Takeaway points from the book From Equity Talk to Equity Walk

When I started my new habit of reading for at least 15 minutes first thing every (weekday) morning, one of my goals was to start chipping away at my growing pile of work-related reading. And indeed, it’s already paid off, because last week I finished the first of my “morning book reads”.

From Equity Talk to Equity Walk: Expanding Practitioner Knowledge for Racial Justice in Higher Education by Tia Brown McNair, Estela Mara Bensimon, and Lindsey Malcom-Piqueux (AAC&U, December 2020) is an accessible guidebook for anyone involved in, or contemplating taking a greater role in, equity work on campus. I don’t remember who originally recommended this book to me (and I suspect it was recommended by a few people), but I’m so grateful that they did. I’m not going to do a full-on book report, but I’ll briefly summarize the premise and then talk about the points that resonated most with me.

While the end of the book offers some specific actions in regards to advising and syllabi, the majority of the book concentrates on dismantling the ways we tend to think about achieving equity on our campuses — focusing on achievement gaps, aggregating data and discussions about “underrepresented” students, operating from a student deficit model — arguing instead for practices and conversations that critically examine how our structures embrace and prioritize whiteness, and how this focus on whiteness racializes everything from campus culture to academic achievement. The language we use when talking about students and their experiences, the way we define (or, more often, fail to define) what “equity” means in our campus contexts, our reluctance to engage in frank conversations about race, all contribute to our inability (or unwillingness, or perhaps both) to see how our institutions are set up with privileged white male students as the default, and to perpetuate this set-up with band-aid fixes to “equity problems”. The book argues that true equity work cannot succeed unless there are shared definitions of equity among campus leaders, and that these definitions are clearly and repeatedly reflected in the institution’s mission statement, reward structure, practices, and conversations.

The book spends a significant chunk of time talking about data and its role in illuminating places where the institution fails students and in fostering faculty reflection. The authors argue strongly for disaggregating data to get a full picture of the current status — that being truly equity-minded means examining differences in outcomes for specific groups so that you can truly understand the sources of the problems. It presents specific examples from campuses on how departments analyzed and discussed disaggregated data, which I found quite useful. Not so much for the actual contexts — it appears the case studies were drawn from schools larger than Carleton — but for modeling how to structure conversations around the data, and how to respond to the “but whatabout” points most commonly raised in such contexts.

There were three points in particular that resonated with me:

Point 1: We need to have frank conversations not just about race, but also about whiteness, on our campuses. This book helped me articulate why I’ve had this gnawing feeling of discomfort and dissatisfaction with the equity work I’m doing individually and as part of larger campus efforts. We focus on the students — as we should — and come up with strategies to “help them fit in” — advising strategies, cohort programs. But often (not always, but often enough), we don’t stop to question why our solutions gravitate towards “fitting students into the existing model” and not questioning the reasons we have a model that requires us fitting in students at all. We accept the systems as fixed. And this is largely because we just accept that “whiteness” is the norm, and not just the norm but the only acceptable norm. I doubt most of us do this consciously, but that doesn’t matter, because the effect is the same. It’s hard to start from a place of “our entire foundation is flawed”, but we’re going to have to go there if we are serious about achieving equity. And that’s going to be mighty uncomfortable and unsettling for a lot of us.

The book wasn’t super specific on ways to accomplish this — which makes sense, because each institution is in a different context and at a different starting point in these conversations. But I did appreciate that the book pointed out contexts in which to start probing whiteness — our everyday practices, our review and promotion processes, and especially the language we use when talking about student outcomes. In this way, it provided starting points for both individual work and campus conversations, something I appreciated very much.

Point 2: Collecting and analyzing the right data is crucial. Being at a small school and in a discipline not really revered for its diversity, I often hear about the “small numbers” problem. “We can’t disaggregate the data because the numbers are too small and we don’t want to identify students.” “The numbers are too small to tell us anything statistically meaningful.” “We can see trends affecting minoritized students better if we aggregate the data.” I get the arguments, particularly the one about aggregating to preserve student privacy. But the book makes a clear and cogent argument for data disaggregation. And in so doing, it highlights one of the many ways we get equity work wrong: we treat “minoritized” students as a monolith, rather than distinct populations with unique and non-overlapping histories with academia (and society as a whole). So we’re back to treating white as default and everyone else as “other”. With aggregated data, we may be able to identify a problem, but are likely to get the remedies wrong. With disaggregated data, we can see exactly who is adversely affected (and who benefits) by various structures and how this manifests itself (in student performance, in retention and tenure rates, etc.). I’m currently working on several initiatives that will require data collection, and this book is helping me think through how to structure our “data ask” and has helped me initiate conversations about data disaggregation in advance of this ask.

