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Relational Cultural Theory and UDL with Harriet Schwartz

Welcome to Episode 65 of the Think UDL podcast: Relational Cultural Theory and UDL with Harriet Schwartz! Dr. Harriet Schwartz is the author of Connected Teaching: Relationships, Power, and Mattering in Higher Education and is the Professor of Relational Practice and Higher Education at Antioch University’s PhD in Leadership and Change Program. As the episode title implies, we will be talking about RCT, or Relational Cultural Theory, and Universal Design for Learning (UDL). We discuss several ways instructors can engage students through the lens of Relational Cultural Theory, and that leads us into a discussion about authenticity. We also talk about the role the instructor-student relationship plays in sustaining student effort and persistence, and how power and relationships within the learning environment affect student learning. Harriet has also provided many excellent resources that are listed on the website accompanying episode 65, so please take a look and dig deeper into this topic to increase your understanding of RCT and thank you so much for joining me and Harriet Schwartz for this engaging conversation.


Follow Harriet Schwartz on Twitter @HarrietSchwartz or find her at her website

Harriet’s book is Connected Teaching: Relationships, Power, and Mattering in Higher Education

Here are a few resources that Harriet has recommended if you are interested in furthering your understanding of Relational Cultural Theory

Growth in Connection Website:

YouTube channels:

Harriet Schwartz’s YouTube Channel

International Center for Growth in Connection YouTube Channel

To join the Education as Relational Practice Affinity group, please email

For recommended readings and videos: Education as Relational Practice-Getting Started
Harriet also mentions the Evaluator Paradox by Doug Robertson in our conversation and Transparency in Learning and Teaching is a resource both Harriet and Lillian recommend if you’d like to make your purpose clear for your assessments and help your students to be successful in their assignments.


Lillian Nave  00:00

Welcome to think UDL, the universal design for learning podcast where we hear from the people who are designing and implementing strategies with learner variability in mind. I’m your host, Lillian Nave. And I’m interested in not just what you’re teaching, learning, guiding and facilitating, but how you design and implement it and why it even matters. Welcome to Episode 65 of the think UDL podcast, Relational Cultural Theory and UDL with Harriet Schwarz. Dr. Harriet Schwartz is the author of connected teaching relationships, power and mattering in higher education, and is the professor of relational practice and higher education at Antioch University’s PhD in leadership and change program. As the episode title implies, we will be talking about RCT or Relational Cultural Theory, and UDL universal design for learning. We discussed several ways instructors can engage students through the lens of Relational Cultural Theory. And that leads us into a discussion about authenticity. We also talk about the role the instructor student relationship plays in sustaining student effort and persistence, and how power and relationships within the learning environment affect student learning. Harriet has also provided many excellent resources that are listed on the think website accompanying Episode 65. So please take a look and dig deeper into this topic to increase your understanding of RCT. And thank you so much for joining me and Harriet Schwartz for this engaging conversation. So I would like to welcome Harriet Schwartz to the program to the think UDL podcast today. And thank you so much, Harriet, for joining me to talk about relationships, and universal design for learning and teaching in higher education.

Harriet Schwartz  02:23

Thank you, Lillian, and thanks for the invitation to be here.

Lillian Nave  02:25

I’m really excited about this. I’ve actually heard you speak before on a couple occasions, and a little bit of a fan girl on your your topics, especially in Relational Cultural Theory that we’re going to talk about today. And really see a lot of connections to UDL. And so I wanted to start out with the same question I asked all my guests, and that is what makes you a different kind of learner.

Harriet Schwartz  02:55

Thank you. I don’t know about a different kind of learner. But I would say in this will come as no surprise, I think I’m a relational learner. Yeah, you know, I’ve been fortunate to have amazing a number of amazing mentors throughout my life. And they really impacted I think, my, my engagement, my confidence, my sense of what I might be able to do my ability to take risks. They gave me a space to be in when I was struggling or frustrated or doubting myself. And as well as you know, just, of course, the exchange of ideas and deepening the thinking and the way that we do that. So I’ve had a number of amazing mentors, that I still call on one of them once in a while. And I also, you know, now I really am fortunate to have a number of colleagues and friends who are also so much a part of my learning and growth still, you know, when I was working on my book I had, each chapter was read by two to four other people very early in the process so that I could get feedback. And, you know, that might just sound like sort of a feedback process. But I think it was very much a relational process as well. So for me, and I also just want to acknowledge, of course, that much of the work of teaching and learning we do on our own. But sort of, I think, for me that happens in a sort of container of meaningful relationships that have been very important to me along the way. Well,

Lillian Nave  04:17

yes, I, I’ve got to say that I have a very similar feeling about my learning, I end can look back to two elementary teachers to high school teachers, and those significant learning experiences had so much more to do with the relationship and the connection with the teacher and all the way through graduate school positive and negative through college that has that warmth and that feeling that you have, you know, a feeling that I have in those memories of learning is so significantly tied to the amount of learning I feel that I had in those classes and in those experience Isn’t it? It’s, I didn’t realize how tied to relationships it was until I’ve been teaching, you know, for for quite a while. So of course, I’ve been really excited to be to think about talking to you about all of this. And I know there’s actually a lot more than just that feel good. Part of of learning. So. So I’d like to start off with the word authenticity. And the UDL guideline of recruiting interest through optimizing relevance, value and authenticity is one specific Universal Design for Learning guideline. And ask you about that word. Like, how do instructors How can you lead with authenticity? How do you present yourself as authentic? And also, on the flip side? How are you creating authentic learning experiences? So that’s, that’s where I thought we might start with this conversation.

