Why Ahmed wasn’t invited to a liberal arts University?

There has been a lot of discussion in the media about Ahmed Mohamed, a boy in high school that was taken to jail by the police for showing a professor a clock he claimed to build.

Controversy has increased in social networks regarding if the boy actually designed the clock or not. However, I think debating over whether he made the clock or not is missing the point. For me, there are two things to discuss regarding what happened.

First, there is a clear act of racism in the way Ahmed was treated. His teacher shouldn’t make a big deal of what he brought to school, I don’t think other kids with different races would be in the same situation for doing something like that. Also, the Police didn’t treat the situation as if it were actually a bomb (a lot of articles about it online), even one of the policemen said they knew for sure it wasn’t a bomb, but they took him handcuffed anyway, showing that it wasn’t treated fairly.

Since this happened, Ahmed has received also a lot of support on the media and specially on twitter. He has received invitations from president Obama to visit the White House, from Mark Zuckerberg to visit Facebook, and also from different technical universities like MIT. Even our president invited him to come to Virginia Tech. I think is great all the support and coverage that Ahmed has received, however this brings my second argument.

The second problem that I have with Ahmed’s situation is not only the stereotype that they assume regarding the way he looks, but the assumed stereotype regarding the way he thinks. Because he was able to build (or assemble) a clock, everyone assumes that he needs to be in science or engineering. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying by any means that he shouldn’t be in engineering, instead, my problem is with the stereotype of the engineering profession.

One of the biggest problems that we have in engineering schools to attract and retain diverse populations of students has to do with the feeling that some highschool students from minorities have regarding what engineering is. They are taught that engineering is for people that excel in math, that played with legos and liked circuits since they were kids, and that had the desire to apply hard science to design stuff. This might be partially true, however, it’s not an indispensable requirement to be able to graduate from an engineering school. In fact, I believe that if we stop stereotyping the engineering profession and changing the way the discipline is perceived, more people will want to come to engineering schools, making engineering classrooms more diverse and as a consequence increasing innovation, teamwork, and leadership in future engineers for being able to understand different perspectives and provide solutions that consider everyone.

Back to Ahmed’s situation, wouldn’t it be great if he also were receiving support to visit liberal arts schools? The fact that he is building a clock doesn’t demonstrate that he can be critical thinker, creative, innovator, and able to solve problems. Isn’t that what is expected from students in most of the disciplines besides the technical knowledge of the discipline?

Ahmed can turn into a great engineer, but he can also turn into a great writer, musician, professor, or even a doctor.

I hope we stop stereotyping people for the way they look, but also for the way they think.

 

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The importance of symbols and cultural artifacts

I was watching a video about the use (or misuse) of the Confederate flag, especially here in Virginia. Since I was born and raised in Venezuela, I’m not familiar with the history in the United States, so it took me a while to do my research and get contextualized regarding the meaning of the Confederate flag, that for sure it’s very controversial.

Again, since I’m not citizen of the United States, I don’t want to make a strong opinion on this matter, instead I would like to talk about my experiences with cultural artifacts, and the powerful meaning that symbols can have in the development of a culture.

I spend some years doing research on Institutional culture at my hometown university (UNET). I started with the research because there were things that always caught my attention at that institution and no one was able to explain them to me. For example, UNET is a small university, the campus is conformed by 4 big buildings, 3 of them are academic buildings, and one is an administrative building. One of the things that I noticed when I started there as an undergraduate was that in the 3 academic buildings, there were no trash cans in the entire building. For me that was concerning, I couldn’t understand how in the most important University in southwestern Venezuela there were no trash cans. When I started doing my research about institutional culture in my University, most of the things took me back to institutional values. The people in the University acted according to the values that the institution has. When I went looking for the origin of the values I found that most of the institutional values at UNET came from his founding Rector Dr. Lorenzo Monroy. Since he was the first leader the institution had, he decided to use his personal values as the institution’s values. One thing that most of the people don’t know about him is that he was a clean freak. He took about 6 showers a day, he washed his hands every 20 minutes, and he changes three or four times clothes every single day. When he created the academic buildings at UNET he purposefully didn’t put any trash cans in the building because he argued that people in Academia wasn’t supposed to produce filth or dirt, he used to say that Academics could only produce knowledge.

