Flexibility in a fast changing world

The importance of the humanities, addressed by Dan Edelstein in this publication, reminded me of a couple of articles I had come across before on “Why Top Tech CEOs Want Employees with Liberal Arts Degrees” and “How Studying Philosophy Led Me to the Executive Suite“. A couple of quotes that stood out for me from the first one of these two was: “It’s a horrible irony that at the very moment the world has become more complex, we’re encouraging our young people to be highly specialized in one task. We are doing a disservice to young people by telling them that life is a straight path. The liberal arts are still relevant because they prepare students to be flexible and adaptable to changing circumstances.” and “…the liberal arts train students to thrive in subjectivity and ambiguity, a necessary skill in the tech world where few things are black and white.”

It can also be expanded to the irony that the main fields that are changing at a faster pace than any other, those related to science and technology, are following the same outdated educational system where students are being forced to comply to a predetermined set of rules and provide a predetermined set of answers. This instills the notion that they should be looking for the “right” answer instead of considering a broad range of options, and their implications, which seems to be closer to what they will be faced with out in “the real world”. People with a background in humanities are considered to be better suited to adapt to fast and drastic changes without being thrown off or paralyzed by them. Proof of this should be shared with teachers at all levels of the academy, especially those in STEM fields which seem to be some of the biggest opponents to humanities as part of their curricula. In their quest for all things technical (since everything else is perceived as a waste of time), STEM educational programs can be generating less critical-thinkers/problem-solvers and more oompa loompas.

On the piece by Parker Palmer on the “New Professional“, the author refers to educators avoiding recognizing their students as human beings with their own set of emotions. I kept thinking about how this behavior would translate for underrepresented minorities in any field and their relationships with their mentors and educators. If educators don’t want to engage with their students on a deeper or even personal level, it can make them less equipped to understand and effectively communicate with students from different backgrounds to their own. When colleges and universities start pushing for an increase in admissions for underrepresented minorities without proper training to the faculty and administrators who will be key players in their education, it can be a disservice to these students where the people and resources at their disposal do not meet their particular needs. It seems that programs receive both pressure and incentives to increasing diversity without proper training on how to best manage this new landscape in higher education.

Should there be an age requirement for the use of technology? A time limit?

I think we have discussed and agreed about all the benefits technology can provide in terms of access to large amounts of information in little to no time. It can also connect us to friends and relatives who are far away. But as with everything else, it needs to be used responsibly. Going through the reading assignments I kept thinking about this issue in terms of how different generations use technology. In Carr’s piece he presents the notion of our brains being rewired by the way we use and relate to technology, mainly the internet. Even though I do see the point of habituation to receiving information as headlines and snippets of writing as a problem long-term if it translates to us not being able to focus on a particular subject long enough to truly immerse in it and create new ideas of our own, I agree with one of the comments on the piece that as adults with more knowledge on the importance of certain activities (e.g. reading literary works) and their consequences, either positive or negative, we have more control over making the right choices. We can choose a healthy balance of reading information online and immersing ourselves in books the old-fashioned way. My concern is directed at young children and how they interact with technology.

I was able to go home over spring break and spend time with my family. I was a little shocked to see how much my niece and nephew have grown but even more shocked when I saw the change in their behavior when given a cell phone or tablet. My niece is six years old and my nephew is two years old; they are both usually very active, always running around while playing, but once they were handed one of these devices the change was almost 180 degrees. It was as if they came with a dose of sedatives as well; they were glued to the screens, almost unresponsive.

I get the benefit or “break” the parents might get from having their otherwise energetic kids be slowed or calmed down by these devices. But what are the lingering consequences of too much indulgence in these types of entertainment? Especially at such a young age when the brain and motor functions are being developed constantly by every interaction with the world around them. I believe Steve Jobs was quoted saying that he would restrict the use of technology by his own children. Even someone who dedicated most of his life to the development and continuous improvement of technology, saw the importance of limiting the use of these devices, of using them responsibly. I don’t know if his concern was more targeted to a specific age range or to the total amount of time any individual is engaged with their electronic devices in a day. Maybe we should consider both. Since technology is moving at a much faster rate than we can properly process or assess its effects, we definitely have an increased responsibility on how we allow kids to interact with this digital media.

