Slack, Icebreakers, and Extra Credit – Creating Community with Sean Gerrity

Dan:                 My guest on this week’s podcast is Sean Gerrity. Sean got onto our radar when we saw a terrific article that he’d written for InsideHigherEd.com, called “Community Building in the Community Classroom.” He talks about how community building aids in the retention of students and in their overall college experience, but it’s difficult and requires some creative thinking. What I think really appealed to us about Sean’s article was that he really wasn’t talking about something that most of us agree on, which is that community building is desirable and advantageous, but he gives a number of practical solutions that he’s employed in and out of the classroom that have helped build community.

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Let me tell you a little bit about Sean. He received his PhD in English from the City University of New York’s Graduate Center in 2017. Since then, he’s worked as assistant professor of English teaching introductory writing and literature classes at Hostos Community College in the South Bronx. He publishes and speaks widely on both his doctoral research on slavery and early American literature and on issues related to community college, and that, which is why of course he’s on this program. You can find his most recent work in inside higher ed and you can follow him on Twitter @g3rrity. Sean, welcome to the podcast.

Sean:                I’m happy to be here.

Dan:                 I appreciate your making the time for us. Would you be willing to begin by telling us a bit about your college and the work you do there?

Sean:                Sure. Hostos Community College is located in the South Bronx. It’s part of the City University of New York system, CUNY, which is also where I got my PhD. As he said, I’ve been here for the past three years. And my teaching encompasses most of the first year composition sequence, a two semester sequence of writing courses. I’ve also worked on a lot of developmental education stuff. You know, we have a lot of students coming in with developmental needs when it comes to reading and writing. So I teach those classes and I’ve worked on curriculum design for them. And I’ve also worked with the writing center. I’ve taught in our first year seminar sequence, and I’m working on the Middle States reaccreditation process right now.

Dan:                 Excellent, thank you. And if I’m understanding the article that you wrote in Inside Higher Ed, all of the students at Hostos Community College are commuters?

Sean:                Yes, that’s right. Everyone.

Dan:                 (Laughs) As a former college president, I can tell you that not having a dorm sounds like a real luxury, to not be responsible for students 24 hours a day – sounds very appealing in some ways. Sean, why is it desirable to build a sense of community among commuter students?

Sean:                Well, I think when it comes to a school where everyone’s a commuter, and largely what you have is students who are coming to campus to take their classes and then they are by and large going home. This is in large part because they have a lot of responsibilities. And most of our students outside of school, the vast majority of them work, many of them full time. So not only are they commuters, but they’re also people with a lot of responsibilities outside of college. They’re not having the kind of college experience that maybe many of us have had, that I know I did at a four year school where I lived on campus. And so it was very easy to sort of gain a sense of belonging, both with my fellow students my classes and on the campus. And so I think when it comes to a school where everyone’s a commuter, it’s important for students to feel some sort of attachment to the college. Beyond, you know, “I come here and take a class and go home.” You know, to feel as though they’re a part of something, at the school, they identify with it more than simply as a place where they come, for a couple of hours each week and then leave.

Dan:                 Thank you. Can you talk a little bit more about why it’s so challenging to build a sense of community among commuter students? There are some times there must be additional barriers.

Sean:                It’s partially, like I said, it has to do with students, having jobs often full time. Many of the students have children of their own and so they have, that childcare responsibility. Many of them often have babysitters watching their kid or kids while they come to class. So again, you know, they kind of have to leave and can’t spend time very much getting acquainted with campus resources and at the college. Also, it’s a community college – we have a, a very high attrition rate. So in any given year, about 60% of students will return the following fall after enrolling in the previous fall semester. So we’re losing almost one in two students in a given year. And I think this is what in part has motivated me to figure out, what are the reasons that students are sort of unable to continue and how can I – there’s the institutional standpoint on this about retention and graduation and percentages for funding and all of that – but for me, I’m in the classroom and I’m working with students and so the question for me became, how can I, as an individual faculty member teaching freshman English here, do something to really enhance students’ experiences and make them feel connected to each other and to the college such that they continue. There are obviously things outside of my control, but with what is within my control, that’s what this sort of question for me became, what can I do to work towards this?

