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Conversation #58: Marcia Chatelain on Connecting with Students

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Marcia ChatelainA conversation with Marcia Chatelain of Georgetown University on connecting with students.

Dr. Marcia Chatelain, previously on the faculty of the University of Oklahoma's Joe C. and Carole Kerr McClendon Honors College, researches a wide array of issues in African-American history. Dr. Chatelain writes and teaches about African-American migration, women's and girls' history, and race and food. Dr. Chatelain has served on the boards of the Girl Scouts of Western Oklahoma and the University of Missouri's Student Affairs division. Dr. Chatelain is a member of the British Council's Transatlantic Network 2020, a 2000 Harry S. Truman Scholar, an alumna and honoree of the Sue Shear Institute for Women in Public Life, and a 2011 German Marshall Fund of the U.S. Fellow. In 2012, Dr. Chatelain was awarded an American Association of University Women Postdoctoral Fellowship (declined) and a Ford Foundation Diversity Postdoctoral Fellowship. Her second book, which examines the relationship between communities of color and fast food, has received grants from the Duke University Libraries and the Frances E. Summersell Center for the Study of the South at the University of Alabama. In 2014, Dr. Chatelain created #fergusonsyllabus to encourage educators to discuss the national crisis in Ferguson, Missouri. Dr. Chatelain hosts Office Hours: A Podcast (available on I Tunes) in which she talks to students about the things most important to them.

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Dr. Marcia Chatelain: My name is Marcia Chatelain and I’m an associate professor of History and African American studies at Georgetown. I started my career in the honors college at the University of Oklahoma and I think that for me I take, very seriously, the idea that in my role as a faculty member I need to be as committed to my research  as my teaching and as committed to my teaching as I am my research. One of the things that I think is really important for scholars is the ways that we think our research on a trajectory as something that evolves and that we always have to recreate and push ourselves. I feel very much about teaching. I really try to think about practices, whether it’s with technology or changing the ways that I connect with students or even revising the kinds of assignments that I generate in the class. I really think of my teaching as part of a professional evolution as well as reflective of the different ways that students understand themselves in the context of which they are in college.

Dr. Elizabeth Manley: We have a member of our faculty and administration here, Sister Monica, who talks about how you have to meet the students where they are, which I think, is a really important thing. And to that, I think your podcast does an incredible job of doing that. Your podcast office hours, which I’ve been listening to. I’m trying to catch up with all the episodes. Not quite there yet, but I’ve listened to quite a few and I was wondering if you could tell our listeners a little bit more about how that came about and what really drove you to do it.

Dr. Marcia Chatelain: Office hours is a pure labor of love. It’s not something that is really prominent on my CV or I can use it for my annual review. I started the podcast. I live in Washington, DC and I don’t really drive anymore. I walk most places or take public transportation, so I listen to a lot of podcasts. For one time, I was just a fan of public radio and public radio streaming casts of shows that I missed the first time. I, like a lot of people, spent more and more time listening to things like Serial and Startup and the stuff from give-up media. I actually just really appreciated the form. The fact that in a moment we can be so stimulated visually by the things we have on television and online that this is something about letting people into an intimate conversation, the tad among people, and I thought was really nice. I kind of just wanted to experiment with the genre and I was also developing the idea for office hours during the time where I thought a lot of my students, particularly the students of color, were feeling invisible and not legible to a lot of people at universities. I wanted to give my colleagues the opportunity to get to know students in a different way and to really model the importance of creating trusting relationships with students outside of the classroom as a way to build your own teaching and mentoring practices. I think it’s a great opportunity for students to talk about who they are at a very specific moment of their lives and it kind of starts as a time capsule for students who appear on the first few episodes. I think when they listen back and they think, “oh, I sound so young” or some of the students talk about some goals and some were able to achieve them and others found a different path. I really like capturing why I love teaching so much and why I love students so much and be able to share that with people who are on either side of that conversation.

Dr. Elizabeth Manley: Yeah, I think that really, really comes through. Both, the students having this opportunity to talk and to share, but you being able to expand upon what you love about teaching and your love for the students and their success is really kind of contagious. I imagine this must take a fair amount of your time and I know you said it’s a labor of love. But, what are some of the biggest challenges you’ve encountered keeping up a podcast and keeping motivated to do it every week?

