Pedagogo Podcast S4E7 with Guest Ereka Williams

Pedagogo S4E7: Community, Connections, and Student Success

Hear Dr. Divya Bheda’s discussion with Dr. Ereka Williams about how higher ed leaders and faculty can come together to support their communities — plus learn strategies to instill democratic values in teaching to promote student success.

Guest Bio:

Ereka R. Williams, Ph.D., serves as Vice President of Impact – Education at Dogwood Health Trust, bringing more than 20 years of P-12 and post-secondary teaching, scholarship, and leadership to the organization. Most recently, Dr. Williams served as the Associate Provost for Academic Strategy and Institutional Effectiveness at Winston-Salem State University (WSSU). Prior to that role, she served as Associate Dean of Education, Quality Assurance, and Community Engagement at WSSU and Associate Dean of Education at Fayetteville State University (her alma mater).

Dr. Williams has served as a coach, speaker, researcher, board member, and reviewer for rural and urban schools across the Midwest, Northeast, and Southeastern U.S. She has worked in similar roles at large and small post-secondary institutions and organizations, including the National Institute of Learning Outcomes and Assessment (NILOA) and the Lumina Foundation. Her scholarship includes research, publications, and presentations with a focus on equity, diversity, assessment, accreditation, and leadership. A native North Carolinian, she earned a Doctor of Philosophy in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Transcript:

Announcer:
Pedagogo, the podcast for anyone and everyone in higher education.

In today’s episode, we’ll discuss the intersection of identity in higher ed and how educators can instill community-building skills in their teaching and leadership to support the success of every student — in academia and beyond.

Pedagogo, brought to you by ExamSoft, the digital assessment solution that gives you actionable data for improved learning outcomes. When assessment matters, ExamSoft has you covered.

Dr. Divya Bheda:
Hello, dear listeners. We have a wonderful guest here with us, Dr. Ereka Williams. Thank you Ereka, for doing this interview and sharing your thoughts on community, connections, and student success. Welcome.

Dr. Ereka Williams:
Thank you for the invitation. It’s a pleasure to be here. Any opportunity to talk about community is one I will accept (laughs).

Dr. Divya Bheda:
(laughs) Well, thank you for making the time to be in community with me as we have this conversation. I wanted to get started with the question I’m realizing that is important to ask all my guests: How do you see community, how do you define community, and what has your experience over the years taught you about the importance of it?

Dr. Ereka Williams:
Mm, all incredible questions. When I think about a definition for community, I think about this fluid yet connected body with common threads, running, weaving almost throughout this fluid body, understanding that communities are not static or fixed, that they’re osmotic in some ways, that they’re permeable in some ways.

And yet there’s always these threads that are woven throughout that connect and bind the individuals that identify as a part of that community. You know, when I think about my own experiences and the communities that I’ve been privileged to be a part of over my life, I mean, I, I identify as a middle-aged black woman, and I own that.

I own that strongly. And I also identify as rural, because my family’s roots started in rural Northeastern North Carolina, and one part of my tree, my aunt commissioned a genealogist to study our family history. And so we’ve tracked it back to the very census records that identify members of my paternal family, right alongside livestock and property.

Dr. Divya Bheda:
Wow.

Dr. Ereka Williams:
Exactly. The power in that. When I went through pages and pages of these archival documents, and I could see those names of my ancestors, and I think about that community where generations of us have been born. Right up until my son, my son is the first generation to not be born in that remote, rural part of North Carolina.

So when we’re walking that land, I’m walking within the community that our very foundation in this place that we call America, you know, the community of America got started. When I think about all these components, that form the communities that I’ve been a part of over time, it’s overwhelming, it’s humbling.

And I feel fortunate because with each layer of community I’ve been able to move within and without. I’ve been able to broker and build relationships. I’ve been able to negotiate spaces for people that sometimes didn’t have the ability or the access to negotiate spaces.

Because I identify as rural and black, when I show up in certain settings, I’m always making sure that I keep that lens and that perspective right there close to me so that when decisions are being made for budgets, for dollars, for policy, for, you name it, that I’m keeping those various communities that are part of my background and my connections always sitting there beside me, always.

Dr. Divya Bheda:
So, Ereka, as you were sharing about your roots and how you’re part of various communities, why do you think people should pay attention to building community right now, especially in higher education?

Dr. Ereka Williams:
You know, within community lies identity. So if we’re sitting in the middle of a city or town as an institution of higher ed, we have a responsibility to commune or to be in service where we sit. To do that and to do that well, we have to be mindful of the values and the beliefs of the families, the citizens, the children, the elders that we’re serving there.

