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April: I think one of the things we're realizing we need is self-awareness. Discovering the ways that we have been socialized to become the people who we are today. How have we been influenced by our parents, by society, by media, so that we can better understand the many ways in which our reality is somewhat different from someone else's reality?

Welcome to Redefine U. I’m Dan Baum. Join us as we continue to explore what happens when we’re challenged to change our thoughts, beliefs or even who we think we are.

As we continue to reflect on the future of education, we want to learn more about the many ways in which we learn. One important aspect is connection and learning with others through community both inside and out of the classroom. Another is developing a greater sense of self-awareness, of how we have come to know or believe we know the world around us.

This week, we talk with Dr. April Copes, a professor in our Communications department who understands and explores these issues deeply as the new director of AACC’s Learning Communities. She will share her observations about what we are discovering during this pandemic and her passion for transformation through connected learning.

Dan: We want to welcome Dr. April Copes who teaches communication at AACC.

Hi, April. So good to talk to you.

April: Hi, Dan, good to talk with you as well.

Dan: How are you holding up during this pandemic?

April: I feel very blessed to be doing better than many and I feel energized. I think throughout the pandemic, I've done really, really well, personally and professionally.

Dan: That's great to hear.

You've taken on the role of leading the Learning Communities at AACC. What are Learning Communities and what is your role with them?

April: Starting this past January, I took over the role of director of the Learning Communities here at AACC from the person who led the program since its inception, Amy Allen-Chabot. At our school, the Learning Community structure is really a cohort of students who are enrolled in two courses taught with a common theme. So students in face-to-face situations and even sometimes online, take those two courses back to back, one right after the other. So they get to spend a lot of time with one another. They get to know each other and bond. And they get to learn about the content in those two courses through the lens of a particular theme that the professor is passionate about, and in many cases, the students are passionate about.

Dan: What led you to get involved with Learning Communities?

April: Soon after starting at AACC, back around 2012, 2013, a colleague and I started talking about starting a learning community with a social justice theme. And we wrote a proposal and it was accepted and that learning community has been one of the ones that has run every semester since we initiated it and students sometimes honestly end up in the learning community without even realizing that there's a social justice theme through which they'll be learning about public speaking and learning about sociology, which are the two courses for that learning community. But throughout the course, they're delivering presentations about social justice themes. So they're doing research, they're having in-class discussions. It's really something that I've grown to become really passionate about. And so I was really pleased when Amy asked me if I'd be interested in taking over as she transitions to retiring.

Dan: Sounds like some students know what they're getting themselves into and some don't. What do students gain most from this type of learning?

April: Well, there are a lot of benefits to Learning Communities, and the benefits I think are some that will lead us to have this program grow over time. Many students find that their academic success is really enhanced being in a class where they are super interested in the themes that they're researching, the themes that they're studying. The content is really relevant. So we really focus on making sure that the students see the connections, not just in the discipline that we're teaching, but other disciplines as well.

And one of the benefits of Learning Communities is we see an increased retention. So students are less likely to drop out of classes when they have students in the class who support them, who they bond with, who they have developed friendships with. There's stronger engagement really with the faculty teaching as well as with the students in the class. And so, I think one of the main benefits is the relationship building, and the relationship building seems to support retention and academic success.

Dan: What about the flip side? Are there challenges that students face with this style of teaching and learning?

April: Hmm. I don't know that there are many challenges.

For some students who are hesitant about revealing their whole selves to their classmates, it might be challenging because they're more likely to do collaborative work in a learning community project-based work, group assignments.

There are several learning communities running right now that deal with some pretty serious content. One of the new ones is called “We and They: The Color Line in America Today.” And again, the one I teach is “Just Us: Social Justice for a Just World.” Another relatively new one deals with death. So the content itself might be challenging for some students. They may have some discomfort that they have to overcome in order to really dive into the learning.

Dan: Some of these titles, they sound like classic liberal arts titles and courses. And as you mentioned, the professors get to shape the course, working together. What do professor's gain from being able to teach these types of classes?

