Professors and Persistence: Caring Instruction and Structural Equality in the Classroom

Mapping the Futures of Higher Education

Unit Recap – March 24 & 31 – Professors & Persistence

4:15-6:15 pm


Group 3: Professors & Persistence

Evan Misshula (Brooklyn & John Jay), Computer Science, Criminal Justice

Rachel Oppenheimer (LaGuardia), Adult Education/HSE, Urban Education

Natalie Oshukany (City College), Musicology


A workshop and classroom discussion-based investigation focused towards understanding barriers to student persistence in the contexts of both what goes outside and inside the classroom.  What is the role of professors in student persistence? What situations do you find yourself engaged in with students that are outside of your formal job description? What are some of the challenges you face as an instructor at your institution related to these situations and how do you manage them?


Required Readings:

Required Listening:

  • This American Life 550: Three Miles – Please annotate “Three Miles” by clicking your cursor on one or more moments along the track and using the “Comment” function.


Session 8, March 24

Find the PowerPoint presentation for this session here.


  • Introductions: A Wordle highlighting the points of intersection between our “separate” disciplines, Urban Ed, Criminology, and Musicology.
  • CUNY Demographics: A brief overview to provide context for our class. The goal is to highlight the importance of acknowledging life barriers and and persistence issues in CUNY’s two- and four-year institutions:
      • 47% of CUNY undergraduates come from a household with less than $25K annual household income (39%/58% for SC/CC students)
      • Only 23% of CUNY undergraduates come from a household with more than $17.5K per capita income (29%/15% for SC/CC with 30% Guttman, 12% LaGuardia)
      • 78% of CUNY undergraduates work to pay living expenses (77%/81% for SC/CC students)
      • 32% of CUNY undergraduates think work doesn’t affect their performance (31%/32% SC/CC students)
      • 37% of CUNY undergraduates do not have broadband access at home (29%/47% SC/CC)
      • 43% of CUNY undergraduates have parents whose highest degree is high school or less (37%/49% SC/CC)
      • Only 7% of CUNY Undergraduates live alone
      • Only 8% of CUNY Undergraduates live with other students
      • 88% live with family (86%/88% SC/CC)
      • 58% of undergraduates spend more than 10 hours a week attending classes (59%/57% SC/CC)
      • Only 27% of students spend more than 10 hours studying outside of class (33%/21% SC/CC) with 52% SPS and 48% City College
      • 70% of CUNY undergraduates spend no time participating in school activities (68% / 73% SC/CC) with (49% Guttman)
  • Take-Aways: Many CUNY students…
        • are from families that are struggling, financially
        • do not have private, quiet places to study
        • cannot access rich internet content at home
        • are pressed for time
  • Blog Responses – Sharing and Norming Teachers’ Roles: Based on their blog responses to the discussion questions posed on the course website (and a think-pair-share brainstorm as a starting point), the class was asked to split up into groups of three and share their ideas about what a teacher or professor’s role is with his/her students, both inside and outside the classroom. How does a professor balance empathy for students’ life circumstances and obstacles while at the same time maintaining high expectations and high learning standards? What is “caring instruction”? In increasingly larger group sizes, we normed our “ideal professor role.” See our class-developed “Teaching & Learning Principles: A Manifesto” here.
  • Why do we need to come to an agreement or norm our “job description”? We go into academia for the freedom, not to standardize our practices.