Point 3: We need to be clear, consistent, and specific on what we mean by equity. I feel the need to acknowledge that several trusted people in my life have given me tough feedback on this specific point this year, and that while I heard and processed that information, I wasn’t sure how to move forward with it. The book helped me connect that feedback to concrete actions and steps I could take, or at least advocate for. In fact, at our next STEM Board meeting each of our working groups is going to present their working definitions of equity so that we can see what assumptions we’re all making, where these overlap, and where they conflict. Admittedly, we should have STARTED the conversation there, and not circled back to it as we are. Then again, I’m not sure many of us were ready to define equity until we’d grappled with it in concrete contexts first. As an institution, we don’t have a shared definition of equity, either, similar to many other institutions. This lack of a definition means we can’t really set policies and practices to achieve equity — if we don’t know what it is, how do we know how to get there or know when we’ve arrived? We also need to be specific and granular about equity. What does equity mean for first-generation college students? For STEM degree attainment? For Black faculty? For participation in research opportunities? That said, we can’t get to this granularity until we have an agreed-upon institutional definition of equity as guidance.


I can see this book working for people at different stages in their equity work. I think the book works best for people new to this work — those who have a desire to work towards equity on their campuses but are not sure where to begin. The book is really useful in providing talking points and language to start conversations and to address derailing arguments. (I really like the term “first-generation equity practitioners” that the book uses for those in earlier stages of equity work, and in many ways I recognized myself as a first-generation equity practitioner, too.) For those a bit further steeped in this work, it serves as a reminder of the many ways this work can go off the rails and provides strategies for helping move campus, departmental, and programmatic conversations forward. If you’re looking for a quick fix or the magic incantation that will instantly make your campus equitable — well, this book reminds you that there are no quick fixes, just hard and necessary work.

Have you read From Equity Talk to Equity Walk? If so, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Growing pains and trust

My first year in my administrative role as STEM Director was all about figuring out what the hell I’m supposed to be doing. My second year, thus far, has been all about growing pains.

I won’t go into too many details, because the situations themselves are not all that important to the story. In a couple of cases, I angered some colleagues and likely alienated a few others through decisions I made independently — decisions on which I should have sought broader input. In another case, I learned that several other groups within STEM were independently planning an event that I, with a few others, was also planning.

I’ve spent a lot of time this year feeling frustrated. Not at the people involved, whose intentions were good in the latter case and who trusted me enough to give me tough feedback in the former case. (Something I don’t take lightly at all!) But moreso at the situations themselves. Didn’t we, as STEM departments and programs, work hard to put this particular leadership structure of a director and a board in place, because we saw a need for this leadership structure? If that’s the case, then why aren’t departments, programs, and individuals utilizing this structure? Why are departments and programs continuing to act independently on initiatives that could benefit all of STEM at Carleton, and do what I see as unnecessary work, when if we work together through the board we can do so much more?

And then I realized that I’ve been asking myself the wrong questions. The question I should have been asking is this:

How have we failed to establish the trust of the STEM community at Carleton in this new system we put into place?

This particular leadership structure is just over 2 years old. Departments and programs developed habits and systems to work independently, in the absence of habits and systems of working collectively (at least in an organized way), over YEARS. We’d worked together on some initiatives in the past, with shaky alliances. Why now should we magically expect that departments would abandon these habits when we hadn’t yet proved that this system was something they could rely on, that could help them in myriad ways?

I’d forgotten a fundamental lesson from my time at the HERS Institute: The first and most crucial step for a leader is to establish trust.

