Spotlight on Teaching


Faculty, graduate students, and staff on our campus are innovators in teaching and mentoring. Our new Spotlight Features highlight their exciting work, including teaching and mentoring innovations, teaching-related scholarship and research, and more. You can browse Spotlights by year below.

Spotlight Features

Technology-Mediated Communication

Elise Duffau

Read the Spotlight

In both her research and teaching, psychology PhD student Elise Duffau focuses on technology-mediated communication. Whether it’s a conversation between a human and a digital agent (like Alexa and Siri) or an asynchronous discussion forum in an undergraduate course, her goal is the same: To make communication with and through technology more generative and accessible.

Duffau has always been interested in new technologies. Her interest in communication with digital agents came from two small but surprising incidents. “One day, my Alexa told me to have a good afternoon,” she said. “Another day, she said something wrong and then corrected herself.” Eventually, that led her to her current work on expectations for communication with technology, which includes politeness, signaling and repairing miscommunication, and asking for clarification.

Duffau’s interest in communication for teaching and learning grew from her experience as a teaching assistant for associate professor associate professor Rebecca Covarrubias in PSYC 100: Research Methods, a high-enrollment course required for psychology majors that prepares students to conduct their own research and helps them become more discerning consumers of research. Duffau has continuallyregularly served as a TA in PSYC 100 since she came to UC Santa Cruz in 2019. In the summer of 2023, she worked with professor professor Covarrubias to revise the course and in fall took the role of lead TA. 

One of her innovations was inspired by her work on the TLC’s Asynchronous Online Discussions website as a graduate student researcher. She developed a set of asynchronous discussion forums that students used to ask (and answer) questions about course content and logistics. She saw students spending considerable time contributing to the discussion with helpful information for their classmates.  “Students were communicating with other students!” She also noticed that students who didn’t participate in other ways posted frequently. “There were some students who were much more comfortable in that mode.”

Another innovation was her approach to online discussion sections on Zoom, which was partly informed by her research on digital assistants. She hoped to provide students with more opportunities to create understanding within synchronous discussions. “I’m a really big proponent of backchannels (non-verbal cues like head nods used to denote understanding),” she said. So she encouraged students to use simple reactions (e.g., thumbs up) to signal their understanding and engagement. “They love the thumbs up.” She also encouraged students to use chat, both to communicate with their classmates and privately to her. “The one really good thing about chat is that you don’t have to put it out to everyone,” she said. Shyer students were able to send their questions to her privately, and then she rephrased them and posed them to the whole group. “And everyone gets the learning from that question.”

These techniques for opening discussion, Duffau said, can have powerful results. “It invites more questions. It invites more voices. It allows students to teach each other.” And while current public discourse is focused on the alienating effects of technology, Duffau has found that that technology can also open up new possibilities for communication, community, and shared understanding.

Virtual Exchange with Partner Institutions

Global Classrooms

Read the Spotlight

In the past year, UC Santa Cruz students have worked on meaningful projects in their courses with students in Brazil, Mexico, and Colombia — without visas, currency exchange, or jet lag. This amazing feat was accomplished by a cohort of instructor pairs from UC Santa Cruz and partner institutions abroad who participated in Global Classrooms, a professional development and course design program focused on virtual exchange.

Virtual exchange is not new — some forms of it predate the Internet — but it didn’t come into its own until 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic made travel difficult. In the fall of 2020, the Division of Global Engagement launched the Global Classrooms initiative, which provided faculty with opportunities for training in virtual exchange (from institutions with large virtual exchange programs) and assistance with forming partnerships with faculty at institutions abroad. In 2022, the Teaching & Learning Center’s Jessie Dubreuil and Aaron Zachmeier developed a professional development program tailored to the needs of UC Santa Cruz faculty and their partners. The program promotes the Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) approach to virtual exchange, which emphasizes collaboration between faculty and student groups. The first cohort that participated in the program have now taught their virtual exchange courses and shared their thoughts with the TLC.

The Sociology Department’s Hiroshi Fukurai worked with longtime friend Denis Halis from Universidade Estácio de Sá in Rio de Janeiro (UNESA), Brazil, to design a course that brought together undergraduate students from Santa Cruz with law school students at UNESA to produce original research papers on environmental justice topics. Both Fukurai and Halis commented on the quality of communication between their two groups of students. Halis noted the effort UC Santa Cruz students made with UNESA students, not all of whom were confident in English, which was used as the lingua franca for the exchange. “They really tried to understand and make themselves understood,” Halis said. Instead of just speaking out, they really tried to be understood and in the end there was true and meaningful mutual learning as they had distinct backgrounds and experiences.”