Harriet Schwartz  06:05

Sure. Okay. So, yeah, I think authenticity is central in teaching and learning. And I think that so the first piece is, you know, what does it mean to be an authentic instructor. And I think initially, that means showing up as a multi dimensional person. So, you know, in, you know, possibly an older models of teaching and learning where the teacher was sort of the sage on the stage, there is such a tie with such a top down approach a power over approach to teaching. And I think for some faculty, at least part of that required having a distance between you and your students was, which also meant probably not being vulnerable, not showing much of your of yourself beyond the sort of the the image of this all knowing teacher. And so I think we’ve really shifted away from that. And I think showing up as authentic means, you know, coming in as a multi dimensional person, someone who has good days and bad days, someone who has frustrations, and obstacles, hits obstacles, as well as enjoying successes, having people and engagements that I care about in my life, having you know, that my life is about more than work, and all those sorts of things. And so, I think the question, though, is, how do we do that and still stay firmly in a role as teachers, because the other piece of it is that when we come into a teaching space, we have a different set of responsibilities than our students, we have a different. Yeah, we have a different role, right than our students. So even if, you know, for example, I’m someone who tries to reduce the power differential between me and students. But at the same time, I’m very clear that I do hold power in that relationship. So I’m trying to reduce that power differential, we can get to that later. But essentially, I what I need to do is hold on to my role as a teacher, so I need to be able to essentially for me, it’s about holding the space, right, it’s about holding the space. And so for me around authenticity, that means, I think it’s around a lot around self disclosure. So if I come in, and I share something that is raw for me, then students might feel like they need to take care of me. And so they might worry about me in some way that now the sort of role has flipped, and I’m no longer holding the space for them. But there, they might feel like they need to hold a space for me. Yeah. So for me, it’s about the authenticity comes back to you know, to be authentic isn’t to share everything that’s going on in my life, but it’s to bring my multi dimensional self. So how can I show up and share part of what’s going on in my day, if they ask, acknowledged if I’m a little more stressed or distracted, but not the tipping point for me is that if something’s raw, then I don’t share that. And that’s played out, you know, really, in terms of the pandemic, as well, as you know, often, you know, I try to share with students sort of my journey as a scholar and the fact that that includes like article rejections and revise and resubmit, as well as publications. And in both cases, whether it’s, you know, living through the pandemic, whether it’s the the publication process, I wouldn’t share stories from those experiences. If, again, if I was raw, or if I felt like I really needing something from someone else, I don’t share those stories to get support from students, or to get their encouragement. But I share those stories to sort of bring a little bit more of myself and my humanity.

Lillian Nave  09:22

Right. And I think it also rounds out for the students a more nuanced understanding. I’ve done the same thing. When I introduce our annotated bibliography assignment. Students don’t know and I teach first year students, so they may not know what a peer reviewed sources. So I’ve gone through the whole process of well, I submitted this article and I got feedback on it. It wasn’t accepted right away. I needed to do these things. It took a year and a half to go through this process. And so in explaining my particular situation, they got a better understanding of Oh, that’s why I have to be looking in these library data. faces and not just on the internet for a blog, you know that that tells them what good sources are. So I can see that, you know, it’s appropriate and helpful. And it gives us more nuanced understanding. But I haven’t had to, you know, I didn’t tell him the day it got rejected, right. And, and here I am crying or something like that or feeling really bad. I see what you mean.

Harriet Schwartz  10:21

Yeah, that makes so much sense. And I think, I think you’re so right, in that part of what we’re doing through our authenticity, I think, I think there’s a way in which we teach through our authenticity. So whether it’s teaching them about what it means to be a scholar, teaching them, you know, how to review and, and find good sources, right? Whether it’s teaching them about how to have, how to balance, the pressure of work in school, and all of that, how to be a good leader in times of crisis, I think through our authenticity, we’re actually teaching almost additional very important content. I also think that authenticity makes us more accessible, because they can ideally see us as you know, people who’ve also struggled in the obstacles and not feel like it’s just them that has those obstacles or those difficulties. So I think it makes us more accessible. And I think it I hope, it encourages them to show up with sort of more of their multi dimensional selves as well. And often we want students to come to us if they’re struggling, or whatever. And I think this opens the door for that, at least I hope it does.

Lillian Nave  11:22

Yeah, for sure. And, and so that first step is you bringing your full self. And I think we’ve really tapped into why that’s important. It makes the learning that you are covering, like the the learning the importance of it, it’s relevant. And it explains the value of it, like why we need peer reviews and things like that. And so you have brought that authenticity that makes it a, a safer space, or a welcoming space. And it’s an invitation to learn. How do you make that learning environment as authentic as possible?

Harriet Schwartz  12:06

Well, I think part of it is about creating an AI. And let me just say, I teach graduate students, I have like, through my whole teaching career, I’ve taught graduate students before I was teaching, I was in student affairs, and there were more with undergraduates. But in my teaching career, I’ve worked with graduate students, typically in smaller, like seminar type classes, or classes of maybe up to about 22 students. So I’m not talking about large lectures of 300 students or anything like that. I think creating a space again, I think that bringing our humanity to that space is the first piece of it. Because it sort of can set a tone of authenticity, that I think isn’t just about like, Hi, how are you, but it’s about, you know, the next hour and a half that we’re going to spend together, this is an authentic space. And so it’s not just about, you know, sort of our connection, but it’s also about our engagement with the material should be an authentic engagement. And so I think, you know, from there, when I try to bring my enthusiasm for the material, when I talk about why I think it’s important for what we’re doing, you know, my hope is that that, that helps students see, why is this learning important, right? Why do we know when I when I am transparent about how I’ve designed assignments? You know, my hope is that helps students understand, you know, why are these the goals and objectives of the course? And how is it that these assignments fit into those goals and objectives. You know, when I invite student feedback, which I’ve started doing, this was actually a shift I made since we started teaching in the pandemic, asking students for feedback on the second class meeting, and taking copious notes of that feedback. And then coming back the following week and talking with students about what changes I could make based on the feedback, what changes I couldn’t make, and, and why I couldn’t change certain things. Again, I hope that sort of shows my own learning process, and it shows my commitment to the relevance of everything in the course, like everything in the course needs to be relevant to the students, at least in the content, they might not always see that relevance, but in the context of our discipline, it needs to be relevant to them. And also that I’m trying to structure learning that is relevant to them and is accessible to them. And so, you know, for example, I had when I redesigned the course last summer for the for the, you know, the the pivot to to learning remotely in the fall was had been a classroom based course. And so I designed this module guide that I was so excited about, and it was, you know, visual and color coded. And I thought it was just really good. And, you know, I put so much time into trying to create these modules that I thought would would take students through the course and combine asynchronous and synchronous learning opportunities and so sent the module guide out ahead made a video introducing the module guide. We met the first night of class talked about the module guide, then met the second week and again, I opened that class essentially with getting them out into small breakout rooms on zoom, and asking them to come up with one thing that was helping their lives. So far, and one thing that was hindering is pretty basic, right? What’s one thing that’s maybe getting in the way of your learning? And I got significant feedback that the module guide was confusing the heck out of everybody.