Curiosity requires moral courage

This week’s readings on critical pedagogy and the different interactions between students and teachers reminded me of an article by Don Peppers titled “Curiosity is an Act of Rebellion“. Like Paulo Freire, he also argues for the importance of curiosity as a moral obligation. Engagement can only be achieved through independence of the mind, not passive reception of information. It seems like the standard of education favors the authoritarian and paternalistic models where everything flows in a unidirectional manner from the top of the pyramid of power, down to everyone else below. And as Freire once stated: “Education as the exercise of domination stimulates the credulity of students, with the ideological intent (often not perceived by educators) of indoctrinating them to adapt to the world of oppression.” These models are kept in place by discouraging curiosity which, as an act of rebellion, can often involve the critique and questioning of the status quo.

“… shake the certainty of teachers…” I think this is at the root of the problem. As a society, we have placed so much pressure on always getting things right, avoiding “failure”, or avoiding being wrong, that we perpetuate this fear by trying to prevent any form of dissent or disagreement. Despite all the data pointing to the great value in disagreement as a means to innovation and progress, somehow most areas across the political, religious, and scientific platforms still opt for a model of dominance at their core. Maybe a way to move past all this is by celebrating the “failures” and cultivating humility. In Freire’s words “only through communication can human life hold meaning” and “dialogue cannot exist without humility”.

Stereotypes and The Double Negative that Does Not Make a Positive

This week’s reading assignments hit really close to home for me. The chapters from the book on “How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do” by Claude Steele resonated with me from my own experiences as a Hispanic/Latino female student in engineering. The “stereotype threat” I have experienced has been, by far, strongest during my graduate degree at Virginia Tech. Even though my undergraduate degree was also in engineering and I had some of the stereotypical experiences of someone who identifies as a woman in this “male-dominated field”, these experiences were no challenge compared to my time in graduate school. Naturally, there are stark differences between the schools and within the specific departments when it comes to race/ethnic diversity. Florida International University, my undergraduate institution, has a student body comprised in its majority by Hispanics/Latinos (66.9%) compared to the 5.3% of the population for Virginia Tech (3.3% of the total graduate students). I don’t have the specific numbers for the department but it follows a similar trend for FIU which has an undergraduate and graduate program in my field, compared to the sole graduate program at VT where the total number of Hispanics has been fluctuating between 1 and 2 during my time here.

I realize that my experience was made even more unique by my citizenship status. I am a naturalized citizen and I moved to the U.S. after my high school graduation which, in that sense, makes my experience more similar to that of international students. But since my legal status was that of “citizen”, I did not receive as many opportunities to interact with groups of people with whom I would have probably found a higher affinity based on our backgrounds. I was left out of the school’s targeted notices about certain events and the notices I did come across, which specifically stated “for international students”, I excluded myself following my identification as a citizen. This all meant that my social network, for a period of time during my graduate career, was confined to my specific school program in which I felt like I was a minority of one as a Hispanic woman who moved to the U.S. in her late teens. Add to the mix that my physical appearance clearly wears those labels “Latina” “woman” “short”, that I have English as a second language and an accent that proves it; and you get a recipe for strong feelings that “you do not belong”.

In one of the chapters of the book by Steele mentioned above, the following footnote appears as the authors comments whether to make women and minorities aware of the “stereotype threat” they might face at different stages of their life, or even all throughout:

I would argue that there is value in making people aware of the potential situations that might trigger feelings of inadequacy in these target populations. Looking back at my experience in Blacksburg during my first few years at Virginia Tech, I keep thinking about how different my reaction to encountering certain feelings could have been, had I been made aware beforehand of all the stereotypes I was carrying with me and the role they could play in my career. And I definitely agree with the author that it would be even more important to equip people with the tools to mitigate the negative feelings that eventually drive certain populations away from STEM fields. I didn’t know that some of the experiences I have had were “textbook” microaggressions towards women in my field until I saw them play out in videos and read them in stories that clearly identified them as such. I once thought that those attitudes were particular to the characters in my story and that my feelings were only my own. The awareness of a more general problem and the specific framework for it marks the first step in being able to properly address it.