Dan:                 That’s totally fascinating, Sean. Not to break your rhythm, but I did notice in your answer that you actually pronounce the name of your school differently than I had in the introduction. Since I’m going to assume that your pronunciation is correct and mine’s incorrect, could you share with us the correct pronunciation and where that name comes from?

Sean:                Sure, Dan. And don’t feel bad because I think about 99% of people who, who encounter the name of the college do pronounce it the way you do. So the pronunciation of the name of the college would actually be “Oh-Stohs” community college and I should say that the full name of the college is Eugenio María de Hostos Community College. It’s named after Eugenio María de Hostos, who was a Puerto Rican advocate for independence and educator and intellectual in the 19th century. So the college bears his namesake. And I think it’s worth saying too that one of the reasons that the college is named after him is that also it emerges out of a particular sort of radical moment in US history. The college was founded in 1968 and this is amidst a great sort of social upheaval and a really strong desire in the community of the South Bronx in particular for a higher education institution that would be part of the community and be there to serve them. And so that community at the time, largely Puerto Rican and black and now still largely Latino, not just Puerto Rican, that’s the sort of the sort of history of the college that, it fought to come into existence. And it has always been designed to just serve as a kind of a pillar of the community, so to speak. You know, serving its members.

Dan:                 Thank you. That’s fascinating. I think in higher education a lot of us are a little more insulated within our institutions than we’d like to be or that we should be. And so I do always like to hear about other institutions, not just for my American listeners but for international listeners as well. So thanks for that background. Returning to the issue of the sense of community among commuter students, although I know that you touched on this before, can you tell us sort of how you became interested in this specific challenge?

Sean:                Absolutely. So at any community college, you obviously know too Dan, statistics like retention between semesters and years and your graduation, time-to-degree, all of these things are very important to the community college because they sort of serve to justify its effectiveness and its existence. In a way you wouldn’t have in your private four-year colleges and stuff where it’s not as much of a concern. And so this is something that obviously the administration is very interested in at Hostos, and community colleges everywhere. But I’m interested in it, in particular because as an English professor, I teach courses that are often referred to as gatekeeping courses, right? The composition sequence, these are courses both of which students must pass in order to graduate from the college or to transfer from the college.

So the stakes are high in these freshman English courses. And I don’t like that term ‘gatekeeping’ and I do not want to see myself as a gatekeeper. So really the challenge there emerged for me as, if I’m in this role in these courses that are often perceived as gatekeepers for students or measures for future success, what can I do as an individual? Sort of forgetting for a moment about the massive institutional stakes here and just focusing in on the individual classroom and on the individual groups of students. And what can I do to enhance retention, graduation time to degree? And a lot of this, we can talk more about this later, but a lot of this boils down to sort of the building of personal relationships I think, which is the sort of essence of community in any sense, right? That I can, that’s something that I can accomplish in the classroom or with groups of students even if I can’t impact the 8,000 student population that the college has as a whole.

Dan:                 Thank you. That’s interesting. Now your articles suggested to me that you think icebreakers are underrated in the sense that teachers don’t have a full appreciation for the semester long payoff of an icebreaker that occurs early in the semester. Can you talk a little bit about why you find them so effective and how you create effective icebreakers that work?

Sean:                Sure, Dan. On some level, I think we all hate icebreakers, right? We all kind of dread being, even as even as adults and professionals, in a situation where we’re made to kind of engage in these awkward, sorts of getting-to-know-your activities. But I think that they are, as I said in the article, that they’re not only effective, but they’re really necessary to building the groundwork that’s necessary to create a sense of community in the classroom. And so what I would say about this is icebreakers are one among several sorts of things that I think faculty often push back against because they see them as things that either are sort of wasting time or of getting in the way of actual instruction, which we see as the purpose of our place in the classroom.

                        But I use icebreakers early in the semester, and I’ll usually incorporate ways in the first two weeks of classes generally. And these are usually small groups, sorts of things that ask students to speak to one another and are also often tied to the purpose of the course. So it’ll be something like, students will speak, introducing themselves to each other and then speak with each other about their previous experiences with writing or their previous experiences, and their English classes in high school, and they all can sort of immediately commiserate about these things, right? Once you identify the kind of commonality between them, now they might see themselves as completely different and from different worlds or something. But the moment that you give them some kind of way of leveling their experiences, it can be very effective.

