In Conversation: A chat between Dean Marvin Washington and Dean Jennifer Tupper

From the realities of EDI initiatives to AI and cell phone usage in classrooms, both deans agree that changing the world starts with education

Caroline Gault - 13 June 2024

In this Q&A, College of Social Sciences and Humanities Dean Marvin Washington sits down with Faculty of Education Dean Jennifer Tupper to discuss growing interdisciplinary collaboration, the realities of EDI in the field of social sciences and humanities, and AI and cell phone usage in classrooms and pedagogy. Both deans agree that changing the world starts with education — and with developing exceptional educators.

Read CSSH conversations with Faculty of Arts Dean Robert Wood and Alberta School of Business Dean Vikas Mehrotra.


What opportunities might exist for innovative interdisciplinary collaborations or partnerships between the College of Social Sciences (CSSH) and the Faculty of Education (FoE)? 

Marvin Washington (MW): When I first joined the college in July 2023, I went on a kind of “listening tour” to hear from different voices, and it became pretty clear that the FoE was already engaging in interdisciplinary activities. My role then shifted to focusing on elevating and connecting these initiatives, rather than starting new projects together. For example, the success of the English language program for international students led me to ask how we could make it available to all international students, not just those in the program. 

Jennifer Tupper (JT): Yes, I agree. The FoE is inherently interdisciplinary, but there's potential for even greater collaboration, especially across faculties within the college. Marvin's position allows him to identify opportunities that we may not see, which is invaluable. Take, for instance, the work on the Black Studies certificate. This initiative began before Marvin's arrival, but his involvement, along with the college's support, is helping to move it forward. 

Here's another example: earlier today, I was having a conversation with our associate dean of graduate studies who is also a member of the special education program area and is, herself, an expert in structured literacy. In our conversation, she alerted me to an opportunity to think about a reading clinic in our faculty’s Clinical Services because — especially since the pandemic — there is an increase in struggling readers in schools that don't necessarily have access outside of school to the kinds of support that they might need. So, how can we offer that? We can Google how to write a business case, or we can connect with the right people at the Alberta School of Business (ASB) to help us think this through. Because that is where the expertise is, and we are situated in the same college. 

MW: That's really a perfect example. Three hours of Googling how to write a business plan could be eliminated with a 15-minute conversation instead. 

How do you perceive the evolving role of AI technology and digital learning within your respective fields, and what strategies are being implemented to leverage these advancements effectively?

MW: In business, AI is seen as the first draft. So — to reference the last question — AI could generate the initial draft of a business plan, allowing us to focus on the creativity part. AI's role is evolving from simply writing to providing a basis for unique perspectives. I think we’re moving beyond the idea of AI as a danger that is going to ruin everything. When calculators were introduced, we thought accounting would die. The irony is that there's actually a shortage of accountants.  

JT: I would say that in the education domain, AI is a reality that we know we have to understand and think about in context, not just a K-12 education, but also in library and information studies, and in the education of professional psychologists. We are also thinking about the opportunities AI affords to create more innovations in assessment. 

To Marvin’s point, AI can be used as an important part of the writing process and it can actually help students in K-12 become better writers as a result of the use of something like ChatGPT. It's like a backwards design approach. Say a student uses ChatGPT to write an essay on a topic. Now, as a student, go through and assess and critique that essay. Improve it and bring your own voice into it. I think that that kind of generative process is valuable. It’s thinking about the opportunities that AI affords to enhance teaching and learning, using it for forces of good rather than forces of evil.

And this isn’t just for young people, it’s for all members of our society. How do you analyze and curate information that's coming at you so quickly, and how do you discern the veracity of that information? To me, this is also about our commitment to critical forms of citizenship in this faculty. 

MW: Yes, I've been really fascinated with this partly because I have a four-year-old who will be going through school with the “cell phone in the classroom” issue. On the one hand, it's easy to say no to cell phones in the classroom. On the other hand, many teachers use them as part of the teaching pedagogy because we know we all have one and use it daily. The fact that we all have cell phones means that there’s an equality of knowledge in some sense. It’s like the first draft we’re talking about with AI.

JT: It's complex. Imagine 50 years ago if we had said “no more encyclopedias in classrooms.” Well, a phone is essentially a form of an encyclopedia for a student to access so much information at their fingertips. It's about how you are supporting students to be thoughtful and ethical users of whatever technology is at their fingertips. It happens to be cell phones right now in classrooms and maybe in 10 years’ time it will be something else. 

I have a 16-year-old daughter who is concerned about not being able to use her cell phone in class. Not because she's texting her friends, but because she uses her phone to access information, keep up with current events, and consider complex issues and topics. I would hate to see a blanket policy that universalizes an approach to cell phone use in classrooms.


What are your thoughts on the importance of equity, diversity and inclusion initiatives within the college and FoE, and how are you actively fostering a supportive and inclusive academic environment for students, faculty members and future generations?