The greatest danger that we can run into is to believe that we’re operating within community when in fact we may be destroying or eliminating community. And we’ve seen examples of that unintentionally, and in some cases, perhaps intentionally, where we’ve not been the best stewards as institutions, we’ve not been the best neighbors.
We are aware now. We have the resources, we have data, we have a history that we can study and examine to help us to be great neighbors, collaborators, doers, and thinkers together, in concert with community.

Dr. Divya Bheda:
So you brought up such a great point and it reminds me of one of my previous guests. So I had a conversation where they said, “Community can be a space that holds you back, too.” What would your advice be for folks trying to inculcate democratic values, social justice values in higher education when the community may not be receptive to it?

Dr. Ereka Williams:
Hmm. Well, one of the areas that we have neglected historically, that I feel we’re getting better at with time-

Dr. Divya Bheda:
Mm-hmm.

Dr. Ereka Williams:
… is the inclusion of all voices, all stakeholders. And so when I think about the movement that started in 2020 with the murder of George Floyd and many others that were in the spotlight that year, when I think about what triggered both nationally and globally at that moment, I think about how, for the first time, we had voices, stakeholders, perspectives of people at the margins.

And so, when you think about social justice, democracy, democratic ideals, it is absolutely critical that we remember to have all voices, all stakeholders at the table, those that have historically not been there, those who have been there, but whose voices have been minimized or silenced.

One of my mentors when I entered into the historically black college space as a young academic 20-some years ago, she was known in the region for being a fierce advocate for all HBCU communities, campuses, et cetera.

When she showed up to a statewide governance meeting, when she showed up to the general assembly, when she pulled out her pen and wrote an opinion essay, one thing you could be guaranteed of was that she was gonna always be advocating and keeping the voice of the HBCU community in front of legislatures, local government, state government, federal government.

And you know, when some of us who were younger in that space talked to her, one of the things she always said to us was, “Either you’re at the table or you’re on the table.”

And it was always this reminder that we had to make sure that when we had an opportunity to be in a room where decisions were being made that impacted the trajectory of people’s lives for generations, that we remembered to speak up, to be representative, to have all the voices at the table and to leave no one behind.

I think social justice at its best is about just that. I think democracy at its best is about just that.

Dr. Divya Bheda:
You have articulated that so beautifully. I wanna say it again for our listeners, because I’m having an aha moment.

Dr. Ereka Williams:
Mm-hmm.

Dr. Divya Bheda:
You can either be at the table, representing your community, you know, advocating for your community, or you’ll end up being on the table, which is where you don’t necessarily have power, but you are being discussed, decisions are being made for you, about you.

Dr. Ereka Williams:
Yes.

Dr. Divya Bheda:
And so at any point in time, I think we, as higher ed folks who are trying to ensure student success, that we make sure we are at the table and bring the perspectives of the communities who are not at the table there, so they are not on the table being discussed.

And how do we lift people up? Or how do we bring people along with us, where opportunities weren’t there for them? How do we do that as educators so that whatever, or whoever is on the table is also at the table? (laughs) Everything has a human element to it. Every decision that’s on the table, it’s not a depersonalized decision. So thank you for sharing that perspective.

Dr. Ereka Williams:
It’s so true. You know, I’ve been rereading bell hooks’ work lately, Teaching Community: Pedagogy of Hope.

Dr. Divya Bheda:
Mm-hmm.

Dr. Ereka Williams:
And there’s a quote in here that I want to share because it lifts this up: “One of the dangers we face in our educational systems is the loss of a feeling of community, not just the loss of closeness, among those with whom we work and with our students, but also the loss of a feeling of connection and closeness with the world beyond the academy.” You know, it’s really her call to arms to us, to not forget why we entered this space in the first place.

Dr. Divya Bheda:
That’s so beautifully put. And how important is it then as we think about education as educators that we think about, how are we inculcating those values, how are we teaching our students to build community, to be part of community, to advocate for community, to represent communities. How are we teaching that as a learning outcome, as a skill set.

Dr. Ereka Williams:
Right.

Dr. Divya Bheda:
Any other thoughts to share?

Dr. Ereka Williams:
You know, later in that work, she talked about how, unfortunately, sometimes teaching is like the icing on the cake, as opposed to the cake itself, and how we really must work to move back to this space where teaching is at the core, true teaching for liberation, for freedom, for democracy and democratic ideals.

If we’re teaching with those purposes, then we are gonna be giving students opportunities to advocate, to voice, to be agents of change and to not just obey, because there’s so much about our processes in academia that are about compliance and obedience from the syllabus-

Dr. Divya Bheda:
Right.

Dr. Ereka Williams:
… the language of the syllabus.

Dr. Divya Bheda:
Absolutely.

Dr. Ereka Williams:
You name it, right? And so, there’s not too many concrete experiential ways for students to live out these democratic ideals if we, the curators of this experience-

Dr. Divya Bheda:
Right.

