Category: Interviews

Spotlight: Ciara C. Knight

Ciara Knight

Interview by: Jonathan Aragon, M.P.H., PhDc., Teaching Fellow and Doctoral Candidate

Ciara C. Knight is a MS, MA, and Ph.D. Candidate in Psychology: Evaluation & Applied Research Methods. She is an adjunct professor Department of Psychology at Cal Poly Pomona.

What I love most about teaching is making connections with my students and getting to see a transformation take place within them”. 

Ciara C. Knight’s expertise lies within and between evaluation, research, and teaching. She has a natural ability to explain abstract concepts while addressing questions in an engaging, inclusive, interesting and thought-provoking manner across diverse audiences and settings. As a practitioner, Ciara has extensive professional experience in the evaluation of health and higher education programs predominately focused on communities of varying cultural backgrounds and needs. Her evaluation practice is often supported by her research pursuits focusing on diverse communities, equity, data visualization, and contextual (i.e. cultural, organizational, environmental, and political) factors in evaluation, higher education, and health disparities. With a combined expertise in research and evaluation, Ciara provides her students with relatable and field-based examples of how contextual factors along with social science theories (i.e. psychological, health, evaluation), plays a role in personal and professional domains. Ultimately, Ciara balances her evaluation and research commitments with her third passion – sparking curiosity and interest through her teaching. 

How has the PFF program impacted your teaching? 

The PFF program really prepared me for teaching; looking back, it entailed so much, I really feel it should be a master’s degree program and not just a certificate. I see a lot of what PFF taught me come up in new faculty training, such as writing learning outcomes and objectives. Because I did the PFF program I was really had this down, I was setup for success coming into my faculty appointment. I know how to tie the assignments, the activities, and the exams, to those learning outcomes. I also involve my students in this process. I begin every lesson with learning objectives and make sure that they understand our goals as we go through the session. From day one, my students know and understand our learning objectives and how our class assignments, activities, and assessments support those outcomes and objectives.  The Preparing Future Faculty program also modeled for me how to make the activities I do in my class very dynamic, flexible, and creative.  I have really taken what PFF taught me and made it my own. 

The website that the PFF program requires has done wonders for my career it was challenging to develop, but it was worth it. People are taking notice. I put my website link on my LinkedIn and get a lot of views that way. It caught the attention of a great institution and helped me to land a research position. I have also opened my website up to my students. I let my students use my website to write blogs and I post other class related resources there for them as well. 

The Teacher–Scholar framework that PFF teaches has also been very beneficial. I have taken on that mindset. Any work I do out in the field, I integrate back into my classroom, into the lessons. The PFF program taught me to have that mindset, to have that interconnectedness between my work as a scholar and my work as a teacher. 

The PFF consultations has helped me a lot. Starting my first teaching position, PFF was right there for me whenever I was having anxiety, when I just needed some support, when I needed help understanding a process, PFF was right there when I needed them. When I got my first offer at Cal Poly, PFF was there for me even over winter break to help me prepare for my first lesson. My demo and the first day of class were one and the same, which was important to get right because undergraduates do not usually see evaluation, so that first impression was very critical.   

  What do you want to promote in your classroom? 

In my classes, I promote confidence and dispel imposter syndrome.   

The classes I teach are all upperdivision level courses. By the time students get to my class they are burned out and uncertain about the future. There is a real lack of confidence and a lot of confusion They are very unsure of themselves and struggle to see how their educational journey culminates to make up an expertise. They think they should be more than they are. 

To dispel this imposter syndrome, I explain to my students that professionals with 30 years of experience feel the same way they do, that frustration is part of the evaluation process. I share real life evaluation stories to help my students understand that every real-world project has real-world challenges and there is no such thing as perfect. They are not alone; everyone goes through the process. I encourage my students to know that they have the chops, they have the skills, they do have something relevant to contribute to the conversation. All those years of schooling were not a waste; they are ready. I want to make sure everyone leaving my class goes with that kind confidence. 

Building confidence also means restoring faith in their education. Many of my psychology students do not see how all the research classes they had to take works into their careers as clinicians. I clear up the confusion by explaining they need to know how to know how to systematically collect and interpret data in order to make good recommendations to their clients – and then it clicks for them. 