The fight worth fighting

I really enjoyed all the reading assignments for this week and the video on Digital Media – New Learners of the 21st Century. They have given me a renewed energy on education and learning, a renewed interest in getting involved in the fight against standardization of the educational system towards a system that embraces change and is ultimately centered around the learner.

Through conversations with some of my colleagues, oftentimes what some express as the reasons not to go into academia involve the frustrations with the current state of education and how much it has been influenced by politics and a previous cultural setting to adopt an industrial model. But instead of feeling discouraged by the status quo, we should feel empowered and even more motivated to join “the fight worth fighting” as one educator referred to it in the video. It was very inspiring to see all the educators, from different parts of the country, come up with creative and engaging ways of teaching their subjects. I particularly liked the project Reacting to the Past presented in the article by Mark C. Carnes which teaches history through role playing and allows them to develop it and experience it by themselves. This would certainly equip students with a long-term understanding of the deeper issues instead of being asked to temporarily remember certain facts and dates. The article paid tribute to its title by setting my mind on fire. It got me thinking about how such a creative approach could be adopted in some of the subjects related to my field or even how I could better communicate what I do to a broad audience; I think that to this day, a few members of my family still do not quite understand what I do.

Lastly, the book by James Paul Gee on “What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy” sparked my interest not only to read the rest of the book beyond the introduction chapter provided, but also to play some video games again. I used to play video games in different consoles growing up (I shared one with my sister, and we used to play at our friends’ and cousins’ as well) and some of the best memories of spending time together with friends and family involved video games. Now that I have read all the positive effects it can have on mental agility and how maybe one day doctors will prescribe video games instead of pills to treat certain disorders, it makes me even more inclined to play them again. Dr. Adam Gazzaley has given a few talks and interviews on his research using video games to improve brain health which seems pretty compelling.

Increase in quantity at the expense of decrease in quality

I was also unaware of the changes proposed by ABET on their accreditation assessments of engineering programs. The essay titled “We Assess What We Value” successfully captures, in my opinion, the detrimental consequences that such changes would undoubtedly bring to the educational experience of engineers. If anything, I always thought that requirements that included a “global and social context, engineering ethics, and lifelong learning” as part of the engineering curriculum needed to be strengthened. Actually as I write this I’m thinking maybe not always thought because I don’t recall feeling this strongly about it when I was an undergraduate student myself but certainly during my time in graduate school and the more I contemplate the subject.

There is definitely a pervasive thinking that the more ‘technical’ a degree’s curriculum is, the farther removed it is to people and the less attention needs to be given to the ‘human’ element in all its forms. This trend can be seen even within the different branches of engineering where more emphasis on “ethics” as established coursework is assigned for the biomedical field (where it is easy for most people to see a direct connection between their work and its impact on humans) than some of the other engineering disciplines.

Another negative result that can be attributed to this “outcome-based education” system that focuses on quantifying and rewarding accordingly, is the information overload in the scientific literature. It seems that academia is currently working in a system that rewards quantity over quality. Scientists are graded (by colleagues, peers, and superiors) by the number of citations they have under their name which–much like individuals attribute their ‘value’ or ‘relevance’ based on the number of ‘likes’ they get on any social media platform–can be unfairly skewed based on the size of the audience it reaches and the nature of these relationships. This assessment method can drive a system that undercuts the quality and depth of research in exchange for fast results that increase the number of publications, and might encourage other forms of unethical behavior. And similarly to the effect it has on students’ satisfaction and intrinsic motivation to learn, they can result in loss of enjoyment for the profession.