April: Well, I think the fact that we're teaching in a discipline indicates that we're already really interested in that content. But teaching in a learning community really allows the faculty to explore an area of our discipline that we're really excited about. And some of it is experimental. We don't always know, when we start a learning community, if it's going to fly, if it's going to take wings and be something that really works well. But many of them run for several semesters, and then sometimes those faculty members design a new one.

Dan: I'm hearing so many interesting themes: passion, interdisciplinary exploration, connections. Obviously, AACC has been doing this for a number of years, but do you see a need or anticipate more of this type of teaching and learning in the future, whether at the higher ed level or even K through 12 level?

April: That's a really good question. I taught high school for 16 years. So I do think about high school curriculum still and the benefits of using some of the strategies that we sometimes associate more with college level courses at the K through 12 level and vice versa. I think that sometimes some of the strategies that worked really well when I taught high school seems to be really beneficial to students that I'm teaching right now.

I can foresee a program like this growing, in part because of the benefits that we're... Well, really the need that we're seeing right now for students to have more connection. I think that we know that students need relationships that are supportive to stay motivated to stay in school, to overcome challenges and difficulties that they face in completing college curriculum, to complete their degree program. And so a program like this offers students a chance to have that built-in support to develop those relationships, to apply what they're learning. Many of the Learning Communities really focus very strongly on application, making sure that students take what they're learning and apply it in some really meaningful, real world area. So I think that this is a learning time that we're in right now during the pandemic. And we're noticing that programs like this can meet many of the needs that we're noticing our students have.

Dan: Yeah, we're absolutely in a learning time. All of us have been learning. When you think about us coming out of COVID, what are the big takeaways or learnings for the future of education?

April: One of them I think, not just because of COVID, but one of the key things I think we're learning right now about what all of us need students, formal students, as well as just human beings. We're all students in some way. Students of life. I think one of the things we're realizing we need is self-awareness. Discovering the ways that we have been socialized to become the people who we are today. How have we been influenced by our parents, by society, by media, so that we can better understand the many ways in which our reality is somewhat different from someone else's reality?

And I say this is something that I think we're learning now, because at the same time that we're experiencing the pandemic, we have all the social change happening in our country and around the world. The movement for social justice in many different areas, the movements, plural, for social justice is happening at the same time the pandemic is having us really think more deeply, I think about who we are as human beings, and what kind of world we want to live in. So I think the future of education is likely to focus more on, having students do more work to know themselves.

I also think that given all of the challenges that we're facing right now, again, in our society and around the world, we're seeing the need for connection and healing. So I anticipate that we will really do more to address the need for people to heal themselves, to identify the areas of their lives where they need some healing, and to do some healing work.

Another key one is applying what we're learning to make a difference for other people, to improve our communities. That we can learn just for learning sake. That's always fun and enjoyable, personally. At the same time, we can take what we're learning and improve our communities in some way. We can identify some real needs. So I can see a program like our service learning program growing in the future, so that people feel like what they're learning has an even bigger purpose than just the skills and the knowledge that we can hold on to as individuals.

I could go on. There are many more.

Dan: I'm sure you could. What's interesting to me is that there's an element of what you're saying that seems like very traditional, or almost ancient, in learning of the know thyself. And on the other hand, is applying that knowledge and making a difference.

It makes me think that throughout COVID, many of us have used the term new normal. And now as we're starting to come out of it a little bit, some people are saying returning to normal. When you hear those two terms, new normal or returning to normal, what comes to mind? What do those mean to you?

April: I do not think we are going to "return to normal", because I think that we are learning that what we have considered as normal in the past was not normal. For example, we are spending so much time in front of screens right now. I have actually loved teaching on Zoom, but many of us are spending many more hours on social media and in front of screens and using technology, watching movies than we ever have before. I think that we are going to learn about the need for balance, and our consumption of media and our use of technology. I think that again, looking at the area of health, is broadening beyond physical health. That because we're looking at the importance of emotional health, spiritual health, I think that we're going to look at ways in which we have, in many ways diminished our ability to listen, and to focus and to be productive by all of the multitasking.