                        And then I, one of the main things I think that the icebreakers accomplish is, students share in that sort of, you know, they commiserate in that sense of silliness and awkwardness that they create initially. But then they have at least one person in the class who they recognize who they know by name. And I think that’s really important when you have, you know, a big campus, lots of students, that the students have someone who they recognize on campus or they come into class and they know this person and they talked to them. These sort of soft skills and interpersonal things that I think we can begin with icebreakers are sort of my end goal. So I’m always sort of looking at this over time, looking at this from kind of the end point of what I want to accomplish in the class and seeing what are the initial kinds of little silly icebreaker things that I can do. And I think the only other thing I’ll say about this is that I think sometimes faculty will do this on the very first day of class or maybe do it once, because they’ve heard read that it can be an effective tool. What I found is that incorporating icebreaker adjacent activities, you want to call them that, into the first at least two weeks of classes if not more, that really builds the kind of foundation groundwork work for the class community that I’m looking for. It’s not just a one-off sort of thing.

Dan:                 That’s interesting. Thank you. I’m also looking forward to hearing you talk about Slack. I’ve used that software, but I was unable to get my colleagues very enthused about it. As a result, I don’t think I have enough time behind the wheel to fully appreciate the dynamic that you say it creates. I know that others often sing its praises. Can you tell us about Slack for our listeners who don’t know what it is and why you found it to be useful in a sense of community among your students?

Sean:                Sure. So Slack is one of several group communication software technologies that I’ve experimented with in my classes. And it is, as I said in the article and as you mentioned here, I think the one that I’ve had the most success with. I think the easiest way to imagine Slack is it’s an app, a phone app, that essentially creates group chats, right? We’re all familiar with these from texting. It creates group chats inside of channels that the facilitator can create. And then you can invite your students to join your particular channel. So I’ll name a channel, English 110-B, right? That’s the section number. And then I’ll invite the students. There’s a link I’ll send to them and then they can join.

                        They just download the app, and then they join the channel and then they can upload a little profile picture and put their name as a username. I think one of the reasons that I gravitated towards Slack as opposed to WhatsApp, which I think is probably, at least for my students, WhatsApp is very popular as a person-to-person chatting app. It’s popular because a lot of my students have family internationally, and you can use WhatsApp without incurring data fees. But the thing I like about Slack is that it does not reveal people’s phone numbers. So that’s the thing about WhatsApp. WhatsApp uses your phone number to communicate in the group. Whereas in Slack you’re communicating in the group just with a username, and your individual contact information isn’t there. It’s not really my place to force students to share the phone numbers of one another.

                        And I also make the usage of Slack optional. I’m not going to force students to do it. But basically what I’ve done is created a channel, right? Which essentially just functions as a group chat for each of my class sections, invited the students into it. It’s been pretty experimental. So we’ve kind of together figured out how do we want to use this space. In some sections it’s worked better than others, but when it has taken off, it’s become a place where students will ask one another questions about the assignments, about the due dates, about what they missed for class. Students will engage in a conversation about how best to complete an assignment. And of course I’m there as well in the channel and can chime in, but I generally have taken a back seat and really just allowed students to let it become whatever they want it to become. And over time I’ve certainly developed more or specific suggestions for like, here’s how you might use this technology should you so choose. It’s been variously successful and some semesters I’ve not done it at all. It kind of depends. In general, I have landed on Slack as being the best of the possibilities for this.

Dan:                 Hmm. I might have to give it another try. In your article, you described your efforts to familiarize students with campus resources, apparently arguing that this not only has the benefits of familiarization with the resources, but also it that the process itself can create a sense of community. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Sean:                Sure, Dan. As with a lot of this stuff, I think it’s a useful caveat for me to say that I lack any actual sort of quantitative and qualitative data to prove my claims here about these things enhancing the building of community and retention and stuff like that. It is sort of strictly anecdotal, but it also grows out of tons and tons of conversations with colleagues both inside and outside the department about best practices. And I’ve witnessed myself, this sort of I just have fewer students withdrawing fewer students disappearing from class. To bring that back to the, to the campus resources, this goes back to your initial question, Dan, about, about one of the challenges with commuter students, right? Is that because the students aren’t on campus as much as they might be if they lived there.