Lillian Nave  15:08

Oh, no.

Harriet Schwartz  15:10

Yeah. So you know, I that was important feedback. So what I did was scrapped the module guide and restructure the course. And I actually ended up doing these sort of weekly one pagers that put everything students would need for the upcoming week, all the links, you know, listing the readings, the assignments, current deadlines, upcoming deadlines, you know, everything in one space for the week. And that’s like one of the most it’s so funny. That’s like one of the most popular things I’ve done as a teacher ever. Like, I’ve gotten so much positive feedback on the weekly one pager. But I think the point is that students, you know, are also, we’re also scrambling in the fall, in particular, to sort of do all of this learning, you know, my program was not a remote program. So these were students who had been signed on for classroom based learning. And so they’re trying to juggle things in our LMS. And they’re trying to find the link and try and find the reading. And what week is what week and this one page are made things a lot easier for them, and they really appreciated it. So my hope is that it not only simply made it easier for them, but and I did get feedback to this effect that it really let them know that I care about their learning a lot. And then I’m willing to make a big shift in how I structured the course. And I’m willing to do some extra work on a weekly basis to help them sort of stay focused. And and the other thing I would say is there was some payback for me, because they I got I got fewer questions, significantly fewer questions about like, Can you send me that link again, and, you know, so on and so forth. So,

Lillian Nave  16:33

Wow, well, that that’s certainly hits on another part of the Universal Design for Learning guidelines, which is part of the engagement area, and in the recruiting interest part, which is, which goes right along with optimizing that relevance, and value and authenticity. And that’s to minimize, minimize distractions, then minimize threats and distractions. So you found out already, there were some things that were confusing your students, and what great vulnerability, you just demonstrated to say, Oh, boy, I need to completely reconfigure what I just put together and put a lot of time and effort and brainpower into. And those are often the things we hold on to so closely. And we don’t want to change. So the fact that you changed it, of course, because of that feedback shows that that relational part that it matters to you, and that you took that feedback. And and I wanted to just move back a little bit on one of the things you said at the beginning of this answered about authenticity is about power. And you said a kind of an older system has power over the instructor has power over students. And you mentioned something called maybe power sharing, or or how you conceive of power in the classroom. And I wanted to ask just Can you elaborate on that a little bit more. And I think that might help us also with that, minimizing threats and distractions are part of the UDL guidelines. Sure.

Harriet Schwartz  18:06

So this is referring to a concept called power with. And this is a concept out of Relational Cultural Theory, which is a theory of, of human growth and development. And it’s the theory that is the foundation of all of my work. And part of that theory encourages us to think about. So it’s a theory that’s critical in some ways of the sort of power over zero sum mentality of Western culture and instead advocates a power with approach to whether it’s therapeutic practice teaching and learning, leadership, etc. Now, one thing I do want to say is another piece of RCT is that we hold cultural context as something that’s very central in understanding any relationship, whether it’s work, relationship, school relationship, whatever. And so when we think about cultural context, I think one thing that’s important to think about in terms of power is that not every teacher starts the semester with the same amount of power, you know, quote, power in the learning space. And so I’m aware that that faculty of color, particularly black women, faculty, in some cases, international faculty, etc, face, women teaching in male dominated disciplines, those faculty members may be starting from a place where they have to establish their power, because students are not taking them seriously. So I do want to acknowledge that. So when if, when a faculty member can, can operate from a place of essentially holding what we think of as the positional power of a teacher, which is the power we get from the fact that we assess student work, and we might write letters of recommendation, if we’re their advisor, we might help advocate for them and the system. So when we when we are operating with that power that is not tempered or minimized by sort of social identity, then I think it’s important to think about how can we reduce the hierarchy of teaching. And I also think it’s really important though, to say that we don’t. It’s not about eliminating the hierarchy. It’s not about imagining that we’re all equals here. And I think that, occasionally people, particularly in sort of the adult learning world, I’ve occasionally heard people talk about, you know, really wanting it to be like, we’re all adult learners here, we’re all co learners. And I think that does students a serious disservice. Because if you’re a teacher assessing student work, you hold power in that relationship, it’s not all equal. So I think, I think that sort of extreme is problematic. But essentially, to understand that I do hold some power because I assess student work. But at the same time, one of the things that I can do to reduce that hierarchy to reduce that, that differential, so a couple things I can do one is, I talk with students about what’s called the evaluator paradox, which is a term that was developed by Doug Robertson, who’s done a lot of work around teaching and emotion. And the evaluator paradox is that we are in this sort of dual role with students, right, we have a developmental role, and that we want them to learn and grow and take risks, and to come to us when they need help. And at the same same time, we’re an evaluator, and so that can create for them some tension around, you know, what does it mean to go to someone who’s going to grade my work and tell them I don’t understand. And I don’t know, the students or some students are probably conscious of that tension. Others, it might just be simmering under the surface. But so I talked about I talked about that, that evaluator paradox with students to make it explicit. I also think that everything we talked about regarding authenticity is another piece that sort of shares some of that power. Because if I’m not holding on to the image of the like, perfect professor, who, you know, whose Course Guide module guide was clearly amazing. And if you don’t get it, like Shame on you, right, so great, I can let go of that if I can talk about, you know, the time that my article got rejected, and I, you know, how hard that was, that shares some of the power. And then transparency, obviously, is, is another big piece of this. And so, you know, talking about why we do what we do, why we construct courses, the way we do, why we why we’ve selected certain readings, even if they’re really difficult, or, you know, whatever. So I think those are some of the things that we can do to share power, and to reduce the hierarchy. But we’re not really eliminating it, it’s really just about sort of reducing that power differential.

