CC.2: Week 3, transformative teaching environments

What resonated with you about the teaching styles discussed this week?

When have you used these principles in practice or seen them used?

How would you use them in an online environment?

How would you use them with library stakeholders like admin, fellow staff, or different patron groups?

Hi everyone! Glad to be back for a second round of the crash course!

I found this week’s topic sort of challenging in some ways! While I am in general on board with a lot of the principles of course I do think there are some tricky things around teaching power dynamics in universities that make me nervous too. And the thought of students having a personal cell number to text me at instead of using email makes me suuuuper uncomfortable! Obviously everyone’s experiences are different, so I want to know – do you do this with your students? Have your profs/teachers given you cell numbers? I pretty much prefer email for everything so I am curious to know how others feel!

There’s an episode of Secret Feminist Agenda that gets into this a little more, about some of the power dynamics and boundaries in teaching and mentoring that I have found also challenging but helpful:
episode: Episode 4.26 Becoming “The Man” with Lily Cho | Secret Feminist Agenda
transcript: https://secretfeministagenda.files.wordpress.com/2020/11/episode-4.26-becoming-the-man-with-lily-cho-1.pdf

On a more practical note I have had some really interesting experiences in a class where there were still assignments (weekly transcriptions) but the prof (a) let us pick two assignments to drop and (b) would grade them whenever she received them. The only caveat was that if we wanted timely feedback we needed to submit with the stated deadlines, otherwise she could give us our transcriptions back whenever she got around to them. This allowed a LOT of freedom and put a lot of responsibility for learning on the students without requiring much in terms of explanations or extensions or anything like that. I could see something like this being a nice compromise for a situation where you aren’t able to do away with assessment entirely.

Can you say more about this? It’s definitely always a challenge to talk openly about power, and there’s no one-size-fits-all approach…the audience – and their experiences, backgrounds, assumptions, prior knowledge – matters enormously here.

Yeah I mean, that’s not something I would do either. That’s what works for Ash. I make myself pretty available via email in all teaching situations – whether I’ve done a training for library staff, patrons, or when I’ve taught MLIS students. But email allows me to set important boundaries while still letting folks know that I’m here for them.

Figuring out what has worked for me in creating transformative teaching spaces has been an ongoing process. I try to keep in mind the principles (power awareness, flexibility, honesty, critical inquiry, co-learning, etc) that are most important to me, adapt them to the environment that I’m in, evaluate how that went and make changes, rinse and repeat.

Whew, this one was a doozy for me in that I kept kicking myself for not implementing some of these tidbits earlier! One thing, in particular, was the participation style…that I, admittedly, never really thought to consider. Specifically, I’m thinking about the privacy workshop my colleagues and I did last spring. We never gave participants options to ask questions anonymously. Instead, attendees had to put questions/comments in a chat window, displaying their name (this was in WebEx, btw)! Since I plan to do a similar workshop next semester, I’ve been thinking of ways to consider someone’s trauma. I think it would be a good idea to state verbally and on the screen that questions can be asked just me (the host/presenter), and I can either answer them in chat personally or speak it aloud to the rest of the participants. Has anyone had success doing this in a workshop/program/class? The only other thing I could think of would be to email me after the session, but honestly, it doesn’t sound like the best option.

No shame! Everything I’ve learned has been a process. All of my early talks and trainings were just me standing in front of a room talking for the full hour. :woozy_face:

Yes, I used this participation style in the MLIS class I taught early this year, and I’ve used it in a bunch of Zoom trainings. People respond well to it and there are almost always anonymous questions asked.

It’s way more obvious to me how to make transformative learning possible with colleagues–where once the conversation has started, it can kind of be open between you as you all continue learning more–than with people in like a one-off class or something. (I’m not likely, in the immediate future, to be working in more long-term training.) I know the situations in which I’ve experienced transformative learning have mostly been relationships that took longer than an hour to build, and I think the best I’d be able to do with patrons in a public library setting is establish that I’m a person who’s interested in talking and learning more about this so that there might be space for a conversation to continue. But establishing the sort of underpinnings of transformative learning (like a non-hierarchical approach and power analysis) that need to be carried forward in such a relationship–or that I hope will be a part of someone’s framework as they go out and learn more–is something it’s possible to do in that time, I understand.

and Emily: I had the occasional professor/teacher/instructor/etc offer their phone number (or, you know, a google voice number or similar), but I wasn’t the type of student to use it; I don’t want to have that kind of immediate contact with many people at all. I can understand how it might make students feel more comfortable or more easily heard, how it might flatten a sense of hierarchy, how it responds naturally to a pedagogical approach that doesn’t divide our learning from our lives…but I care a lot about being able to be not at work when I’m not at work (not really a concept in academia, I know, but I’m not in academia), and even if you use a number you can disconnect from your actual phone, I think that establishes an expectation of constant availability that’s a huge no for me.