Writing instructor Tiffany Wong and her partner Lourdes Pérez Cesari from Universidad Autónoma del Estado de Hidalgo in Pachuca, Mexico, paired writing and theater students, who wrote, performed, and recorded short plays in the style of commedia dell’arte. Pérez Cesari and Wong were pleased to see that their students were able to negotiate differences in culture and communication in productive ways. “We had amazing groups of students working with their creativity, using technology in a fun way,” Pérez Cesari said. “They found ways to communicate even when it was hard because they didn’t speak the same language, they found ways to work together. Some even worked a sketch around a mistake they made about meat loaf (which in Spanish is pastel de carne) calling it “meat cake” and making a bit about it.” 

And while the process is often more important than the product in collaborative student work, Wong and Pérez Cesari’s students produced excellent work. “What really surprised me at the end,” Wong said, “was how well their final videos turned out: how dedicated my students were to understanding character and plot development, and how well Lourdes’ students were at working with and helping my students become more embodied writers.”

Finally Carolina Gonzalez Riaño worked with a group of instructors at Universidad Distrital Francisco José de Caldas in Bogota, Colombia (Luisa Fernanda Vargaz Téllez, José Assad Cuellar, and César Luis Morales Figueroa), to design a series of collaborative activities focused on monsters in society for Spanish-speaking first-year students in Santa Cruz and performing arts students in Bogota. “I was surprised by the possibilities for motivation and flexibility in the evaluation processes, because we had different levels, different types of undergraduate students, different interests and, to top it all, different cultures,” Vargaz Téllez said. “In spite of everything, including institutional difficulties at Universidad Distrital (the university’s email system was hacked near the beginning of the term), I think we achieved a good result.”

In each Global Classrooms course, students gained invaluable experience collaborating with their peers at partner institutions, negotiating, communicating, and leveraging their differences. 

At this writing, a new faculty cohort has begun to design the next set of Global Classrooms courses, which will give UC Santa Cruz students the opportunity to work with students from Universidade Federal Fluminense in Niterói, Brazil, Université de Douala in Douala, Cameroon, Universidad Catolica in Santiago, Chile, and UNESA in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The Division of Global Engagement and the TLC have meanwhile opened the call to faculty to identify the next cohort to develop Global Classrooms, with training set to begin in fall 2024. 
For more information about Global Classrooms, see the current call for applications. If you have any questions prior to submitting your application, please contact George Sabo, Director of Global Initiatives, at, to arrange a meeting.

Community Engagement for Promoting Equity and Justice

Sikina Jinnah

Read the Spotlight

In her scholarship, teaching, and leadership Sikina Jinnah, Professor of Environmental Studies, foregrounds community and its importance to promoting equity and justice. Dr. Jinnah’s recent efforts to shepherd a major collaborative book project to completion, her innovative teaching activities that engage students in real-world problem solving, her redesign of “Environmental Policy, Economics, and Justice” (ENVS 25), and her involvement with the new Center for Reimagining Leadership all demonstrate how she is approaching this important work. TLC Managing Director Sam Foster talked with Dr. Jinnah in October 2023 about her numerous projects to center equity and justice in student learning and faculty success.

In working with the teaching center over the years, Dr. Jinnah has come to see the link between faculty success and student success: “It’s important to not only think about how we engage with students in the classroom to promote equity and success, but also how we build community among faculty to promote their success.” It was this thinking that led to the development of a book project that started in the fall of 2019 that Dr. Jinnah thought “could actually do something really interesting, like bringing together those with expertise in teaching and pedagogy, and those with expertise in environmental politics.” Teaching Environmental Justice: Practices to Engage Students and Build Community was released this month. It was edited by Dr. Jinnah, along with Jessie Dubreuil (TLC Associate Director for Learning, Merrill College Lecturer), Jody Greene (Associate Campus Provost for Academic Success, TLC Founding Director, Professor of Literature), and Samara Foster (TLC Managing Director), and it includes contributions from many UCSC scholars and prominent scholars from across the country. Through a unique community-engaged process of co-creation in a series of workshops with a multidisciplinary group of contributors, the book developed into one that not only offers ways to more effectively integrate environmental justice into many kinds of courses, but also offers instructors from any discipline pedagogical strategies that can be used to center equity and justice in teaching and course design. 

Dr. Jinnah said, “Because it’s so incredibly interdisciplinary, with contributors from fields as diverse as Online Education, the Arts, Political Science, Sociology, Geography, and even Astrophysics, I hope that this book is accessible and useful for integrating environmental justice and equity-minded teaching into courses across many fields and disciplines.” Dr. Jinnah went on to explain that “the process of writing this book provided a way to bring research-focused faculty into a space to explore teaching, where they could be inspired through engagement with others. The book really elevates some amazing scholars in their fields, along with pedagogy experts, and demonstrates how important teaching is to them, and how innovative they are in their classrooms.”