Lillian Nave  22:28

Yeah, I’ve been interested a lot in that. That power differential in my courses. And they’re one of the things that I’ve learned about Relational Cultural Theory. One of the big tenants is context is always important context is central to any of these relationships. And I know that the context has changed in my career when I was 24. And I had my first class, and I had 110 students at a State University, teaching, you know, in the evening, as an adjunct, I had a lot of imposter syndrome, right? And needed that I needed to dress in a way that showed power, right. And I felt that that there needed to be this kind of artificial barrier for them to know my place in it because I looked younger, and I actually was younger than many of my students. And now 20 years later, 30 years later, around there, 20, let’s say 25. The, I feel less like I need to institute that power. And so I’ve been trying to create that power with like, I do want students to be able to ask for help. And so I’ve thought about, oh, let’s week, you can call me by my first name, I don’t want that, you know, professor or a title to make you feel less than that you can’t, you know, ask a question or you feel intimidated. But then there’s this cultural context that comes in, and I teach in the south. And there is a very well established and rooted Southern culture that you don’t speak to your elders or somebody in different position and call them by their first name. And so it took me quite a while to get to a place where I say, look, if you feel comfortable doing this, you can call me by my first name, you can call me Miss Lillian, which is a thing that happens here too. If you feel that you need to call me professor, you know, that’s fine too, but you know, put it into their court. And this is just like one small area to do the power over versus power with and not wanting it to be a stumbling block. But then I also find students who are international students, and they find it really disconcerting to call a professor by their first name at all. So that cultural context I am finding is far more important than how I feel about it you know, like, I know my feelings are important that I need to be comfortable to with setting whatever boundaries it is. But so much of where the student comes from changes that dynamic that we have to be really cognizant of that context. So, yeah, tell me more about this, the the context as an important part of this?

Harriet Schwartz  25:24

Well, first of all, I just want to say that I think thank you for you sort of rounded out my response almost because the other, I also try to remember when I sort of talked about this, that I think for adjunct faculty, and for younger faculty that power issues are also very, or can be very Yeah. And so, you know, adjunct faculty, again, in some programs, I think students really feel like they can, you know, run an adjunct out of a program where they don’t take adjuncts as seriously. And, and I think you’re right about early career faculty, both because they might be or be perceived as younger, because they don’t have tenure. I mean, there all sorts of things that are in play, there were those folks might both younger faculty, adjunct faculty may need to hold on to a little bit more of their power or establish their authority in ways that are more senior faculty member might not have senior like full time tenured faculty might not need to. So thank you for thank you for bringing that back in, I appreciate that.

Lillian Nave  26:22

And our students don’t know this, you know, like, so we might have a student that has five classes, and they’re taught by one an adjunct one by a fully tenured professor, one by a non tenure track, which is still a precarious position. And so I can imagine that in each of those different situations, there’s going to be really a different set of guidelines that the student is given. And that relationship with the professor. And it also changed with is this an entry level, you know, early courses as a high level, I’m well into my major, you know, there’s so much that goes on in the on these in these educational environments, that we really do need to be paying attention to that context and and making it explicit, that’s the thing I hear you saying over and over again, is you’re going to bring this up with your students, you’re going to say, we’re going to talk about this. And here’s, here’s how I’m approaching it. And I want to hear your feedback on it. And all of that context matters. And we need to be talking about it.

Harriet Schwartz  27:23

Yeah, I think you’re right about making it explicit. And, you know, the other piece of that asking for feedback is, when students give me I remember, in the fall, one of the bits of feedback, along with the awful module design was that and this is not a big surprise, students said there’s too much reading. And you know, that wasn’t something I was going to change. But but giving them space to bring that up, allowed me to talk about, you know, why, why we were doing the readings we were doing, it also sort of made me think to tell them that the reading was pretty stacked in the front half of the course that even though there were the same number of chapters, throughout most weeks, that actually the chapters in the latter part of the book, were a little shorter, so that that reading, I think was going to become more manageable. But I could be explicit about why I made those choices. And I think again, I think that then they my senses, they feel heard. And so that’s very different than just not taking the feedback, flat out or not asking for it or asking for it and then never coming back around to why why I didn’t cut out some of the readings or something like that. And then also, you wanted me to go back to cultural contexts Would you like me to? Yes,

Lillian Nave  28:29


Harriet Schwartz  28:29

So what I would say is, so Relational Cultural Theory, really, one of the things that separates it from a lot of other human development theories is that it really centers the fact that all interactions and relationships are happening in cultural context. And so that all the people in that in are both or all of the people in that interaction, or that relationship, bring with them, their, you know, their social identities, and the way that the surrounding culture sort of marks those identities, and assigns privilege or marginalization and so we bring a lifetime of being met in the world in certain ways, because of our, our identity, you know, markers, we in some cases, some people are bringing historical trauma based on identity. We are bringing the way the ways in which we move through our days and our met in the world as we move, you know, as we move through the day based on who we are. And then we come into a space and we have all of that with us. So, you know, it’s exactly what I was talking about earlier that when I show up in a classroom with mostly white students, I’m a white faculty member. I’m a woman it’s a woman centered University. You know, I’ve seen in a certain way and and so on, a faculty member of color who walks into a room with mostly white students might be met differently. So I would say my own journey on this began with I think understanding, thinking more about how for students How I needed to be more aware of my students context. And so it helped me sort of check myself about assumptions I might make about things like student preparation and resources and engagement, and sort of reminding me that a student who might not seem prepared or engaged might have something else going on besides a lack of interest or willingness. And sometimes it is those things right, sometimes a student just isn’t putting the work in. But it also might be a resource question, it might be, you know, things going on in that student’s life that I have no idea about, or whatever. So my first, my first sort of step in understanding the cultural context piece was awareness of my students context to degree that I could be aware of that. But my, but then I later really came to understand that I also need to understand my context, right. And so again, the fact that I that I am seen as white is going to have an impact, and also has shaped my ex my opportunities in life. And the sort of, you know, has put me on a path of there a whole lot of obstacles I don’t face because I’m white. And I might face some obstacles because of other parts of my identity. But race is not a piece of my identity that presents obstacles. So I had to also come to understand the privilege there. And that’s probably something I’ll continue to try to learn and deepen my awareness of throughout the rest of my life, because I think that’s a lifelong journey. So,

