An Interview with Karen Head and Nirmal Trivedi

Assistant Professor Karen Head and Brittain Fellow Nirmal Trivedi were recognized this year with Course Instructor Opinion Survey (CIOS) Teaching Excellence Awards.

Katy Crowther, Diane Jakacki, and Christine Hoffmann sat down with Karen and Nirmal to ask them a few questions about course evaluations, teacher-student relationships, and their work in the Communications Center. A transcript of this enlightening interview follows.

KC: Thank you for agreeing to sit down with us. We have some questions, but obviously we can just have a conversation. First of all, congratulations on your awards.

KH: Thanks.

KC: It obviously speaks to both your positive student evaluations and response rates, so we’re interested in both those things today. To start with a really broad, general question, what would you say are your strengths as teachers?

KH: I think that one of the things is that I never wait for the end of term to have evaluations.  Some people are apprehensive about having ongoing evaluations throughout the term, but it’s bound to lead to a better outcome. But more importantly, the reason that I started doing it when I started teaching is that getting that information when the semester is over does not help me help the students…. And so I think it starts with an ongoing model of evaluation and explaining to students that that is relevant and that you are going to do something with that information, because so many times they think it doesn’t really matter what they say.

NT: Yeah, I tend to create a very personal relationship with my students, and I am always very self-conscious about this teacher/friend dynamic, because I feel that sometimes it can give the impression that I’m actually not evaluating them in any particular, critical way. So I toe that line, I think, but I do show to them that I care about their learning, that it’s very important for me personally that they understand the concept, and I ask for lots of confirmation about what they are understanding and create an open space for them to criticize me…. A couple weeks, three weeks, four weeks into the semester, they’ll feel at liberty to say something very sharp and critical about my teaching style. They’ll know I’m not going to hold it against them.

KC: How do you react to that kind of “throughout the semester” feedback? How do you take that in and use it?

NT: It’s funny, because I want to explain and rationalize my choices immediately, but I don’t always see from their perspective. It’s actually been a while since I’ve been a student, especially a first-year student. That’s actually what I told them this last semester, that I perhaps don’t have the same knowledge and sensitivity to the teaching and to the course that you do now. I can’t empathize as well as I might have in the past. And so I really rely on you to tell me what you’re thinking…. I try to implement whatever their suggestions are, the ones that are reasonable. I think they see that.

KH: I think that’s true; you can ask students for feedback and sometimes it’s kind of the old parenting paradigm – if you ask your kids what they want for dinner they’re going to say ice cream, and maybe the better question is would you prefer broccoli or brussel sprouts for dinner. It has to be one of these two things or a list of things, but we can have some flexibility within the requirements. And I think sometimes having a really good sense of humor and exhibiting your own vulnerabilities is helpful. I sometimes – especially when I teach composition, which I haven’t done for a while – actually go back and re-read my first freshman composition paper – because I’m the kind of pack rat that still has that – and I’m really up front with students that it’s kind of scary. I hadn’t been to college at the traditional age, and I got a big fat F on my first paper, and somehow I managed to go on and become the person standing at the front of the room. And I think that they appreciate that, because they understand that you don’t understand everything. At Georgia Tech I talk about how math is really hard for me and for most of them it’s really not, and so there’s a point where I may be the authority on one thing, but I’m not necessarily the authority about all things, and they can weigh in on that.

NT: That idea of sharing old papers that we’ve written – I hadn’t thought about that actually. I have my sophomore year English papers and there are a lot of C’s in there. That’s actually a great idea and I may use that.

KH: I’ve actually put it up on the overhead and not told them – I’ve told them it’s a student paper and I have permission to use it and I let them just blast it, and then I tell them and they’re shocked, and they’re like, “Oh my God I can’t believe it and it wasn’t really that bad.” And I say, “No, it really was that bad.” Again, that’s a kind of vulnerability. I actually had the experience a few years ago when I chose to take a course here at Tech; I was hiring students to do some outside programming work for me and I wanted to be sure I was being fair in my expectations for how much they were being paid, and I actually took the CS 1315 programming course for non-CS majors. And I think the students were really surprised, because I really did the work in that class, and – you know I didn’t take it for a grade – but I really took the class and I think that it’s good for professors to be reminded in a somewhat regular fashion about what it’s like to learn something that’s not familiar to you. We can take for granted what’s in our head. We fill in a lot of information and we don’t say it explicitly, or we don’t say it out loud, that we assume everyone knows because it’s just second-nature to us. But when you put yourself in the position of having to learn something that you really don’t understand and that is challenging, you’re reminded that there is a process there and that you really do have to actually pay attention to filling in the gaps. I actually found that experience really informative, and I talk about these kind of things, too. I sometimes joke with my students that if they want to know why I’m doing something in class they should ask me. I think that’s a perfectly legitimate question, because this isn’t about some secret society where they have to figure out what the secret is. They can just ask me what the secret handshake is. It’s a waste of time not to be upfront with that.

