Tension, Misfires, Trigger Warnings & Civil Discourse


It can’t be missed, the challenges of civility in everyday discourse that have been heightened by the current election cycle. But politics alone haven’t brought about the issues of discomfort in verbal exchanges in the classroom. The concept of the “trigger warning” has been around for a few years as a way of alerting students to conversations or course material that may lead to their discomfort, or even re-trigger some painful memories from a prior traumatic life experience. According to a recent article in the Chronicle for Higher Education, some have used it as  “heads up” and a “basic courtesy” to the students in the room. Others claim that it is “political correctness run amok” and could actually inhibit deeper discussions in the classroom, hindering intellectual conversations, and create a shadow of censorship in the academic environment. In a backlash, the University of Chicago went so far as to inform incoming students:

Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces,’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.

But the topic of trigger warnings is not alone in the conversation on creating spaces where challenging classroom and college discourse can make students uncomfortable. Embracing Tension in the Classroom was the title of a short article by Geniece Crawford Mondé in a recent issue of The Teaching Professor. In that article, Mondé describes the difference between positive and negative tension and how, by embracing the former, one can avoid the latter and create an engaging learning environment. Mondé goes on to use the term “hot moments” to describe the potential for discussions that can go off the rails leading to disrespectful and acrimonious discussions. By contrast, positive tension serves the learning objectives and is carefully guided, often built from reading material that sparks discussion. She suggests that the use of fictitious narratives can help avoid hot moments by “stripping an issue of its real-world status.”

Of course, the alternative challenge to educators is to help build a connection, empathy, and understanding of a subject, something that other educators have described as creating truly deep learning. Transferring that knowledge gained through deeper learning becomes a key 21st Century skill. How does one take their understanding of a pivotal historical moment and transfer that to a modern day situation? That is part of the conversation that happens in the classroom, and sometimes that conversation can be heated, the “hot moment” described by Mondé. The challenge is to identify the difference between a “heated” exchange and a “passionate” one.

But what, then, are misfires? From a pure communications standpoint, misfires can occur when an educator presents a behavior that undermines their own effectiveness in the classroom. We’ve all done it. We’re all human. There are behaviors, however, that we can modify to overcome the likelihood of misfires. Then, when one occurs, its impact is lessened on successful learning. Jennifer Waldeck suggests that our own attitude can project a lack of commitment to teaching that can undermine our effectiveness. Who wants to learn from someone who acts as if they hate being there? Verbal abuse, lazy behavior, and incompetence are just a few of the things she mentions as something we might be guilty of in the classroom. A student may even challenge an educator (or vice versa) with the refrain “you are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.” And, of course, many educators are offended by a challenge to what a student may call “an opinion” in regards to course content or even grading and assessment.

So what is an educator to do? First… don’t take it personally. Take a deep breath. Make it a partnership with the student from the very start. You are on an educational journey, one that should be built upon a partnership of trust and respect. Encourage challenges and provide guidance on how to shape conclusions based on discerning research and reliable resources. Review your syllabus and the tone that you take in it. Is the entire document written in terms of a threat? Is everything negative and punitive? Sometimes, just rewriting the content in a way that frames the educational experience as a positive one can make all the difference. Do your projects have rubrics that are fair and understandable? Consider having the students take a stab at grading their own work. In my experience, given this challenge, they are often harder on themselves than I would be. And the end result is they have a renewed appreciation for how difficult your job can be when it comes to assessing a student’s work.

All in all, just put your best foot forward. Show students your passion for the subject, not your disdain for their lack of understanding it. Share your own stories of how you came to understand the material, your “ah-ha!” moments. Learn from your students, from every challenge, awkward experience, and difficult conversation. Remember that, in the end, you are the grown-up who can astutely guide the student as they navigate new knowledge and its impact on their life’s view. And you can do that in a way that helps them make their own discoveries and resolutions.

Remember also that, as you get older, the students get younger – their experiences grow farther and farther away from your own. Listen and learn from them. Ask them to provide the thoughtful insights connecting the material to their own experiences. Show that you are learning from them, too.

Trigger warnings can provide a heads up. Tension can be a useful tool in the classroom. And occasional misfires can happen. But challenging conversations can also provide amazing opportunities to create true connections that make learning more meaningful and longlasting.


Updated list of Professional Development Opportunities

Are you looking for an opportunity to expand your experiences, knowledge and understanding of what’s happening in your field in the realm of education? Want to see what other innovations are going on in our field? Or do you have some great ideas you want to share on a larger stage with colleagues?