Dr. Ereka Williams:
… don’t dismantle and shake up some of the things that we perhaps haven’t. And we have the opportunity.

Dr. Divya Bheda:
Mm-hmm.

Dr. Ereka Williams:
We have the opportunity with our assessments, with the language that we use in our syllabi, with the types of assignments, and the way in which we issue assignments. We have so many opportunities to model the best of community, advocacy, voice, representation, et cetera. I hope that we are remembering that in our daily work, as faculty and leaders in these academic spaces.

Dr. Divya Bheda:
Wow, I’m just so inspired by what you just said. For me what comes up is the idea that, can we also be in community as faculty with each other? A lot of times it’s a competition. That’s what the expectation from the system is, but then taking it further, assignments, right?

So folks who say, I don’t have the time to teach about community. I want my students to learn how to save lives, or I want to help my students learn coding. It goes back to that interconnectedness of the world. I mean, the pandemic has shown us if nothing else, how codependent we are.

And so if we are not teaching our students how to come together, how to advocate for themselves, how to push the boundaries, are we creating those free thinkers? Are we creating folks who can inspire and bring people together? Building assignments and assessments that actually are relevant to the communities and the work that they are doing. Thank you for sharing that perspective.

Dr. Ereka Williams:
Well, we have this incredible opportunity to do all of that, but then to strategically teach them how to use data. And this goes for any field, how can they use data to unpack the inequities that exist and work to dismantle them.

Again, when I think of democracy, of social justice, e pluribus unum, when I think about these ideals, it’s an incomplete journey or path if we allow degree completers to leave us and to not be able to perform these types of tasks or skills, if they can’t take information and, and disaggregate it and determine where the inequities exist and then use their specialty, their science, their math, their language, their law, their coding, to work, to bring some equity to this place-

Dr. Divya Bheda:
Right.

Dr. Ereka Williams:
… what have we been doing? Why are we even doing this? What’s the purpose?

Dr. Divya Bheda:
Yeah. And it goes back to that public good. I went to a conference pretty recently. It was my first in three years. And every presentation, every conversation was about how so-and-so helped me, how this other group I had to collaborate with, or how we took this model and made it our own.

And all that kept coming back to me was how it is community. You’re part of a professional community. You’re reaching out to the other accreditation liaison officer, another assessment director, another faculty member, you’re reaching out to your students. You’re falling back on your graduate school friends or your mentors.

So ultimately, it is the human endeavor. And your point about looking at data, but looking at data with that human lens-

Dr. Ereka Williams:
Exactly. Exactly.

Dr. Divya Bheda:
… is so, so meaningful because a lot of times, data, we’re able to depersonalize it and put folks on the table because it’s numbers, but those numbers have full human lives.

Dr. Ereka Williams:
And there’s the whole intersectionality of it all. And I’m glad that’s there. I, I can’t splice out rural from black, or I really find it hard to separate out my womanhood from my mothering or my teaching from my parenting. You know, all these communities that I exist in, and with each of these layers, I’m showing up to that data with another set of eyes.

This prism is incredible and I don’t wanna lose it. And I don’t want to have to divorce any part of that, to be able to advocate and say, oh, but wait, wait, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, what about the moms? What would the moms say about us bringing a bookmobile through the neighborhood on Saturdays?

When we think about ideas and solutions, keeping all of those different layers of the prism there to filter that issue through.

Dr. Divya Bheda:
Ereka, you’re so inspiring. I mean, (laughs) seriously, you’re giving me so much food for thought, because I think this is such an important learning for me, at least, or framing for me, about how in every data conversation, and usually data conversations at the decision-making level seem to be more about numbers than about lived experience.

And so, how do we as faculty, staff, students, whatever your role may be, how do we be at the table and disrupt, and interrupt, and intervene in those conversations to frame the humanity surrounding that data so that decisions are not made in a dehumanized way.

So giving me so many ideas about things that I can be doing in my meetings when we talk about data and how we talk about data, and how we talk about the people behind the data and the information.

Dr. Ereka Williams:
Yes.

Dr. Divya Bheda:
Yeah.

Dr. Ereka Williams:
That was one of the greatest gifts I think of the last couple of years is we’d been talking theoretically in higher ed. I can’t even name the number of conferences I’d gone to, we talked about the non-traditional learner, the adult learner. The adult learner needs this. And then bam, everything shut down.

All of our usuals went away and we had to find another way. We had to find another way, and we had to find it like yesterday. And so, now all the theoretical and the “we’ll figure that out in five or 10 years when we get back to strategic planning” became now.

And it was the gift of having to respond to a community and the immediacy that forced us to have to think about some of these conversations a different way.