CH: I wonder regarding these ongoing evaluations – is this a formal conversation with students or do you ask them to write things down or is it just a class discussion?

NT: Mine are informal and in-class and together in a circle essentially. I ask how are we doing in this class. I do want to get that feedback and have an open discussion so that they can capitalize on each other’s comments. This is particularly useful after they’ve submitted an assignment. I want to have them assess how it went, and then think about the process of teaching the assignment and teaching the project … so then I take that on to the next time.

KH: I do discussions in class but I’ll also have anonymous written response, because as cool as I like to think that I am in class, and as accessible and trustworthy I’ve convinced them I am, that they can say anything to me and it’ll be ok, I think that some of them don’t think that that’s true, and if they’re overly critical that will haunt them when final grade time comes. I don’t make it compulsory. I can set it up as a survey on something like Survey Monkey or sometimes I just do it old school; I just leave the room and say there’s a box at the front of the room, and I usually do it in a lab situation so that their handwriting cannot be identified. I say, just type up what you’re thinking, hit print and drop it in the box on the way out. I think that’s another thing, though, about response rates, is if you leave it to students there’s this assumption that students really don’t care about these things, and they don’t want to take the time to do it. I don’t think it’s that students don’t want to take the time to do it; it’s that students are busy and they forget. If you’re not willing to give up a little time in class, you’re likely not to get very good response rates. I think you have to find time; you have to build it in.

KC: Nirmal, could you develop that? This was a question we had for you anyway: those final evaluations, the ones we’re trying to get students to do – do you have a similar strategy for making sure you have a similar response rate?

NT: You know in the lead-up to the response rate I just take a lot of time to talk to them about how critical they are for me, and I also have custom questions on the evaluations that say, it’s really important that you answer all of these questions; it may not seem like all of them are relevant to this class, but I’ve added all these questions. Those are really interesting to me, and I think that gets them interested in the consequences. This is not just a regular evaluation; there is something very specific he has in mind for us. And if that gets them to the other questions as well – the standard questions – I think that’s good. The custom questions are really important. It’s great that CETL has a series of questions that have been embedded … and are legitimate course evaluation questions, but there has to be some sort of standard evaluation, some sort of metrics.

KC: It seems to me as an aside that when I was teaching over at Agnes Scott we weren’t allowed to participate in the evaluation process at all, because they felt it put more pressure on the students that could be construed as pressure towards the grade. You could only walk in, hand them out, and then say that someone needs to be the volunteer to take them down to the office, and you could not comment on the process. This was strange to me.

NT: The best evaluations I ever got were not a part of the official system. The best evaluations and responses I got were from a question I put on the blog at the very end of the semester: what was really critical in the course for you? If I was to remove or change a few things what would they be? And that was completely out of the CIOS system; I had 75 students that semester and I think 70 wrote for that. They were not simply one-sentence answers; they were paragraphs. And that was pretty amazing to me that I saw so much. They gave me something rich and thoughtful. There was something about the informality of that forum that loosens up their … what they want to say. If they really think there are going to be repercussions for them, I don’t know how some students are going to think, but if they don’t think there are repercussions, they’re more ready to talk about what they feel and they will, I think, respond.

KC: To move in the direction of your work in the communication center: how do you think your work in the cc has been recognized in this award? What do you think you’re doing in the cc that maybe is playing into your role as a teacher?

