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Jenny Baker
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Pop Psychology Book Club, Episode Four: Mainstream Media in The Classroom With Prof. Sabrina Volpone

Carrie Ott-Holland

Welcome back to Pop Psychology Book Club! Hopefully, you’ve been enjoying this themed issue on I-O psychology in the classroom. Instead of featuring a popular press book, for this issue I interviewed esteemed DEI researcher and instructor at the CU Boulder Leeds School of Business, Sabrina Volpone. We talked about how she approaches and uses outside media in the courses she teaches—the topic of a chapter she’s coauthored in the forthcoming book Championing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion: Effective Strategies to Lead, Teach, and Consult Across Disciplines and Demographics. I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I did!

COH: As you know, this column looks at what and how I-Os can draw from the popular press, both to reinforce and expand our professional messaging. It’s also an opportunity to study the cultural context surrounding management research. When you think about the students you teach, what’s the cultural context they’re bringing to the classroom?

SV: When I’m teaching classes with I-O content such as organizational behavior, typically to sophomore business majors, their idea of management is sometimes inaccurate when they start the course. For example, some students have limited work experience, so their ideas of workplace relationships come from TV shows like The Office or Succession. Other students, even those with work experience, may know only about the leadership styles of CEOs in the press, like Tim Cook or Elon Musk. Examining popular examples of workplaces and leaders in a way that is consistent with psychology and management theories has become an important goal so that I can meet students where they are when they enter the class.

More generally, undergrads heavily reference their parents as a guide for understanding things like: What relationships should I have with leaders at work? What should I expect from leaders in the workplace? To what extent should I trust my employer and manager? That’s an influential cultural context that is also important to consider.

MBAs tend to be more experienced in the management context that they bring to the classroom. Yet, some students can sometimes come in with deep knowledge of their job function but more narrow expertise around applying I-O and OB topics. For example, if someone was an accounting major, they probably have developed a nuanced understanding of accounting through their degree and then their experience at their organization through their accounting-based work. When they take an elective like leadership or diversity during their MBA coursework, they’re encouraged to consider: Why might leaders be making decisions in a certain way, and how does this impact their view of my work in the accounting department? How do we think about diversity not just within our organization but also within a societal context? How does this impact my work as an accountant?

These questions require the student to think about their work beyond their specific domain. When individual contributors broaden their perspective of how the world works and how that connects to the work they do, they can increase their organizational impact. This applies to leadership or diversity along with a number of I-O, psychology, and management concepts.

COH: How do you find stories or case studies to bring into your teaching? Do you ever reference popular press books to help introduce a topic?

SV: When I teach my diversity class, students are allowed to pick their own “textbook.”  They get to pick from a list of 25 popular press books covering different aspects of diversity. Some books are memoirs, like Autism in Heels, which looks at the intersection of gender and neurodiversity, or autobiographies like Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime, but most are data-driven books such as Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men.

Once they pick a book, they’re assigned to a book club with other class members. Students with similar books (e.g., race, LGBTQ+ experiences) get matched, and they meet four times throughout the semester to discuss connections between the books and course topics. At the end of the course, they have a group book report assignment where they talk about the experience of being in the book club.

Different books resonate with different people—some people want facts, whereas some people learn better through exposure to another’s story. This assignment allows students to read something that interests them personally, based on where they are in their life journey. They’re able to make connections that aren’t possible from just reading a textbook. It also enriches their thinking and helps them talk about sensitive diversity topics without having to center the conversation around themselves.

COH: I imagine when you’re teaching a diversity course in particular, current events are constantly inserting themselves into the classroom.

SV: Yes, there are many times when diversity-related headlines—legal decisions or movements that are having a societal-level impact—will get media attention right before your class starts, and it can be really disruptive to the class plans you had in place. Students want to talk about these things—how the issues pertain to their life, their future career, and so on. But there is a need to balance the discussion of breaking news with planned class content, like the theory and case studies that we need to get through. The trick is to position the breaking news story alongside the planned content, and this can take some shifting in the moment as a professor.

To make things more complicated, you have students who are at different stages of personal maturity and have different lived experiences. For example, after the murder of George Floyd, many students had never talked about racism and police brutality with this type of depth in the classroom. Additionally, for some students, the fact that people were watching the video of this murder was traumatizing, and it was triggering to be asked to discuss this event. It’s hard to bring in current events and do service to the topic while being mindful of these different student groups and trying to support everyone simultaneously when they are all at different stages in their understanding of the topics at hand.

Ultimately, I’ve found it helpful to address current events, especially when students want to interact with headlines, but it is essential to connect headlines to the course objectives. Therefore, as an instructor, I am careful to integrate current events strategically, as I find breaking news has an influence on course time.

COH: I’m looking forward to reading your book chapter! Thank you again for speaking with me today.

SV: Thank you!

That’s a wrap! You can check out Sabrina’s forthcoming chapter on breaking news in the classroom:

Volpone, S. D., Decker, M., & Reed, R., & Sevilla, M. (in press). When breaking news breaks class plans: Navigating class discussions when diversity topics are in the news. In O. Holmes, IV (Ed.). Championing diversity, equity, and inclusion: Effective strategies to lead, teach, and consult across disciplines and demographics. Palgrave Macmillan Publishing.

You can also visit her lab’s website at https://diidmgmtresearchlab.com/.

I’ll be on leave for the next two quarters and wish everyone a wonderful 2024. Until next time!

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