People: the more you expect, the more you get

I realize the title statement isn’t always the case. Sometimes the more you expect, the more you get disappointed or the more you expect, the more pressure you apply which could lead to a negative result.

But I am referring to the positive outcomes that result from people who have the fortune to have someone who believes in them and expects them to do better and eventually master a certain skill. Sir Ken Robinson mentions it in his TED talk when he says “there are conditions under which people thrive, and conditions under which they don’t”. Oftentimes we see students who drop out, as people who are giving up, instead of considering that for them it may be deciding to leave a system that has given up on them. I read an article on how Teacher’s Expectations Can Influence How Students Perform which led me to reevaluate my school years (primary to high school) and the role that my teachers’, classmates’, and my parents’ expectations of me played in my overall performance. I was at the top of my class and I do remember feeling a sense of responsibility to maintain the high level of achievement that was expected of me. In contrast, some of my friends who did not receive this kind of support and expectation from our teachers or their parents, felt very disengaged during classes and were not motivated to do the work assigned for after school either. Fast forward a few years to my move to Virginia to attend graduate school where I was perceived very differently based on my gender and ethnicity and confronted with the idea of whether that has an effect on my capabilities. I am still discovering how or if that kind of questioning affected or affects my performance. While revisiting all this, it also made me question what happens first: does the expectation lead a student to do well? or is a student who performs well early on then expected to continue on the same path? How strong is the impact of external factors such as other people’s perceptions on your capabilities?

In the study mentioned in the article above, they suggest that a change in teachers’ behaviors can also lead to a change in their expectations which in turn affects their students’ performance. This seems to emphasize what Sir Ken Robinson mentioned about the importance of increasing the support and professional development of teachers in the United States if we hope to decrease the drop-out numbers and increase a sense of satisfaction through education and learning. By implementing what Ellen J. Langer calls mindful learning, there seems to be a shift in the focus from the information at hand back to the individual–the person doing the learning as well as the one facilitating it. It all comes back to the people, but people are very diverse. Therefore, too much standardization can leave out great numbers of students to our collective disadvantage where we are all deprived of their individual talents.

Networked Learning – a new challenge for introverts?

I have read all the articles and have been a part of the dialogue around the importance of blogging and its impact on higher education. The more I read others’ thoughts and comments about it, the more I agree with all the positive outcomes that can from it. Yet as a shy, introverted, empathic person, I sometimes find it difficult to engage in public discourse even when it is done digitally. As an exercise in getting out of my comfort zone and facing my own fears, these are often times the same reasons I use to put myself in situations that force me to engage with others (whether it is by attending large social gatherings or by taking courses that require blogging and active participation). I do it also because I see the importance in learning how to control my emotions and be able to comfortably engage with others. I want to get better at this so I can incorporate it into my teaching and be able to pass on advice from experience to others who might relate to this.

I particularly enjoyed the post by Tim Hitchcock in which he emphasizes sticking to your own voice and staying true to your identity while blogging. I wonder how that would translate for students in different age groups and from diverse backgrounds, and how this increased connectedness and almost constant engagement affects their definition or awareness of their true identity.

In this digital age of social media and information overload, it is also imperative that we equip students with the critical thinking needed to adequately parse and filter information. I believe this will become the main task of educators, it will no longer be the unidirectional transfer of information since the information is ready available to everyone, but rather developing their students’ critical thinking skills by encouraging them to pose questions and engaging in an open dialogue. The article by Gardner Campbell discusses some of this where scholars in education have been arguing for a shift in teaching techniques for a long time with little or very slow response into actual implementation of new methods.