Dr. Jinnah co-authored a chapter on her own teaching with Juan Moreno-Cruz called Should solar geoengineering be used to address climate change? An ethics bowl inspired approach. In this chapter, they present a classroom project in which students consider the equity and justice implications of using climate engineering technologies to address climate change by requiring teams of students to research, explain, and defend a position. According to the authors, unlike a typical debate style where the main objective is winning, the ethics bowl approach “encourages deep, analytical thinking and rewards collaboration across teams to collectively develop the strongest arguments to the questions being posed.” Students are evaluated on the clarity and quality of their arguments.

Another example of Dr. Jinnah’s innovative and community-based approach to actively engaging students in learning through grappling with real-world problems is in her “Global Climate Change Politics” course, in which students participate in a United Nations (UN) conference simulation. The class focuses on a specific topic, such as climate migration, and groups of students are assigned a country to represent. Students research their countries and those countries’ political interests in the issue. They then discuss a draft UN decision, make recommendations for changes based on their country’s interests, and attempt to negotiate a final consensus decision that all countries agree to enact collectively. Students are assessed on short research papers and on the strength of their collaboration and negotiation.

Dr. Jinnah has engaged in two iterations of redesigning “Environmental Policy, Economics, and Justice” (ENVS 25). This is a large course that is required for the Environmental Studies program. Dr. Jinnah’s first redesign was for the online format. In 2019, with support from Aaron Zachmeier (TLC Associate Director for Instructional Design and Development) she produced a set of high-quality recorded lectures that prepared students for weekly synchronous collaborative activities and individual writing assignments. More recently, Dr. Jinnah partnered with Sanya Cowal (PhD Student in Environmental Studies, and TLC Graduate Pedagogy Fellow) and Michael Tassio (Assistant Vice Provost for Educational Innovation) to further improve the course through Project REAL, one of the TLC’s course redesign programs. One key change was including more structure for collaborative learning, such as group agreements that students develop together. Dr. Jinnah commented on the value of the collaborative agreements: “These were really helpful to build trust and create mechanisms for accountability as well. So, we had them consider their shared expectations, and how they will hold one another and themselves accountable for shared work, as well as how they will resolve disagreements. As you know, disagreements can come up with group work a lot. I use group assignments in all my classes, and in nearly 15 years of teaching, this was the first time that I’ve never had complaints about group work in my class!”

Dr. Jinnah has also been a leader in the effort to establish the Center for Reimagining Leadership (CRL) as its Associate Director, along with Faculty Director Enrico Ramirez-Ruiz (Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics) and a diverse leadership team. CRL aims to support and amplify the voices of student and early-career faculty leaders at UCSC with a view towards ensuring they have the communities and resources they need to thrive on our campus and beyond. Launching CRL this fall was another opportunity for Dr. Jinnah to center community engagement in the promotion of equity and justice. She co-led with Ramirez-Ruiz a panel focused on climate justice, which centered preeminent scholars of color whose trailblazing research and advocacy empirically ground what it looks like to ‘reimagine leadership’ in the concrete case of climate justice. Dr. Jinnah also co-led with Ramirez-Ruiz a second launch event, which attracted 2600, mainly first-year, students to the UCSC Quarry Amphitheater this fall. This event, which got front-page coverage in Santa Cruz Sentinel, also featured climate justice leaders, centering the voices of community-based organization leaders who led the response to the flooding resulting from the 2023 Pajaro Valley levee breach. Dr. Jinnah said, “Through the music, film, and speakers highlighted in this event, we tried to create an environment where students of color and first-generation students knew that UCSC was a university for them. That they’re not having to leave their identities at the door when they get here, but their diverse identities are a critical part of the fabric of excellence on our campus.”

Group Work

Ana Pedroso

Read the Spotlight

Any instructor who has assigned group work to students knows that it can be a challenging format. Students resist. They complain. They worry. They engage in “social loafing.” But when group work works, it really works. Students come away from successful group activities with learning that is deeper, more meaningful, and more persistent. Ana Pedroso, a recent philosophy PhD graduate, wanted to use the power of group work in her Winter 2023 offering of Environmental Ethics (PHIL 28). She also needed help with the design of her group activities. So she joined a group herself. 

Pedroso participated in the 2022–2023 cohort of the Digital Instruction Project (DIP), a professional development program facilitated by the TLC and the Center for Digital Scholarship.* The purpose of DIP is to support faculty and graduate student instructors as they design and implement a technology-enhanced assignment for their students. Cohorts meet several times during the program to share their ideas, ask for input, discuss and refine their assignments. Participants also consult with a librarian or instructional designer on technical matters. 