KH: I think people who work in communications are by and large a particular kind of classroom instructor. Conferencing is something … that one-to-one time you spend with students is something that you naturally gravitate to. And conferencing is hard; I mean, I think that more people could learn from tutoring and their conferences would be better. When I first started tutoring, I felt really fortunate that I had that experience before I came to a full-charge sort of instructor position, teaching college classes, because conferencing feels … well, first of all its a huge time constraint. You have 75 students and you want to meet with all of them even once … that’s a management problem. But if you feel that the benefits outweigh the time commitments, you find a way to do it, and I think the students respond to that. I’ve always been committed to that. I think the other thing is – I got a little bit better about understanding why students are apprehensive about saying how they think class is going or being critical about class, and the performative dramatic moves that they sometimes make because it’s about giving teachers what they want, or that’s what they think. I think that when you do tutoring, because you’re not the person that’s evaluating that student ultimately – it’s like all of the best parts of teaching with none of the crappy parts. Contrary to what my students may or may not believe, giving grades is not the thing that I live for. In fact I would love to live in a world where everyone just came in and they were a part of this and they wanted to be there and we would all do our work and some people would do better than others but there wouldn’t be that ABC thing hanging at the end. Unfortunately, the institution requires that I do this. I do understand that, and I think it’s a kind of feedback, but it’s a very ominous kind of feedback, so if that’s the only thing that they focus on, that’s a problem. When you do tutoring you begin to reframe how you give feedback, and you begin to reframe your relationship with students in a way that creates more trust, creates more ownership of the students of the classroom experience. It involves them more heavily and that’s going to affect evaluations and the willingness to DO evaluations. If students feel like they don’t have any say whatsoever in what happens in the course from Day 1 until CIOS, which is going to happen sometime in the last couple of weeks, I wouldn’t be terribly shocked to learn that not many of them want to weigh in, and they might not have anything to say other than, I showed up for class and I did what you told me but it’s not like I had anything to do with what was going on. So I think that flexibility of having them be part of it sooner comes out of the tutoring. In the tutoring world we’re constantly turning it back on them, as frustrating as that is, asking “what do you want to do?”  “What do you want to accomplish?” “I have no investment other than what your investment is ….”

NT: That’s something I’d like to pick up on, that really big distinction between tutoring and teaching. Tutoring is all about letting go and saying … I love the fact that I have no stake in the assignment that the instructor gives, whether it’s well-designed or poorly-designed or complicated or simple, it doesn’t matter. It just matters that I help the student be successful at that assignment. It’s a really liberating feeling, because I can say, “what can I do to help you see this assignment in all its dimensions and execute or succeed at it?” Whereas when I teach, I have in my head what the ideal paper or project is going to look like; a tremendous project is going to have this and this and this. In conferencing I try to withhold that, but I can’t help but think that I steer them in that direction, I sort of prod them to see that. In tutoring I just love the fact that I can let their own creativity do its work. I think I’ll bring that back to my teaching, actually. If you don’t like this author that I absolutely love, I’m not going to necessarily try and convince you that he or she is amazing. I’m going to try and step back and let them explore that.

KC: Are there common student comments that you hear very often about problems students are having in the classroom, where they’re not getting the things that they need – the very thing that these sort of evaluations would help? Are students indicating that to you in the kinds of questions they ask during tutoring sessions? Are you getting students saying, “I don’t understand the assignment?”

NT: Yes.

KH: They’re very frank about what they think about assignments.

NT: I get that a lot – “I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do here.” And the assignment may be really well designed; it’s just that they have to take a risk and a leap of faith that they can execute what they are being asked to execute.

KH: You could use the old metaphor that you have to help them unpack the assignment … and sometimes it is just that: they kind of think they know what the assignment means, but they’re not 100% sure, and they don’t want to go and ask the instructor because the moment they do that they’re demonstrating that they didn’t learn something or didn’t pay attention, or that means that the benchmark for the highest possible grade that they will get on that assignment has now just been lowered, which is too bad because I don’t think that’s usually the case.

NT: I also get the first comment from a student, “I’m a terrible writer.” They start the conversation like that: “I don’t know what I’m doing; I’m a terrible writer.”

DJ: Is that a personal expression or is that something that may be imposed on them by their instructor, or both?

NT: I think it’s a belief they probably had instilled on them by someone – an authority figure when they were young – and haven’t been able to change. They haven’t been given the right kind of advice, or they just haven’t developed the right confidence in their writing, or an instructor hasn’t developed confidence in their writing.

KH: Well, I said earlier, I’m really bad at math … and that’s something that has grown in me over the years. If I could go back and remove all of those cultural expectations about girls and math … there’s nothing to that …. I had a colleague at Nebraska, a tenured faculty in the Math department, and she ran a summer camp for girls, and she said, “My daughter grew up” – and both of her parents were mathematicians – “she grew up around these girls every summer, and yes, there’s no question that girls can do math, and I sent her off to school and she came home one day from the first grade and she said, ‘Yeah, I didn’t do very well on my math test, but that’s because girls don’t do very well at math.'” It’s a strong thing that happens, but I think at an engineering school like Georgia Tech it’s an easy thing to say, “Oh, I’m not good at writing.” And many of them are actually pretty good at writing; they just don’t get that. And I think it gets excused away; it’s more important that I be good at physics; it’s more important that I be good at programming; it’s more important that I be good at calculus or whatever. I think there’s lots of reasons why they say that.