  • It is crucial to be explicit about classroom expectations and principles, but also to empower students to have a role in developing class values and norms to encourage agreement between all parties in the classroom.
        • This point is critical in responding to several Mapping students’ concerns regarding the disconnect they perceive between what students think college is and how much time they need to spend on it outside of class time, versus how they actual performance.
  • Article Discussion – Incorporating Peer Revision: The class was asked to break into groups of four, with each group addressing questions related to themes related to the assigned readings: 1) Validation and Student Persistence; 2) Gender and Academia; and 3) Fixed vs. Growth Mindsets. Groups spent 10 minutes formulating coherent responses to the questions, and then passed their responses to another group for revision and commentary. Revised responses were then returned, and each group was responsible for digesting and incorporating the other group’s commentary and presenting it to the class. The focus of this portion of the class was on practical application. In our teaching, assessment, class structure, etc., how can we encourage equitable and growth mindset-oriented classrooms, both explicitly and implicitly?
    • Questions:
      • 1) An important implication of Barnett’s study (2011) is that faculty action has a significant impact on student persistence. Faculty validation (encompassing caring instruction, students known and valued, appreciation for diversity, and mentoring) is a precondition for students’ sense of academic integration which, in turn, influences students’ intent to persist. She also suggests that faculty can cultivate skills associated with validation.
        • a. How can we, as teachers, validate our students? What would these skills look like, in practice? What are some the barriers (institutional, or otherwise) to these efforts, and how can we negotiate these barriers?
        • b. How are the goals of validating progress in tension with “objective,” measurable levels of achievement upon which we usually base marks?  How can we resolve this paradox, and should we?
        • 2) In what ways has gender affected your experience as an educator and/or a student? What are the intersections between “mindsets” (particularly the notion of “genius”), gender, and disciplinary demographics? How can we explicitly and implicitly address these power dynamics in our classrooms?
        • 3)  How have growth and fixed mind-sets explicitly or implicitly manifested in your educational experiences, both in the past and currently? How have these experiences informed your teaching, consciously or not?
          • a. How can we promote the notion of “malleable intelligences” in our classes beyond simply presenting this dichotomy to students (i.e. how can we convince students to emphasize the process of learning over quantitative measures of achievement?) Can we separate mastery from growth in our grading? Should we do so, if we could?
  • Take-Aways:
        • “Critique Therapy”: Peer-revision and response activities as a sort of “critique therapy,” in which critique is normalized and re-conceptualized. Moving away from the notion of critique as something to be feared (i.e. “someone is going to tell me what I did wrong”) to something constructive and positive (i.e. “someone is helping me refine and deepen my ideas”).
        • Having students engage each others’ work and provide thoughtful commentary (that is then digested and incorporated in an equally thoughtful manner) encourages students to have a “voice” in the class and in their work. They have the “right” to offer thoughts and suggestions that are taken seriously.
  • Assignments for the Week
    • 1) Pick one validation activity to implement:
      • “Letter to the Teacher” – This is a less time-intensive and lower stakes way to have “conferences” with your students. Ask them to spend 10 minutes or so in class writing you a letter. It can be about anything they want to tell you. Some students may want to be frank in positive and negative ways about what they think about the class or aspects they like or dislike. Some students may want to tell you about their weekend, and some may want to explain that while it seems like they don’t care in class, they really do–it’s just that they work two jobs and have young children and are just exhausted. etc. etc. Then, you can write a short note on their letters and hand them back the following class. They feel heard, and you know a lot more about them that can inform your teaching methods, empathy, etc. Additionally, students/people often have an easier time writing their thoughts or ideas or feelings rather than saying them face to face.
      • Proactive Student Conferences – This is like “office hours” but instead of the hands-off act of “holding office hours,” where students need to have the academic and social skills and the college knowledge to know what showing up a professor’s office hours is and looks like, the teacher brings the meeting TO the student. I.e., as professor, arrange a conference with each student (or prioritize the students who seem lost, falling behind, struggling, quiet, passive, etc..) and have a meeting about their progress in the course. In this meeting, it is critical to hear from the student (perhaps student does a self-eval ahead of time?) and to give the student specific positive feedback and specific areas of focus for progressing. The goal is that students: 1) walk away with confidence in their academic selves 2) that they feel empowered to continue working hard, and 3) that they feel comfortable enough to come to office hours in the future if need be, without a prompt.
      • Explicit Growth Mindset Lesson – Teach students how the brain works and how it isn’t fixed – we aren’t born smart or dumb, for example – but elastic. The more you use it or try or practice and make your brain struggle, the stronger it will grow. Just like any other muscle in the body.
      • Lamott’s “Shitty First Drafts” (find it here) – Great and fun reading assignment that encourages students to take risks in writing and know that first drafts are SUPPOSED TO BE SHITTY. It’s a lesson in growth mindset, risk-taking, seeing one’s academic identity as not at odds with his or her ‘personal’ identity.
      • Restorative Circle – Try starting and/or ending class with a circle (ending is powerful, if you only do one) where everyone in room arranges themselves in circle, including professor, so there is no longer any physical hierarchy. Each person goes around answering some prompt very briefly or sharing a single word of how they feel at the end of class.
    • 2) Contribute information about your campus(es) to the Resource and Referral document (find it here)
  • Class Wrap-Up: Contribute one or two words to our Wordle that encompass how you feel or what you took away from this session.