These cohort meetings helped Pedroso design a multipart assignment in which students explored different philosophical perspectives on non-human animals. Students worked in groups on shared documents in which they explained and compared philosophical positions in classical texts. Their work culminated in group presentations to the entire class. Students then used the analysis they completed in their groups to write individual final papers. 

Pedroso’s design addressed many the challenges that are common to groupwork: She included individual deliverables that had as much weight as the other components of the multipart assignment: oral presentation, textual analysis, and a digital chart; she assigned an individual reflection in which students described the work they did and the work their group mates did; she assigned group roles; and she scheduled time to grade immediately after due dates so that students would have feedback on one part of the assignment that they could use for the next part. 

There were challenges: Group formation was slow; groups didn’t avail themselves of office hours; some groups waited until the last minute to complete their analyses; and power outages almost made presentations impossible. 

But there were successes too. Pedroso was able to interact with students in meaningful ways in spite of the high enrollment in the course (128 students). Students who were engaged in the group work found it easier to produce their individual papers. Students developed skills in analysis and public speaking (some had never made a public presentation). Pedroso noted other positive experiential outcomes. “Students had the chance to go to their ‘first philosophy conference’,” she said. Presentations were timed and active participation from the audience was required in a ‘live’ discussion board during presentations. Additionally, the group work prompted the students to enact dialogues among themselves, a practice that is constitutive of philosophy itself and, of course, very important for knowledge acquisition in general.” 

Pedroso herself gained invaluable experience in active learning and facilitating student groups, which will serve her well in her future academic pursuits. And all of this was a result of a group.

*Note: The 2022-2023 cohort included Pedroso, Heather Shearer (Writing), Jeffrey Erbig (Latin American and Latino Studies), Clara Weygandt (Rachel Carson College), and Gerald Moulds (Computer Science and Engineering).

Educational Technologies

Aisha Jackson

Read the Spotlight

Aisha Jackson joined UC Santa Cruz as our Vice Chancellor for Information Technology on August 1, 2022. VCIT Jackson, who holds a doctorate in education from the University of Colorado, Denver, carries a wealth of knowledge and experience working with academic technologies in teaching and learning environments, and she has a long history of working to support underrepresented students. 

TLC Director for Digital Learning and Engagement Michael Tassio connected with VCIT Jackson through a series of exchanges in March and April 2023 to explore topics related to the role of technology in teaching and learning.

MT: First of all, congratulations on your new position of Vice Chancellor of Information Technology and thank you for choosing UC Santa Cruz. Much of your teaching and leadership positions have involved instructional technologies. Tell us a little about your background and what excites you about the role of technology in teaching and learning. What experiences have shaped your interest in instructional technologies?

AJ: Thank you for the wonderful questions, Michael. I have never been asked what experiences shaped my interest in instructional technologies, so I enjoyed the opportunity to reflect on that.

I am an educator at heart. I was one of those children that played school with their dolls. I would teach a lesson, give them homework, and grade them, placing stickers on the papers of those that excelled. I knew from an early age that I wanted to be an educator. 

In college, I earned my bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education, specializing in exceptional children. During my internship, I had the opportunity to observe my mentor teacher go through her own professional development. A Reading Specialist from the district came in and modeled research-based teaching methods while my mentor observed. My mentor would study, read articles about the method, and discuss the material with the specialist. My mentor started practicing the methods while the specialist scaffolded and, over time, worked herself out of the classroom. I observed the interaction and appreciated what I later learned was a coaching method. I remembered this engagement and many years later, when I got into the technology space, I thought about how I might do that with technology. 

My childhood dream didn’t pan out. After graduating, I taught first grade and realized I didn’t love it. I decided to pursue my master’s degree after finding a program that offered a specialization in Educational Technology and Teacher Education. I was excited by the novelty of technology being used in the classroom and that it allowed me to build on my educational foundation to support teachers. 

As I was earning my master’s degree, I was offered the opportunity to work on grant projects. I received funding to teach teachers how to use technology. That’s when I made the connection between what I observed during my internship and the technology space. I loved working with others to explore what was possible when using technology in the classroom. 

After graduating and doing some work toward a PhD, I moved to Trinidad and Tobago to work and eventually teach at the University of the West Indies. My first position was in the equivalent of ITS, and I was responsible for not only helping faculty and staff adopt technology, but for running the technologies as well. I led my first major software migration there, which served as an introduction to organizational change management and project management. It was also the first time I worked closely with the more technical components of technology. Rather than run away from what I didn’t always understand, I found ways to translate it for myself and others. 

MT: UC Santa Cruz has long had a reputation for providing transformational learning experiences. From making experiential learning a core part of classes, to innovating new fields of study, to continuing to use narrative evaluations long after peer universities had ended this practice. What do you view as the role of ITS in supporting faculty to provide transformative learning experiences?

