Interview by: Jonathan Aragon, M.P.H., PhDc., Teaching Fellow and Doctoral Candidate
Ciara C. Knight is a MS, MA, and Ph.D. Candidate in Psychology: Evaluation & Applied Research Methods. She is an adjunct professor Department of Psychology at Cal Poly Pomona.
“What I love most about teaching is making connections with my students and getting to see a transformation take place within them”.
Ciara C. Knight’s expertise lies within and between evaluation, research, and teaching. She has a natural ability to explain abstract concepts while addressing questions in an engaging, inclusive, interesting and thought-provoking manner across diverse audiences and settings. As a practitioner, Ciara has extensive professional experience in the evaluation of health and higher education programs predominately focused on communities of varying cultural backgrounds and needs. Her evaluation practice is often supported by her research pursuits focusing on diverse communities, equity, data visualization, and contextual (i.e. cultural, organizational, environmental, and political) factors in evaluation, higher education, and health disparities. With a combined expertise in research and evaluation, Ciara provides her students with relatable and field-based examples of how contextual factors along with social science theories (i.e. psychological, health, evaluation), plays a role in personal and professional domains. Ultimately, Ciara balances her evaluation and research commitments with her third passion – sparking curiosity and interest through her teaching.
How has the PFF program impacted your teaching?
The PFF program really prepared me for teaching; looking back, it entailed so much, I really feel it should be a master’s degree program and not just a certificate. I see a lot of what PFF taught me come up in new faculty training, such as writing learning outcomes and objectives. Because I did the PFF program I was really had this down, I was setup for success coming into my faculty appointment. I know how to tie the assignments, the activities, and the exams, to those learning outcomes. I also involve my students in this process. I begin every lesson with learning objectives and make sure that they understand our goals as we go through the session. From day one, my students know and understand our learning objectives and how our class assignments, activities, and assessments support those outcomes and objectives. The Preparing Future Faculty program also modeled for me how to make the activities I do in my class very dynamic, flexible, and creative. I have really taken what PFF taught me and made it my own.
The website that the PFF program requires has done wonders for my career it was challenging to develop, but it was worth it. People are taking notice. I put my website link on my LinkedIn and get a lot of views that way. It caught the attention of a great institution and helped me to land a research position. I have also opened my website up to my students. I let my students use my website to write blogs and I post other class related resources there for them as well.
The Teacher–Scholar framework that PFF teaches has also been very beneficial. I have taken on that mindset. Any work I do out in the field, I integrate back into my classroom, into the lessons. The PFF program taught me to have that mindset, to have that interconnectedness between my work as a scholar and my work as a teacher.
The PFF consultations has helped me a lot. Starting my first teaching position, PFF was right there for me whenever I was having anxiety, when I just needed some support, when I needed help understanding a process, PFF was right there when I needed them. When I got my first offer at Cal Poly, PFF was there for me even over winter break to help me prepare for my first lesson. My demo and the first day of class were one and the same, which was important to get right because undergraduates do not usually see evaluation, so that first impression was very critical.
What do you want to promote in your classroom?
In my classes, I promote confidence and dispel imposter syndrome.
The classes I teach are all upperdivision level courses. By the time students get to my class they are burned out and uncertain about the future. There is a real lack of confidence and a lot of confusion They are very unsure of themselves and struggle to see how their educational journey culminates to make up an expertise. They think they should be more than they are.
To dispel this imposter syndrome, I explain to my students that professionals with 30 years of experience feel the same way they do, that frustration is part of the evaluation process. I share real life evaluation stories to help my students understand that every real-world project has real-world challenges and there is no such thing as perfect. They are not alone; everyone goes through the process. I encourage my students to know that they have the chops, they have the skills, they do have something relevant to contribute to the conversation. All those years of schooling were not a waste; they are ready. I want to make sure everyone leaving my class goes with that kind confidence.
Building confidence also means restoring faith in their education. Many of my psychology students do not see how all the research classes they had to take works into their careers as clinicians. I clear up the confusion by explaining they need to know how to know how to systematically collect and interpret data in order to make good recommendations to their clients – and then it clicks for them.
