Author Archives: ervinchr

Staff Picks: Valuable Training Activities & Topics

by Chris Ervin

Chris asks the Office of Academic Support team: What one indispensable training activity or topic do your teams find most valuable, applicable to their work supporting their peers, surprisingly helpful, or otherwise remarkable? Why?


One thing I’ve heard from Outreach Specialists that they find helpful for their workshop facilitation training is to intentionally practice different facilitation elements out loud: talking through the entire presentation out loud, talking through transitions between slides/topics out loud, talking through possible responses to prompts out loud and how they might validate and also connect what’s been shared back to the topic. Some folks also find it helpful to record their practice and to play the recording back. It can feel really different to think through slides/transitions versus speaking the words, and practicing what it might feel/sound like can help folks feel more prepared when they step into the live workshop environment.  


Sharing the Stories of Our Names! At the first meeting, I give the homework of preparing a Name Story, which means people can research, ponder, etc. and choose what they might want to offer about their names. At the second meeting, I am prepared for this “warm up” activity to take the whole meeting (but prepare an agenda so there isn’t pressure). Sharing name stories makes space for culture and context that might not otherwise be shared and encourages care with one another’s names. (Check out this page for a classroom lesson plan and name alternatives.)


ASC Strategists share that they really love visiting campus partners to learn about their services and resources. Hearing about services directly from the folks who provide them has a much greater impact than anything I could have shared with them. By physically being in a space, Strategists can better describe to students what they can expect from a service and help students prepare for their visit. Even Strategists who have previously visited a particular center or resource share that they learn something new every time we visit, and it never gets old!


I often fall back on a listening exercise that I experienced in Paul Axtell training and adapted. It’s designed to disrupt our typical approach to listening and to encourage leaving silence in a conversation to let the other person steer the conversation. One person is given an open-ended prompt and 5 minutes to speak, and the other person is instructed to use silence, non-verbals, and the occasional one-word responses to practice deep listening. Then they switch, and we debrief. There is dissonance for both in the unnaturalness of the set-up, but it also helps participants experience what it’s like to have an open invitation to speak uninterrupted and see where their thinking leads them.


Laura Rendón’s Validation Theory describes validation as “an enabling, confirming and supportive process initiated by in- and out-of-class agents that fosters academic and interpersonal development.” Rendón emphasizes recognizing the strengths and abilities students bring to their college experiences and the value they contribute to the community. When we validate, we show our support and belief in students’ abilities to be successful. In trainings, we talk through what validation is, what it can look like in context (e.g., in a writing consultation, in office hours, in a classroom), and the importance and potential impact of validation within our work.


An activity I’ve enjoyed facilitating is Francesca Helm’s Language Portrait. The activity asks group participants to draw a figure silhouette and then use different colors to indicate where and how language shows up in their bodies. This activity can be adapted to a variety of scenarios and contexts depending on desired outcome. For example, I’ve used it to focus on written language specifically, and I think it could be adapted to any held identity, concept, or form of expression. It creates a container for participants to discuss aspects of their identity, lived experiences, and positionality in relation to the given prompt. It works well as a community building activity with a new group, but it could also be used to deepen thinking around a topic with participants who already know each other.


The activity I’ve found most illustrative and engaging for a team has been a game, usually Dungeons & Dragons. Roleplaying has been my go-to for figuring out how people solve problems, where there are fault lines in a team, and where there is room for growth. Posing a radically fantastical problem, like trying to get off an airplane mid-flight before it passes a drop zone, can be enormously useful. In that example, one just jumped, risking life and limb on the guess that it’d probably work out. Another made a “glider” out of sheets. The other four took the time to find the parachutes. Getting a team to the stage where they are comfortable with a game is a separate discussion, but once there, knowing who will jump out of the plane, who will make a glider, and who will find the parachute is very helpful.


Student employees are seldom given the opportunity to assess their own understanding about inclusive facilitation and support practices, let alone in contexts where disclosing potential confusion or questions feels safe to do (e.g. scholarship or job applications). Yale’s Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning has several excellent resources regarding inclusive teaching and support practices, including a list of common implicit biases held by students and teachers in learning contexts. This list is a great starting point for conversation with peer educators about which of these they have experienced and how that made them feel as a way to encourage greater care in their own work facilitating others’ learning.