AJ: In order to fully answer this question, I wondered how transformative learning is being defined at UC Santa Cruz. That’s something I’m still learning, and in that context, I referred to Stories of Transformative Learning by Michael Kroth and Patricia Cranton, which I read during my doctoral program. Kroth and Cranton (2014) define transformative learning as “a process by which individuals engage in the cognitive processes of critical reflection and self-reflection, intuitive and imaginative explorations of their psyche and spirituality, and developmental changes leading to a deep shift in perspective and habits of mind that are more open, permeable, discriminating, and better justified. Individual change may lead to social change, and social change may promote individual change” (p. 9). 

Whenever I think about how technology can be used to support learning, I immediately consider the objectives or what learners are expected to know or do by the end of the learning experience. If we consider the definition of transformational learning that I shared above, the objectives are critical reflection, self-reflection, intuitive and imaginative explorations. ITS is responsible for providing accessible, secure, and foundational tools that facilitate students in meeting these objectives. As a part of that, ITS is responsible for providing the technical knowledge, or expertise, on how these tools work, including helping faculty and students learn to use them. The tools are just one component, of course. The learning experience has to be undergirded by content and pedagogical knowledge provided by the faculty as well. 

Beyond just providing the technology and the associated expertise, I would like ITS to get to a place of partnered exploration, alongside faculty and experts in the Teaching and Learning Center, conducting research on emerging technologies, their benefits, and thoughts around unintended consequences. 

MT: Our campus has had a cautious approach to bringing on new instructional technologies, and the formation of the Technology-Enhanced Teaching and Learning committee will help establish principles for considering new tools. What questions do you ask when introducing a new technology?

AJ: There are so many! The first question I ask is whether the tool is appropriate for the learning objectives and discipline. I don’t believe in the gratuitous use of technology, so I ask this question to help ensure that its use is supporting a faculty member’s learning goals. I consider how to support students and faculty so they can use the tool successfully. Do they know what it is? Why is it being used? How to access it? Do they have the skills to use it? If not, what resources can be provided to support its use? Where can students and faculty go for support? To me? To ITS? The vendor? Is it reasonable for the faculty to use it given the size of the class? Before rolling it out to students, I consider how I might test the technology to ensure that it does what I expect it to and what will my back up plan be, in case things go wrong? 

Related to the tools in particular, before introducing something new, I ask whether there is an existing tool that would meet the objectives before introducing a new one. While ITS is working on mapping the student digital experience so that we can have a better sense of the tools students are required to navigate, I know from my work on other campuses, that that mapping typically looks like a bowl of spaghetti, a challenging environment for students to navigate. I also consider the accessibility of the tool — whether all students, from the linguistically diverse to those that use assistive technologies, can successfully use it. I explore whether the tool is secure, as I want to ensure that the provider has practices to ensure the data within it is safe. If the technology is going to be used in the classroom, I think about the availability of power and WiFi, so that students can use their devices without disruption.  

With my CIO hat on, I ask about the cost of the tool, and the source of the funding, informed by whether it is a core, consortium, or specialized technology. I also explore its supportability and whether ITS has the capacity to support it. I think about how the vendor manages changes. I want to ensure that they cause as little disruption to faculty and students as possible and that we can decide when material changes happen. I consider how the tool integrates with existing systems. The more it integrates, the better for the user experience. While it might be counterintuitive to think about sunsetting a tool when it’s being introduced, it is also helpful to ask about the ability to back up and export the data in a reusable format, as some emerging technologies have short shelf lives. A final question I ask is about the consequences. What might we anticipate the consequence of introducing a new technology might be, good or bad? My hope in answering this question is to get in front of anything that might negatively impact our students, faculty, and staff. 

MT: Much of the discourse in higher education in the past year has been about student disengagement, and learning loss, as well as burnout among educators and learners alike. What bright spots do you see in how ITS can support faculty in re-engaging students?

AJ: Although I wasn’t at UCSC during the move to emergency remote teaching and learning, on many campuses it meant that technology was being used to address urgent needs without thorough assessments. Because of this, I don’t think more technology is necessarily the answer to re-engaging students. I think ITS needs to, instead, slow down and think about how we might reduce barriers to using technology so that the user experience is more seamless, so that the technology we provide isn’t another additional cognitive load. 

If I had to give an answer, one bright spot is in the data analytics space. For example, I imagine a future where we find a way to equitably use data to help faculty recognize when a student is not engaged, based in part on indicators from the technology they interact with. We’re not fully there yet as a campus but there is so much opportunity! 

MT: One of the things I’ve appreciated most in getting to know you is how you carefully engage with others by asking insightful questions. What are the questions we should be asking now about the future of higher education and how instructional technologies may continue to intersect with teaching and learning?