Dr. Marcia Chatelain: So, the way I do the podcast, just from a practicality standpoint, is from the first season when we were experimenting, one of the things that we do is that we record a lot of content and then we make the shows. That helps a lot with maximizing free time. For season two, I focused on students who were entering Truman scholarship program. I’ve been a mentor for Truman scholars for a really long time. They were all here this summer. So, I decided x amount of time would be spent on interviewing and I would interview four students back to back in the sound booth. With those interviews, me and the producer, Alex Tyson, we can do the content around it where it’s us bantering, whether it’s advice or just from a practicality standpoint. Because our podcast is so thematic and not so responsive to current events, you can kind of hear it sometimes. Sometimes a podcast will come out in December and we’re talking about how hot it is. I get less concerned about that as long as I hit upon the issues that I think stay consistent in the college experience. You know, navigating relationships with parents, shifting expectations of yourself, success, transferring. So, just from a time standpoint, we make a lot of the episodes in advance and then release them. The shows on Highatis because I will be joining the team of another podcast that comes out in a few weeks.

Dr. Elizabeth Manley: Full disclosure, I have a little bit of a problem with Law and Order and I first heard you when you guessed it on These Our Their Stories podcast and I was like, “I really need to listen to her podcast.” So, has this brought you into a world of podcast in a new way? What’s that like?

Dr. Marcia Chatelain: Yeah, so it’s kind of funny. When you talk about how we spend our time, I think we first started, I think I really just wanted to do something with my students that was fun and it actually had two unintended outcomes, which were really positive. But first, as a lot of people listen to Office Hours, it has helped me create somewhat of a platform of my work in terms of helping faculty do implicit teaching. Some people say to me, “Oh, I heard your podcast,” and I get invitations to work with faculty and I love that. I love that I get to use the podcast as a starting point to do workshops about difficult dialogue or inclusive teaching. I have this professional element that was really exciting. People who like podcasts listen to a lot of podcasts. The first podcast I did was before Office Hours where I did a podcast about equity that Kansas State University does and then I did “Call Your Girlfriend” which is kind of like a Top 100 podcast. I only got it because my best friend from college knows the people who do it, but I had an opportunity to appear there. What was funny is after, all my students were like, “Oh my gosh, Professor Chatelain, I heard you on Call Your Girlfriend. That’s so cool.” Based on the Office Hours I did around the criminal justice system, some of our students who did a prison program, I got invited to do Addendum which is a chat show that is associated with Undisclosed. Undisclosed was a podcast that you’ll see around season one and the wrongful conviction case and that season. That created this entire platform to investigate wrongful convictions. They would do the episodes on Monday and on Thursday they would do a discussion show. It was my favorite podcast and when one of the producers asked would I like to be on the show, I was like, “Oh my gosh, this is the greatest thing,” because Office Hours had a very low listenership but Undisclosed had 140 million downloads just to give you a sense of the stone. I did two episodes of Addendum and that’s how I got meet Rebecca Lavoy who does the Law & Order podcast which is just pure fun because it’s such a ridiculous TV show and it’s really good conversation. Shortly after that, I got invited to join season three of Undisclosed so we’ll be launching a new season of Undisclosed in March around a criminal justice issue. That’s a fifteen-episode commitment. Talk about genre. I’m used to doing a podcast where I just talk to students about stuff. Office Hours I do very little planning for. I just invite the student. I try to save the conversation for when we get in studio so we can start talking. It’s a student I know so I know what questions to ask. For Undisclosed, it is investigative and scripted and it is very difficult. It’s challenging to me as a scholar to write short. People don’t hear footnotes. In the episodes, I try to make sure my attribution is correct. I’m part of a narrative storytelling and there is a team of four of us. I’m the historian on the team and I’m really proud of the work were doing, but boy is it difficult.

Dr. Elizabeth Manley: Wow, that sounds amazing and super challenging. I think that public facing scholarship is something that we’re necessarily encouraged to do and yet is so important. It seems to me that we’ve started a new initiative here at Xavier as part of a larger core curriculum enhancement on digital humanities. Would you consider your podcast and the podcast you’re working with digital humanities?