What impresses me the most is that 60 years later, there are still no trash cans in the building, and people never ask why, they just adapt to the institutional culture and see things attached to a culture as “normal” even if they are not. We have a say in Spanish that is “a donde fueres haz lo que vieres” that I believe in English is used as “when in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Cultural artifacts and symbols are very powerful since they can dictate what is adequate in a particular culture, even if is not making any common sense.

The confederate flag despite its origin and initial meaning is directly related to racism, and that is something we can’t deny. Therefore, I think that is really important that measures are created to minimize its use despite the debate on it, because since is a cultural artifact, even for people that is not racist, they might be accepting racism at a subconscious level.

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Microaggressions on Latinos

I have been reading about microaggressions lately. It refers to covert forms of racism that reflect on people’s judgments based on race, gender, or ethnicity. I found an interesting article about the microaggressions on latinos:

http://psychologybenefits.org/2013/09/26/how-latinos-experience-subtle-racism/

I would also like to add some of the microaggressions that I face regularly:

1. Always being compared with other Latino students. In different courses and in my department some time people try to tell me how good I am doing in my course/program, and when they do they compare me with other Latino students, rather than to the general student population.

2. Went to have dinner in a restaurant the other night, I had a reservation, however something happened and they were late giving me a table. Someone from the restaurant came to apologize and said “I will have them make you guys (me and other latino’s friends) something special” when the free appetizer came he said “I made it extra spicy because I thought you guys will like it.” The only Latin-american country where food is typically spicy is Mexico. In our table I was the only one able to eat that appetizer (since I always have loved spicy food).

3. Met a graduate student from California, he told me “finally we have someone in our department that will help me find the best tacos in town.” Again Tacos=Mexico, we don’t have tacos (or similar) in Venezuela.

4. I think this one is the worst one, a lot of people think that having worked in an University for several years doesn’t compare to have a job at a University in the U.S. They immediately assume that teaching in Latin-america is under precarious conditions. When I mention that I was already tenured back home the response I expect is “so bad that you need to go through the process again”, the response I got instead is “this time you will face the real process”

Usually I don’t mind about them, in part because I was raised in Venezuela where you get used to several types of racial aggressions, however, I think is important to start being more conscious about it and to speak up when I’m in presence of any type of judgement, or discrimination. By omitting it, I’m only contributing to a major problem, the issue of lack of inclusion and diversity in the U.S.

Even if I don’t let microaggressions to affect me it’s important to identify them and to help minimize misconceptions, and the negative impact that they might have on people.

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Welcome GEDI’s knights!

GEDI’s,

We are excited to see you all tonight. I want to welcome you to the seminar talking about my experience with blogging. As some of you, I wasn’t too active in social networks before taking the PFP and GEDI seminars. At the beginning it took some time to shift my mind and understand the value of it, and let me know it is a great tool for you as future educators / administrators / faculty members.

When you start making a habit of writing, or even better, of putting your thoughts in interesting and engaging ways to be shared with other people with similar interests to yours, great things can happen.

For example, somehow (I really don’t know how) someone from Australia found one of my blog posts and made great comments so we engaged in a great conversation. That conversation led us to collaborate in a research project that is going great right now.

My online presence has also helped me with future employers. Every time I go to an interview, or presentation, people interested have been able to know a lot about me because of my blog, my eportfolio, my twitter, and my linkedin profile. Furthermore, some prospective employers have been able to find me and contact me because of my online presence.