Although it was kind of theory heavy, I did appreciate the academic article on critical theory and transformative learning. For me it was just useful to understand the background/underlying theory behind both things and how they’re related, especially since transformative learning as a theory is new to me. I’ve been lucky to have had the chance to read Pedagogy of the Oppressed in the past so it was nice seeing how that book connects to all of this as well.

I can say I’ve probably used some of the principles in the past without necessarily knowing what they were but now I have a better understanding of those concepts. I think most of the practices mentioned can be adapted to an online environment without too much hassle, especially for a class that meets multiple times over a given time period. Previously, when I worked with colleagues/fellow staff or patrons on any kind of tech training I usually tried to meet people where they were and focused on how I could empower them to use the new technology/tool in question vs hitting them with a wall of information. One thing I would definitely like to incorporate more is asking for reflections from learners. Really this comes from my own anxiety of “did I actually do a good job?” and wanting to make sure they found the course/workshop useful or, if they didn’t, getting an understanding of what didn’t work for future reference.

I’ve also recently started a new position and I’m currently heavily involved with a digital & information literacy program the library is trying to develop with several contracted instructors. While some of the larger parts of the program were already determined before I started and while I won’t be the one teaching/instructing, I would still like to try and incorporate some of these practices if possible. I had the idea of using google classroom as a space to facilitate discussion (and keep everything together) and of giving learners a certificate of completion after the 6-week program (the program is meant to be offered as a series of classes over 6 weeks with specific topics covered each week) that they could use on their resumes as evidence of the fact that they’ve learned about these topics. I think after this week’s class I’ll reevaluate what “completion” means and how I can work with the instructors to create space for learner reflection (vs assessment).

Critical theory and transformative learning are deeply interesting to me, but I find the biggest hurdle in implementing them in the classroom is the nature of the kind of library instruction I’ve been able to do thus far. I am almost always a guest in someone else’s classroom with a limited time frame. There are very talented instruction librarians out there that find ways to incorporate critical theory into one-shot sessions (a common example I’ve seen is choosing search topics on a social justice issue relevant to the audience), but I know there is not enough time as a guest instructor to build a sense of trust that lends itself to open discussion and critical reflection. I’ve had better luck as a facilitator of a library student advisory group. There we were able to build a sense of community over a year before having the kinds of discussions that challenged any ideology (our focus was on textbook affordability and the relationships between publishers, libraries, and higher ed). That has been a great experience, but I have the luxury of time to slowly build trust and a co-learning environment.

One difficulty has been balancing the “support and challenge” of students that Wang, et al wrote about in the reading for this week. Our students are some of the most incredible people I work with, and sometimes I veer too far into coddling rather than challenging during discussions. They are just under so much pressure as it is! I had a group of students hardcore lamenting mask mandates in the library—just so, so frustrated and angry. I’ve had a few discussions with these students since then trying to balance empathy (wearing masks is not super fun) with challenging their perspective (who are we trying to protect by wearing masks?).

This is getting long now, but I’ve seen this kind of community/trust built in a short time for conferences. When Denver PL did their symposium on workplace racial equity in 2020, it was one of the first fully online conferences I had attended. I was blown away that their organizer had created a clear community agreement, time between sessions for reflection and decompression, and spaces for more vulnerable attendees to congregate by themselves. The symposium lasted a few days, but there was a sense of community, even in the tiny Zoom chats, because the organizer set clear expectations, made reminders, and attendees took responsibility to reinforce certain norms.

I think that as you incorporate this, you’ll find that 90% or more of the responses you get will be “this was amazing and so helpful” and that validation is important too!

Love that.

This was also the first thing I covered with my MLIS students as a way of communicating the “critical” part of my pedagogy! Students are so ready to be radicalized about this if they aren’t already.