I’ve been reflecting since then on how to build trust, now that I understand that’s my MAIN role in these early years of the STEM Directorship. There are many paths to building trust, but there are five that I think are most important:

  1. Transparency. My personality is such that I’m not comfortable sharing ideas that I haven’t thought out. I need time to plan before I can share. But this can backfire if I go too far down the planning road before sharing my plans with others. I need to get more comfortable letting people in on earlier stages. And I need to figure out when it’s ok to share a half-baked idea (“we’d like to bring X to campus, but are not sure if we can make it happen”) and when I should flesh things out more carefully before sharing them. In a similar vein:
  2. Delegation. People want to help! My job is NOT to come up with all of the ideas. (Big thanks to the STEM Program Manager, who reminds me of this at least once a week in an attempt to save me from myself.) My job is to put the structure in place that ENABLES others to bring their ideas to life. This is the biggest lesson I’ve learned from my missteps. Delegation also demonstrates trust in others — I trust you to help realize this vision, bring this initiative to life, share ideas that matter, etc. This leads to:
  3. Empowerment. I need to empower the STEM Board as a whole, and STEM Board representatives in particular, to be agents of change. In the past, board meetings served as a way to share information and perspective from departments and send information back to departments. While this is valuable, it’s too transactional and not transformational. This year, I’ve assigned all of the reps into working groups based on interests, and each group is working on specific and self-defined initiatives related to diversity, equity, and inclusion in STEM at Carleton. These groups are moving us much more quickly from vague ideas of “we would like to make STEM more inclusive and equitable at Carleton” to “here are specific ways in which we will move the needle”, than we would have done otherwise.
  4. Wins. A big part of building trust lies in demonstrating through your actions that you are trustworthy. For the STEM Board, this means putting on successful events and taking concrete actions towards things that matter. For me, this means soliciting input and feedback from others, and then acting on this input and feedback. This one’s still very much a work in progress, but an improving work in progress.
  5. Messaging. Not only do I have to develop trust in this new structure, but as the first full-term director, I need to help the STEM Board develop its identity. Who are we and what do we stand for? What are our priorities and ways of working? The more I can help establish a STEM Board identity, the more smoothly my successor can transition into this role and move STEM at Carleton in new directions.

This is the first time in my career that I’ve had to work hard to establish trust on this large of a scale. At times it’s deeply uncomfortable, requiring me to act in ways that don’t come naturally to me. (See: delegation.) And part of me wishes that I’d figured this out sooner — how much more smoothly might the first year have gone if I’d started by establishing trust? I can’t change the past, but I can start laying the groundwork now for my successor, and for the future of the STEM Board.

Winter term: Goal setting and structure

After spending over a year holding on for dear life while running as fast as I can on a hyperspeed treadmill and juggling flaming chainsaws, I find myself in the enviable position of having A LIGHT TEACHING TERM. I’m advising two capstone “Comps” groups, running a one-credit seminar for a research cohort program, and working with research students.

To be fair, this is my heavy term for my administrative role, which means I’ll be racing on a treadmill of a different sort. But at least I won’t be juggling a heavy administrative load with a heavy teaching load, like I did last winter. (Do. Not. Recommend.) The workload is still significant, but the rhythm is completely different. More meetings, less rushing to post things on Moodle. More strategic planning, less specifications grading. More reporting, less recording video lectures and demonstrations.

More control over my time, less I-need-to-be-in-front-of-students time.

Knowing myself — and recognizing that the events of the past year, and the past week, have pushed my anxiety and depression into overdrive — I know that if I’m not careful, I can easily fall into a black hole of despair. The lack of a strict structure and schedule is not my friend in this regard.

One thing that does help? It’s the start of the year, which means it’s goal-setting time! And even Depressed and Anxious Me loooooooves a good goal-setting session. So I’ve tried to use this to my advantage — leveraging my goals to set up systems and a structure that should hopefully keep me on track this term, or at least keep me from falling too deeply into the abyss.

Goals

I decided to have my #21for2021 list serve as my goal list for the year, and tried to structure it accordingly, with work, home, and personal goals.

In Week 1 of 2021, I did manage to do (7) (call Mom), but failed to do (9) (reach out to someone in my work network). Whoops.

I usually set monthly goals, goals for each academic term (plus the summer), and weekly priorities (which I set at my Sunday Meeting). This year I’m still doing the monthly goal-setting and weekly priorities lists, but I’m experimenting with true quarterly goals (January-March, April-June, July-September, October-December). Quarters mostly overlap with academic terms, so it’s not a huge departure. It’s in these monthly and quarterly goals where I’ll get SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, time-bound) and detailed. If 2021 is anything like 2020 (or, er, even worse than 2020), these semi-frequent checkins will allow me to reevaluate and pivot if a goal just doesn’t make sense given the circumstances.

Notebook listing goals for the first quarter of 2021.
My first quarter goals for 2021. “Sustainability” seems to be the theme.