My initial advice is to come with an open mind, to engage with our class, and to help us develop our learning community that starts by our social interactions online. If you want to learn more about me here are my “coordinates”:

eportfolio: homeromurzi.com

blog: https://blogs.lt.vt.edu/hmurzi/

twitter: @hmurzi

email: hmurzi@vt.edu

I’m looking forward to meet every one of you and to learn from your experiences inside and outside the classroom.

Cheers,

Homero

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Advices for new GTA’s

I was invited to talk in a panel during our orientation week for the new Graduate Teaching Assistants (GTA’s). The focus is on how to lead and practice excellence by being outstanding GTA’s. I will focus my presentation in my experiences as an international GTA teaching in a U.S. institution.

Some of the advices that I will give to the new GTA’s are:

1. Care about your students. I find really important to demonstrate them that you care. For me, that means to learn their names, to remember the things that they say, and to try to connect with them at different levels. One strategy I use in every class to break the ice and get to know them better is “Tell me something I don’t know,” I take the first 3 minutes of every class to let them share something that they think is interesting, cool, or fun facts, and that probably no one else in the classroom know. I also try to focus on one student at a time to try to remember something about them, for example if someone had an issue with his/her computer, came late to class because of the rain, or missed a bus, or anything very specific, I try to remember that and bring it up later so they know I’m aware and care about them.

2. Create a network of GTA’s. Having support is crucial when you are a GTA, specially if this is your first time doing it. I think is really important to use your peers to share and talk about your experiences, to ask questions on how to approach things, and also to understand that you are not alone. Probably the things and fears that you are experiencing were already experienced by someone else that can make you feel better.

3. Become available (just not too much). It’s difficult (but possible) to find a balance between answering emails or questions on time and still have a life. Always remember that graduate school is a job, but not a career, the most important thing is to get out. I had a rule to try to answer emails for my students in less than 24 hours, but also have a rule to not check my email after 11:00pm (at least regarding the classes I’m teaching). Trust me, it’s not ok to answer to your students at 4:00 am.

4. Finally, as international GTA for me it’s really important to be aware of cultural differences. In the classroom you will find students from all over the world, and it’s important to understand that they think different, they have a different sense of humor, they value different things. In addition, I believe is important to openly talk about differences and to make sure everyone feels comfortable in the classroom. One of the things that I always do is let them know that english is my second language (they already know that because of my accent) so it’s ok for them to correct me if I’m saying something wrong, or to ask again if they don’t understand me.

The most important thing is to realize that they probably are more scared than you are and that is a two way street, we are all here to learn.

 

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Global Perspectives Program 2015

Earlier this year I received great news. I was selected to participate in the Global Perspectives Program 2015. The program take graduate students to Europe during the summer to visit different higher education institutions and engage in important conversations about different topics of higher education. For me this is a very exciting opportunity and want to make the most of it.

One of my goals from this experience is to understand the status of diversity, inclusion, and international support. From my experiences as a faculty member in Venezuela I understand the lack of conversation about these topics back in south America. I’ve been very involved in diversity here in the US in the two Universities I have attended. I’m interested in contrast my experiences with the European system.

One of the things that I’m curious about is regarding how the international community is there. For example, how are the support systems for international students, how is the selection process of international faculty members, do international students count toward diversity and inclusion numbers? I think considering that in Europe people is able to work in different european countries the international community should be very representative, however are european considered international participants?

I’m looking forward to the GPP experience and to understand a different higher educational system.

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The humanities vs engineering and business perceptions – Hollins University visit

After reading the article “How is Innovation Taught? – On the Humanities and the Knowledge Economy” I felt like it was worthy to share my experiences visiting Hollins University as part of one of my classes this semester.