Dr. Marcia Chatelain:  I think so. I think it’s this idea of bringing a discipline, like history, to a larger audience and helping them imagine the different things that they can do with history. The topic of this podcast is a pretty contemporary topic, but I’m able to connect it to the 19th century or trends in the 1940s and help people understand that history is really the entry point for the origin stories of a lot of the contemporary problems that we find so daunting. I think it’s digital humanities. I like to think a lot about platforms. I’ve written museum exhibits. I’m really engaged on Twitter. I like the idea of using my classroom assignments as a way of thinking of how to engage with these forms in order to distribute history as widely as possible.

Dr. Elizabeth Manley: That’s really great. Can you talk about that a little bit more? The class room projects that you do with your students.

Dr. Marcia Chatelain: One of the things I’m doing this semester for my African American Women history class instead of the traditional writing assignment. After every book, I ask students to the knowledge from that book to solve problems that could occur in the workplace. We just read Incidents From the Life of a Slave Girl. They have four opportunities to use history to solve a problem. So, they pick a scenario. One of the scenarios I presented was a ninth grade teacher is using the book and parents are upset about exposure to the history. The second one is there was Russell Simmons production company did a joke, like satire, on Harriet Tubman and essentially suggesting that she gained her freedom because she blackmailed a slave owner about a sex tape. It was really, really poorly received. I asked the students, “Use the knowledge you’ve learned from this text to explain to people why people are upset by this and why certain things are inappropriate.” We just read a book about the convict labor systems in Georgia and African American women, a great book called A Change in Silence. One of the assignments is if a private developer wanted to redevelop the land where one of these prisons were located in the early 20th century, what are some ways to think about this choice or what are some ways to think about popular culture that makes references to chain gangs? If you were in the position to market these products or decided whether these products go through or not, how would you use history to form your decisions? It makes for some really interesting projects and the ways students really see the practical application of the knowledge they have. I also think it allows them to strengthen their cultural literacy skills. In an age of which there is this charactering of academics and people who are overly sensitive, I think it’s important for students to understand that outrage is grounded in a lot of history and a lot of masking of the past.

Dr. Elizabeth Manley: Right, right. I teach history as well. I’m a historian of the Caribbean of women but it’s so important that we teach students the implacability. Otherwise, they don’t see history as anything useful to them in their contemporary lives. Do you feel like students are big part of your audience? They’re coming at your perspective and how you’re coming at teaching through these conversations.

Dr. Marcia Chatelain:  Yeah, I think that for me I don’t need students to think that I’m the smartest person in the room. I need them to think I’m the most human. Having this opportunity to talk to students, it’s key. If you think about the content that I teach, it’s all difficult dialogue. It’s not like the one class period where we’re doing something difficult. We’re always engaged in a process that’s informed by struggle and being informed by so many difficult things. If we don’t have any relationship where any were poorer, it won’t just be successful. The podcast is an opportunity for shy students. Regardless of the size of my class, I insist that we talk. For some students, their voices will never emerge. I think the podcast for some students, even if their afraid to come on Office Hours, lends them an opportunity to kind of get some insides on the ways that I’m thinking. It also has some real application for things that they’re trying to decide, whether it’s transferring, or changing majors, any of the different things. If not put with a little insight, it can really hamper students’ success.

Dr. Elizabeth Manley: Do you get a lot of letters? I know on some of the episodes you answer letters and do you get a lot of those? Are they growing in number?

Dr. Marcia Chatelain:  We get a lot of tweets. Some of the letters we write just to fictionalize the people who are having these challenges. They’re based on challenges that students have brought to us. Sometimes, I think more letters than advice, we get a lot of ideas for shows. Someone suggested that next season be devoted to mentorship where I ask people about the influential people in their lives and how they shape them. I think that would be a really nice way to switch up the tone. I’d like to devote a season to life after college experiences like, what is it like to be in a PhD program, what is it like to go to medical school, what is it like to go to law school? For students who are on that pathway, I think it’s really interesting to hear from people who are in the middle of it who aren’t that far apart in age. There are just a lot of different directions. Increasingly, I just get to learn more and more about the students I teach here. I have the network of the Truman Scholarship as well as students I meet on campuses that I visit. I felt like what I liked about season two was it was students who all went to different schools. They’re really coming onto their college experiences, having on to large publics, small liberal arts, the military academy, just a real diverse perspective.