Wow this sounds really impressive and I’m super curious about the organizer and their background in creating this space. This part of your comment made me think about Code4Lib and how their conferences have always felt like this (strong community and trust and all that) but that’s definitely been built over time, with a lot of in-person activity.

Yes for sure, though I should clarify I guess that I don’t think all the “transformative learning” things we talked about necessarily require/encourage people to disclose sensitive information. But we did talk about handling people’s stories carefully and how to handle a situation where “things got raw” so I think it’s understood that at least some of us are imagining that some of the time…?

I think a lot of it comes back to what we started to discuss in terms of a university classroom not being a “safe space” and how to handle that, as well as the particular dynamic of the professor being in charge of whether or not the student gets to pass the class (even without assessments) and also more generally serving as a path/gateway to other opportunities. Sometimes power analysis means making people aware of the power imbalance and what that means rather than pretending it’s not there…

e.g. a prof is so understanding/open that someone discloses some kind of struggle they’re having, but then the prof doesn’t consider that person for an opportunity in the future because “They have too much on their plate already” etc. Or a classmate (aka future colleague) learns things about someone that impact how they view them professionally in the future. These are both cases where even if the prof or classmate is totally well-intentioned they may find themselves viewing their student or colleague’s capacity differently in ways that hurt that person’s opportunities. This is all without considering situations where someone will be actively discriminated against bc of something they share (though that is of course also likely)!

Also, relatedly, we talk about being trauma-informed in terms of not assuming that people don’t have anything to hide, but sometimes in these sorts of environments where people are encouraged to share personal experiences, some personal experiences are safer to share than others! Sometimes it’s easier to stay out of it entirely than risk crossing whatever line there is in terms of what’s okay to share and what’s not okay.

I also wonder about the impact of this sort of thing on students’ expectations more generally. Like are they going to be confused if future profs aren’t this accessible? At the very least I feel like I’d have to qualify it, esp. for new students who don’t already know “the norms”, so they’re not in a bad position in future.
I don’t mean to suggest e.g. that we’re required to be heartless and “rigorous” because some future prof might be that way, but universities have all kinds of weird norms and the students who are newer to those norms are more likely to get in trouble in the future than students who “get” that we’re “doing something different”.

Ash’s experiences were incredibly useful in explaining the concepts that were presented earlier. I’m the kind of person who finds theory to be confusing and largely philosophical until it’s presented in a context that’s easier to understand and shows demonstrable concepts.

The one thing that did bother me with the concepts of transformative teaching environments was something I had to sit and dissect until I could figure out what exactly I was feeling. The thing that bothered me was the concepts of power dynamics with the lack of intersectionality in other areas as well as the underlying assumptions that belie the theory of transformative teaching environments. It kind of felt like the presentation of this topic tends to feel like it was written for a white, middle-class audience. We speak about teaching environments and power dynamics with the underlying assumption that the person in the position of educator is (for librarianship) white and likely female. It’s not necessarily overt but, in library systems overall, it feels a lot like white librarians do a lot of talking on behalf of ethnic and racial minorities and assume that the group is a monolith and agrees with the concepts they’re presenting about teaching/DEI/racism etc. in its entirety because the ideas posed are supposed to ‘help’ these groups.

When it comes to power dynamics, I found it a little strange that we focus solely on minoritizing characteristics of learners without taking into account these factors from an instructor point of view. I do feel it’s imperative that white librarians have to take into account that their level of power dynamics will always be different from other ethnic and racial minorities in the United States. A white instructor in a POC learners classroom will always have a certain kind of power dynamic that is different from a minoritized instructor in a white learners classroom. The disparities in terms of what one instructor can and cannot do depending on who is in the classroom is enormous. I always have to be cognizant that I am under higher levels of scrutiny than my white peers because of my minoritizing status. White instructors may be allowed to perform transformative teaching in ways that would put me at risk for reprimand if I tried to do them. I do understand that the topic presented is firmly an overview and introduction but it feels necessary to press that minoritizing status on the instructor side for a job that is still 80% white has an effect on the issues of teaching environments. Conversely, we need to also reiterate that the power dynamics of a white instructor in the classroom has an effect as well.

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Thank you for this post, I think these are super important points. Like a white man who decides to be non-hierarchical gets to be super hip (“call me Dave”), and a white woman who does it “gets” to be nurturing, but a Black woman gets perceived as incompetent; the “status quo” power differential has to be factored in. There was some sense in the workshop that these practises are “risky but worth it” but I do think it’s important to factor in exactly how risky! (Same goes for students too – the stakes for sharing are not even!)