AJ: The technologies will change, but my questions remain the same. As I write these out, I realize it’s about the risks and rewards. I might be repeating myself here, but the three questions that are important to me are: (1) how will the technology help our students, faculty, and staff meet their objectives, (2) will the technology be accessible and secure, and (3) what are the unintended consequences if it is adopted?

Student Writing for a Worldwide Audience

Tamara Pico

Read the Spotlight

When we ask our students to write for an audience, we’re usually talking about style and tone, but writing for an audience can also mean an actual audience. Tamara Pico, an Assistant Professor in Earth & Planetary Sciences, asked students in her Winter 2023 Science & Colonialism course to write for an audience of hundreds of millions with a quarter-long set of assignments focused on adding new perspectives to existing Wikipedia articles on scientific topics.

Online Education Associate Director Aaron Zachmeier talked to Pico in March 2023 about her use of Wiki Education in her most recent offering of Science & Colonialism.

Pico’s course, Science & Colonialism, is about the relationship between colonialism and science (and scientists). This aspect of the history of science has been neglected, and Pico saw that as an opportunity for her students: They would address a knowledge gap by contributing to Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia. Each one of Pico’s students chose a topic (and Wikipedia article) that resonated with them and had the potential for inquiry. A few examples: landscape architecturethe planned Thirty Meter Telescope, and the historical eruptions of Kilauea. They then composed and refined their additions to existing articles (with three rounds of peer review) within a structure provided by Wiki Education, a nonprofit organization that connects universities and Wikipedia. During that time, Pico was able to monitor students’ progress and provide feedback in a dashboard. One goal of the course was to give students an opportunity to develop research skills through deep exploration of a topic. Students also developed an appreciation for the wonder of research. Each student, Pico said, discovered something surprising. They said, “Wow, how did we not know about this?” In the last week of the quarter, students made live edits to their chosen Wikipedia articles, and their work became visible to anyone with an internet connection. 

The public nature of the final product was key to students’ motivation and experience. What they had written would not stop with an instructor or teaching assistant. It would be read by people all over the world, and it would have to meet the exacting standards of Wikipedia’s community of editors. “They wanted it to be good, and they wanted it to be relevant,” Pico said. “The most powerful part of it is that students see themselves as contributors to this world archive of knowledge.”

Teaching for Black Girls

Theresa Hice-Fromille

Read the Spotlight

Ph.D. candidate Theresa Hice-Fromille (Sociology, CRES, and Feminist Studies) advocates for justice-oriented teaching practices and more robust professional development for graduate student educators in her chapter, “Teaching for Black Girls: What Every Graduate Student Instructor Can Learn from Black Girlhood Studies” (2022).

A former CITL Graduate Pedagogy Fellow (2020) and GSI Peer Support Team member (2021), Hice-Fromille describes four pedagogical values that influenced her design choices for her course, “Race, Identity, & Belonging in the African Diaspora,” in UCSC’s Black Studies minor. This chapter, part of a volume of writing by and for graduate student instructors, identifies graduate students as particularly “significant catalysts for innovations in higher education teaching praxis,” and thus offers guidance to fellow instructors for enacting similar antiracist and pro-Black values in their teaching – across any discipline and any instructor social identities.

TLC Associate Director Kendra Dority connected with Hice-Fromille in January 2023 about her chapter to elevate this contribution to our campus community and to find out more about how her teaching has continued to evolve since she wrote the piece.

KD: First of all, sincere congratulations on the recent publication of your chapter, “Teaching for Black Girls.” I want to begin by asking about your experience writing it. What was your process, and how did it differ from or feel similar to producing other forms of scholarship? What was it like to treat your teaching as a site of research? 

THF: Thank you! It was a labor of love and I am very proud to have it out in the world. It was important that this piece spoke to some of the ways that I think about teaching and learning, especially as they were formed from my personal experiences in the classroom.

The process began before instruction when I was building the curriculum and during the course while I was documenting my successes and challenges as an instructor. I was then able to use student feedback from SETS to further reflect on the techniques I had selected. In terms of collecting data, the process was very familiar to me. I am a community-engaged researcher and I mainly conduct participant observations, so I am always accounting for my presence as well as other interactions occurring in a space.

Using my teaching as a site of research felt very comfortable, which I believe speaks to my being situated in Black Studies as it posits that research, teaching, and lived experience should inform one another. This contradicts the Western European obsession with objectivity and is enhanced by a Black feminist emphasis on reflexivity. If I don’t slow down and observe the ways that my curricular choices are impacting students, then I’m not fulfilling my role as an educator and ensuring that actual learning — as opposed to other forms of curricular interaction, like memorization and reiteration — is taking place.