Session 9, March 31

Find the PowerPoint presentation for this session here.

The focus of this session was structuring classroom equality. How can we proactively encourage the equal participation of all students? How can we foster fruitful and respectful discussion? How can we break down classroom hierarchies and promote a truly collaborative learning environment?


In this session, we employed:

  • “Taking Stack” – “The purpose of taking stack is to facilitate discussion and decision making in which all participants have equal say in a conversation. Otherwise, in a structure-less setting, an individual or a small group of people could easily dominate and shut out other participants. Taking stack is meant to bring balance and a coherent method to the sometimes strenuous and sloppiness of democratic discussion and decisions.” (
  • Discussion Time Limits – Another method for imposing structural equality, by saying “Thank you,” when a speakers 2 or 3 minutes uninterrupted speaking time is up to signal that it someone else’s turn to talk.
  • Random Group Assignment – Rather than allowing for “organic” group formation, which generally means students gathering with the people sitting next to them (whom they may be sitting next to because of friendship or other various affinities), group assignment challenges individuals and group dynamics, as well as provides opportunity for new group dynamics.
  • Random Role Assignment – Often, even if and when group members are asked to pick from specified roles in order to be sure everyone has a structured and dedicated way to participate, individuals gravitate towards the same roles depending on their comfort level and habits and dynamics in a group. Again, random assignment challenges some individuals and provides opportunities for others to function in ways they wouldn’t otherwise.
  • Picking Up on Themes from Last Class: Participants were asked to take 2-3 minutes to reflect on some of the themes that were touched on (but not fully explored) last class. The purpose here was to have an open-ended discussion to revisit content, but also to think about form. The discussion was structured and facilitated by the group leaders, who informed participants that they would be “taking stack” and enforcing a 1m 30s time limit for anyone participating in the discussion.
    • Themes:
      • Gender, self-perception, and authority
      • Teaching Principles” > “Job Description”
      • Applicability of strategies for structural equality beyond the classroom
      • “Coming out” as an adjunct (New Yorker article)
  • Debriefs – Recapping the validation activity implemented in your class: Participants were randomly assigned one of two roles: Leader and Responder. In order to structure classroom discussion, work within given time limits, and facilitate the participation of all class members, Leaders were responsible for sharing their implemented activity, and Responders were tasked with providing commentary or posing questions. Leaders addressed the following prompt: What activity did you choose? What went well, and what would you change in your next class?
    • Leaders were limited to 3 minutes to recap their class activity
    • Responses were limited to 1 minute
  • Group Role-Play – ‘Chance is a Great Teacher’: Students (grouped through facilitators’ randomization of names) were asked to go through the following individual writing and reflection, randomized role, group work, problem solving/critical thinking, and acting processes to unpack how structural inequality has played out in their own classroom experiences – as teacher or student – and how they would enact a do-over if possible:
    • For the next 5-10 minutes, write on your own:
    • Describe an experience you had in a classroom setting that would have benefitted from structured classroom equality
      • Draw from your position as a teacher or student
      • Tell it like it is/was – i.e. as objectively as possible, IDing all roles & actions
    • Choose a name from the bag to determine:
      • Whose scenario is played out (Writer)
      • Who assigns parts (Director)
      • Who manages team (Producer)
  • In next 20 min, analyze/write/rehearse to:
    • Play out the scenario as it occurred
    • Identify point of action and/or prevention
    • Re-play the scenario, incorporating strategies of classroom equality (or other relevant approaches)
  •  Q & A for Actors & Audience
    • What changed from scene 1 to re-do?
    • What would have been other possible interventions, teaching approaches, ‘re-do’s?
  • Crowdsourcing – Techniques and Strategies for Cultivating Classroom Equality
    • Find the document here

Optional Further Reading and Listening:




The Futures Initiative
The Graduate Center, CUNY
365 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10016-4309