Lillian Nave  31:22

yeah, you know, you’re bringing up something about intercultural competence that is really related here. And this is something I can put in the, in our resources that ACU has an intercultural competence rubric. And this is something I’m seeing a lot more now in higher ed. And it’s one of the things that I teach in my first year seminar about intercultural competence. And it’s that the idea is, first you have to know what your culture is. And we have to realize the water, we’re swimming in that we’re in our own fishbowl that somebody else is in their own fishbowl, and they have different water, you know, and recognize that, or that we have lenses that we’re wearing, and we see everything through those lenses. And somebody else may see the exact same situation in a very different way. And so, you know, for example, if we’re looking at that teaching situation, or a teaching environment where we were all going online, really quickly, and now we’re on zoom, and students don’t turn on their cameras, and then you’ve got one way to look at it, they’re not paying attention, it’s rude, I’m not being a, I can’t get the video feedback from students. And those are assumptions we’re making because of our own cultural contexts. And what we don’t understand is there might be myriad different reasons why somebody does not have their camera on and it could be technical, and it could be their living situation, and it could be working 40 hours, or they have a newborn baby, right? a million things that I couldn’t even think about. And that idea of intercultural competence of knowing what our own culture is, and then recognizing that somebody else might be in the situation, but have a completely different way of looking at it. Another example is making eye contact. In a Western culture that shows respect, it says, I’m listening to you, that you were connecting in a Eastern context, averting one’s eyes, and looking down or showing deference to somebody means I’m paying you much more respect, then an aggressive eye contact might show, right? And so understanding that, okay, I have a context, or I have a cultural context, and somebody else has a different cultural context. And then stepping back and being mindful about those differences. And then finally, the fourth part is being able to understand and act appropriately, in moving to that other context or understand that other context, context and say, I can empathize with somebody doesn’t necessarily mean I agree, but it means I can see why you wouldn’t turn your camera on or why you’re not making eye contact. And I’m going to be okay with that, even though I’m going to make eye contact with somebody because that’s my cultural context, I can understand how you don’t. And I feel like this last year has put that all of those assumptions that we make has really pushed that forward. So that we really need to be thinking about the context of ourselves and of our students. In a way we just weren’t. I just didn’t think we were as much in the before times. So I feel like this Relational Cultural Theory is really helping us to understand How we need to be moving forward. And I see just so many connections with our universal design for learning principles that made me want to just pick your brain about all of it.

Harriet Schwartz  35:11

Well, thank you, I do think there are a lot of connections and, you know, Relational Cultural Theory started as, again, it’s a theory of human growth and development, the essence is that we grow, we’re at our best when we grow through and in relationship, and we have healthy growth, fostering relationships, sort of in our world in our orbit. And it’s not to say we’re always connected, we’re not always in relationship, but that we have, that those relationships are available to us, and that we trust them and that we can, that we trust them that they’re there. And so it started as a theory that was used primarily in clinical context by psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers. But from very early on, the founder, Jean Baker, Miller said that this is relevant not only in therapeutic practice, but in education and in organizations. And in all of life. I think that’s almost a direct quote. But it has taken a while for it to really catch on in, in education. I mean, you know, I’m not the first, but there have been some other folks. But I think we’re really seeing more of a shift now. And it’s a theory that just lends itself so well to education on all levels. My interest is particularly higher education. But I’ve talked with K 12, folks who, and there are researchers, scholar practitioners working in the K 12. arena, around this, but I think it just lends itself so well to thinking about teaching and learning. Again, my interest is in higher ed, and, you know, relates to Student Affairs practice. I mean, I think it is such a good fit. And, you know, I think it’s sort of it’s like an interdisciplinary gift to be able to think about so when I talk to an RCT practitioners in the clinical side, and hear how she’s thinking about boundaries in her practice, and talk about how I think about boundaries in my teaching. I think we both deepen our learning from hearing about it in the other context. So I think there’s a, there’s a way in which the fact that this theory emerged primarily outside of education actually brings us more because we get to hear that thinking in a different world, and then sort of think about how does this apply to our own work?

Lillian Nave  37:05

Yeah. So um, I want to kind of tease out some more in another question that we’re we are already moving towards. And that is, we’ve just talked about authenticity, and making that an Invitational environment, getting feedback from students. And so I want to talk about that role of the relationship, the instructor student relationship, in the next part of that, which is the sustaining student effort and persistence, which is another section of the Universal Design for Learning guidelines. So how is it that relationship and Relational Cultural Theory helps in not just inviting those students right recruiting interest, but now about sustaining effort and persistence?