Dr. Ereka Williams:
If there are any gifts of the pandemic, we’ve now had to pay attention to our adult learning population and the needs of our students in different ways that they were already asking us for and pleading with us for, and giving us data towards, but we weren’t examining it or we chose to not examine or filter it quite the same way pre-pandemic.

Dr. Divya Bheda:
Right. Thank you for sharing that perspective.

Dr. Divya Bheda:
Ereka, you and I have just talked about how we should come together to impact, you know, student success as a community. We’ve talked about how faculty need to be rethinking and prioritizing teaching, talked about the importance of data and not dehumanizing the data, bringing it back to center, the lived experience.

We’ve talked about the challenge of this pandemic and how it has helped people reprioritize their ways of being and their ways of thinking so that community is centered, so that we are serving and immediately meeting community’s needs, when before we could push that off.

So how can we build intentional community in a siloed higher ed world for greater impact? Do you have some thoughts that you could share or some ideas based on your rich experience as a person who brings people together for strategic planning, for accreditation, for assessment, and now in the nonprofit work that you do, as well?

Dr. Ereka Williams:
Yeah. A lot of that goes back to a couple of points that we’ve raised before that I’ll emphasize. The significance of having all voices, all stakeholders, students, families, those that have historically been silenced and/or marginalized in some way.

To the other point that you raised that was in the back of my mind, which is the necessity of removing the lens of the single expert in favor of the expertise of all. Because the fact is, every member of the community shows up steeped in something that is significant for that community, something the community can learn from, grow from, has benefited from.

So removing this solitary expert sage-on-stage approach. And-

Dr. Divya Bheda:
Right.

Dr. Ereka Williams:
… bringing in this, we’re all sages, we all have a responsibility and a way to contribute. We all bring levels of expertise that lift each other up, really de-centering the academician and the academy in all of it, to be perfectly honest, and then working within our academic spaces in the ways I believe that hopefully we’re best prepared, which is as social scientists, to really take data, to unpack the issues and the inequities.

So the community is at the table, voices are at the table, all this expertise is at the table, what’s gonna also come to the table are the conflicts and the tensions, and the issues and the wounds, and the history, a lot of which has been, sometimes, maybe at the hands of institutions, sometimes, maybe at the hands of other members of the community.
But now the community’s all here together, elbow to elbow, how do we take this information, take these data, and work to build solutions or resolve tensions or resolve conflict together, together because we are not going to solve issues and complex problems in silos.

It will not happen. It’s never happened. It will not start now. So we will have to work together in this kind of symbiotic way, using the expertise of all at the table.

Dr. Divya Bheda:
Beautifully put again. I was talking about this to Annabelle Goodwin, and she was saying she serves a lot of adult learners, and so she always sees herself as a facilitator because she has a lot to learn. The folks who come in to get a master’s have a lot of lived experience, beyond expertise in the field.

And so, how do you draw on that and approach it from a strength-based model to value multiple perspectives and not be, I know it all, what I say goes. And the way you have framed it, too, is to bring people together, which then means people need to have good communication skills, good perspective-taking skills, good listening, active listening skills.

And are we teaching all of those skills? Because it sounds from what you’re saying, that conversation becomes important. The ability to engage in active dialoguing, to build consensus with each other, where is all of that in our learning, and our learning outcomes, and in our teaching?

Dr. Ereka Williams:
Yeah. Talk about dispositions, right? In teacher education, we’re always talking about dispositional assessments. How do we assess those, quote unquote, soft skills, which I think Tia McNair called power skills. How do we assess those power skills to make sure, you know, they’ll have their content.

We know there’s a practice exam that can assess whether or not they know math, but how do we know that they have the compassion to teach math to an eight year old in a certain way? How do we get to that? We facilitate opportunities to grow in doing it, where we get to help them, scaffold them and model that for them and coach them up and along. We have to provide the opportunity.

Dr. Divya Bheda:
And we have to assess the right things, it sounds like, right?

Dr. Ereka Williams:
Yes.

Dr. Divya Bheda:
When we are using this opportunity to rethink what is important, what is relevant, I think part of that is also assessment. What, what should we be assessing? What are things that we should be practicing? What are the ways of being and the ways of learning that we need to reinforce?

I love that metaphor that you use, the “sage on stage,” and how do we move away from that to playing the role of a facilitator, to be less didactic? And what does that look like? And so then what are the skills, behaviors, attitudes, dispositions that we want our students to imbue, and how do we make sure that they’re learning that, and how do we make sure we are assessing that. I have more questions than answers (laughs).

Dr. Ereka Williams:
(laughs) Well, a true mark of a Ph.D. or a person with a terminal degree is we, we should ask better questions, not necessarily have any more answers. So it’s okay (laughs).

Dr. Divya Bheda:
(laughs) Nice. Thank you. That’s very comforting.

Dr. Divya Bheda:
So, based on your experience, again, what are some challenges to building and sustaining community?