I also think that some degree of structure, whether it comes from a syllabus and assessment or something else, can be helpful for evening out the playing field when people come from different backgrounds. In your average MLIS program it’s going to be entirely already-college-educated folks and mostly white people and mostly women which means that the “common ground” for expectations of what a university class is like is very different than a lot of other contexts. Students who don’t have a lot of expectations about what university is like aren’t necessarily going to feel liberated by not having a syllabus or clear expectations.

(In general I am in favour of being flexible but I also don’t want all of that to fall to individuals’ willingness to break the rules, bc then I have to decide who I want to break the rules for and when and that’s probably not going to be fair all of the time bc it depends too much on, like, who I like.)

Yeah I totally get these tensions and potential unintended consequences. There’s so much to critical pedagogy that’s impossible to cover in just one session. We’re actually doing an LFP book group on November 15th at 8 pm eastern, reading bell hooks’ “Teaching to Transgress” (full text here) which gets into some of these things and more. You should come if you can! And that extends to everyone here. It’ll be in the same zoom room that we use for our weekly conversations.

You’re right. I should have named this directly in my overview, and had I been more mindful of time we would have had space for small group discussion of our own experiences as teachers and as learners, and how race, class, and gender impact our ability to create these spaces. As our weeks progress we’ll be joined by BIPOC members of LFP who will relate their own experiences teaching and advocating privacy (Ash was the only person available for this week). I anticipate a lot of these folks joining for our bell hooks book group too (details above), so please come to that if you’re interested!

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I do feel it’s imperative that white librarians have to take into account that their level of power dynamics will always be different from other ethnic and racial minorities in the United States. A white instructor in a POC learners classroom will always have a certain kind of power dynamic that is different from a minoritized instructor in a white learners classroom. The disparities in terms of what one instructor can and cannot do depending on who is in the classroom is enormous. I always have to be cognizant that I am under higher levels of scrutiny than my white peers because of my minoritizing status. White instructors may be allowed to perform transformative teaching in ways that would put me at risk for reprimand if I tried to do them.

I felt this a lot in Ash’s presentation. Not only in things like their approach to the syllabus and the amount of good faith their approach requires from students to avoid getting back to the department–though I think they made that last bit, in particular, sound more automatic and easy than I expect it would come to a lot of instructors, especially BIPOC–but also in, for example, the way a lack of assessment and other concrete ways to demonstrate learning might prove more of a problem for BIPOC instructors (especially those on a more stable career track), while white instructors might be granted more leniency/variety in the ways they’re allowed to prove success. I don’t work in an academic setting, so it’s not an environment I can really speak to at all–and I’m absolutely the kind of person to roll my eyes at bad rules and quietly break them if I think I can get away with it, so it’s not that I think Ash’s approach is irresponsible or unreasonable for them to use (though I wouldn’t write off the reality that some students will feel more supported and able to engage when they know what to expect). But the way they teach does clearly depend on a certain level of inattention to their work by bosses, and I have a hard time believing that inattention is equally distributed, and I didn’t feel like they addressed that.

Thanks for the link! That sounds great. The part in the intro where she compares school before and after desegregation is totally fascinating both in terms of her experience of school and what it meant for her Black teachers as well.

Thank you for this post, Celeste! I completely agree.

It is so important to recognize how existing biases and institutional erasure come into play here. Women faculty are less likely to be referred to as doctor or professor, and their expertise is often questioned. Similarly, faculty of color are routinely judged more harshly in teaching evaluations.

I did enjoy Ash’s presentation, but some of their techniques did not seem available to me. As others mentioned, I would not feel comfortable giving out my phone number both for privacy reasons and for the implication that I am always available. Additionally, while I want to encourage my students to take risks, I also recognize that being vulnerable when you come from a marginalized background can open you up to risk. Hence, I am looking forward to the coming weeks (and the LFP book club) when we will be joined by BIPOC LFP members who might be able to expand on what trauma-informed instruction looks like to them.

I think that’s a super interesting distinction. Digital Promise’s work on portfolios (short explanation and example rubric here) has made me think a lot about how we demonstrate competence and facilitate reflection - though I haven’t had many opportunities to try it out, as PLs don’t often have the sustained contact with learners that a school does.