Dr. Elizabeth Manley: Yeah, As much as I love your Georgetown students, I love it when you talk to Howard students because in many ways I think that their experiences are enlightening for those of us who teach at HBCUs and Xavier being a small and Catholic HBCU, both same and different. Coming into the particular political challenges that we may be facing in the next four years, where do you see HBCUs playing a role? What do you think our challenges are going to be? This is a huge question but I know it’s one that is on everyone’s mind. Everyone that is connected with HBCUs is really nervous but also wondering, what can we do?

Dr. Marcia Chatelain: I think that, and this is coming from someone who doesn’t teach at an HBCU, as someone who is familiar, historically, with some of the unique challenges from HBCUs, I think that what the next four year are going to surface is that HBCUs are going to have their entire history come together at one moment. Meaning, I think that HBCUs are going to have to negotiate some of the relationship they did in the 19th and the first half of the 20th century about negotiating like power brokers who might have a vision of what these schools are supposed to do that might be contrary to kind of what is needed now, because of this current White House. They’re also going to revisit a lot of the struggles that were very present in the 20s and the 60s in terms of the students reimagining what their college education should look like and some of the messages of tradition will cause tension on the campus. For black students today, because of social media, because of the world which students are cultivated into college, their context isn’t just the school they go to. It’s all the schools. Students were really connected to the struggle that was at the University of Missouri and you have students at Yale in solidary with Mizzou, Howard in solidary with Mizzou, and Georgetown in solidary with Mizzou. I think students are thinking of themselves as kind of like a pan student movement and it has to do with Black Lives Matter and constant struggle. I think, depending on the environment, HBCUs are going to have to, perhaps, manage a student population that is acting out politically in ways they think might actually harm their status in a number of ways. I think that history is going to come to bare. I think that the larger questions about sexual violence and feminism, all of the things I think all campuses deal with, will also surface a series of questions and challenges. I don’t think these issues are unique to HBCUs, but I think some of the management of the politic and the funding and the leadership, all of the history is going to come together at one moment. The question of survival and the question of being able to thrive might feel even more embattled because of these forces.

Dr. Elizabeth Manley: Right, and how do you think we as faculty can best support our students as they navigate through this?

Dr. Marcia Chatelain: I think just be aware of the spaces and context they’re coming from. I think that sometimes I do an inclusive teaching workshop, a professor will say, “Well, if I have to keep up with students, I would have to be on social media all day.” I’m like, “Well, it might be a good use of a day.” If it means you’re spending four hours looking at Twitter and buzz feed and Tumblr and that and it allows you to be more successful in reaching your students, it is time well spent.  I don’t think we can take for granted that students are entering our campuses understanding fully what they’ve committed to. In light of the conversation about student debt, about the future of the economy, about where jobs are, students, I don’t think, are demanding consumers. I think of them as anxious investors and just like we’re not sure what happens when we get a mortgage and buy a house, they’re not sure what the outcomes of this are supposed to be. I think the more patient with that and we try to learn the conversation and dialogues that they are having the better we can know what to do for them. I think that, for me, teaching them the history and teaching them the capacity of college students to really effect change and change the direction of the institution is really, really important. I think that it not only inspires them but that they have more power than they can imagine.

Dr. Elizabeth Manley: I’m definitely moved by the specifics of the content of the message and how change occurs and how it can occur. I think it’s really interesting in students in the kind of ways they put themselves out there. I think that being attentive to that social media and to the ways in which they communicate is a huge challenge for some of us, but kind of an important one.

Dr. Marcia Chatelain: It’s also not designed for us. Half of it just seems so weird. It seems strange and foreign to us. I think the more and more we become convulsive in it or at least curious about it. We were talking about dating apps like Tinder in class. I asked the students, “Do you know what people used to do before these apps?” Everyone just blankly looked at each other and someone said, “Craigslist?” I said, “No, not craigslist.” I was teaching them about personal ads in the newspaper. They’re like, “What?! This is so creepy” I was like, “How is that creepy and Tinder is a lot less creepy?” We can engage in a conversation and, again, it is not because I understand Tinder, but it’s because I know it is something that is in their lives in a way that then opens up a conversation about respectability politics. We don’t have to start in 1890. We can start in 2017 with their dating apps and we work backwards. Then, they’re engaged in this conversation about sexual propriety in a way that they wouldn’t have been before. It shows in the quality of the writing and the thinking in the papers. Ten years later, students say, “I don’t remember anything from college, but that conversation about Tinder really got me into thinking.” I think we have to claim those small victories in a time that is so discouraging and so overwhelming. Every day, someone says, “Did you hear the news?” Nine out of ten times, it’s not good news. I think that making the classroom a place where students can feel human is probably the most pressing need at this particular moment in our nation’s history.