Dr. Ereka Williams:
Honestly, to me, those challenges tend to show up when we have not centered culture and language appropriately.

Dr. Divya Bheda:
I love that.

Dr. Ereka Williams:
Yeah.

Dr. Divya Bheda:
Let’s center culture and language.

Dr. Ereka Williams:
Yes. When we choose to not center culture and language, then we’ve kind of set ourselves up from the beginning (laughs). Because again, if we’re talking community, identity, values, beliefs, et cetera. Language and culture, that’s it. That’s how those are conveyed. That’s how those are transacted or transmitted.

That’s how they are translated between and among the elders and the children, the adults and the other adults. You know, it’s language and it’s culture. And so when we decide that we’re not going to center the culture and the language of a community, then yeah, the challenges are gonna be there.

And are there workarounds? Perhaps, but they’re not gonna be authentic. It’s not gonna be sustainable. And ultimately, I don’t know that it will work until or unless we center culture and language.

Dr. Divya Bheda:
As I’m listening to you, I have so many thoughts that are coming up in my head. So the first one that comes up, if we were to frame it as centering culture and language, then we wouldn’t necessarily have to say, oh, we are trying to be culturally responsive or culturally appropriate or culturally competent.

Because what we are doing then is we are trying to center culture, and so we all become learners. We all try to look for relevance. We all try to look for meaning. And so thank you for sharing that perspective. So, centering culture and language. I wanna take that with me.

And then the second aspect to what you said is, how often is it that we then prioritize and, and give importance and credibility to everything that rips away culture? In modality, in the ways in which we assign points to written, oral, whatever communication, in what we think of as professional versus unprofessional, in trying to remove the identities and the cultural roots of who we are to say, be this person who is culture agnostic.

But it’s not culture agnostic, it’s actually imposing the majority culture, so to speak, or a dominant culture on the marginalized or the pushed out, or the disenfranchised groups that have not been included. Do you have any additional thoughts?

Dr. Ereka Williams:
I think that’s at the heart of it all. You know, when we choose to not center language and culture, then we’ve stripped away, I think it’s the classic assimilation versus acculturation. And-

Dr. Divya Bheda:
Right.

Dr. Ereka Williams:
… when we build this prototype for what it means to be, to exist-

Dr. Divya Bheda:
Right.

Dr. Ereka Williams:
… and that to be looks this way. Again, James Baldwin, in one of those 10 great essays of his which I don’t know how a person identifies just 10 essays of James Baldwin.

Dr. Divya Bheda:
(laughs).

Dr. Ereka Williams:
Yes, like everything he wrote was golden. But in one of his essays, he challenges those that say that Black English isn’t a language. You know, who gets to decide that a language is not valid? Who gets to decide that a hairstyle determines your ability to practice medicine? Who gets to [inaudible 00:28:06]-

Dr. Divya Bheda:
Or to play a sport or to, yeah.

Dr. Ereka Williams:
… Right. Right. You know.

Dr. Divya Bheda:
In any professional space.

Dr. Ereka Williams:
I mean, how does language, music, how does any of this get to determine your worth and your value and your ability to contribute to a community or a discipline? And on whose step is it that these judgements lie?

It doesn’t seem as if we’re true about working within communities and serving our democracy well, if we continue to not put language and culture at the center.

Dr. Divya Bheda:
Right.

Dr. Ereka Williams:
Um, just doesn’t seem authentic. And it, it can’t hold.

Dr. Divya Bheda:
And for me, it comes back full circle to that point that you made is, how are we being inclusive? If building community and being part of a community and the purpose of higher ed for public good, all of that, if we are staying true to our values and mission and intentions, then if we don’t center culture, and if we don’t center language, then how are we truly being purposeful and being intentional about being inclusive?

Dr. Ereka Williams:
So, I talked about community being fluid, permeable. You know, at some point the communities, the language and the culture of a community may shift over time. So there’s this refined common language. There’s this refined common culture.

You get to that because you’ve honored and recognized all of what showed up to begin with and you didn’t divorce out, or separate out, or parse out, or stratify a rank order, this language over that one, this culture over that one.

Hopefully when we center culture and language of all, then we get closer to building this common language, common way of living and existing in community so that you can continue to evolve. ‘Cause either we’re evolving or we’re dying. We’re either going forward or backwards.

Dr. Divya Bheda:
Right. Yeah. Spot on (laughs).

Dr. Divya Bheda:
I have a couple of follow-up questions. How do you build community when there is so much difference? We talked about that, with being able to have conversations, have dialogue.

And then how do you build consensus in a community? Any thoughts given your experience of bringing people along on strategic planning and accreditation?