I love Russ Harris’ ACT Mindfully values checklist, which is intended to help a person “identify . . . how you want to treat yourself, others and the world around you.” This activity asks us to identify core values as well as values we don’t hold so deeply and can be applied personally or within a work context.  Completing this activity with student staff can shape our working relationships with them, as we can ask them to share their values with us and keep those values in mind as we offer feedback and engage in mentoring. For example, from the checklist an employee might select humor, creativity, and fun as “very important” and conformity (“to be respectful and obedient of rules and obligations”) as “not important.” Their values inventory can frame our feedback conversations: Knowing which values they hold, I might help the employee identify places where humor, creativity, and fun might contribute to community-building, for example, but also where humor or fun might need to be set aside during training meetings where we’re trying to get some serious work accomplished.

The Most Important Part of an Observation Is the Conversation

by Christopher Ervin

When I learned I would be a graduate teaching assistant during the second year of my MA program, I began observing my course professors, often noting strategies to emulate but sometimes practices to guard against. I don’t remember exactly what I observed, but I suspect a kindly literature professor reading directly from lecture notes landed on the “don’t” list. And seeing the impact of our facilitator calling on us by name and asking prompting, open questions, found its way to the “do this” list. Those early memories of learning how to teach from their examples have faded, but I absolutely know that talking to them about their teaching was not part of my process. I never scheduled any formal observations or requested follow-up conversations with my professors about why they were doing the things I observed. So, rather than hearing from them about their teaching, I took from those observations my own interpretations of their teaching styles, which I then placed within the context of what I anticipated my approach would be.

In the years since, I’ve had the opportunity to observe hundreds of graduate teaching assistants, writing consultants, peers, and mentors in both formal and informal contexts. I’ve also been observed (formally) dozens of times as a teacher and facilitator. In all my experiences observing and being observed, I’ve found the conversations, before and after, to be the cornerstone of a successful observation experience.

The Conversation Before

The conversation before an observation might be brief, but it’s no less important than the follow-up. The conversation preceding the observation serves several purposes, but overall, the first conversation, combined with the follow-up, wraps the observation in what I hope is a positive and caring interaction.

I have four goals for those initial conversations. First, I hope to learn what the person I’m observing would like me to focus my attention on during the observation. Organization of material? Clarity of explanation? Facilitation of group discussion? Interaction with participants, or interaction between participants? I lead the initial conversation with this goal-setting process, which also helps to empower and center the person I’m observing, and to dismantle some of the power dynamic inherent in an observation.

Second, I want to be sure the person I’m observing understands my process. Since I take copious notes, I want them to know that in advance. This is also when I tell them whether I’ll be taking notes on a laptop or tablet because I hope to avoid the impression that I am disengaged or multitasking. (It’s also when I invite them to share their preference with me—if they prefer I take handwritten notes, they can tell me then.) I also share the evaluation form/rubric if I’ll be using one (for evaluative observations, there’s usually some kind of university/department-mandated form).

Additionally, I hope the person I’m observing leaves the initial meeting knowing how the observation is going to be used. In some contexts, it’s clear (tenure file, for example). Elsewhere, the person being observed might know only that they’re being required to have an observation of their class/meeting, etc.—for example, when I observe faculty/staff I supervise as part of the evaluation process. In that case, they might not be sure who will have access to that observation report (if there is a formal report), how it might be used, and where it will “live” after the observation. Likewise, I ask them how they plan to use the report I share with them (teaching portfolio, for example) so that I have an opportunity to write a report that works for their purposes.

Finally, I do my best to be sure we both leave the meeting feeling excited—or at least not anxious—about the upcoming observation. Some of us dread being observed, and that anxiety can shape the class, meeting, etc. Strategically nudging the power balance back toward the person I’m observing—to the degree that such a shift can happen—by centering their goals and self-identified growth areas goes a long way to help them anticipate a productive and valuable experience.  In the end, I hope the initial conversation clears away some of the anxiety and sets the person I’m observing up for a really successful class, meeting, etc.

The Follow-Up Conversation

The follow-up conversation is typically what one might think of in the context of an observation. My approach is to reserve most of the time during the conversation for the person I’ve observed, giving them space to make meaning for themselves while I act as a sounding board for that meaning-making. As with the conversation before the observation, I enter the follow-up with a few specific goals.