NT: We get a lot of non-native English speakers. They really work hard, and they know that no matter what they do they’re not going to be fluent at the end of our session. I feel for them, because I hope that the instructor really understands where they come from or what they’re trying to accomplish, rather than grading them on any kind of standard that’s across the board. Regardless of how the instructor is going to grade them, it’s admirable to me to see how hard they work ….

KH: But they’re not risk takers. There’s the problem with “I just want to do as well as I can possibly do within the box,” and what takes a lot of convincing is the possibility that when you come out of that box you could possibly do better; and yes, you could also fall flat and fail, but you’re going to learn more from that experience. That’s a constant problem. And their notion of what good writing actually is, which is often a conversation about mechanics, is not a conversation about good communication that is rhetorically sound, that is stylistically interesting, that is engaging. It’s about competency, and those are two very different conversations. I’ve read competent, mechanically well-written papers that don’t say anything. That’s not a good paper.

KH: And that’s why we don’t copyedit, either. We do not copyedit because we don’t want to send the message that that’s what’s important.

KC: There’s so much that instructors can learn from the experiences you guys are having tutoring in the communications center, the questions the students are bringing, and how instructors can better accommodate some of those concerns in the classroom. Have you considered having workshops for faculty, or is it always going to be just students?

KH: I think you have to be careful about that. We do have an office in CETL where people are charged with that. I think that within our department there is certainly some use for that. What I’d like to see us actually do a little bit more of is have faculty who come to us essentially and say, “I have developed this assignment, and here is my thinking about what the perfect paper is.”  And maybe they’ve done that through CETL, or they’ve done faculty development through a person in their unit … but they would have conversations with us before we start working with their students. This is a whole other form of feedback that could grow out of that – that we could begin to gather up feedback about how that assignment is working and report back in a way that maybe the students wouldn’t articulate in the way that we are hearing, and to somehow aggregate the data in some way that is completely anonymous. The tough thing there is that students would have to agree to it, so that changes the dynamic, but I think there are some possibilities. Even if it’s anecdotal, saying, “Some of the trends we noticed were these ….”

We had President Peterson present at our opening, and when it was all said and done he said, “It is really hard to do this;” and I said, “It isreally hard to do this.” It is so much easier when you are the instructor – and I catch myself doing this even though I know better – to take a paper from the student and say, “Move this here, add this here, say something here,” and you can do that as the instructor, because it’s not plagiarism. But we can’t do that, because it would constitute plagiarism. We have to figure out ways to get the student to figure it out for themselves, and that takes more time. And that’s why I think centers like this exist, because it does create time.

I’m certainly not blasting instructors; it’s very difficult. The more students you have and the more writing-intensive a course is, the more it becomes difficult to do everything for every student. But I think that we can help each other in ways that make the experience overall better. I would argue that students who work with us … if we already have information about the course and about particular assignments, students are going to have a better experience that will translate into better course evaluations for that instructor in the end.

DJ: I think at the very least for students, going back to something you said earlier – that we have this perception that we know what we expect from an assignment, especially when it’s a non-traditional assignment – there’s many times that you think, “I said this, and I said this,” and students aren’t hearing what we think we’re saying. To have, at the very least, some kind of checkpoint that asks, “Does this work in the larger scheme of what students are expecting? Will this allow them to succeed?” There’s huge benefit in that.

NT: In a similar context from that perspective it would be really interesting to hear what our peer tutors discover. They are undergrads working with undergrads, and they have this conversation with students that’s very interesting, and their inclination is even stronger than ours to fix things. I would be interested to hear how they responded to reading the assignments ….

DJ: Of all the evaluation comments you’ve received, which is your favorite?

NT: “I’ve learned more this semester smoking pot.”