MW: I've come to appreciate that, being the College of Social Sciences and Humanities, we have expertise on social issues that shape our society. We are on the front lines of social discussions, protecting students and faculty who might be harmed by these issues. Our college provides a supportive environment where students can explore their identities within a complex world, yet they also contend with these harmful societal messages. Similarly, our world-renowned faculty, who research these topics, sometimes face harassment due to their visibility. 

These are day-to-day realities in our college, making EDI initiatives essential. It's not about theoretical exercises or language policing, it’s not “woke,” it's about real people facing actual harm daily. This drives the projects we undertake, such as the Black Studies certificate and numerous Indigenous initiatives, responding to calls to action like the TRC and UNDRIP.

These initiatives are not generic items on a strategic plan from the dean’s office; they require specific responses from us. This is a unique challenge due to the nature of our topics. For example, the Fyrefly Institute For Gender and Sexual Diversity in our college necessitates unique sets of activities that need protection.

JT: In the FoE, we aim to ensure flourishing, equitable and sustainable futures. We are mindful that K-12 education and professional practices have often reproduced dominance. Our goal is to create different learning experiences so that future teachers, psychologists and library and information professionals can challenge the dominance that harms equity-denied members of society. 

Murray Sinclair, who was the lead commissioner for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, said, "Education got us into this mess; education will get us out of this mess." We take this very seriously in our faculty, and I would say in the college as well, focusing on social impact and transformative research.

Our college, alongside colleagues in Native Studies and other faculties, is uniquely positioned to highlight and challenge the conditions of oppression that prevent societal flourishing. There is harm done to racialized people every day, and current legislation could cost young people their lives. We push back against these issues, recognizing that these are real material experiences, not just conceptual discussions.

As Marvin mentioned, the Fyrefly Institute, alongside teachers and community members, is trying to support everybody to navigate through what we know is coming in terms of the legislation. How can we make sure that young people in schools who are gender diverse are not going to be harmed? That is what we’re here to ensure.

MW: These conversations are central to our work. As a racialized minority, I have had to make sense of leading this college where these discussions are ever-present. It’s about creating space for faculty to express their voices and research these issues, as it’s not just my conversation but one that involves many.

Bringing lived experiences into work as college dean, especially around EDI, opens up possibilities for understanding. I'm an educator who has lived experience, and I research it, and I’m being called to talk about it. It's a different set of commitments I have to wade through. Social justice and equity discussions in our college are tied to research and pedagogy. We study and live the issues, making our commitments different from other faculties. It’s not to be defended or celebrated. It’s just a true conversation that we have to have at the college.

What does "being a good educator" mean to you, and can you share a memorable moment or experience that exemplifies your own approach to education? 

MW: I taught a leadership class at ASB, one of the first MBA classes. Before I left, I taught a one-week intensive leadership class. I left and didn't think much of it. When I came back, in my announcement of returning, I had two or three former MBA students reach out. They said, “Just so you know, a group of us get together and we talk about leadership and we ask ourselves, ‘What would Marvin Washington say?’ Could we meet with you on a quarterly basis just to pick your brain?” For me, it was the equivalent of a lifetime achievement award while you're still alive.

What I want to do is meet students where they are, not push them to where I am. I think about these things every day, all the time, and I read all the leadership material I can find. But I know students are busy living life, so it's on me to take all of this knowledge and present it in a way that is useful, maintains integrity, is interesting and engaging, and then create a path for those who want to learn more.

When I think of educators, I think it’s our responsibility to do this. It's not about making students love the subject as much as we do. Few of my students will go on to get a PhD in business. They're going to live the rest of their lives, and maybe the last concept they heard was from me. What do I do with that? A good educator recognizes and is mindful of that interaction.

JT: Awesome. I have lots to say about this because I've been an educator for a long time. Being a good educator means recognizing the strengths and talents of every person that you have the privilege to be alongside, whether you're teaching a class or engaging with students in other ways. It's a strength-based approach. I also feel that we must always recognize the limitations of our own knowledge as educators and draw on the knowledge of our students to create a holistic and meaningful learning experience. I want them to be excited about what they're learning, so how do I help them connect with the content — because there's always content to teach — and how do I help affirm who they are in my class and also challenge who they think they are?

One example that has stayed with me for a long time was when I was working alongside a group of Grade 3 students — not as a classroom teacher, but as a researcher who got to be in that space for a semester doing a digital literacy project on what treaties meant to these little Grade 3 students. We were working with an Indigenous artist and knowledge keeper, Joseph Naytowhow, and we brought him into the classroom.

There was a little girl in that classroom who sat right at the front. She was Indigenous, and when Joseph drummed and sang, you could just see the joy that she took from that because what she was experiencing was an affirmation of who she was as a young girl. Then she talked about her own powwow dancing — she was a jingle dancer — and just came alive in that space. It's about helping learners to come alive in their learning in ways that are both supportive and challenging. To me, that's what it means to be a good educator.