Less gossip and more camaraderie in academia

“Be kind; everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle” – Ian Maclaren

I have been thinking about a topic shared by Dean DePauw on “Academic bullying”. Most of the articles I encountered on this topic address the issue of professors bullying graduate students but what about bullying between graduate students? You would think we would all try to have each other’s backs since we can easily empathized with one and another as we all go through some of the same hardships during our time in graduate school, but experience tells me this isn’t always the case. I think it varies a lot between departments but for those with a strong competitive mentality, I think cases of graduate students going after each other are a bit more common (mostly for people within the same discipline who see each other as competition). We are all under a lot of pressure but sometimes people try to use others to feel better about themselves. This can happen as gossip, talking about someone behind their back and painting a negative image of them on somebody else’s mind.  Some people advocate for the “power of perception” as an important part of success; if this is also the case in academia, there could be real damage made on somebody’s career just by creating a negative image of them.

Hopefully people become more aware of the fact that when someone engages in toxic conversation about somebody else, it says more about them and who they are, than it does about the person they are talking about. We should take every comment with a grain of salt and realize that all these comments come with a hidden bias (or hidden intent); we should give everyone the benefit of the doubt and make up our minds about something or someone on our own. Another great option would be to shut down negative comments and stand up for the person who is being attacked without being given the option to defend themselves or give their side of the story. We should keep in mind that “silence is complicity”.

We can build better working environments with a smooth pathway to collaboration by fostering camaraderie and fellowship among graduate students. This can also be extended to relationships between faculty and administrators which would improve the working environment in the department as a whole.

Fear of conflict: can we make real progress if we don’t dare to disagree?

This post is inspired by one of my favorite talks by Margaret Heffernan (she has given a few TED talks and they are all great!) titled “Dare to disagree”. She explains how most people tend to avoid conflict but highlights the importance of disagreement in order for real progress to take place.

Disagreement is particularly important in successful research teams; open conversation should be encouraged and ideas should be challenged in order to drive strong and meaningful results. Even though this seems very intuitively the best scenario for creativity and innovation to direct research, I think research collaborations have been moving away from this model because of people’s inflated egos, the fear of being wrong, fear of damaging their popularity among peers, and fear of standing up to authority, among others. Sometimes it feels that the system has applied so much pressure on scientists, faculty, and graduate students that everyone’s insecurities have come to the forefront and have started to drive their actions and comments or the lack thereof.

In my case, I think my confidence was lowered when I started graduate school and one of the effects of this was my increased quietness. Moving to Blacksburg, Virginia to start a PhD program was a very VERY BIG change for me. I lived at home during my undergrad so this was my first time leaving home. Moving from a big city like Miami, FL with lots of diversity to a small town like Blacksburg where 80% of the population identifies as white, was also a big difference for me. I remember saying that for the first time in my life I was actually experiencing what it meant to be a minority. I became very aware of my accent as a result of other people’s comments; the difference in culture and of course the difference in looks also became apparent. I was having to get used to all these changes and looking for a way to adapt to my new environment while struggling with feelings more commonly referred to as “impostor syndrome”. Even though throughout my life I have always felt like I don’t quite “fit in”, I had never felt so “out of place” as when I moved to Blacksburg to start a PhD at Virginia Tech. All of these feelings contributed to me not feeling comfortable enough to speak up during meetings or as part of class participation. Once everyone around me started seeing me and describing me as very quiet and shy, it became even harder to get out of it and make changes to correct this. Maybe this goes back to the power of perception? (more on that later…)

There were a few times when I was sitting in class or meetings and wanted to say something but would end up thinking about it and waiting for too long until the opportunity had passed me by. Then the same thing I was thinking would come up and it would turn out to be true or correct and this would be very frustrating for me since I would become aware of the time we could have saved if I had decided to speak up, and since I would miss the opportunity to make an important contribution to the conversation. I became more aware of the improvement I needed to make in this area and have started practicing speaking up more often and to do it when I think of it instead of waiting too long. It will probably be an on-going process for me.

The fear of speaking up can come from different origins for everyone. This is why it is so important for institutions of higher education to foster an environment where everyone feels comfortable to speak up and contribute. Imagine the impact it could have on accelerating progress and driving innovation if everyone shared their thoughts and challenged one another. Academic research in particular should be a place with less ego and insecurities, and with more humility and open-mindedness.