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Talking with Bonni Stachowiak of 'Teaching in Higher Ed'

One GradHacker interviews the professor and podcast creator.

June 7, 2016

Anne Guarnera is a doctoral candidate in Spanish at the University of Virginia. You can find her on Twitter as @aguarnera and at her website.


Bonni Stachowiak for Gradhacker.JPG


A few weeks ago, I had the distinct privilege of chatting with Bonni Stachowiak of the very popular, highly rated podcast Teaching in Higher Ed (five stars on iTunes!). I’ve highlighted Bonni’s work on GradHacker before, and our conversation was an amazing opportunity to hear firsthand her uniquely positive and productive tips on teaching and learning in higher ed.


Bonni’s perspective is informed not only by her 10 years as a faculty member — she is currently an Associate Professor of Business and Management at Vanguard University of Southern California — but also by her more-than-20 years’ professional experience in corporate training and the franchising industry. During our conversation, Bonni said something that really resonated with me, as it both exemplifies her own work and captures the kind of attitude that I want to have toward my own development as a teacher. She said: “When we talk about pedagogy, that is not a destination—it’s not like, ‘I have improved my pedagogy this year and I am done!’ It is something that is a lifelong journey.”


And so, in the spirit of that lifelong journey, I sought Bonni's expertise on a few key topics: systems for Personal Knowledge Management, strategies for sustaining passion in our academic work, and ways to develop a broad perspective on the work of teaching. I’ve distilled the key take-aways of our chat here, and I hope, dear GradHacker readers, that you will find them as useful and inspiring as I did. Enjoy “listening in” to our interview!


On Personal Knowledge Management:


To kick off our conversation, I asked Bonni: "On your show, you share a lot about Personal Knowledge Management and the systems and apps that you use to organize all of the information that you consume. Focusing specifically on graduate students as teachers, what are some systems or strategies that you would recommend for TAs who are trying to improve their pedagogy by reading blogs (like GradHacker) or articles online?” Here’s what she responded:


Tip #1: Have a place for everything. No matter the kind of research you are doing, you should have a place to store ideas that you want to use immediately AND another place for those things that you want to learn more about, but can’t get to right away. “I don’t want to get too overwhelmed by things that I’d like to try in my teaching,” Bonni explained, "so I have a someday/maybe list in Evernote that I go back and review weekly and monthly.” Using different tools for different areas of research is also important; Bonni recommended Zotero as an academic reference manager (and has created her own tutorials here), Paprika for storing recipes, Goodreads for keeping track of your library, and Evernote for note-taking and Pinboard for article collection.


Tip #2: Know your tools really well. Bonni said: “It’s about getting to know a few tools really, really well and how to leverage the heck out of them, instead of knowing a little bit about a lot of things, but not really having them work well for you. For example, I know Zotero really well, I know how to cite really well, I know how to create bibliographies, but I just found out that you can incorporate references into your WordPress blog through a plug-in called ZotPress. And I love that, because I get to extend all of the knowledge that I already have about Zotero in a new way.”


Tip #3: Use a routine to keep you engaged in your own professional development, but know when to toss it as well. Bonni said: “Every day, I read for at least 30 minutes through an RSS reader—but that has to be something that we have to be willing to zero out (like our inboxes) as well. On the busy days, when you’ve got over 500 posts to read, it’s time to mark all as read and know that your life will still go on as you know it. If there are things that you want to act on, but you don’t have time, then that is where the someday/maybe list is key.”


On Sustaining Passionate Teaching:


My second question was this: "How do you keep your passion for teaching continually stoked? What are some practices or resources that you would recommend to new teachers, especially if they’ve had a challenging year and need to rebuild their confidence in and desire to teach?” Bonni suggested that if we want to maintain our passion for teaching (or capture it in the first place), then it is key to challenge some of the dominant myths and mindsets related to classroom work.


First, challenge the idea that teaching is “easy.” Bonni said, “I think it is so healthy to realize that it is incredibly hard to teach. And I don’t think people talk about that very much. I’ve been privileged to talk to Stephen Brookfield a couple of times for the podcast, and one of the things that he talks about on the podcast and writes about in The Skillful Teacher is that this is painful and it’s hard! So he’s helped me to own that and to name that. And one of the reasons that I think that it’s painful sometimes is that we are affecting change and change is hard for people, and so when we encounter difficulty, we think, ‘Oh, we must not be teaching right, if it ends up being hard for us,’ and actually, I think that’s a myth that we would all benefit more by talking about and realizing.”


Second, continually remind yourself of your priorities and your purpose. Taking a line from Greg McKoewn’s Essentialism, Bonni reminded me: “If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.” She recommended taking regular times to think about your own sense of vision and mission, so that you can ensure that the activities that you participate in are aligned with your core values and goals. As she elaborated: "Sometimes in academia, we think that we’re helping (i.e. by volunteering to deliver a sample class or by taking on additional committee work), but if we don’t have a real sense of the meaning and significance of these activities, we can be helping others without actually helping ourselves do this for decades.” In other words, a little forethought (and working on the skill of saying “no”) can go a long way in preventing burnout.


Third, be honest about failure—both in terms of what it means and its uses for you. One of the most recent episodes of Teaching in Higher Ed was devoted to failure in teaching, and on this subject, Bonni said: "Sometimes, with people that I have spoken to who get really discouraged in teaching, it’s because they don’t actually like teaching. But it’s hard for them to admit that to themselves or to other people because there’s this identity we can get so wrapped up in —' I’ve been doing this for so long! I thought this was going to look entirely different than it actually looks like now! ‘ — and so I think that self-awareness is key. If it is something that you love doing, then embracing failure can be a part of that too—recognizing that it is hard and that we are sometimes going to fail.” Applying a growth mindset when you encounter failure can make it a productive, rather than purely discouraging, experience.


On Different Perspectives on Our Teaching:


Considering Bonni’s extensive experience in the corporate world, I wanted to pick her brain about how we can see teaching experience as valuable to alt-ac work. Although we frequently talk about how to “translate” service work or research into resumé lines, there is comparatively little discussion about how well-developed pedagogical skills might transfer into the alt-ac workplace. So my final question to Bonni was: “Can you think of specific skills and mindsets that good teachers possess and that can be adapted for success outside of the immediate classroom environment?” Her response encouraged us to reject paradigms that narrowly define the work and place of teaching. Put another way:


Don’t let your understanding of “teaching” be confined to the classroom—or to one kind of classroom. Bonni suggested that we can have a broader appreciation for the work of teaching if we can learn to see the teacher in his/her many roles, such as: "teacher as mediator, teacher as coach, teacher as leader, teacher as learner, teacher as critic, and teacher as provider of feedback.” By focusing on these different functions of the teacher, we can break out of the paradigms that confine teaching to only one kind of environment — be it the college classroom, a K-12 institution, or otherwise. For inspiration, Bonni cites an episode of Teaching in Higher Ed where she interviewed Ainissa Ramirez, who talked about leaving a faculty career at Yale to become what she calls “a science evangelist.” She now authors popular science books and co-hosts the podcast “Science Underground."  For Ramirez, Bonni said, "it was one of the greatest gifts for her not to be locked into 'teaching means teaching at Yale.' Now she feels that she has far greater potential for impact than she would have had if confined to her initial paradigm of teaching.”


Is there anything else that you would like to ask Bonni? You can connect with her directly--as well as an entire community of teaching and learning-focused folks--at the new Slack channel for Teaching in Higher Ed. Visit http://teachinginhighered.com/feedback and enter your e-mail in the “email me” section to join!


[Image provided courtesy of Bonni Stachowiak]


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