First, I want to share what I noticed based on their self-identified goals. If they asked me to pay attention to how their students were interacting, I’ll have drawn a discussion map that shows who was speaking, and to whom, and how often. If they wanted me to focus my attention on a new approach to small-group work, I will have taken copious notes based on what I hear and see in the small groups. I consider this part a reflecting-back process, like I am a mirror they’ve been able to hold up to their teaching.

Second, I always offer genuine, specific praise and validation and talk about why I felt a particular approach or activity worked well. The value of praise can’t be understated. It not only confirms for the person being observed what they hope is working well, but it also often identifies for them approaches or strategies they might not have noticed about themselves.

Third, I hope to contribute some interpretation or additional meaning making about the class, meeting, etc. Non-judgmental question-asking serves as the cornerstone of this part of the follow-up conversation, but direct observations and notes are interspersed. If the initial conversation served its purpose, my direct observations during the follow-up should land well.

Ultimately, the conversation will be shaped by the relationship I have with the person being observed—if I am their supervisor, we might find opportunity to talk through a couple of specific approaches or behaviors that don’t align with the expectations of the position. If I am not their supervisor, we might focus primarily on formative types of evaluative suggestions, like when a faculty member is interested in hearing my perspective about how their discussion prompts landed with their students.

Remembering that Observations Enact Actual and Perceived Power Dynamics

Even with the most productive of conversations before and after the observation, I remain keenly aware that an existing power structure determines who is observed, who gets to observe, why they observe, in what context someone is observed, and what implications might arise from the observation. The fact that a faculty member or staff might invite a colleague or supervisor to observe them doesn’t erase the power dynamic between those individuals. Imagine the scenario in which a department head is applying for promotion to full professor and needs to be observed by faculty they supervise—just one example of how complex the power dynamic can become when we are invited to make formally observe others.

Promoting Equity in Recruitment and Hiring of Student Staff

by Chris Ervin

Last fall in The Success Kitchen, Anna Bentley provided an overview of the Academic Success Center’s and Writing Center’s learning process around equity during 2020-21. In this edition, I take a deeper dive into the work we did around equity in the recruitment and hiring of student staff. Our goal was first to learn about equity in recruitment and hiring, then examine our own practices for potential bias, and finally to enact change that reduces those opportunities for bias. I offer here an example of how our learning process resulted in some revisions to recruitment and hiring for my unit, The Writing Center.

Informed by our Search Advocate training, including building a criteria matrix, we considered a number of questions: Which students might see themselves as potential writing consultants? Who are we inviting to apply? How are we sharing that invitation? Who are we selecting to advance as finalists? Who are we offering positions to, and how are we communicating with those who wouldn’t be offered positions? In other words, we began testing some of the basic assumptions that had become embedded in our hiring process.

We examined how what we share in recruitment or in the job posting might deter someone from applying in the first place. For example, we now highlight that we are looking for students who are interested in supporting their peers, facilitating conversation, listening, and asking thoughtful questions. Our baseline criterion is no longer that an applicant can “hold their own” in a conversation about writing and reading. After all, a number of factors might lead to an applicant being able to talk about the last great novel they read or the challenges of writing an IB research paper in high school, none of which necessarily translates into the kind of facilitative role we want our writing consultants to play. Related to that, we stopped asking for a writing sample because our goal isn’t to hire great writers. Rather, we hope to hire students who become great facilitators of student writing growth and development, and ironically, sometimes strong writers get in their own way with regard to facilitating a peer’s thinking about their own writing.

We also tackled how applicants’ prior preparation or cultural backgrounds might inform how they show up in an interview, and we adjusted the interview setting to provide a more open-ended approach that, we hoped, would facilitate more individualized responses to our prompts. We designed interview questions that asked applicants to speak to their experience creating a welcoming environment for others, facilitating learning around challenging tasks, and working with individuals from a variety of backgrounds and cultures. We provided those questions to the applicants 24 hours in advance so they would have a chance to prepare their responses and we could hear their best thinking while minimizing nervousness associated with interviewing. We also coached ourselves on how to show up in the interviews—what to listen for and how to guard against bias. During the interviews, we listened carefully to how applicants responded to our questions, and when an applicant’s response seemed truncated or we wanted to hear more, we asked pointed follow-up questions that, for some, resulted in richer and more telling responses than had originally been offered.