Harriet Schwartz  37:58

Yeah. So I think, I think there’s a piece about when students think when students feel connected. My sense is, this is not true for all students, I think there’s some students who are very, very comfortable, and maybe very have a preference to do a lot of their work on their own and sort of not engaged as much. But in my experience, there are a lot of students who really benefit from being part of a learning community. And having a sense that they are in they probably wouldn’t, they wouldn’t typically use this language, but they are in growth, fostering a growth, fostering relational context with their classmates, their cohort mates or whatever, and with their faculty. And so I think that that sets a stage that’s important, not only for the invitation, but then it creates a space for the ongoing learning journey. So that they are they feel they are part of a community, they see other people growing, they see other people learning, they see other people struggling. They know a bit of their faculty members story that their teacher also struggled and had to, you know, had to work through some things to get where they are. And so I think that helps some with persistence. I also think that, and this, I haven’t really worked this out yet. And I don’t want it to sound manipulative. But I do think that when, when you say it this way, I think when students sense that we’re invested in their learning, I think that’s a motivator for them, as well. So I think that, you know, I, the reason I’m pausing is I don’t want, I don’t want students to want to learn just because they’re invested in our relationship. I think that’s problematic. But I do think there’s a way in which when students can sense that we really care about their learning. I think that adds motivation. And I think that’s okay. So I think, you know, in some of my research, you know, students would talk about, you know, I could just tell that he thought I could do better, and that made me want to be better, you know, or I could tell that she thought I was capable of more, and that made me want to work harder. So I think that, you know, we don’t use it as a manipulation. But I think that part of that relationship is that it doesn’t win. And maybe it’s about winning. Students, you know, who knows what’s going on for students underneath that? Is it that they were doubting themselves is that they weren’t seeing the connection to how this learning was important to them. And then when they see someone who really thinks they can do more than they’re doing, they can be better than there than they are at the moment that it sort of opens that up as a possibility. So I think that’s a piece of it. And I hadn’t really thought about all of this in that way. So I’m not sure from making sense. So bring me back to it. If I’m not,

Lillian Nave  40:28

no, it does make a lot of sense. In fact, you’re making me think about that evaluator paradox that you mentioned earlier, that you need to be very explicit in that relationship, that you want students to feel comfortable to come in that developmental way, like I need to learn and you are the teacher, you know, you know, you have this, the skills and the knowledge that you can impart to me. And then there’s that on the flip side of that coin is, but I’m a little afraid of the evaluation part, that you’re going to come down on me hard or something like that. And there are students I know, when I was a student, too, I would be, you know, afraid of that evaluation part. I don’t want to do poorly. But I would crave that relationship of developmental part. So I think being really explicit, it sounds like and on what both of those parts are in that relationship between student and instructor and knowing that there is there are equal parts, or maybe emphasizing that developmental part is really key in this am I getting? Getting some of that? Right?

Harriet Schwartz  41:36

Yeah, I think the other thing it makes me think of is that when so in several of my studies, I saw that when students, when students trusted their faculty member, they trusted that their instructor was committed to their learning to the students learning, the students were much more open to feedback in a way that I think, you know, I mean, I, you know, as a young as a student, I was occasionally guilty of, like, if I got critical feedback, I might, you know, say, Oh, she was in a bad mood, or she’s like me, we’re not I mean, as a kid, you know, you do those things, like you sort of write the feedback off when it’s critical, until you sort of understand that that’s really part of the learning process. And one of the things I saw in my I’ve seen in my research is that when students trust their faculty members, they trust that we’re committed to the students learning that they then see the feedback or hear the feedback in that light. And so that tends to I think, really make them more like it gets rid of the the sort of walls that students could put up to feed, you know, to sort of not taking that critical feedback enough and to avoid personalizing it and helps them see that this again, that feedback is part of the learning process. And in that it’s sort of the faculty members investment in their learning. So I think that’s another way that it can be helpful. Yeah, that relational piece. The other thing I wanted to say, and you you had mentioned, which I really appreciate, at the beginning of our conversation, you talked about how, you know, this is not all easy, feel good, you know, stuff, right. And I think when you’re talking about student effort, and persistence, that’s really probably a good place for us to talk a little bit about the fact that teaching relationally is not always easy, because we get, you know, if you are relational teacher, you get invested in your students learning and success, you want them to do well, you’re probably getting to know those students, you care about them. And so, you know, I’ve certainly had experiences with students who just couldn’t get it done for some reason, you know, and they, whether it’s, you know, in some cases, I think maybe they didn’t care about the class, they just didn’t care, it was a requirement or something they care. In other cases, they just had too much else going on in life. And this was just not the time to be in school, like they just couldn’t manage it. And, and so we can talk about any part of this that that you’d like to, but I just want to say that I think this is one of the places where the challenge of relational teaching can come up because you want students to do well, and they it just doesn’t always doesn’t always happen that way.

Lillian Nave  43:54

Yeah. And that, that developmental part, go back to that, again, is emphasizing that we’re, we our job is to be there for students and to offer the knowledge and the skills and, and have that I would say in multiple ways as a UDL specialists, you know, having scaffolding meaning allowing students to kind of come in where they are, and giving support, that sorts of that sort of thing. But it doesn’t mean we handout as like candy, or because that’s also doing a disservice, you know, to our students. And I it’s such a tricky business, and I’m really thinking of what just happened to me this past semester, and that is working on that same annotated bibliography assignment. And I have, you know, 6070 students, and some of them just didn’t get it right, the whole peer reviewed I made like your module guide. I made I’m a full on Google Doc with step by step instructions and a video where I step by step went through, going through the the library databases. And and this is a foundational skill that our students need to have in their first year, so that they can do college level research. And I just had some students who handed in really poor sources, you know, Wikipedia, or, you know, and, or blogs or something like that. And I thought, but I did all of this, you know, I put it on here. And I found myself in a really different space this year, which was saying to the students, hey, I really want you to be successful on this, and there was no penalty, I’d like you to do it again. So that you get this skill done. Rather than being that hard evaluator, like you didn’t get it right the first time. And this is part of the upgrading that I’ve started doing. And I’ll be talking with Susan Blum, who has been teaching me about that. And it really shifted, I feel like my role from evaluator into that developmental part. And I think that has a lot to do with where I am in my teaching life and how long I’ve been doing this, and in my own, you know, fish bowl water that I’m swimming in, and how I can see it. And it really changed that relationship with students. And I remember one student in particular, was just talking about, Oh, I didn’t mean to offend you, I honestly thought I was doing it the right way. So I didn’t look at all these resources, you know, and I thought, you know, what, I’m totally not offended, I can totally see how you thought you were doing it, right, you probably were doing it the same way you’d done it in high school. And here, I’m dealing with first year students. And, and seeing them in that context of, you know, what, if I were them, I probably would have thought the same way. And I might have made the exact same mistake. And anyway, just being able to be a whole person, and put myself in their shoes. And still in the midst of Oh, we were totally online, this is such a weird semester again. And it was near the end, near the end of this semester, and all these things are happening. Seeing those students and empathizing with their situation, has made all the difference. It’s made it easier for me to be a teacher. And but I I also see your point, and that there’s some parts where it’s really, really difficult. We care so much about our students, and there’s other students who it didn’t happen, you know, and I can’t just say, Oh, well, that doesn’t matter, you’re still going to pass. We can’t do that either. But we can we can do as as much as we can to empathize, I think, with our students.