KD: That ability to integrate one’s research, teaching, and lived experiences feels especially important, given how your chapter points out that there is still work to do to provide graduate students with robust professional development in teaching. What role do you think professional development in teaching can play in helping grads to develop a more integrated sense of their identities as both scholars and educators?

THF: I appreciate professional development in teaching spaces for the time and space that they allow for playing with theories of learning and being creative with new ways of teaching. Teaching has made me a better scholar in that I have to slow down and learn what I need to explain to students. These professional development spaces are similar in that within them I have learned about how we learn. In doing so, I have learned a lot about myself as a learner which has shaped the way that I engage with my students.

I think this is particularly important for first-generation graduate students of color who, perhaps, like me, have struggled in graduate school to find their footing because theoretically and pedagogically we are left to our own devices. Realizing that this “sink or swim” approach is grounded in the same colonial racial capitalist system that our progressive university curricula critiques was a bit shocking and frustrating. But it also motivated me to use these professional development spaces to reorient myself to better integrate course content (for example, antiracism) and pedagogical practice (i.e., ungrading). 

KD: Do you have any advice to share with fellow graduate students who are, like you, innovating in their teaching and may want to communicate about their findings with a larger community?

THF: Places like TLC and conference sessions with a pedagogical focus have been the most supportive spaces in which I have shared my work. My focus is both pro-Black and feminist so I have sought feedback from similarly-minded instructors in my fields of study who are also innovating in teaching and grading practices. For students in the social sciences, there is a lot of support for this work within the Sociologists for Women in Society (SWS). And each discipline has a pedagogical journal where you can submit your brilliant work!

KD: One of your arguments that excites me most is your expansion of more traditional course design models, like the “Understanding by Design” or “backward design” model. In particular, you explain how this model conceives of assessment as instructor-defined and “evades critical inquiry into educational standards and the responsibility of teachers to dismantle or otherwise challenge them.” One of the hallmarks of the “Race, Identity, & Belonging in the African Diaspora” course you write about is the use of contract grading, which focuses on student process and labor, and invites students to co-create the standards by which their work is assessed. Since you wrote the chapter, you’ve continued to use contract grading in your courses. What have you continued to learn about this assessment and grading practice? 

THF: With each course, I learn something new about contract grading! So, I also want to emphasize that I haven’t perfected contract grading by any means. What excites me is that with every course, I am collaborating with students to learn what part of the contract process works for them and which doesn’t. No group of students is the same, and the contract can be impacted greatly by the length of the course (ex: quarter vs. summer session), subject matter, and level (ex: lower division vs. upper division).

I like that I am providing a proposal for the contract and students are editing, approving, and re-negotiating it. It takes the pressure off of me to have all the answers. I know the course material and the research that supports particular pedagogical choices, but I don’t know what students know about themselves. They have to fill in those gaps and tell me what it is they think is feasible, what they want to learn, and what is relevant to their academic and life trajectories.

I have continued to learn different ways to judge whether an assignment was completed or not, but the emphasis is always on meeting task requirements and never on arbitrary goals. For example, when I started I used an all-or-nothing approach, and if an assignment missed even one requirement, it was marked incomplete. I don’t take this approach anymore. I also use deadlines more but I allow for multiple re-submissions so that students have the opportunity to improve upon assignments. 

KD: What advice do you have for others who are considering using this grading method? Similarly, what burning questions do you have for educators who already use contract grading in their courses?

THF: My biggest piece of advice is to remain flexible: Don’t get so attached to the idea of an assignment that you lose sight of the toll its completion is taking on your students. There are always modifications that can be made. 

I would love to chat with educators who have been using contract grading for years just to hear about how they have altered their practice over time and whether they use the same contract for each class or if it is different each time like it is for me. I just want to share experiences!

KD: In many ways, your chapter proposes an important lineage for radical assessment practices like contract grading, tracing it to the possibilities presented in Black Studies and particularly in Black Girlhood Studies. What can instructors gain by understanding these connections and through-lines?

THF: I want to make it clear that I am not advocating that we make it easier to obtain high grades; rather, we re-orient ourselves to de-link learning from grades and eventually forgo grades altogether. I say this upfront because there is a tendency among liberal non-Black teachers to underestimate Black students and, in a conservative parallel, others argue that “reverse racism” in education affords Black and other students of color privileges withheld from white students.

My pedagogy is pro-Black, in that I want my curricula and pedagogy to contribute to the ideological and physical reorganization of institutional space in favor of Black and Indigenous people and to the detriment of colonial racial capitalism. Grades have worked in favor of upholding this system. The whole idea of “giving” good grades — whether in a twisted altruistic sense or in an unfounded argument against affirmative action — is linked to the relationship between Black people and education as one that is undeserved: “Black people are undeserving because they are raw material/labor. Labor doesn’t need an education. And if labor doesn’t need an education, then pushout is justified.” So the argument that I make in the article to bring attention to educational pushout is really to draw out its particular role in a broader system of relations within colonial racial capitalism.

