Research and Scholarship

The Power of Collaboration During COVID

By Erin Phillippi (‘08M), JMU Research & Scholarship

R&S: You began your faculty position at JMU in May 2020.  What characteristics of the College of Education and the Department of Educational Foundations & Exceptionalities led you to choose a career at JMU?  How did you overcome the challenges of transitioning to a new department and a new home in the middle of a pandemic?

Riden: I chose to apply for the position in the EFEX Department in the College of Education for several reasons. Two that stand out were the job description and location. The department was looking for someone who has experience in the general curriculum when working with student with disabilities, and were also looking for someone who is a Board-Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) to teach in our behavior specialist program. I have the experience with the general curriculum and am a BCBA at the Doctoral level. If I am being honest I felt as though this job description was crafted for me and my skill set. The next reason I had for applying is that my family and my wife’s family live in Pennsylvania. It is not very often that someone in higher education at the assistant professor level has the opportunity to be close to home. Both of those variables in combination led me to apply for the position and I am so thankful to have landed the position.

I must say though, doing all of this during a pandemic was certainly challenging. We sold our home in Minnesota, rented a place in Penn Laird, and just recently purchased our new home, moving us into Harrisonburg, all during a pandemic. Not an easy thing to do at all, especially with a 3-year-old! My wife and I are a team and we worked through every step together to make this move happen. And we couldn’t be happier.

R&S: During the last two years, you’ve maintained productivity in your research, having eight articles published or currently accepted with peer-reviewed publications in your field. How did you balance your scholarship with your teaching and service load, especially during the pandemic? What did the College of Education do to support you during this challenging time?

Riden: Such a great question. I have to chalk my success up to having great collaborators and being passionate about my research. It has certainly been challenging at times because my wife is currently working for the Small Business Administration (at the federal level) and works 60 hours a week supporting those impacted by the pandemic – think PPP loans – and up until two weeks ago our daughter was home full-time. Balancing your research, teaching and service load is always a bit tricky. I love teaching and often find it as one of the best times of my day. Interacting with my students is refreshing and I love watching them learn. I love to conduct research as well and do my best to combine my teaching and service with my research interests. I am also a firm believer in having projects in every stage of the process. I try to have two or three things under review, two or three projects in the works, and two or three in development. This way the well never runs dry. I believe this approach has allowed me to survive the pandemic while being a good husband, father and academic.

The College of Education has been wonderful in supporting me during my first year at JMU with a reduced teaching load and my amazing colleagues and academic unit head worked very hard to protect me from too much service. I did my best to capitalize on that support. Did I mention having amazing collaborators?!? I would not be able to do a fraction of the work without a great team.

R&S: All your recent articles include one or more co-authors. Do you deliberately seek out collaboration for your scholarship and if so, why? How has COVID-19 affected your work process with your co-authors?

Riden: I rarely work alone on projects. I always seek out collaborators and typically work with the same colleagues. I do this because my colleagues are reliable, smart and efficient, as well as a wealth of knowledge. It was instilled in me a long time ago by my doctoral committee chair (Dr. JT Taylor, Penn State) that teamwork makes the dream work. Since becoming faculty at JMU, I have had the opportunity to expand my network and have several projects in the pipeline with my colleagues Dr. Sara Snyder, Dr. Joshua Pulos, Dr. Mira Williams and Dr. Tiara Brown. I also have several projects that involve our graduate students that I am extremely excited about.

COVID-19 has not impacted my work with my collaborators too much. Clearly, any applied research in schools had to be put on hold, but that is the great thing about having multiple projects going, we put the applied on hold and continued with our systematic reviews and meta-analytic work. The only other impact COVID-19 had on my research and collaboration is that things took a bit more time due to not having childcare. But my folks were completely understanding of that, and many were in the same boat.   

R&S: Your national service includes serving as associate editor of the Journal of Special Education Preparation and co-hosting the Behavior Now! podcast. Do these roles affect or refine your scholarly output? Why is it important for fellow teachers and scholars to share their research in various media, and what suggestions would you offer to a colleague looking to adapt their focus for a broader audience?

Riden: WOW! Another great question! The Journal of Special Education Preparation was started by my colleague Dr. Andy Markelz out of Ball State University. He asked me to come on board as an associate editor for the journal and I am happy to serve. We already put out our first issue on high-leverage practices earlier this summer and have another issue on DEI coming out late fall. Being the co-host of Behavior Now! with Dr. Brian Barber at Kent State University has been an absolute blast! We have the opportunity to chat with some of the best and brightest in our field. We have a new episode coming out in about a week that focuses on politics and bipartisanship in relation to education with Dr. Mitchell Yell.

As far as the importance of disseminating our work via various media is concerned, I believe it is our responsibility to do so. I can write a million papers and have them published in top tier journals but if they are not getting in the hands of those who need them, then what the heck are we doing anyway? Social media has been an amazing tool to do just this. I am fairly active on Twitter (check me out @BenRidenJMU) and share a lot of my work there. If I were to offer any suggestion about expanding reach to a broad audience, I would recommend the following things: Get on social media and post about your work. Follow others that are in the field and share their work as well. Additionally, get involved with national organizations like the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) and their subdivisions. It is a fantastic way to network and share resources.

R&S: What areas of inquiry are you currently pursuing? Are there opportunities for JMU students to participate in your research efforts? 

Riden: Currently, we have several projects underway, some of which include our JMU graduate students. A project that is nearing completion right now is a systematic literature review examining the use of eye gaze in identifying preferred stimulus. This project involves Dr. Sara Snyder and two of our JMU students. Next, I am leading a systematic review on the use of component analysis design. This work is being done with folks from Florida to New York to Indiana. This is a massive undertaking, and I do have one of my students, Colleen Fowkes, supporting this effort. Another project I am in the middle of right now is examining the use of Active Student Responding in college classrooms. One of my graduate students, Elizabeth Rich, is working with us on this project. I love conducting research with our students here at JMU!

R&S: As we shift back to more face-to-face interactions in the classroom, what should educators be thinking about regarding student behavior? How can they best support students with behavioral disorders, in addition to broadly supporting all students in the classroom community?

Riden: This is such an important question. We have all been living through an incredibly traumatizing year and a half. Certainly, some more than other. Educators at all levels need to recognize this and be prepared to support all learners when we are finally back face-to-face. This might mean having more service providers in school buildings, being vulnerable with our students and sharing our own lived experiences, and really just being a caring and sympathetic human being. Educators need to know that all students engage in behaviors (good and not so good ones) for two primary reasons, to get something and to get away/avoid something. As teachers, if we can figure out what those things are and provide an alternative and appropriate way to access or escape a thing then we are on the correct path. This coming school year, while as exciting as it may be to get back to some sort of normal, is not going to be easy for everyone. Some students and teachers will come back and everything will be fine, others (teachers and students) will have some struggles. We need to be open, honest, caring and consistent with our classroom rules and expectations. We also need to be mindful of internalizing behaviors (e.g., anxiety, depression) because these struggles are not always apparent but can spiral severely if we are not paying attention to our students. And more important than anything, be an ally for your students and build a positive rapport with them (young and old); this will go a long way in setting up a successful 2021-22 school year.

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Published: Friday, October 15, 2021

Last Updated: Thursday, October 21, 2021

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