Dr. Ereka Williams:
Yeah. I always am able to find that place. There’s always something, even in what appears to be the most mutually exclusive individuals in the room. There’s always something that they believe in, even if the ways in which they believe it are disparate.

You know, right now I’m charged with education at a foundation. And my team and I were strategizing a couple of weeks ago on some ways in which we need to fine-tune our strategic plan moving into 2023. And we talked about how far apart bipartisan agreement was around most of the things that we were addressing.

However, we found that early childhood was the space where, in our state, we’ve seen both sides of the aisle agree. They agree that we should leave no zero to four-year-old kid behind, that we need to double down and reinvest in birth through age four, five, much differently than we have historically in the state of North Carolina.

So we’ve kind of hung our hat on the fact that that’s the space where we’re gonna be able to advance our strategic agenda a little deeper and broader than the other spaces that seem to have a little less overlap in common goals.

Now how we get our communities there together, we’re still figuring that out. But where we see some congruence is around early childhood. And that’s been the same, whether I’ve been working in school transformation, I’ve done urban ed reform for years in Newark, New Jersey and New York and Minneapolis.

And I’ve worked with communities where the board was on one page, the government was on the other, the schools and the teachers were on another. But we’ve always been able to find one space where they all wanted something different, even if the ways in which they wanted it different was different

I think there’s always something, there’s something, the hope in me can’t believe that all of us cannot agree on anything at any point. I just, I’m not aligned that way (laughs).

Dr. Divya Bheda:
No, I’m so glad that you’re sharing your hope because I think I’d like to believe that, too.

Dr. Ereka Williams:
Yeah.

Dr. Divya Bheda:
And I, I think every task or activity or project or plan that we take on, we have to move with that intentionality saying, we are gonna find common ground and we are gonna move forward because we are trying hopefully to achieve similar goals while the paths may be different, right? And our definition of that goal may be slightly different.

Dr. Divya Bheda:
So building on, what would be some practical tips and strategies that you would share with faculty, with educators, with staff, about what could they do, in their own spheres of influence, to inculcate this value around community, inculcate this value around interconnectedness and connection? What could leaders be doing in higher ed, practically, tomorrow after listening to the podcast, for example, what could they do to make a difference?

Dr. Ereka Williams:
First thing I would say in a one, two, three punch list is, be still. Be still and reflect. You know, we are often moving, moving, moving, moving, we’re moving to the next agenda item, the next goal, the next due date. And for faculty, for administrators in higher ed, we oftentimes don’t take the time to pause and reflect on what’s working and what’s not.

So, I think if we can first take a moment, just, just step back and assess what’s going on with our teaching, with our leading in the spaces that we’re responsible for, a lot will lift up if we can be still and reflect, but for a moment.

Dr. Divya Bheda:
Wow, that’s so beautifully put (laughs). That’s so beautifully put. Every word from your mouth you’re inspiring me, thank you.

Dr. Ereka Williams:
Absolutely. Be still, reflect, assess, all right. From there as a faculty member, take a look at that syllabus, take a look at your syllabi for your courses. What kind of language is coming across in your syllabi?

What kind of compliance, obedient, top-down autocratic things have perhaps seeped into your syllabi that no longer represent the best of what you believe community can represent in your classroom, and as a prism for the work that your student, whatever your discipline is, is heading off to do?

If that’s a teacher ed syllabus, if that’s a biology syllabus, if that’s a syllabus for math, for environmental sciences. Whatever your field, how is your syllabus curating, building, creating opportunities for students to be engaged in the course democratically and to be engaged in their democracy in a democratic way?

So flip it upside down from the way you even approach things like absences and tardiness and the language of that, the tone of our syllabi, the tone alone can be diminishing and-

Dr. Divya Bheda:
Yes.

Dr. Ereka Williams:
… [inaudible 00:35:58] and negative. And it starts this kind of us, them energy with students that I don’t think we want to give off.

Dr. Divya Bheda:
Right.

Dr. Ereka Williams:
Um, from there, the quality of the assignments and how the assignments are taking place in community. Yes, we have a content-driven SLO related to our national standards for our discipline that we must address, and we want those addressed. I want my medical doctor to be sound in chemistry, let me be very clear, okay-

Dr. Divya Bheda:
Yes.

Dr. Ereka Williams:
… and biology. I also want him or her to have some experiences in rural communities, working with people of color. I want those types of experiences. How have our syllabi, then that’s the most micro level unit of what we do on a campus.

Dr. Divya Bheda:
Right.

Dr. Ereka Williams:
How have our syllabi risen up to match what it is that we know matters at the end of the day?

Dr. Divya Bheda:
Absolutely. So I would take what you have suggested about the syllabus one step further to say, hey faculty, when you are on committees, structuring policy language, co-creating policy language, or you’re receiving policy language and direction from leadership, that’s a space where you can be at the table and be representative for your students, for how would you wanna receive that information?