Once we completed interviews and were deciding which applicants to make offers to, we met as a committee and made those decisions collectively, as we recognized that bias can enter into those decisions when interviewers weigh certain criteria more than others. In particular, abstractions are ripe with potential bias, like how well someone held up in a conversation or how invested an applicant seemed in to be in the process. Our use of a Search Advocate-style criteria matrix helped us guard against those opportunities for bias and stay focused on our qualifications. And finally, we offered to provide written feedback to applicants who were not offered positions. Some of the applicants who were not offered positions might end up in a future applicant pool for the Writing Center or for another unit on campus, and we felt invested in their growth and development as potential future applicants for OSU student employment.

In sum, our revised recruitment and hiring process allowed us to emphasize transferable skills like creating a welcoming environment and individualizing needs for others, and place value on a wide range of experiences with academic writing. We were prepared to make job offers to applicants who demonstrated an ability to facilitate learning for students who had a wide range of experiences with academic writing. The results have been promising, and I’m eager to refine our process, revisit our new assumptions, and apply our learning for our next hiring cycle, which begins in Winter 2022.

If you would like to view a copy of the “Equity in Recruitment & Hiring of Student Staff” guide that the Academic Success Center & Writing Center developed for our department’s use, please email Marjorie Coffey to request access.

Strategies for Writing Feedback

by Chris Ervin

In the Writing Center, we provide students, faculty, staff, and alumni with feedback on all kinds of writing. As faculty and staff, we are similarly called on by our colleagues to provide feedback on writing like grant applications, reports, article drafts, letters, and emails. We all want to provide helpful and supportive feedback to our colleagues, and below I share an approach we use in the Writing Center to provide that kind of supportive feedback. This approach creates space for the writer to gain valuable information from you as a reader, while also emphasizing their agency and decision-making as the writer.

Step 1: Share Your Observations

We begin by making observations about the text. As readers, we navigate between reading to understand and reading to look for potential. You may have noticed that when meaning is clear, we continue reading without confusion. When it’s not clear, we sometimes engage in meaning-making ourselves or look for potential solutions to problems we’re experiencing.

However, in our feedback process, we focus on our observations. After all, our colleagues want us to help them see the draft in another way; they generally don’t want us to rewrite the draft for them.  Observing can be as simple as noticing in a non-evaluative way. For example, “I noticed that the report consistently uses language and technical jargon from your discipline.” Paired with the next two elements—a reader’s response and prompting questions—observation is a valuable starting point for prompting reflection on a draft.

Step 2: Respond as a Reader

The next step is giving the writer a sense of how you understand the text. In other words, respond as a reader of the text. A reader can be many things: engaged, bored, confused, surprised, and so on. This information is valuable to a writer who may want to understand how their draft is being experienced or interpreted.

An example of a reader’s response that might follow the observation above is, “As someone outside of your discipline, I had trouble understanding some of the technical jargon—particularly in the third and fourth paragraphs.” Paired with observation, the reader’s response suggests one possible experience of a reader. By itself, this response is already valuable for a writer, as they might be able to determine a next step just based on the observation and response. We also have a third step though that can prompt the writer’s thinking on next steps.

Step 3: Ask Authentic Questions

The final step is asking authentic questions that help the writer reflect on the draft. The questions can prompt a writer to think about how to shape a draft in ways that accomplish their goals—whether that’s with revision or leaving the draft as-is.

Questions that prompt reflection are typically questions you as the reader do not have the answer for. If you are asking a question you already know the answer to, you may be providing advice based on what you think the draft should be rather than creating space for the writer to imagine possibilities. For example, questions that relate to example in the last section might be “Who is the audience—or are there multiple audiences? What level of technical expertise on this topic will your reader(s) have? What familiarity would your audience(s) have with jargon and discipline-specific language?” With these questions, you as the reader are not directing the writer to change or reduce the technical jargon; instead, you’re prompting the reader to consider the audience’s needs with regard to jargon.