                        And because students, for that same reason, it’s very difficult for students to come for a kind of orientation to campus resources. So many times I’ll encounter students who have not been oriented with the, not only the resources on campus, but sometimes the physical layout of the campus. And this isn’t the fault of anyone at the college. It’s just a feature of the the kind of institution we are and the kind of student body we serve as far as campus resources. The ones that I either bring to class or send the students out to visit, these would be things like the writing center, which is a really robust resource that owes those sort of general tutoring. Academic advisement, the accessibility resource center, the disability office, the counseling center. We have a fantastic resource at Hostos called Single Stop, which is a place for students to go and receive – there’s a food pantry, students can get help there, but issues with housing, issues with immigration, food stamps, disability, all sorts of things like that. It’s a really terrific resource. But library, many students that are not, are not familiar with the library or the sort of things that it can offer them. And then things like financial aid, the technology office, they can get their laptops fixed or get back into their email accounts or whatever. All of these things, not only when the students visit these, I think they start to glean a kind bigger picture physically of the layout of the campus, but they also start to feel I emphasized to them that these resources are here for you, right? As a student, here you are, this is all for you. You’re not bothering anyone at these places. You’re not putting them out by coming there. You know, they are, in fact they are for your use. And so, students coming to realize that and coming to use these places, I think it adds to that sense that they, they belong there. They’re a part of this place.

Dan:                 Gosh, that was really interesting. The location you talked about that had even immigration assistance and things like food stamp assistance and that sort of thing – it really sounds like you’re trying to provide truly comprehensive services.

Sean:                Absolutely. Yeah.

Dan:                 Do you have a sense of how a teacher who doesn’t use writing assignments could use your method of having students engage directly with campus resources and then report on it? It actually sounds as if only about a half of the resources that you discussed would apply directly to a writing course. And so maybe that question is really answering itself, but it sounds like other teachers and disciplines very unlike yours could still employ the same kind of strategy that you’re using.

Sean:                Yeah, absolutely. I have a couple things to say about that. And number one, as a person who’s been part of writing across the curriculum programs for a while, I would, I would encourage faculty members regardless of department to, to think about writing assignments, small writing assignments as something that can actually enhance enhancing their course. One of the things I would suggest about this would be, I’m a big fan of extra credit, which I think oftentimes gets a bad rap also amongst faculty members. You know, who perceive it as something that students are sort of desperate for at the end of the semester in which they didn’t do the work they should have done anyway. But I really don’t look at it that way. I look at it as a way, the way I use extra credit is all part of my whole philosophy here, which is I offer students extra credit, a small amount of extra credit for going to any event, anything that is being held on campus or going to any one of these resource offices, basically visiting or engaging with any sort of campus event or resource or something. And giving me a little write up of their experience with it and they get a small amount of extra credit and they can do this throughout the entire semester. This is something I would recommend to faculty members in other departments.

And I think part of the thing here also is that, at a community college we’re sort of responsible for teaching, mostly the introductory courses. And so not only, you know, your English 101 but often your Psychology 101 or your Sociology 101, your Math 101, those sorts of things. And I think that oftentimes there’s pushback to the idea that in these courses professors should be teaching students college readiness skills or sort of metacognitive skills that that’s the domain of, I don’t know, something magically happening the time between the time that they graduate high school and then start college two months later. Or kind of first year seminar or something, that that’s the responsibility there.

                        And I think, it’s something that I know I would have appreciated more of as a freshman college student made me feel helpless and disoriented. And so I try to, impart that to my students. And also when talking to faculty and other departments the same kind of thing, it’s not going to waste class time to use one half a class period and a 16 week semester to have students do some kind of activity or to bring in the accessibility resource center or to bring counseling into the classroom to talk to them. That’s not going to make or break the 16 week semester to do that. And an actuality it’s going to it’s going to help students, so that if they are struggling in your class, right, they, they know the counseling center is there, whatever and they can get the help they need and hopefully remain and succeed in the class.

Dan:                 Thank you Sean. My guest has been Sean Gerrity, an assistant professor of English at Hostos community college in the South Bronx. You can find his most recent work in inside higher ed and follow him on Twitter @g3rrity. Sean, thanks so much for taking the time to be on the program. This has been absolutely fascinating. The more I hear you talk, the more I think it would be fun to have you as a professor, and I think your students are very lucky. Thanks for taking the time to be with me today.

Sean:                Thank you so much, Dan. My pleasure.

For readability, transcript has been slightly edited from the original.

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