Importantly, a big part of dispelling the imposter syndrome is seeing a black woman like myself teaching these quantitative classes. For many, this is the first time they have seen a woman of color teaching these kinds of classes. It is very important to model these possibilities so that diverse students can see themselves doing this too.
What do you feel is your purpose as a teacher?
As a professor who teaches upper division undergraduates, my purpose is to help my students to make the connections between school and life. Senior undergraduates are at a transition point. They are about to venture out into the world but may not immediately see how to transfer the knowledge, skills, and experiences they have collected in their years in college in the journey that awaits them. Life is an adventure; one never knows what will emerge. Thus, it is important for seniors to make the transition not just as persons with a college degree in a specific field, but also as agile professionals.
I look for moments to guide my students in how to think in this way. When they go beyond just thinking in this way, to making it their own, I know I have done my job. One example is Zoom. Zoom is a tool we use for class, but I show my students how to use features they may not be aware of. Before the pandemic, and Zoom’s popularity, I was using Zoom to solve problems in evaluation practice. Likewise, some of my students have reported how they are becoming stars in their new jobs because of what they learned about using Zoom in our class. That is part of being an agile professional, becoming someone who can develop innovative solutions to problems in one setting, based on what was learned in a completely different setting. Everything is useful, if everything is seen as usable.
What do you love most about teaching?
What I love most about teaching is making connections with my students and getting to see a transformation take place within them. When students first arrive to my program evaluation and survey research classes, there is a lot of anxiety and a lack of confidence. However, over the course of the semester I get to watch my students transform into confident and capable professionals, and that is very rewarding. Many of my students go back into their communities and do really amazing things. They are giving back. Some also go onto graduate school, many of whom I have written letters for. Even when there is a need for a student to repeat the course, there is a clear transformation. Students come back more outgoing, more open and confident. I love witnessing the amazing people my students grow to become. Hearing stories about how my office hours, and just being available to talk made a difference in their lives. About how the time we spent together, connecting as a class, played a part in who they are today. So yes, making these kinds of connections, building meaningful relationships, and seeing those transformations take place – that is what I really love about teaching.
What are the most important shifts, we must make in education to create social justice and equity in our classrooms and institutions?
One important shift that needs to take place is to move away from stand alone, piecemeal efforts and look to instead embed social justice and equity throughout the whole educational process, and with all faculty members. The current approach is to build up departments focused on ethnic studies, to add classes that help students understand about systemic racism, and support faculty who have a strong focus on addressing these issues. However, what is really needed is to discuss these issues in all courses.
For example, when I teach survey research methods, I discuss minimizing harm to certain communities, why we need to think about our demographic questions about gender, different ways of asking about gender, and why we ask those questions to begin with. It is very important for students that there is interconnection between the subject content and social justice and equity. This is how students make the connection in their profession. Mandating random classes on social justice and equity does not accomplish that. It makes it much harder for students to see the meaning behind those requirements. There is nothing wrong with focused courses, but they must be in addition to a schoolwide effort, not the sole solution.
We need to hire diverse faculty, but we also need ALL faculty members to be teaching social justice and equity, not just faculty of color. Likewise, we need to see faculty of color teaching the hard sciences so that we can model that for our students.
In line with interconnection, another important shift that needs to take place is to bring some transparency to the whole college process. First generation students, and students with diverse backgrounds, do not always see the big picture; they do not have people in their lives to show them how all the requirements work in tandem, and that impacts their confidence. Undergraduates are so focused on meeting requirements, because that is their guidance, “Take this class, meet this requirement, now take this class.” There is no transparency as to how the classes build on each other. Instead of making the meaning clear, we prioritize meeting course requirements. So, students focus on meeting requirements. Then we count on the next professor to catch them up. If a student falls behind, we victim blame them as being a bad student, but why was there no safety net? Students need to know the meaning behind everything they are doing. They need transparency in their program requirements. Currently, we do not do a good job scaffolding the process as a whole. One thing that faculty can do is talk to each other about the classes they are teaching and look for ways for the individual courses to accumulate into collective learning outcomes, and then make the big picture visible to students. Transparency and meaning in the whole college process are needed before we can say that we are addressing issues of equity and inclusion. As with most wicked problems, it is a systems problem that must be addressed at the systems level, not through one and done efforts.