KH: “My alternate punk grunge band just wrote a song with the title ‘Professor Head Rocks my World.'” It really was very funny because that particular student did not do well in class – he barely passed the class – and he signed the comments, so I totally knew who he was, he self-identified in the comments. So I remember I saw him and I was like, “Dude, what was with that comment?” And he could only tell me about the song – “it’s about struggling and process … and you always made me think and re-think,” and I was like, “Okay, I’m glad you got that out of it, but rocks your world? really? I don’t know.” I would have given anything to hear a live performance of that song. You don’t know what to do with comments like that. I’m surprised, sometimes, at what the comments are about, like, “I don’t like her fashion sense,” which is something I’ve had, and I’m like, “well, okay, thanks ….” I’m really strict about punctuality in class, and I had a student who wrote, “I thought she was great in every way except she was always three minutes late to class,” and the other students pointed out to her that the clock was five minutes slow. It is sort of funny when you read them, but those comments are actually very telling and important because they put into context other comments you get during the term, and they have a mark of genuine sincerity that they would say something like that, even if they’re just trying to be really funny. At Nebraska we were actually required – as the students were doing their evaluations – we had to write up a short 1-2 page reflection on the term ourselves and say what we thought they were going to say. And then when we got the actual student responses, we had to respond to what we had thought they would say and what they actually said. And when we sat down for our re-appointments, we would go over them with the associate chair of the department, and I always thought that was such a useful exercise because classes I thought had gone really horribly actually hadn’t gone as horribly as I thought, and sometimes things I thought had been rousing successes had been horrible failures unbeknownst to me. I think it’s just got to be this back-and-forth process. It shouldn’t be a one-way street where they weigh in on something and then we get the information; we at least should understand that there’s a back-and-forth to this even if it doesn’t get reported back to them, because I think it’s important to understand that … you can never go back to that moment, you can never say, “Oh, well, I knew that all along.” Forcing yourself to go on record and say, “Here’s what I think went wrong, here’s what I think was a problem,” and then having to respond to whether your view was right on that taught me as much about teaching as any exercise ever did. It’s easy enough that I still do it – I sit down every term and I do it; I found that it’s so incredibly useful.

DJ: At what point do you do this?

KH: I do it at the same time that they’re doing their responses; I actually will sketch it out, and then when their responses are available I will read what I wrote and then I’ll read their responses and … I don’t necessarily write a response to it any more but I’ll think about what I got right and what I got wrong. Was I in the same room as them? And it’s surprising sometimes; sometimes I think that maybe I wasn’t in the same room. And usually, I guess fortunately, that’s when I thought things went a lot more badly than they actually did. This came up in a faculty meeting earlier this year. One of my colleagues said – and this happened before anyone knew that this award was going to happen – they said, “Does anyone actually get good response rates?” And I said yeah, my response rates are almost always 100%. And they said, “How is that even possible?” And I said that I have to give up real estate. I talk about … you get that context throughout the term, and then telling everyone to have their laptops on a certain day, and giving up that 10-15 minutes, leaving the room, having them do it, respecting that they have busy lives and they’re going to forget, and then of course sometimes I bring them cupcakes. But by that time in the semester, I’m bringing them cookies or cupcakes because they’re just burned out, and I would do it whether it was the evaluation or not. But I go, “Okay, everybody eat your cupcakes and fill out your CIOS.” Isn’t that bribing? I don’t know if it is. As long as you treat everyone the same. So if you say, if 85% of the students or more fill out the survey,everybody gets 5 extra points or an extra quiz grade – you just have to give it to everybody no matter what. A little bit of acknowledgement that it’s something you have to do means it’s not necessarily bad to incentivize. I’m just more thrilled that we’re actually finding more and better ways – and CETL is to be commended for this, and the new division of learning excellence that CETL is now under that reports to the Vice-Provost. And I think that it’s really lovely that we’re rewarding teaching in new and more ways than ever before.

NT: If anything it enables us to have more of these kind of conversations, for us to talk about teaching and what we expect students to get out of our classes, and how we want students to respond to us. I think that conversation needs to happen more frequently.

DJ: I think what’s exciting about the way you discuss this is that we’re starting to see how the Communication Center is opening that channel of communication. To be able to provide guidelines from what you’re saying about learning to evaluate yourself or trying to build a sound assignment with success built into the design – these are all things that people are going to want to respond to.

KH: I think that’s one role of the Center – I mean, we’re always happy to have conversations with our own unit, but I’d like to see us have those conversations with lots of different constituencies on campus.

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Diane Jakacki

About Diane Jakacki

Diane Jakacki received her PhD from the University of Waterloo, where she specialized in early modern printed drama, and participated in federally-funded digital humanities research projects. She has published two articles on applying social semiotic methods to early modern theatre history, an edition of Wit and Science, and co-authored an essay on developing digital image annotation tools. She is a software consultant to imageMAT and the Records of Early English Drama. At Georgia Tech she applies digital humanities methods to pedagogical solutions. Jakacki is currently developing researching the Elizabethan clown Richard Tarlton and his touring relationship with the Queen’s Men troupe.
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