Facilitation vs. Direction

Following the steps outlined above can maintain a supportive stance as a reader—facilitating thinking rather than directing the draft or the writer’s decisions. This allows the writer, our colleagues, to maintain control of their work and draft while also gaining valuable information that can help them in decision-making and next steps for the document.

Staff Picks – What We’re Reading

compiled by Chris Ervin

In this Staff Picks, we share what we’ve been reading lately. Our selections cover a range of topics and genres, each showing how we were compelled and engaged by the authors’ treatment of the desire to belong, to feel part of a communal experience, and to be valued for our unique contributions. We’re reading scholarly books, research reports, blogs, and novels—all of which are informing our work during this very difficult time.

We invite you, our readers of The Success Kitchen, to share what you’re reading with us. Fill out this survey with your own reading selection and your submission might be featured in the next issue of The Success Kitchen!

Sarah Norek

These days I’Pax coverm reading Sara Pennypacker’s Pax with my kids. It’s about a boy, Peter, and his fox, Pax, and explores the themes of uncertainty, loss, trauma, connection, and what we hold inside ourselves. So many of our students (our colleagues, ourselves) are holding a lot inside. And we may know so little from the outside. “He could offer only withness, and nothing else.” This from a moment when Pax lies down with another fox to be with him through a life transition. While I’m not saying we can’t offer more than withness, this line struck me in its closeness to witness—in being with another individual in a moment, a series of moments, an experience. I keep thinking about how I can be with students this term, even as we’re apart.

Clare Creighton

HMN Report coverIn the last month, Sarah Norek and I partnered with CAPS colleagues to create a webinar and a self-guided Canvas module on “Learning During Times of Stress,” (shameless plug: you can find it here). In the process of that work, I read the Impact of COVID-19 on College Student Well-Being report. I appreciated the report highlighting how concerned students feel about mental health. These results will impact how I approach student communication and student staff training on empathy, support, and self-care as they deliver services. I’m also mindful of how student experiences are impacted by current national events and am looking forward to learning how OSU students are doing based on our September student survey.

Chris Gasser

Discrimination and Disparities coverI’ve recently finished reading Discrimination and Disparities (2018) by Thomas Sowell. In his book, Sowell provides an economist’s interpretation of socioeconomic disparities and the relationship between discrimination and disparity by presenting research and questioning some of our most basic assumptions. In our work with students, we might find use of Sowell’s nuanced categorization of discrimination to understand disparities that exist within higher ed. As we seek to make the university a more equitable place, Sowell’s book challenges us to think about how our policies may or may not respond to different types of discrimination that exist within our current educational environment.

Marjorie Coffey

Screencap of Jesse Stommel's websiteJesse Stommel’s website—which highlights his work on critical digital pedagogies and building inclusive online learning communities—has helped me think more intentionally about course design, community, student needs, and assessment as I plan for fall. As examples, recent posts “Becoming a Student Ready Teacher” by Eddy Conroy and Jesse Stommel and “Designing for Care: Inclusive Pedagogies for Online Learning” encourage us to learn about our students—their everyday experiences, needs, and challenges—and to ask ourselves tough questions that can lead to pedagogical and policy changes that demonstrate care and compassion in our work.

Anika Lautenbach

The Sun logoFor years I have been reading The Sunand this magazine continues to provide a bit of solace and much needed breaks from the screen. Sometimes I only have time for the Readers Write section, which includes personal stories that give me greater perspective on the unique experience of each person. When supporting students, I find that empathy needs to be part of every conversation. It starts with listening, and I found The Power of Story to be especially compelling right now. It helps me remember that we must approach each other with compassion and find a way to connect.

Chris Ervin

Station Eleven coverI recently re-read Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel—a novel following a troupe of actors and their orchestra through hardships before and after an apocalypse that erases most trappings of society that define modern life. Unlike other post-apocalyptic novels which often emphasize our ability to find common ground in the face of hardship, Station Eleven explores the relationship between humans and art, embracing the idea that creating, appreciating, and celebrating art is an integral part of the human experience, even in desperate times. Throughout 2020, we’ve faced a pandemic, advanced resistance movements to end systemic racism, and suffered egregious loss of life and of social connectedness, but we continue to celebrate the beauty and complexity of the human condition. Station Eleven tells us that’s okay, even when facing life-and-death decisions on a daily basis.