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One Year In

The P3 Collaboratory is pleased to continue “Teaching Tuesdays,” our ongoing series on pedagogy in higher ed and on the RU-N campus. This week's entry was written by Dr. Taja-Nia Henderson, Dean of the Graduate School at Rutgers - Newark, Professor at Rutgers Law School, and Director of the P3 Collaboratory.

Even though more than a year has passed since the onset of the COVID-19 crisis, I am still finding it difficult to engage students and colleagues about the losses and grief that many of us are experiencing. Individually and collectively, we have not only lost a year of our lives, but we've also lost a year of in-person schooling, socializing, and spending time with family and friends. Many people have lost their livelihoods. Others (myself included) have held on to jobs, but have lost their sense of safety and security.

As we wrap up this semester, and prepare for summer, I wanted to offer my thoughts on reinforcing a sense of safety and security for our students in our work as faculty. 

COVID-19 is not the only pandemic our students are facing. Other  widespread and highly publicized societal challenges–including the nation's ongoing mental health crisis, racism, misogyny, homophobia, and climate catastrophe–dominate the news cycle and have an incalculable impact on our students. Here at one of the nation’s most diverse colleges, our students are also grappling with profound economic insecurity. 

Given this, how might we imagine our classrooms as a place where students feel secure and have a sense of belonging? One strategy is to incorporate opportunities throughout the term for students to apply what they are learning in class to real-world challenges. If students are encouraged to apply what they have learned in class, they are far more likely to retain (and master) the information presented. This is even possible in the bench sciences, where faculty report having quite rigid course curricula and little room for change. In their article Black Panther, Vibranium, and the Periodic Table, chemistry professors Sibrina N. Colling and LaVetta Appleby describe they how they incorporated blockbuster Marvel film Black Panther into their General Chemistry course. Colling and Appleby asked their students to presume that the fictional metal vibranium (which, in the film, gives the hero his power) existed, asking “If this metal actually existed, where do you think the metal would be placed in the periodic table, and why? What would be the shorthand electron configuration? What would be the elemental symbol? Briefly explain your answer.”

Questions such as this offer students an opportunity to marshal evidence from pop culture (Black Panther earned more than $1.3 billion, globally), analyze what they already know about the periodic table, and alchemize information in their analysis. It also offers a chance for students to consider the real-world implications of a rare, fought-over metal having certain qualities, including radioactivity. 

Of course, vibranium is fictional (as far as we know!). But what about when real-life events are impossible to ignore? How, for example, should we “show up” in our classes when our students are reeling from a caught-on-film police killing of an unarmed civilian? Many of our students may appreciate an opportunity to express their frustration or anger at such incidents. Consider opening class with a “check in” to get a sense of where students are on a given day. In small classes, it may be easy to get students talking about their emotional state; in larger classes, this is bound to be more difficult. In such classes, it may be useful to either break students into small groups (“pair up with the person seated next to you”) or, if using Zoom in a remote classroom, putting the students into breakout rooms of 2-3 people. This strategy opens up space for students to share with (and even learn from) each other, while keeping the groups small enough that certain groups of students are not left feeling as if they are in the “hot seat” and expected to stand in for every member of their group in your classroom.As a caveat, even where such incidents may be related to course content, we caution against making such incidents the subject of exams or quizzes. This is particularly ill-advised where the exams or quizzes are high-stakes, comprising 30% or more of the course grade. Such learning opportunities ought not be graded, where possible, in recognition of the reality that such topics may give rise to trauma or other barriers to learning success for our students.

While we’ve described only two strategies here, we encourage those who may be interested to learn more about the P3’s ongoing “Difficult Dialogues” initiative, in partnership with communications strategists Essential Partners. EP collaborates with communities and organizations across the country to foster “courageous, constructive conversations.” In this, our third year working with the EP team, we could not be more excited about their recently-released “Race in America: A Dialogue Guide.We encourage instructors who may be interested in learning more about constructive dialogues on race and racism (in and out of the classroom) to download the guide for clear, actionable steps you might take to better support and engage students in your classes.

When students feel engaged and secure in the constructed learning environment, they are more likely to be successful. After this year of incalculable loss, let us recommit ourselves to their success (and by extension, our own).


Below is a snapshot of upcoming pedagogical training opportunities available to Rutgers faculty and graduate students. Click on the links to register!

Featured Workshops and Webinars:

Session Description: At the end of the spring 2021 term, CTAAR surveyed instructors about their experiences teaching and added additional student questions pertaining to online learning to the Student Instructional Ratings Survey. In this presentation, CTAAR will share statistical and qualitative analysis of the Instructor Online/Remote Teaching Survey and analysis of the additional questions added to the Student Instructional Ratings Survey. During this event CTAAR will provide a space for Q&A and a forum to continue the discussion of how best to address the concerns raised by our instructors and students.

Session Description: In the 2020-2021 academic year, many instructors learned to teach online for the first time. We learned new skills, redesigned courses, and developed new ways to engage students. Collectively, we developed a wealth of understanding about what works, and what doesn’t work. What’s more, many have reported that some online practices are here to stay, even when they return to face-to-face teaching. In this workshop, CTAAR and OFD follow up on the What We Learned presentation (details above) and review what instructors shared in the instructor survey in greater detail. This workshop is a collaboration between the Center for Teaching Advancement and Assessment Research (CTAAR) and the Academic Affairs Office of Faculty Development (OFD).

Session Description: Especially now, when the well-being of every student is paramount, asking hard questions about the whys and hows of grading are crucial. Much of our work in education resists being formulated as neat and tidy outcomes, and yet most assessment takes the complexity of human interaction within a learning environment and simplifies it into a transcript line. When learning is the goal, space should be left for wonder and experimentation -- but how, when risks are discouraged by most grading practices? In this 45-minute webinar, Jesse Stommel will unpack some of the "big questions "around grading and offer some provocative ideas for doing without. Stommel is co-founder of Digital Pedagogy Lab and the Hybrid Pedagogy journal. He is also the co-author of An Urgency of Teachers: the Work of Critical Digital Pedagogy. This public event was coordinated by the Big Questions Institute.

Session Description: Dr. Peggy Maki discusses various ways to leverage LMS technology and analytics to address and adjust student performance along the trajectory of a course, She also discusses the evolving roles of students and instructors in an online/LMS course framework. Dr Maki's presentation is sponsored by the New Brunswick Provost’s Office.

Looking to develop your remote teaching skills or learn a new LMS (like Canvas)?

Don't forget about Teaching and Learning with Technology's (TLT) and Academic Technology Services' (ATS) ongoing trainings!

Brought to you by the P3 Collaboratory for Pedagogy, Professional Development, and Publicly-Engaged Scholarship at Rutgers University-Newark

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