentially giving people a different perspective about the value of every human being. About... And all the choices that they will make seemingly big and small that will show whether or not they really believe that.

What Bonni struggles with here is a student who answers based on a set of expressed individual values that don’t align with the implicit collective values of perhaps the institution, or perhaps of Bonni and her peers. In any case, the mismatch between what Bonni expects to hear and what the student expresses creates a challenging situation that she struggles to navigate. And by responding with empathy, she preserves the dignity of everyone involved and establishes a sense of trust and vulnerability in her classroom that really pays off.

We’ve talked about how Bonni deals with her own failure in the classroom, but it’s important to show that the same empathic approach should be applied to student failures, as well. Failures shouldn’t be an opportunity to chastise and reprimand. Instead, they should be an opportunity to understand, learn, and empathize. Students notice the difference.

Bonni:        I've been complimented by many a student saying, "Wow you really do a great job of telling us we were wrong but without making us feel stupid."

I think about because I'm really interested about, "Whoa how did they come up with that answer?" And sometimes how they came up with it was actually the path to whatever the accurate answer was, plus it's just interesting to me how their brains work like, "Oh okay. Oh wow, there's that other thing over here, oh and now I see where the disconnect was, let me help you with that." Why can't I treat this kind of an issue as, "Oh tell me more about how you came up with this idea." I can't even say it without sounding sarcastic but I mean I think it is because I just, you know, these are things that are just so central to our beliefs and our values and then when you meet someone who professes to have some of the same beliefs and values but is so off-base then it's hard not to be emotional, but that would be a really good thing for me to practice more self-regulation around. And try to picture it what it would be like to have grown up with, for example, perhaps a family unit where things like that were said all the time.

Chris:        To better empathize with them and to better get their perspective so that you can you can really see where that comment came from rather than judging it you could just understand it and then have a conversation about it.

Bonni:        It kind of goes back to what is your aim are you there to teach or more specifically to facilitate learning or are you there to control? And I always love that James Lang talks about either in his book or in his talks, "Did you set out to be a police officer was that kind of what your goal was? Because if that's really your primary role in a classroom is to make sure everybody is doing what they're told and following all the rules like you're probably in the wrong profession because it's not really very gratifying if that's our aim," And I think it is fun when you can do something unexpected like that for your students where they think, "Wait a minute you're supposed to get us to all follow the rules. I just found out that you have a different role here and that you treat things differently than other professors do." That's fun.

Here’s to breaking the rules, creating spaces for vulnerability, and asking the right questions to better understand and connect with our students.

You've been tuned to HybridPod, a production of Hybrid Pedagogy Inc.

Just because the show is over doesn't mean the conversation ends. Bonni 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 @bonni208 (that’s B-O-N-N-I-2-0-8) for taking the time to talk with me for this show.

So that’s it for this episode of HybridPod. To hear more episodes, you can subscribe to the show 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, read show notes and complete transcripts, and contribute to the conversations online. That's hybridpod.audio.

Thanks for listening!