Harriet Schwartz  48:02

Yeah, I think I mean, I’m really appreciating all the sort of reflection there and all the ways that you were thinking through those interactions, because I think that’s, that’s the key. And, you know, one of so my interest in all this really started with the relational piece. And then I’ve really moved into trying to understand more about the emotion involved in teaching. And there’s, you know, there’s a lot of literature about student emotion and learning, but there’s not as much in the higher ed context, there’s not nearly as much in terms of the faculty, our emotion in, in being teachers and all that comes with that. And of course, teaching is an emotional endeavor, right, involves human beings. So so what I what I’m just really appreciating is how you’re thinking all of that through and I think, you know, I think the, I think it’s such a universal example, I’ve had the same thing where I thought I explained an assignment so well, and I thought I gave my students the resources. And then you know, you start reviewing the work, and whether it’s one or half the class, like, you know, missing, like, elemental pieces. And like, the first at least for me, the first human response is like, you know, what’s up? What’s up with that? Like, how do you I thought I explained it, you know, and in one case, I’m thinking about a, an assignment where there was a piece that students were missing. And so I repeated it in class, like several like over the course of weeks, several times and, and still somebody sort of missed the core piece of this assignment. And so I tried to do what you what I think you did, which was to really pause and really say, is there anything here I need to see about me? Is there something I’m still missing in the way that I’m conveying this or the assumptions that I’m making. So that first piece of interrogation i think is important because there really might be important feedback for us in that in that situation. And then I think the other piece is to say, if I feel like I’ve done everything I can reasonably do here, in my role as a teacher. Then there is a point at which the students responsible To, you know that they need to listen, and they need to, you know, engage in the resources or whatever they need to put the time in on the assignment. And there’s only so much I can do with any of that, and some of it really is, is theirs. And so, you know, and I think it. I think disciplinary context is really important here, because there are some disciplines where, like what you’re doing, I love that you’re letting students It sounds like you’re letting students redo it, because the important thing is that you really want them to get it right, this is going to be foundational learning for the rest of their college career. So I love that, you know, there are other disciplines where students really have to have specific knowledge to move forward in a program, because if they don’t get that essential knowledge, say in first year courses, they’re not going to be able to make it through advanced courses. They’re also disciplines where students are heading towards professions where like, there are certain things they need to know, otherwise they could really do harm. Yeah, so I think really looking at like, what’s the disciplinary context? And how can I be, you know, whether you’re in a discipline where you can let students keep redoing, or whether if you’re in discipline where you can’t? How can I? How can I bring the humanity to that, regardless of what the context is? How can I still not lose track of the fact that these, you know, students are humans with emotions, and whether they’re working hard at it or not? or whatever? Like, how can I bring a basic appreciation for their humanity in mind to all of this and, and part of it might be dealing with my own frustration and sadness, like I really like I can just see this student’s potential and they’d be great in the field. And I just so wish they could do it. But I have to come to terms with the fact that right now, maybe there’s just something going on in a student’s life that they just can’t make it work right now. And I need to be okay with that, and not let it tear me up. And at the same time, in certain disciplines, like if students can’t, you know, show a certain level of, of knowledge, competency, whatever, that it’s not okay for them to move forward. And so how can we support that student with respect and regard?

Lillian Nave  51:58

Yeah, I want to say like, as you’re talking this in big letters, Why yes, yes, yes. Yes. One of the big aha moments for me when I got into Universal Design for Learning, is the idea that learning is not just covering the material. And sorry, teaching is not just covering the material, that there is the Yes, the presentation, here’s here are the things you need to know. And I thought that’s what teaching was for the longest time. And Universal Design for Learning says, you know, that’s, that’s not even half of it. That’s, that’s maybe a third is the presentation of here’s the stuff you need to cover, so to speak, then there’s a whole part about well, how do we know that the students have learned it, whether we’ve covered it doesn’t mean they’ve learned it, right. So thinking about how we assess or understand or allow for students to show that they’d know something. And then there’s the third part, which is about that engagement. Students need to know why they’re learning something. And this Relational Cultural Theory is the, I think, this glue that is helping us to understand, you know, if we don’t have the why, then students aren’t going to get the what or the how, right, if they don’t know why it’s important. If they don’t have a positive relationship, that’s going to be detrimental. And I must say, every, we have relationships with our students, sometimes they’re not so good, right? Sometimes our relationship is, you stand at the front of the class and you speak and they you don’t know their names, and they don’t interact at that’s still a relationship. It’s just not a really great one. in many contexts, but but there’s always a relationship. So we really have to be thinking about the relationship and the content. And that action and expression or assessment, if we forget one of those, we are not doing the others justice. So this Relational Cultural Theory is foundational, it seems to me and how we teach.

Harriet Schwartz  54:17

Yeah, thank you. I love that. So as you were talking, one of the things that it made me think about was that I think another element of what we’re always teaching is how to be in relationship. And so, you know, whether it’s, you know, when you think about the pivot we made last spring, and you know, that was teachers or leaders, right? We were sort of leading in crisis, we were modeling like, how do you respond to, to abrupt, significant change quickly, how do you as sort of a leader in the teaching space, how do you model bringing people along during a difficult stressful, unpredictable, chaotic time like how we did that said something to our students. You know, how how we were with our students after the Shogun burn, In the space that, you know if we created space for students to be with that a little bit in our classes, and I could talk more about that, but, you know, in a way that honor the fact that, again, students don’t leave the rest of life at the door when they enter the learning space, and neither do we, if we can find a way to do that, in the learning space, we’re saying something about how do you come into a learning space or professional space? And sort of honor the relationships that you’re that you’re engaged in? How do you honor the humanity via the people you’re with? How do you show an awareness of the cultural context that we’re moving in the different contexts that we’re living in? You know, how do you come to that? And I think RCC, it’s, it’s, I haven’t ever framed it this way. So thank you for for everything you said. But I think RCT really provides a foundation for that part of essential teaching that we’re doing, as we try to help students, whether they’re first year undergrads, or whether they’re doc students, you know, we’re all always learning from each other. So we’re teaching each other something about how to be in relationship, in learning contexts and in professional contexts. And I think it’s really it’s a critical part of what we do, regardless of our discipline. Wow.