So rather than go back to "normal", I think we're going to say we need to reset and we need to perhaps treasure more of the our nonwork time, treasure more of our non "productive time." I think we'll probably balance more of our work and leisure time.

Dan: I'm so glad to hear you say that because I don't see a desire to go back to something previous when, as you're describing, there's so much opportunity to grow, learn. That seems like a huge opportunity.

Do you think higher education is redefining itself at this time?

April: I think it is. Sometimes I'm not really sure what other people are thinking about the use of the video platforms that we're using to teach and whether or not they want to continue to use them in the future. As we think about the future of education, I'm hoping that we think about how to make sure even when we're probably going to have more students take classes online, that we build in the community building and the relationship building, and not allow those platforms to be a way for students to remain invisible or disconnected from their classmates and their professors.

Dan: You said you enjoy teaching online. How have you managed to do that community building and connection in this remote environment? How have you approached that?

April: Oh my goodness. I started just having small group meetings with my fully online classes, my async classes last semester. I wasn't teaching any synchronous courses at the time, but we got together in small groups as they were working on projects. Students needed to see each other to know that you're not just the statements that you're writing in the discussions. You're someone who has a life that I can speak with about things that are related to the course, but also things that are not related to the course. And that's much more likely to happen when you're in a Zoom platform or Microsoft Meets platform, where you're able to break people into small groups, and as a professor, to move from group to group.

So for me, I realized it was going to be really, really fulfilling when I started teaching courses synchronously and I started doing that this semester. Class never ends when class ends. There are always people who want to stay after. And it's not because they all have questions or concerns, they just want to chat. Sometimes I have to leave and I leave them chatting. And I've come back an hour later and they were still chatting.

Dan: Wow.

April: So there really is, for me, a real clear indication that they need some connection and they benefit from it and they enjoy it.

Dan: You've talked about how we're staying connected or need to stay connected, and we're all using this technology. So how do you see the subject of media literacy going forward? Where does that fit in the future of higher education?

April: Media literacy is a huge part of what we need to make sure we're teaching in higher ed. We have really witnessed how much people have lost their ability to discern which sources of information are reliable, which sources of information they can turn to to trust. And during the last presidential administration, there was obviously a concerted effort to confuse people and stoke distrust of news media. So many people have just given up on trying to stay informed about current events. I have students who I ask every semester, which news they rely on. Many of them have just unplugged from the news completely. They sometimes refer to memes, they rely on social media feed for the news. And so as educators, we really do need to make sure that we're teaching them what news media professionals have accomplished in the world that has made a positive difference for people, so that they can really trust reliable news. And we need to introduce them to specific news sources so that they can see. And we need to teach them to contrast reliable news and news that's not reliable. We have a wonderful staff of librarians who have prepared some tutorials to do just that. To help students understand the difference between reliable sources of information and sources that are not reliable.

We also need to make sure we have students do research. Just because students know how to Google, doesn't mean that they know how to conduct thorough academic research. So engaging them in doing research, using databases, using academic sources, evaluating those sources. Literally explaining why they have decided that a particular website is one that's reliable to use. I think that's very important.

Dan: Of course, all of that has been a hallmark of higher ed for a very long time, being able to know what's a reliable source cited properly, and so on. But I would think in this day and age, it also has an impact on people's view of social justice and the events that are happening around them.

April: For sure. I think that part of what our job is now as educators is to rectify the educational injustices. Most of us have experienced throughout our own education, teaching what has been left out of textbooks. And for many professors, that means doing research ourselves to find out what has been left out of our textbooks. From the ugly parts of our history, in all disciplines, to the contributions of people of color, women, differently abled persons, LGBTQ persons, and other marginalized groups. We have a job to do in that area, because there really aren't even textbooks available today that include what we need to teach our students. So we can't just rely on textbooks. We have to supplement textbook material with other reliable sources to educate people about social justice issues.

We also have to really address the relevance of the “isms” and their future professions. Whether they plan to work with customers or patients, clients, students or some other community members. We need to help them understand how ableism fits in, how sexism fits in, how racism shows up in health care, in criminal justice, and in other areas.