Importantly, a big part of dispelling the imposter syndrome is seeing a black woman like myself teaching these quantitative classes. For many, this is the first time they have seen a woman of color teaching these kinds of classes. It is very important to model these possibilities so that diverse students can see themselves doing this too. 

  What do you feel is your purpose as a teacher? 

As a professor who teaches upper division undergraduates, my purpose is to help my students to make the connections between school and life. Senior undergraduates are at a transition point. They are about to venture out into the world but may not immediately see how to transfer the knowledge, skills, and experiences they have collected in their years in college in the journey that awaits them. Life is an adventure; one never knows what will emerge. Thus, it is important for seniors to make the transition not just as persons with a college degree in a specific field, but also as agile professionals. 

I look for moments to guide my students in how to think in this way. When they go beyond just thinking in this way, to making it their own, I know I have done my job. One example is Zoom. Zoom is a tool we use for class, but I show my students how to use features they may not be aware of. Before the pandemic, and Zoom’s popularity, I was using Zoom to solve problems in evaluation practice. Likewise, some of my students have reported how they are becoming stars in their new jobs because of what they learned about using Zoom in our class. That is part of being an agile professional, becoming someone who can develop innovative solutions to problems in one setting, based on what was learned in a completely different setting. Everything is useful, if everything is seen as usable.

What do you love most about teaching? 

What I love most about teaching is making connections with my students and getting to see a transformation take place within them. When students first arrive to my program evaluation and survey research classes, there is a lot of anxiety and a lack of confidence. However, over the course of the semester I get to watch my students transform into confident and capable professionals, and that is very rewarding. Many of my students go back into their communities and do really amazing things. They are giving back. Some also go onto graduate school, many of whom I have written letters for.  Even when there is a need for a student to repeat the course, there is a clear transformation. Students come back more outgoing, more open and confident. I love witnessing the amazing people my students grow to become. Hearing stories about how my office hours, and just being available to talk made a difference in their lives. About how the time we spent together, connecting as a class, played a part in who they are today. So yes, making these kinds of connections, building meaningful relationships, and seeing those transformations take place – that is what I really love about teaching. 

What are the most important shifts, we must make in education to create social justice and equity in our classrooms and institutions? 

One important shift that needs to take place is to move away from stand alone, piecemeal efforts and look to instead embed social justice and equity throughout the whole educational process, and with all faculty members. The current approach is to build up departments focused on ethnic studies, to add classes that help students understand about systemic racism, and support faculty who have a strong focus on addressing these issues. However, what is really needed is to discuss these issues in all courses. 

For example, when I teach survey research methods, I discuss minimizing harm to certain communities, why we need to think about our demographic questions about gender, different ways of asking about gender, and why we ask those questions to begin with. It is very important for students that there is interconnection between the subject content and social justice and equity. This is how students make the connection in their profession. Mandating random classes on social justice and equity does not accomplish that. It makes it much harder for students to see the meaning behind those requirements. There is nothing wrong with focused courses, but they must be in addition to a schoolwide effort, not the sole solution. 

We need to hire diverse faculty, but we also need ALL faculty members to be teaching social justice and equity, not just faculty of color. Likewise, we need to see faculty of color teaching the hard sciences so that we can model that for our students. 

In line with interconnection, another important shift that needs to take place is to bring some transparency to the whole college process. First generation students, and students with diverse backgrounds, do not always see the big picture; they do not have people in their lives to show them how all the requirements work in tandem, and that impacts their confidence. Undergraduates are so focused on meeting requirements, because that is their guidance, “Take this class, meet this requirement, now take this class.” There is no transparency as to how the classes build on each other. Instead of making the meaning clear, we prioritize meeting course requirements. So, students focus on meeting requirements. Then we count on the next professor to catch them up. If a student falls behind, we victim blame them as being a bad student, but why was there no safety net? Students need to know the meaning behind everything they are doing. They need transparency in their program requirements. Currently, we do not do a good job scaffolding the process as a whole. One thing that faculty can do is talk to each other about the classes they are teaching and look for ways for the individual courses to accumulate into collective learning outcomes, and then make the big picture visible to students. Transparency and meaning in the whole college process are needed before we can say that we are addressing issues of equity and inclusion. As with most wicked problems, it is a systems problem that must be addressed at the systems level, not through one and done efforts.  

Spotlight: Emily Kiresich

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.