How would you want that framed in a way that’s inviting, as opposed to shutting you out (laughs) or telling you what not to do.

Dr. Ereka Williams:
Exactly. It’s okay to affirm.

Dr. Divya Bheda:
Right.

Dr. Ereka Williams:
It’s okay to be invitational. There’s another way.

Dr. Divya Bheda:
Thank you for bringing that up. I know you said three things. So look at the syllabus, be still, reflect and assess. And then the third?

Dr. Ereka Williams:
Well, I guess the third piece here, ’cause everybody needs to be still, faculty paying attention to that microunit of the syllabus. But then for our leaders in these spaces, as we ask and invite faculty to reassess their syllabi, their teaching, their approaches.

I invite leaders to do the same about the spaces in which their faculty, their staff show up to work. So much that we’ve learned in these last two, three years or so of pandemic, and now endemic living. Let’s not lose this moment of listening to the workforce, of listening to our colleagues, of allowing individuals to have blended spaces where it’s okay to be human and be a worker.

Because up until about two years ago, we were led to believe that you had to divorce out your personal identity from your professional identity. And so I invite leaders in higher ed to allow people to be their whole selves.

And that goes from our policies in the office, the ways in which we allow flexibility with work arrangements, I hope that our leaders will take from this moment the opportunity to not revert to where we were, where we didn’t allow individuals to show up with their whole selves.

I think when faculty and department chairs, et cetera, are working in spaces where they’re allowed to relax, be still, innovate, I think that we will go a long ways towards building this broader macro-level community on our campuses that is far more inviting to our senses and our humanity. We have so much opportunity right now to maintain and to grow.

Dr. Divya Bheda:
And what you’re saying brings up for me, perfection, that we don’t have to be perfect. We don’t have to project or, uh, impart perfectionism. We need to be allowed to be who we are and us allowing ourselves to be that.

And our leaders allowing us to be that helps us inculcate that with our students as well, where they can show up and they can feel invited, and they can feel this is a space where you don’t have to have it all together (laughs).

And so, the point that you make about leaders, listening, understanding how to be better leaders, how to be human in their approach, I think in higher ed, often leaders are not trained. Just the way faculty are not trained to be educators. They’re trained in their disciplines.

More often than not, our leaders are not trained to be leaders. Our department chairs, our program directors, our administrators, there’s no leadership training necessarily required. And so, how do we be still, reflect, assess, listen, and think through what our leadership style is and how do we create an inviting space for all those who we serve as leaders.

Dr. Ereka Williams:
I think this is a fuel, refuel charge, recharge type of, you know, every action has an equal but opposite reaction. So if in our campuses, our workspaces, from the cafeteria to the parking deck on campus, to the college of engineering main space, if it’s open and inviting and it’s okay to, to be human, then there’s something about the tempo and the ethos that creates this space for a department chair to reach out to another department chair, to innovate or reconsider their curricula.
You know, which creates this other space for faculty to rethink their courses and work with other faculty and in this interdisciplinary way, because it’s okay to trip up. It’s okay to try this one course and maybe see what the interest is. It’s okay for people to wiggle to figure it out, if the atmosphere is invitational and open and human.

Dr. Divya Bheda:
Yep. I love the wiggle to figure it out.

Dr. Ereka Williams:
Yeah.

Dr. Divya Bheda:
And again, as you’re talking about-

Dr. Ereka Williams:
(laughs).

Dr. Divya Bheda:
… (laughs) it’s a ripple effect. There’s a ripple effect with sound leadership, creating that invitational space. And it goes back to what you started off with. ‘Cause the imagery that I had in my head as you were talking about community was water, right? Like this, free-flowing waves, currents. And it goes back to that ripple effect, so thank you.

Dr. Divya Bheda
So, I have one big question for you, is collaboration possible without community? And is community building the same as networking? That’s two questions.

Dr. Ereka Williams:
Let me start with the last one.

Dr. Divya Bheda:
Okay.

Dr. Ereka Williams:
I think networking is an opportunity to scout for community.

Dr. Divya Bheda:
Right.

Dr. Ereka Williams:
I do not see it as a substitute for a community. Networking is, let me place my pins on this coordinate plane because, in making these connections, I may find some community in a space that I didn’t know. The act itself, the talking itself, I do not see as community, but it can lead us to that space.

And so, for that reason, it’s worthwhile, it’s necessary. It works, right? And then in terms of that first question there, is collaboration possible without community? I would say it’s possible, but it’s inauthentic. And where I’m from in my culture, in my community, fake doesn’t hold up, inauthentic doesn’t last. It may last for a season, but it’s not sustainable. And so, yeah, you can force it, I guess.