Dr. Elizabeth Manley: I cannot agree more. I do think it’s about those little victories and how students connect the present to the past. I want to ask you two final questions. The first one is one you always ask your students. You ask them, “If there is one thing that all of their professors could know about them, what would it be?” I’m wondering if you had any answers that really stood out to you or were kind of exemplary of what you were going for there.

Dr. Marcia Chatelain: There’s an episode I did with a young woman named Alexis. We were talking about race in the classroom. From the perspective of a student who doesn’t get involved with protests, I think that’s the critical massive students. Most of our students will not chain themselves to a bridge. Most of our students will not buy a Black Lives Matter t-shirt. We forget about those students who are trying to carry out a political identity that applies to them. I asked her, “What do you wish professors understood?” She said, “When I enter a classroom, I’m coming as a black woman. If you could just acknowledge that, I’d be more open to learning. Even if it’s a math class, if it’s a way of acknowledge that I am who I am, then I can do the learning.” I thought this was really helpful. Sometimes students surprise and say, “I would just like to express my gratitude for all the things that my professors have done for me.” I think that’s great. A lot of students express, “I wish you knew how much I cared and sometimes I can’t express it. Sometimes I can’t. It doesn’t mean I’m not engaged.” I did a talk with a student who wants to be a TV writer and she said, “I wish that professors understand what all students have going on in their lives. It’s not that we don’t care. It’s just that we have so much.” I think that, in talking to students about the complexities of the life that they have when they get to college, it’s also a nice reminder for professors to remember that they are in a evolutionary process, similar to the process that we had to go through. If we understand that, perhaps we can be more accommodating, not just in the amount of reading or assignments, but even in the approach of what learning is going to do for them. I love that part of the show because I learn so much.

Dr. Elizabeth Manley: That resonated with me because I often tell my students, “Look, college is about making priorities. My class doesn’t have to be your first priority. You just have to acknowledge that it’s there and you’re making choices. I’m not going to be personally offended by these choices. You just have to own them.” So, if your students could know one thing about you, what would that thing be?

Dr. Marcia Chatelain: I would say how grateful I am for them. I don’t think students realize just how much they do for me just by being themselves and telling me things. The ways that I think about it, especially now, are how my husband and I just moved onto campus in faculty and residents. So when we made this choice, everyone was like, “Oh my gosh, you’re going to live in a dorm with kids. It’s going to be awful for your work/life balance and what about your privacy?” and it has caused no problems. The students are respectful. I feel like it’s better for my work/life balance, because when I’m at home, I’m at home and when I’m at work, I’m at work. I don’t think I could express what it means to be part of a community with them. After the election, I was incredibly depressed, incredibly anxious, and incredibly disappointed because I saw the rise of the form of extremism that I often told students we move away from. It might shift, it might change, but we chipped away at this edifest and to see it rise with such clarity was heartbreaking. There is no other way to say it. I was heartbroken after the election. To be able to be in community with my students and to see them when I’ m throwing out my trash or to see them on the way to my car or just to know that our home is a place for them, I feel like it has saved me so many times. I think that it’s a really hard thing to explain to them that their presence has made all the difference in a very, very difficult time. Me and my husband are also in the process of adopting children. I think that when you’re an adoptive parent, just because of the curriculum requirements, you’re forced to think so much about parenting in a way that perhaps, other families don’t feel like they have to have an answer to because no one asks them explicitly. There’s no social worker asking them questions. In thinking about making the choice to have children, my only reference point is my students about what happens after 18 years of great parenting and wonderful support like who they become. In many ways, they help me make a very personal decision just by being such a great example of what’s possible. I think that it’s just so hard to express to my students just how grateful I am to have them for helping me shape so many personal and professional decisions that I’ve made.

Dr. Elizabeth Manley: Well, from everything that I’ve from your podcast and talking to you, I think a lot of that does certainly come through in your commitment to them. I am going to keep listening to the podcasts and telling people about it, my students as well. I think they would really benefit.

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