Visit our page of off-site professional development and conference opportunities for the latest list of activities from this month through 2017, with some advance notice on important conferences into 2018!

Read more!

Photo above: “1913 – Trying out the new assembly line”
By an unknown photographer, Detroit, Michigan, 1913

National Archives and Records Administration, Records of the Bureau of Public Roads

Technology Tips from the CTL


Starting this month, we’ll be sharing tech tips from our CTL Technology Consultants. At Mott’s Center for Teaching & Learning, we host between 1-3 faculty each semester who are here to support their fellow faculty and staff with technology that can be useful to improving their productivity and effectiveness in the classroom and around campus. The post that follows below is the first in this series.


From Paula Harris, CTL Tech Consultant and Nursing faculty:

Create a Signature Electronically to be used to sign Electronic Documents

Have you ever been asked to sign an electronic document (such as a pdf or doc) with your signature? If so, this Wired Wednesday is for you! There are a couple of ways that you can place your signature into an electronic document. You can create an electronic signature, save it to your computer, and then copy it into electronic documents. You can also use Adobe Acrobat Pro to include your signature in pdf documents electronically. I have developed step-by-step instructions to show you how to use both of these options.

  • Sign a piece of paper
  • Scan the signature, using your departmental copier, and email it to yourself
  • Save the document
  • Click on the “Snipping Tool” located in your Mott computer apps or a similar app on your PC (This snipping tool can be used to capture any screen image).
  • Note: On a Mac, you would use Cmd+Shift+4 and then draw a marquee over the item you want.
  • Once the Snipping Tool is opened, click on the down arrow next to “New.”
  • Choose the type of snip you want:
  • Then click on the area surrounding your signature by holding down the left side of the mouse and dragging the box to capture the image.
  • Save your signature to your computer, by clicking on “File” and choosing “Save As”. Files can be saved as PNG, GIF files, JPEG, or single file HTML. You can also right click on your image and copy it. This will allow you to place it immediately into your electronic document.

How to Sign a pdf Document

If you have Windows 8 on your Mott computer, you have access to the Adobe Acrobat XL Pro.

  • Open the pdf document you need to sign.
  • Click on the “Fill & Sign Tools” located at the upper right hand area of the screen.
  • Then click on “Place Signature”. You will then have the opportunity choose how you want to create your signature. Simply click on the radial button next to the option you want to use. Yo will have a chance to review your signature and then accept the one you like.
  • After you click on accept, click on the pdf document where you would like to place the signature. The size of the signature can be altered by clicking on the corners of the text box by holding down on the left side of the mouse and dragging the corner until you reach the appropriate size.
  • Save your changes and you are good to go!

Mott CTL Tech, Paula Harris, and the Multigenerational Classroom

Community Colleges are known for enrolling a wide range of demographics within their student body. This creates further challenges to faculty as we try to engage learners with a broader range of experiences in technology. In an article titled “Video: The Answer to Your Multigenerational Classroom,” Paula Harris, Mott’s CTL Technology Consultant and Associate Professor of Nursing, begins to address this question.

Screen Shot 2016-04-04 at 3.07.13 PMRead the full article here in the special technology supplement to the March 21st issue of Community College Week.

Quick Takes

Here are a few posts from other publications worth a quick read.

Too much email? Get a quick take on how to manage it from Profhacker at the Chronicle for Higher Education in their blog When We Should Reply to Email

But maybe you are interested in some distractions to break up your day. Here are some interactive cats for your entertainment. Check out Digital Distractions: Interactive Cats.

Do you need some more creative distractions that could help spark new ideas? Check out this story and video shared by Core77 on the fine craft of paper marbling.

Reflections on Dream 2016


hope_graphicLate last month, more than 2000 people descended upon Atlanta’s Hyatt Regency for the Dream 2016 conference, a forum where community college educators, administrators, researchers, policy-makers, and thought-leaders come together to share in the conversation that began with the Achieving the Dream movement. To say it was an inspirational event would be an understatement. For colleagues who have attended this in prior years, they warned me that it would be informative, overwhelming and inspiring. I was not disappointed. If there was ever a place where one felt part of a much larger mission, one that existed to help better mankind through the education of some of our most vulnerable and under-served populations, this was it.