Lillian Nave  56:07

Yeah. You know, you just answered my last question, which was the big finale about what advice do you give fellow higher ed instructors about that? And, you know, what do you want us to keep at the top of our minds, and this Relational Cultural Theory is, it’s just essential and foundational to how we conduct our learning experiences and how we interact with, with our students. And I really does change, I feel that the temperature, like the warmth, or the coldness of that learning environment, and when you were talking about that major pivot, I do remember last year, last year, in March, when everything went online, and students were really a discombobulated is not a great word. But that’s what it seemed like everybody was. And so many of my colleagues and how I saw all over the world, those instructors, were just solidly leading students by example. And the ones that I found, were successful, and that I’ve seen in the year sense, were the ones that showed care, on top of or for care, first, over content. And then those students felt safe to learn or could to continue to learn. And I think if we put, you know, one in front of the other, if we say content is king, and I don’t really care too much about the rest of you, you know, that All I care about is your brain and that you get this information. It’s a detrimental effect to our students and to our learning environment. And so this what you bring to the classroom and teaching us about Relational Cultural Theory, is I think priorities. Am I getting that right?

Harriet Schwartz  58:19

Yeah, I think maybe priorities, I think, maybe balance. I mean, I do think, as I think about I think, last spring for me, because I teach from relational perspective, that really was my starting point like I can, as you were talking, I can almost imagine, like, I was trying to figure out, how can I bring my students with me into this new context of now we’re going to be in zoom instead of in the classroom? Like, yeah, that’s a for me, that’s a sort of relational essence of like, bringing them with me, like that was sort of the foundational piece. And then what followed that was bringing the learning, right, and how can I now reconstruct our learning process in this space that we’ve all had to pivot to very quickly, and it doesn’t mean, I want to be careful, because I think some people, if we hear that relationship becomes the priority, that might be a turn off. Okay. I appreciate that. I think seeing relationship as essential as it’s not just the add on, it’s just not, it’s not just like the nice, good thing that happens some of the time, because as you’ve been saying, like its relationship is complex, it’s not always feel good. But it’s understanding that this is all happening in a relational context. And so if we can really keep that as an awareness as we move through all of this and keep it as central, and keep it as part of the equation as we’re making adjustments or thinking about our interactions, or whatever, that that, that its core, that relationship is chord Central. And so if we can position it that way, and then really sort of try to integrate that into because a lot of what I’m talking about is sometimes I feel like it sounds like it’s so much to think about, but I think the more you work from this space, it becomes more automatic, right? You sort of have your quick checklists in your head that you go through to make decisions about self disclosure for example. So Yeah, so I think that’s, that’s how I’m thinking about it. So I was a bit relieved when you said that, that I’d already answered your final question about advice for other instructors, I would like to add one other thing, which is to be gentle with yourself. This has been a very difficult year, when I was actually finishing my book a couple years ago, I ended up adding a chapter on failure. Because I came off a very difficult semester, very incredibly difficult. I had a class that fell apart in a colossal way. And so you know, that that experience, and then writing that chapter helped me think a lot about disappointment and frustration and teaching. And so I see this year is one that, you know, for so many instructors this year fell short, like folks felt like they just weren’t able to accomplish what they usually do or what they wanted to do, or you didn’t meet your writing goals, or, you know, whatever it might be. And so what I want to say is that we, this was an incredible year. And so I hope that folks will find a way to, to be gentle, whatever that means. And I know some people are in a context where there’s so much life pressure, that it’s hard to even imagine doing that for a few minutes. And other people can take a vacation this summer. So there’s a whole range of what that might mean. But I myself found that even in those spaces, when I feel very stressed, I can do small things that help more than I think they will you know, getting outside a little bit, taking a break closing the computer on the weekend, whatever, like whatever it is, just allow yourself some space, because it has been a very hard year. And my guess is if you’re listening to this podcast, you care a lot about teaching, and you’ve put a lot into it. And so yeah, I wish you the best that you can before it and I hope you get a little space this summer.

Lillian Nave  1:01:35

Wow. Thank you. That is that’s perfect. I appreciate that advice. And I know our listeners do too. So thank you so much, Harriet, for being on the podcast with me today and spending so much time thinking about how important relationships are, how context matters, how culture matters in our teaching. And just thank you for your time and your brainpower today.

Harriet Schwartz  1:02:03

Thank you, Lillian. And it’s really been exciting for me to think about, you know, think about all of this sort of, in the context of of UDL, like I hadn’t really done that thinking before. So it’s really sort of pushed me to think more deeply about the work. So it’s, I’ll be taking this conversation away. So thank you very much.

Lillian Nave  1:02:21

Oh, great, thank you. You can follow the think UDL podcast on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to find out when new episodes will be released, and also see transcripts and additional materials at the think website. The think UDL podcast is made possible by college star. The star stands for supporting transition, access and retention in post secondary settings, and the website provides free resources and instructional aids based on UDL principles. If you’d like to know more, go to the college website. Additional support for the podcast is made possible by Appalachian State University where if you call it Appalachian, I’ll throw in Appalachia. The music on the podcast was performed by the Odyssey quartet comprised of Rex Shepherd, David Pate, Bill Folwell and Jose Cochez, our sound engineer is Tanner Jones and I am your host, Lillian Nave. Thank you for joining us on the think UDL podcast.

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