I have had students, many years ago, who were very resistant to completing assignments that had to do with privilege. And one of the things I realized back then was when we talked about white privilege, it was very, very challenging for them if they were white. However, when I began to include other kinds of privilege in the same assignment, and they studied male privilege, and they studied social class privilege, able bodied privilege, Christian privilege, they began to better able to see white privilege. So I think we're also needing to experiment with what helps students digest the information that we need to present to them.

I think we also need to make sure that we help them understand that it's okay and even advantageous to be uncomfortable when they're learning. If they're super comfortable, they may not be learning as much as they are when they're stretching themselves and challenging themselves.

Dan: And that little bit of discomfort is so often when we grow, but a lot of people are resistant because they see a negative there.

You mentioned we also need to look at the contributions. What will it take for us to get to a point we can start to celebrate all of those contributions and not just see it as a source of tension and discomfort?

April: I think that the integration of the contributions of people of color in all of the disciplines that we're teaching needs to become regular and normal. And so it needs to not be a separate part of the course, "This week we're going to study Native Americans," or something like that. I think we need to make sure that throughout the courses that we're teaching, that students see themselves represented. And the people that we're talking about, whether those people are subjects or whether those people are the professionals whose work we're relying on, the professionals who have written the articles, or the people who are featured in the videos that we're using, it needs to become a normal part of the entire course. That happens over time. Again, for many faculty members, that means building their curriculum in a way that they may not have built it before because those resources require extra effort for us to find, because they're not necessarily going to be in the textbooks that we purchase.

One of the things I realized when I was a college student, is that race had been a taboo topic in my own home. My father's Black and my mother's white. When I went away to college, and I came home with my boyfriend, who was a student at the time, at Cornell University majoring in Africana Studies, all he talked about was race. And my father said, "We don't talk about race in this house." I was a college student, and until that moment, I did not realize we did not talk about race in my home as I was growing up.

It really put a lot in perspective for me, because I knew that in my house, if we had not talked about race, then that was probably a topic that a lot of people did not have on the table. And it was one that I wanted to make sure I had on the table when I had a family. That it wasn't going to be something that was always there but never talked about. That there would be a comfort level for my children and for my students eventually.

Dan: That's great. You've shared with me before April, that our theme of redefine resonates with you. What is it specifically that resonates with you?

April: The redefine you theme really resonated with me from the very beginning. I think that throughout my life, I have always been on a path that was about transformation. And it seems normal to me to periodically reinvent myself, and to just sort of be open to reinventing myself and to look at challenges as learning opportunities. Not always in the moment when they're happening, of course, but when I sit down and ponder how I want to deal with a challenge, I'm very often made aware of how it's a learning opportunity to grow in some way. And so I love the idea of taking a difficulty and turning it into something wonderful. So yeah, that's been sort of my path.

Dan: I can hear that in almost every answer, the way you describe how you approach things.

Well, April, it's always great to speak with you. Thank you for all you're doing for our students, colleagues, and community. Take care and be well.

April: Thank you so much. I appreciate it. You take care too, Dan.

Dan: Thank you April.

April is passionate about Learning Communities, because they allow students and instructors to connect over topics they care about. She believes students yearn for such connections, especially right now in our pandemic-isolated world. Her own Learning Community focuses on social justice and April hopes it compels students to really think about who they are as human beings and the kind of world they want to live in.

As she observes, we’re all students in some way. We have the opportunity to continually examine who we are and who we want to be. While it can be uncomfortable at times, stretching outside our norm often is, it is by knowing ourselves, our influences and biases, that we can better see the opportunities to grow and learn. And in turn, we can shape our community, in the words of Dr. Copes, by “taking a difficulty and turning it into something wonderful.”

Redefine U is a production of Anne Arundel Community College. Our executive producer and creative director is Allison Baumbusch. Our producer is Jeremiah Prevatte and our writer, Amy Carr Willard.

Others who helped with this podcast include Amanda Behrens, Angie Hamlet, Ben Pierce and Alicia Renehan.

Special thanks to April Copes.

Find show notes, how to subscribe and other extras on our website:

I’m your host and creator of this podcast, Dan Baum. Thanks for listening.


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