Interview with Professor Kate Dugan of Northwestern University
Professor Kate Dugan used Yellowdig for her Introduction to Christianity course at Northwestern University. Her research interests include religious experiences, women in religion and the intersection between religion and American culture.
On her experiences with Yellowdig:
The context was Introduction to Christianity, which is a massive course in terms of studying 2000 years of history in 9 weeks, so that’s a big task. And the class had originally been capped at around 15 students, but it ballooned up to about 45 students. So all of a sudden, I had a very different teaching context and I had planned a lot of student engagement.
So [with] Yellowdig, my goal for it was twofold. It was [a means] to give me a way to engage with 45 students and to help students think about the contemporary resonances-- where does Christianity still matter? So what they had to post were news articles about Christianity in contemporary life. And as you saw, there is a lot of focus on Christianity in the United States. And then, they also had to comment on another student’s post each week, which they reported doing because it was graded, but they did a good job of getting into it, for the most part.
On the importance of TA’s on Yellowdig:
My TA was amazing and had a separate Excel sheet, so twice during the quarter, she clicked on each student’s name to see if they had posted and commented each week. She did get in and start commenting [in Yellowdig] and you could tell-- when she was commenting and when I was commenting-- students got more engaged. We started [tagging] students and so it would lead to particular engagement about a topic, where my TA had been participating.
Some interesting Yellowdig discussions:
So the course happened during this crazy election cycle and so one of the most engaging off-and-on conversations was whether Donald Trump is an Evangelical Christian. And so there would be sporadic posts about that throughout the quarter and that would inspire lots of conversation.
One of the surprising things my TA, Hannah, started to notice was that a lot of my students would post things from sources like Christianity Today or other denominationally affiliated Christian sources. So I took a great opportunity in class on [talking about] how to find reputed sources. I mean Christianity Today is fine, but we were looking for stories in the New York Times or other mainstream media outlets. It was a great opportunity to talk about how you read the news.
And another thing is-- there were topics that I would not have expected to lecture on, but because they came up on Yellowdig I incorporated them into my lectures. For example, the Zika virus happened during that quarter and there were a lot of religious responses to the Zika virus, especially Catholic ones. And I wouldn’t have necessarily talked about that, but the Pope’s response to the Zika virus made it into my lectures because of Yellowdig.
On how Yellowdig was integrated into the course:
The thing that Hannah did really nicely was that-- when people were posting articles about atheism or Christian persecution, she would be very careful to make a connection to something that happened in class. We could have done more to draw connections between Yellowdig and what was happening in class, but to the extent that it was an experiment and only counted for 5% of students grades, I think it felt more integrated that I would have expected it to feel.
If I could do it again, one of the things I would do is more closely align the assignments-- like when I was lecturing on the crusades, I would have made a more explicit Yellowdig prompt. If I wanted Yellowdig to be a more significant part of the course, I would more closely tie it with the lecture: So, if we’re talking about the crusades--what are some contemporary resonances of the crusades?
On teaching millennials:
One of the things that’s hard to do with millennials perhaps is to get them to disagree or have arguments about things in sections or in discussions and seminars. And Hannah noted that Yellowdig was a place where people disagreed, respectfully and appropriately. But it was finally a place-- you know they would [say]: “No, Donald Trump is not an Evangelical” or “Yeah, he is”.
Also, this was the second time that I have taught such a large course, and I felt like I got to know students much quicker with Yellowdig. And Hannah and I noted [through Yellowdig] that there were more practicing Christian students in the class than I ever would have expected-- stuff like that. And, as I started to get to know students, I could have chit-chatty conversations, like, “Hey, I noticed you posted something about the Pope. What do you think about this…” So those sort of meaningful yet informal ways of getting to know students, it definitely improved my connection with students.
I use the app. The Yellowdig [mobile] app is really nice. I didn’t want to devote chunks of my day to Yellowdig but I could use it while I was walking to campus. I could just log in and see what students were up to.
On virtual office hours:
I’ve felt that virtual office hours are a good idea because you can have them at a time when students are actually doing their homework, like at 9 o’clock at night-- but they are not going to call you. So, a chat room where I can be available to chat about homework. Something easy to do like that would be cool.