Our learning lies in the telling of our stories.
~ David Price, Open: How we will work, live and learn in the future (quoted at Dream 2016)

Digesting it all has taken awhile. Like most of you, I’m sure, when you return from an academic conference that hits in the middle of a busy semester, you are running from the moment you return, catching up with all the important emails that required a more thoughtful response, answering questions and reviewing student assignments (if you also teach, as I do), refocusing on the backlog of reading needed for the next committee meeting. It can seem like a lifetime ago when you were there, among all those people who shared an excited commitment to the mission at hand.

Expand knowledge beyond the shores of wonder…
~ heard during one of the sessions, Dream 2016

And then you realize it… at least I did…that I was DOING the work that we were all talking about. As I would occasionally fall into the haze of recovery from travel or just plain mid-semester overload – you know, that feeling where you know there is something you should be doing but your brain is stuck in neutral – it would dawn on me as my next move was decided, that I was framing my responses in light of the lessons I’d learned from the many presentations I had attended at the Dream conference.

Transformative change requires three kinds of change at the same time: Structural, Process, and Attitudinal. And it must happen on multiple levels.
~ notes from presentation on iPASS, Dream 2016

Panicky students sent emails about assignments after two snow days fell on two consecutive Wednesdays that was then followed by Spring break. Taking a deep breath, I reflected upon the best way to diffuse their panic while making the best of the learning objectives for the course.

[We are] not just a community college, but THE COMMUNITY’s college.
~ Jim Jacobs, president, Macomb Community College, heard at Dream 2016

Over the next 10 days, I responded and reviewed and reassured students. I sent out pro-active emails and announcements from Blackboard. I offered to meet with students outside of class. I offered to look over their work in progress and provide feedback. And, for the most part, it seemed to work. About 1/3 of the class was ready with the several assignments that were due. And another third was nearly ready.

It’s important to remember the stories. People will forget the numbers (data). But they will not forget the stories. History can promote thought. But…humanity promotes action.
~ Wes Moore, author, speaking at Dream 2016

There were still those students who could not complete their goals to catch up over the Spring break in spite of the availability of technology to work on assignments, in spite of my availability to help guide them. There were other factors that challenged them – those life issues faced by many of our community college students that we often talk about. But we made a pact and set some new goals together, including new deadlines with high expectations while not leading these students out the door. I believe in them and let them know it. I believe each and every student can succeed to the best of their ability and potential. And I share that with them, too, so that they can begin to believe in themselves.

Change your lens…by addressing each student as a Dream Scholar.
~ Tamika Narvaez-Payne, Dream Scholar student from Bakersfield College

Hope is a powerful tool.

Technology and its Softer side to Learning


Much has been written on the topic of incorporating technology into the classroom, all in the name of increasing student success through increased engagement. Technology has been an important factor in the concept of the flipped classroom and “teaching naked” (José Bowen) where the students are responsible for viewing lectures and doing the readings beforehand so that the classroom can become more activity-focused and engaging.

It has been an established part of online learning where both access to, and preparation for, the use of technology is critical to learning and participation in this digital environment, especially as a way of reducing the distance between students – each other or between them and the faculty. The results are mixed with many claiming that MOOCs are the new egalitarian education. But the results are mixed, especially when applying this to credit-bearing courses. The engagement of both learner and educator become critical and results often depend upon the increased fortitude from highly prepared students and faculty who are both committed to successful completion.

But technology can also play an important pedagogical role in the area of personal narratives as a tool for increased student engagement. Digital storytelling is the subject of a brief guide published by Educause that provides some food for thought on how to incorporate the digital medium effectively and accessibly without requiring a high mastery of advanced digital tools. Today, students and faculty have access to a digital movie studio in their telephones, and can easily edit on mobile devices or their desktop and save it in a format that can be viewed for free online.

The goal, however, is not just to create another way to utilize technology in the classroom. The real objective is to instill passion in the topic leading to the successful achievement in the learning outcome. Humans are natural storytellers. We can ask students to incorporate research and resources into their projects. But by also allowing them to make it personal, they become more engaged. This becomes not just something they have to study, but something they are immediately making relevant to their own worlds.

Ken Bain, author of What the Best College Teachers Do, would call this deeper learning, something that may be achieved through a series of “goal-based scenarios.” His follow-up book What the Best College Students do addresses the passion that students can find within to motivate their own learning. Hear Ken Bain in this recent NPR interview from May 2015.

What does all this have in common? It is the combination of inspiring student passion and the ability to express a personal connection to the material that creates passion for learning. This makes digital storytelling a powerful tool for student engagement that can be applied within any discipline we teach. To learn more, follow some of the links provided above and discover more ways to be inspired to apply this in your own classroom!