KD: When you think about the four pedagogical values you describe in the chapter — instructor responsibility, student agency, collaboration, and reflexivity — what would you say you are most proud of implementing? That is, which value and its associated practices have been most rewarding to implement, and why?

THF: Student agency is the value that students identify and articulate appreciation for the most clearly throughout the class and in their SETS. I associate this value with an ideological perspective that recognizes youth as capable subjects in the present, as opposed to limiting their capacity to the future. This latter perspective is most colloquially used, for example, when we say things like, “Youth are the future.” Yes, young people may become adults in the future but they are present now, and we should respect, recognize, and encourage the ways that they enact agency. University students often enroll during young adulthood, primarily between the ages of 18 and 24. They are young, but they are not incapable of making decisions, and in fact, part of what they are doing at the university should be learning how to make decisions that will impact their life trajectory with the support of caring educators.

In order to implement practices that emphasize student agency, I have to first acknowledge my limitations. I began teaching independently after COVID began and the pandemic is always a forethought for me as I write my syllabus. COVID has disrupted formal education in many more ways than I could account for. It has made the process of acknowledging my limitations more urgent because the social situations that my students are in are more urgent. At the same time, this urgency has helped me de-center myself and my ego, as I am constantly reminded that my class isn’t the most important thing in the world at any given moment. That helps me shift my goal from ensuring that the work gets done to ensuring that learning is happening.

Students really notice this and have commented that they feel that shift in the room that comes from me not taking it personally when they make decisions about the class based on what they know to be best for them. This isn’t to say that I don’t challenge them or ask if there is anything that I can do to help them accomplish their learning objectives, but the focus remains on their construction of a learning objective, not mine.

KD: You’ve been a leader on campus in supporting graduate students in developing their teaching and mentoring practices, such as through your leadership in TLC’s Graduate Pedagogy Fellows program and GSI Peer Support Team, and EOP’s Pathways to Research program. How have your experiences in programs like these had an impact on your own teaching and mentoring practices? What impact have these experiences had on your perspectives on the institution of higher education more broadly?

THF: I originally became involved in these programs because I lacked confidence in my teaching but felt an obligation to be a good instructor. I graduated from a small state school and before that I had completed just one semester at a liberal arts college. I had no idea what a TA was or did, but I knew that I couldn’t stand in front of 60 students every week and waste their time making a fool of myself. Then once I started, I realized I could actually love teaching and so I wanted to get better not just out of fear but out of passion. I have honestly been surprised by how few graduate students have shared that they are also passionate about teaching. This isn’t to say that they aren’t good scholars, just that they are more, or only, really interested in the research aspect of their academic positions. But, again, because of my placement within Black Studies I do not see these aspects — teaching and research — as separate. Even when I am researching, I am teaching or thinking of ways to incorporate field observations into my curriculum. Black Studies is still marginalized in the academy and so is this way of thinking about teaching and research as interconnected.

While also underfunded and under-recognized, Pathways to Research is one program that I have worked with that demonstrates the incredible benefits to undergraduate and graduate students when this interconnection is emphasized. P2R has been a space of really brilliant student research development but it has also been a space of support. Each year mentors and mentees report that cohorts are their favorite aspects of the program. At first I was surprised that grad mentors felt this way but I think it reflects the level to which they take seriously a commitment to non-hierarchical relationships. The P2R mentorship structure that I led from 2019 through 2022 was grounded in student agency and I used scholarship such as from Dr. Torie Weiston-Serdan to frame mentorship as a youth-led process in which mentors are meant to provide guidance through questions and suggestions.

Whether I pursue a faculty or non-academic research position after graduating this year, I feel confident that the roles I played in supporting grads in P2R and CITL have prepared me to mentor graduate-level and peer scholars. What I have learned from my involvement and leadership within these programs is that the goal of innovative grading practices or ungrading — that is, to re-focus on student learning — is actually evident when we turn to spaces outside of the classroom. There are no grades in P2R and yet students set their learning goals and develop plans to achieve them with the support of their graduate student mentors. So how can I make my classroom more like that? And how can I use my expertise — as a researcher, grant-writer, mentor, etc. — to support more campus programs that cultivate this kind of learning? That’s my next task! 

Spotlight Your Colleagues

Do you have a colleague who is doing innovative work on our campus related to teaching and mentoring? Tell us about their contributions by sending us an email to and we’ll consider them for a future spotlight feature. Please make sure to include their name, role, and contact information.