Interview by: Jonathan Aragorn, Teaching Fellow and Doctoral Candidate
Emily J. Kiresich, Ph.D., MPH, MS, RDN, FAND is an Assistant Professor of Nutrition and Food Science at Cal Poly Pomona
“My favorite parts include my interactions with students and hearing about ‘ah-ha’ moments of learning”
Q: HOW HAS YOUR TEACHING EVOLVED SINCE YOUR FIRST SEMESTER?
I think the biggest thing is that I used to see my role as just disseminating information and now I realize that the information is available – I need to create opportunities through experiences, discussion, and assignments, to help students make connections with the material.
Q: HOW DO YOU FIND BALANCE WITH SO MANY RESPONSIBILITIES?
That’s a great question, you have to give and take.
Teaching three new classes in one semester is not the best idea. You should try to protect your time as much as possible by asking your department for some classes that you are already familiar with, especially if you’re going to teach something new. For example, I am currently teaching 3 sections, two different classes, but they are classes I have taught before. Although I do have to prepare some new materials every semester, I also know the content very well and I am very comfortable with the classes I teach. New classes require more preparation, and It is helpful to be mindful of that.
It also helps to utilize materials from the teachers before you, so don’t start from fresh and make every single assignment and every single lecture brand new. Start with making a few edits to what already exists, and then improve on that every semester. You have to let go of perfectionism, because there’s really no such thing as being perfect. You might have a great idea for an activity, and spend time preparing for it, only to discover it does not work as expected in practice.
If your time needs to be split one-third scholarly activities, one-third service, and one-third teaching, then it is important to protect your time. For example, if you wanted to design a new assignment this semester, but you don’t have time for it, you just don’t. You do it next semester instead. It can be disappointing, but I think you do have to let go of giving perfect lectures.
In terms of your tenure-track research agenda, you can partner with other faculty doing research and use the work you submit with them your first year while you find your footing, and work on your first authors and grants your second year.
Q: WHAT WAS IT LIKE SWITCHING TO ONLINE TEACHING IN 2020?
I felt fortunate to be well-versed in online education and the transition was not difficult in terms of technology.
I find the biggest challenge is to keep personal connections to students and create engaging classes in the virtual world. We don’t want to require video (you never know what’s going on in the home) but it’s challenging to teach to black squares!
I could definitely tell the difference between the Spring and the Fall. In the Spring it was a bit easier to keep rapport with students that I’d already had some personal contact with, but in the Fall we did not have that advantage, and fewer students submitted course evaluations. If there is not a personal connection, I think there’s even a lower drive than usual for students to feel like they should provide feedback about a class.
I try to get to know the students as much as I can with the opportunities I do have. This semester, I log into my classes a few minutes early to recreate that chatter that happens in a classroom before the session begins. I do a lot of breakout discussions, so that students can talk to each other and build rapport in smaller groups. I also make sure to do group activities in every class such as think-pair-share. With discussion boards, I try to have some fun ones, so that it’s not all content related.
For example, in my asynchronous class, the first discussion board was quarantine song. My students posted a song that reminded them of what quarantine has been like and explained why. Such discussions provide levity and allows my students to share about themselves instead of jumping right into content on pregnancy and nutrition.
I am also open with my students about when I make mistakes or when I am struggling so we can relate more. For example, if my kids decide to be loud during a session I will say “You hear that? it’s hard today.” I think it keeps it a little real, so they know that it is not easy for professors either and hopefully, they feel more comfortable reaching out about their own struggles.
I also try to create a more inclusive environment by helping my students to understand that if the pandemic is not causing them to struggle with college, they should not feel guilty about that, but at the same time understand that other students might be more impacted by it.”
Q: WHAT DO YOU FIND ENGAGES STUDENTS MOST IN ONLINE TEACHING?
Being open and honest – share about successes and struggles. Make time to allow student/teacher interaction at the beginning and end of classes, have discussion boards that are not 100% course-content, we all need a little fun sometimes, having small-group or breakout rooms that allow students to share in a smaller group (they tend to turn the camera on in these groups).
Q: WHAT ARE SOME CHANGES YOU WOULD LIKE TO SEE IN HIGHER EDUCATION? OR PREDICTIONS?
It seems that hybrid is here to stay. I think that the flexibility our students and faculty experienced with online education is likely here to stay. That said, we needed to find ways to make our courses more accessible and this has shown us that we can reach students in places that are far from us geographically. It addresses a lot of accessibility issues that we’ve struggled with in higher education, but as we discussed, there are some challenges involved with it as well.
I think this has been reflected in the desires of some of my students. For example, I offered a class synchronously and asynchronously this semester. The fully online asynchronous class filled up and the one and the synchronous barely met the registration requirements. Students want the flexibility of a fully asynchronous online class. Hybrid classes allows students to have some flexibility, a Monday / Wednesday class might only meet on Monday and in terms of best practices, the session where everyone meets should be an active learning day. We can look to places who’ve been doing hybrid education and online education successfully for a really long time for best practices.
Students can review lectures at home, we have proven that. When students are in class, we can take that opportunity to have real interactions with the material, and utilize labs, activities and discussions. We can really require that students be prepared for class by having reviewed all the materials, so that they are ready to participate.
Q: WHAT ARE THE MOST IMPORTANT SHIFTS WE MUST MAKE IN EDUCATION TO CREATE SOCIAL JUSTICE AND EQUITY IN OUR CLASSROOMS AND INSTITUTIONS?
I’m not an expert in this area – but talking about it is helpful. I teach in nutrition, public health nutrition, work with communities. It is easy to incorporate conversations about equity and justice into my courses; I believe we can find opportunities in every class and every major to talk about what’s missing from our textbooks or history because of who wrote it.
We have opportunities to examine our syllabi and consider our policies and how they might favor some students (those with college-educated parents or confident in using university services) and not others (first-generation students, students with trouble accessing stable internet or unsure of how/when to contact an instructor). I have an obligation to do better, ask for critique of my work, and make changes to improve accessibility.
Q: WHAT DO YOU WANT TO PROMOTE IN YOUR CLASSROOM?
Fearlessness – being open, honest, vulnerable. I share if I’ve made a mistake or something is new to me. I own-up to mistakes and share about the challenges I faced when I was a student. I ask questions when something is unfamiliar rather than shut it down.
Q: WHAT ASSIGNMENTS DO YOU LIKE TO GRADE VS NOT GRADE?
I would rather grade a project in which students produced something from their learning and skillset, that is of interest to them, than ‘questions’ from the textbook. Both types of assignments can be important for learning and accountability, but I love to read work that students developed when provided only guidelines and not a strict mandate…they are SO smart and come up with interesting and fun ideas.
Q: WHAT IS YOUR MOST MEMORABLE TEACHING STORY?
I’m not sure I have one memorable moment. I was a lecturer for 8 years and I’ve been a TT-faculty for 1 year. My favorite parts include my interactions with students and hearing about ‘ah-ha’ moments of learning. Also, when they contact me to share their successes or how something they learned in my class or in the department has shaped their choices. Now, with COVID, we have the opportunity to offer students more support than ever, by being open and working together to meet course requirements in the face of challenges.