Meet Our New Faculty: Sociology’s Alanna Gillis Harnesses Student Perspectives to Promote Inclusivity | St. Lawrence University

Meet Our New Faculty: Sociology’s Alanna Gillis Harnesses Student Perspectives to Promote Inclusivity

When it comes to teaching, Assistant Professor of Sociology Alanna Gillis strives to see through her students’ eyes. She’s passionate about identifying inequalities in higher education to design more inclusive curricula. 

“Most Americans view higher education as a pathway for opportunity, but a lot of social science research shows that students face different barriers to equal access,” she says. “One of the things that I try to understand is, from a student's perspective, how are they navigating through college? What sort of barriers are they facing? If we can identify these barriers… then we can work to address them and make higher education live up to the ideal that we all have for it.” 

The COVID-19 pandemic magnified these barriers when it forced an abrupt transition to remote learning for college students across the country. Gillis and a former colleague were curious about student perceptions of the switch. 

“Almost everyone in the higher education community went through the same problem in the spring where courses that had been face-to-face suddenly had to be online with almost no notice and no training,” Gillis says. “I collected research on how the transition went in my class and worked with a colleague to see how it went in her class. Students compared how the transition went in their other courses so we could analyze from the student's perspective what was effective for their learning, what was accessible, what was enjoyable, but also what barriers they faced.”

Their findings, published in Teaching Sociology, reveal practical insights professors can use to enhance the remote learning experience and make it as rewarding as possible for their students.

“We found that generally the most effective approach was a high amount of structure, but also quite a bit of flexibility built in. Your students need that structure to know what to expect in order to thrive, but they still need the flexibility that comes with the fact that their internet might not be stable, or they might have some sort of family crisis, or they might be responsible for helping watch their younger siblings,” says Gillis. 

She and her colleague also found that remote teaching is not a one-size-fits-all approach, and just because something works well for one professor, doesn’t necessarily mean it will be effective for another. 

As one of St. Lawrence’s newest tenure-track faculty members, her first semester as a professor at St. Lawrence is unlike any new professor’s before her. She says her research findings empower her to foster a more productive and effective learning environment for her students—one that provides more opportunities to connect with one another. 

“In my online course, I used a lot of the things that did work [last semester] and got rid of the things that didn’t,” Gillis says. “On Tuesdays, we all meet together as a live Zoom class where we have breakout rooms and small group discussions. On Thursdays, students meet with their small groups at a time that works well for them. The assumption is that they'll meet during class time if they want to, but they could meet later in the afternoon or even on Friday if they want to. And then they go through a lesson plan that I designed. I found that to be effective in the spring in the study. Students report that it's their favorite part of class now.”

Gillis has a little over a month of teaching at St. Lawrence under her belt. She moved to the area after earning her Ph.D. in sociology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in May 2020. Now in the midst of her first fall in the North Country, she’s taking advantage of the University’s proximity to the Adirondacks and limitless access to the great outdoors.

“I was really excited when I got the interview and offer at St. Lawrence because I love spending my time outdoors and doing different athletic activities,” she says. “I’ve found people here to be so active and so friendly that I've already been able to find different workout buddies to go running with on the St. Lawrence track in the mornings, or cycling throughout some of the rural communities in the county. It’s just a beautiful place to be with such friendly and welcoming people.”

She says she’s also invigorated by the conversations she’s having with students and the passion they bring to the classroom as they work together to overcome some of the challenges of remote learning. 

“I have found that the students are incredibly excited to be here. They've been willing to work through the technology problems that sometimes come up,” says Gillis. “It’s been a much more engaging semester than I had feared it would be. I feared that I would have to do a lot more to try to incentivize students to participate in class and continue to engage in assignments, but the students are excited to be doing that work.”