One thing I would like to be better about is rewards! I tend to finish something big and move on, without marking the achievement. (I still haven’t celebrated my promotion to full professor, or being named to my administrative position!) This is…not healthy. And probably not the best example for my kiddos. One of my January goals is to submit a paper for review — so maybe I should start by celebrating that win when it happens!

Crafting a routine

With lots of open time and lots of tasks to fill that time, it’s easy to get overwhelmed, or move from thing to thing without making much progress on anything. I’ve had some luck with “theming” my days in the past, so I’m using that this term. I give each day a “theme” that defines the type of work I’ll focus on for that day. For example, here are my themes for this term:

  • Leadership Mondays. I focus mainly on tasks associated with my administrative role. I meet with my dean and my program manager, work through project to-do lists, and do some long-term and short-term planning. I also set aside some time to do some leadership role-related reading — right now, for instance, I’m reading From Equity Talk to Equity Walk, which is useful to approximately 5673 parts of my job.
  • Deep Work Tuesdays. I always reserve Tuesdays for deep work, since I rarely teach on Tuesdays and I try hard to protect the day from meetings. I work on research and writing projects. If there are any big leadership things I didn’t finish on Monday, I’ll work on those on Tuesdays, too.
  • Research / Writing Wednesdays. Wednesdays are a bit more fragmented, with more meetings, so I use them to finish up writing and research tasks from Tuesday, and do research and writing tasks that are a bit clearer and more focused. If I happen to have a light meeting day, I’ll take advantage of that to do more deep work.
  • Meeting Thursdays. Thursdays are my heavy meeting days. This is where I put all those small tasks that I can do between meetings and / or when my brain is fried from peopling.
  • Career Planning Fridays. This ends up being more aspirational, because Fridays also become a dumping ground for everything that didn’t get finished Monday through Thursday and / or tasks from all of those Thursday meetings. But since I do have the luxury of devoting Mondays to administrative tasks, I’m really trying hard to reserve part of Fridays for long-term career planning — touching base with mentors, putting together materials for an administrative job search, figuring out what roles I might want to pursue, career-focused reading, etc. (Right now I’m reading How to Be a Dean.)

I’m also taking advantage of the flexibility to incorporate reading for work into my daily routine, something which all too often gets pushed off of the to-do list. I now read for 15 minutes right after I meditate each morning, so I can check it off the list right away. I’m hoping I can make this enough of a habit that I’ll continue it in the spring, when I have a more traditional teaching schedule.


However you’re approaching goal-setting and routine establishment this year, whether you’re going all-in or stepping back in the name of self-care, I hope this year is starting off well for you. And I’d love to hear your goals and strategies for approaching what looks like another uncertain year.

5 Lessons from Fall Term

Winter Term is underway (more on that next week)! Yet I still find myself processing and attempting to make sense of Fall Term. To be honest, I find myself dealing with what I can only describe as lingering and persistent trauma — not just over Fall Term, but over the state of the world more generally. It’s hard to process and analyze when everything feels so uncertain and impossibly hard.

On balance, Fall Term went…surprisingly well, given the circumstances. I had a small, engaged class of 15 students. No one unexpectedly disappeared, and everyone passed the course. My course revisions mostly worked, save for a project that went off the rails due to undocumented conflicts in different minor versions of Python. And I managed to make some forward progress on research and various other projects.

In thinking about the term, I found myself returning to five lessons I learned, or re-learned, over the course of the term.

Lesson 1: Everyone is struggling. And it’s ok to acknowledge that publicly.

Fall Term was hard for lots of us, for a variety of reasons. Time zone differences. Health, including mental health, issues. Worries over the election. Concern over the risk-taking behavior of other students. Racial trauma. Isolation and loneliness. Caregiving responsibilities. And while Carleton was not fully online, many of its courses were at least partially online, which meant everyone (students, faculty, and staff) spent much of their days interacting online — difficult even in the best of circumstances. In short, no one’s at their best.

I made checking in with my students a priority. I borrowed an idea from a staff colleague and started each synchronous class meeting with the same anonymous poll, asking them how they were doing. Originally I just summarized the responses, but as the term went on I started displaying the results as a percentage of respondents. I commented briefly, adding (truthfully) where I fell among the options, acknowledging the mindspace we collectively occupied that day, and reminded those who were struggling of various ways to reach out and seek help. Students indicated that they found this helpful — both to see that they were not alone wherever they fell on the continuum that week, and that I was honest about my own struggles. This is definitely something I will continue, including whenever we return to in-person instruction.