Dr. Divya Bheda:
Which is what we do, which is what we do in our classrooms, right? I think faculty are the most confused to build group projects and assignments. Because again, you have a compliance model all through and then that’s what we teach our students.

So we’ve not offered our students the skills to be able to truly collaborate, authentically collaborate in a community fashion over group projects and over co-creating together for an assessment or an assignment or whatever that’s relevant to them, what is the common ground in that group?

Something that they could find meaningful to do and achieve for whatever their life purposes are, what is the common thread? And so that’s what we do. And then we say, it’s so hard to get group projects done. Students feel the same way. They don’t wanna work in groups.

Dr. Ereka Williams:
No. It’s inauthentic. You’ve already given me my one, two, three checklist. How do I get the highest rating on the rubric? Okay. We gotta show up three times, check, have we done this, check. It’s a checklist. It’s not authentic. It’s not real.

Dr. Divya Bheda:
Right. And so then, what I’m hearing from you, is faculty, when we think through group projects and group assignments, it’s not just about that assignment. It is about that syllabus. It is about, in your teaching, you’re not the sage on stage.

It is about how you’re inviting students into a space where they can learn from each other, where they value each other’s diverse perspectives and expertise. Oh, wow. There’s so much to what you’re saying.

Dr. Ereka Williams:
We’re the facilitators, we’re the facilitators of that. We’re not owners of that. There’s a difference between owning something and facilitating or curating it. You go to an incredible art exhibit, the curator can’t take credit for the artist’s painting.

What they can take credit for is pulling together these different artists around this theme, but they didn’t paint the work. They deserve credit for curation. Yes, but the artist’s work stands on its own.

Dr. Divya Bheda:
Right. Thank you. How do folks who are introverts and who possibly feel alone in various spaces in higher ed or have been marginalized or pushed out or disenfranchised, how do they find community? Any words of wisdom or advice?

Dr. Ereka Williams:
I’m gonna end with a little bell hooks. In her chapter, “Democratic Education” in Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope. She says this, “Competitive education rarely works for students who have been socialized to value working for the good of the community. It rends them, tearing them apart. They experience levels of disconnection and fragmentation that destroy all pleasure in learning. These are the students who most need the guiding influence of democratic educators, forging a learning community that values wholeness over division, disassociation, splitting, the democratic educator works to create closeness.”

You know, to the person that feels alone, to the person that feels isolated, to the person that has felt shut down, silenced, pushed aside. Know that, that alone means you’re in community. Because you’re not the first, you’re not the only. This is a part of that broader-

Dr. Divya Bheda:
Capitalistic system.

Dr. Ereka Williams:
Exactly. So I would say to them, be still, get centered in your identity and your core because that has never left you. You came into that experience with community. Reconnect to those communities that built you and fortified you on your way to this place of aloneness.

Dr. Divya Bheda:
Celebrate you.

Dr. Ereka Williams:
Yeah.

Dr. Divya Bheda:
Empower you.

Dr. Ereka Williams:
Yes. Yes. At my lowest points within the academy and in life, for me it has always been about being still and going back to the place where my acceptance was never questioned, where my place was always waiting for me. And sometimes that means stepping away briefly from where I am so that I can reconnect to who I am, and it’s okay.

Dr. Divya Bheda:
Just, wow. (laughs) Thank you. It’s a mic drop. I don’t have anything to say, except I hope listeners, that anytime you feel alone, that you take that advice because I know in higher ed, we’ve all had experiences. We’ve all felt alone.

So many students talk about this, that it’s been such an isolating experience during COVID, post COVID, before COVID, right? So, take that minute because I know in my graduate experience, some of the best friendships that I still count on is because I went back to where do I feel affirmed? Where are the spaces where I can be fully me, fully me.

Dr. Ereka Williams:
Unedited.

Dr. Divya Bheda:
Yes.

Dr. Ereka Williams:
Fully you. Fully you.

Dr. Divya Bheda:
Yes. Yeah. Thank you so much, Dr. Ereka Williams. Thank you for this conversation. I so appreciate you, just so much to absorb and learn and I hope all of you listeners have got some tools, some ideas, some inspiration to go change the world-

Dr. Ereka Williams:
Yeah.

Dr. Divya Bheda:
… together in community.

Dr. Ereka Williams:
Yeah (laughs).

Dr. Divya Bheda:
(laughs).

Dr. Ereka Williams:
Thank you.

Dr. Divya Bheda:
Thank you.

Dr. Ereka Williams:
This has been great. Thank you.

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Pedagogo, brought to you by ExamSoft, the digital assessment solution that gives you actionable data for improved learning outcomes. When assessment matters, ExamSoft has you covered. This podcast was produced by Divya Bheda, and the ExamSoft team, audio engineering and editing by Adam Karsten and the A2K Productions crew.

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Published: June 28, 2022

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