Poll window asking "how are you doing today?" with multiple choice options
Zoom editor view of the check-in poll I used at each synchronous class meeting.

Lesson 2: Teaching online is easier the second time around

Don’t get me wrong: Teaching online still feels unnatural, weird, and hard. But it felt way less so than it did in the spring. I was able to tap into the lessons I learned about organizing a week, a lesson, a class meeting, an explanation, and apply them to a very different course. Everything seemed to flow much better — even the project that went off the rails. It also helped that students had a term of online learning under their belts, and knew what to expect — from the modality, from each other, and from me.

I also appreciated even more all of the pedagogical work I put in this summer, and the pedagogical workshops I attended. It was time very much well spent and definitely made a huge difference in how the class ran, and worked.

Lesson 3: Specifications grading helped…a lot

Based on my reading of Specifications Grading and Grading for Equity, I completely revamped my course grading. Did it work? Hell yes!

I found this new-to-me style of grading freeing. Rather than agonizing over “is this exam answer worth 4 points or 5 points?”, I only had to ask “does this answer meet the expectations for the learning objective or concept?” Turns out, in most cases that’s a much easier question to answer. And knowing that students could revise and resubmit any summative work, I found it easier to make these judgment calls. Weirdly, I actually kind of enjoyed grading!

Most students took advantage of the revision opportunities — some multiple times. I found that a subset of the students were really invested in improving their learning through the revision process — and that this freed up some of them to take risks they might not have normally taken. Which, of course, is exactly what I want to happen in my courses! That said, from a grading management perspective, in the future I will likely limit the number of revisions, probably through some kind of token system, to prevent my workload from spiraling out of control.

I never quite figured out how to get Moodle to play nicely with this grading system. I ended up converting the expectations scale to a 4.0 scale and averaging things within categories to calculate the course grades. It was hard for students to figure out their own course grades because the averaging was somewhat opaque and was done outside of Moodle. In the future, I will invest the time to bake this into Moodle so that students have a better sense of how they’re doing in the course.

Lesson 4: Online pedagogy allows for some new collaborative learning opportunities

Computer Networks (the course I taught this fall) is conceptually tricky and often dense. In an in-person class, I make heavy use of office hours and class time to help students extract the important points of a concept, technique, protocol specification, or algorithm from the seemingly overwhelming details. After some success using Hypothes.is, an online annotation tool, in the spring, I experimented with Hypothes.is for some of the denser readings in the course. For a few of the daily targeted readings, I had students answer the reading questions in their small groups by annotating the reading with their answers. For a few others, I pre-annotated the reading to focus their attention on the main points, and had students comment on the annotations and/or add their own. I really liked how this worked out overall, and I think the students got more out of those readings. I plan to continue this practice in the spring and likely beyond. I could see it working really effectively for Intro CS and for Data Structures (our CS 2), where it’s really easy for students to get lost in the details of a reading.

Moving things online wasn’t always neat and contained, but sometimes that’s ok. I usually run an in-class simulation of Internet routing, where students act as autonomous systems in small teams: creating routing tables, entering into peering agreements with each other, and ultimately attempting to “route” data. What normally takes one class period in person spread over several days online. It was messy, and chaotic — and probably taught students about the messiness of real-world Internet routing more effectively and deeply than anything else I have attempted in my 17 years of teaching this topic.

Lesson 5: It’s really, really hard to troubleshoot virtually

When I can’t figure something out, I need to sit down and play around with it. When teaching in person, I spend a lot of time running to the computer lab so that I can see what the students see, in their coding environment, with the same tools and version of Python and all that good stuff.

When the rogue project went off the rails, I found myself flying blind. What version of Python were the students using? Were they all using the same version of Python? Is it the same as mine? Why does the code sometimes work when we ssh in to one of the servers, but not consistently? How do I help Windows users — most of my students — when I have a Mac? Ultimately, I was limited in how much troubleshooting I could do. I’m still not sure what I could have done better, other than perhaps requiring the students to run and develop the code within a virtual machine of some sort. But it’s something I continue to reflect upon how to improve — and particularly, how to better support Windows users in my courses.


I have a lighter teaching load this term — just our capstone, to make room for the heavier workload of my administrative role this term. But I’m already thinking ahead to how I can capture, consolidate, and integrate these lessons into my spring term course — the same course I taught last spring. I look forward to seeing how much better and more effective I can make that course based on what I learned this term.