Hollins University is a small liberal arts women only college in the Roanoke area. We had the chance to visit and engage with conversations with the President of the institution and the Dean of Students. For me was a very interesting experience since in my country we don’t have colleges like this one. Some of the interesting things that caught my attention were:

1. Students are required to live on campus for four years.

2. The President, the Dean, and most of the administrators in important roles also live on campus.

3. A lot of the financial support comes from donations that alumni do every year.

4. Alumni have a lot of success finding the job of their dreams.

5. The Dean of students know every student (around 600) by name. They can knock on her door anytime to discuss any issues they want.

One of the things that impressed me was the faces of my colleagues listening to that university model. I was with people from the school of engineering and the school of business and they couldn’t understand how faculty and administrators could become so accesible for the students.

Also, the president told us that most of the students once they graduate take a year off to travel, write books, find their voice, and so on. One of my classmates from the school of business couldn’t understand that. She works with placement of students and making sure that every student find a job when they graduate. Same situation in engineering. They are so worried about placing students on the job market to be able to have indicators saying that the school is productive that some times they don’t even care about the student being placed in the right job. Interesting enough, the president was telling us that most of the alumni find the job of their dreams and most of them do really well, so well that they have been able to create several student programs because of the good donations that the school receives from alumni each year.

I think that we in engineering need to start copying a lot of the philosophy of liberal arts and the humanities. Maybe if our students were not that stressed about finding the job in the big company and instead they to take a year to see the world or find themselves, they may then be more productive (and innovative maybe) when they start their professional career. I do agree with Seth Godin, we need to rethink what schools are for and be able to think in our work as it if were “art”.

I remember when I worked in industry recruiting young engineers that the VP of HR always had a preference for engineers that could play an instrument, or had an art-related hobby like photography, cooking, or painting. He used to say that those guys can see the world different and are the best problem-solvers because they consider different perspectives.

 

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Trying to answer Dan’s article questions

I have been doing some research on team-based learning (TBL) and problem-based learning (PBL) for a while. I have also implemented the strategies in some of my previous classes. I think PBL is a great strategy, specially in engineering, to develop some skills that are desired in engineers like critical thinking, problem-solving, creativity, teamwork, and multidisciplinary collaboration.

However, implementing a PBL environment is not an easy task. It requires a lot of research and also requires a lot of time. I just read an article about an Anthropology professor (Dan) implementing PBL for the first time in his classroom. It looks like he didn’t plan things going that bad. Through the article there are some questions for the reader about the situation and how he/she would have done things differently.

Even when I’m not close to be an expert on PBL, and my experience implementing it is limited, I’ll try to answer some of questions (the ones that I see more relevant) hoping that more people can agree/disagree and add to the discussion.

What decisions related to organization and process would you need to make if you were going to follow Dan’s lead and give problem-based learning a try?

There are several things that need to be done before implementing PBL in a classroom. Some of the things that I find important are:

1. Providing a lot of support and access, students need to know that the professor is involved and they can count on him/her.

2. Having the correct learning environment (physical). Students require the space to meet and be able to have loud discussions or brainstorming sessions without affecting other students.

3. Having external support, I think is important if students can have access to external persons involved in the problem they are trying to solve. I believe is very important that the issue is as real as possible.

Some of Dan’s colleagues worry that Dan covers less material using PBL. How should Dan respond to those concerns?

In my experience in engineering we implement PBL as a the final project of the class, however another strategies are developed to assure that the students cover all the required materials and develop all the content knowledge. Sometimes that mean doing some lectures, implemented TBL as well, or having several sessions for class discussion of important theories.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of forming groups the way Dan did? Should Dan let students form their own groups?

I think that groups are a very important issue when implementing PBL. One of the things with group formation is that students need to adapt to whatever they have to in order to learn how to work in diverse teams, because that is what happens in industry. When they decide their own teams it is more likely that they will work with their friends. When you work in industry you don’t get to work with your friends. However, I don’t think that spending that much time designing the teams is effective. I would do it randomly based on the attendance of the first day. I think that is the setting that will be more similar to real world.

What might Dan have done to make the first class better? Were the comments he overheard legitimate student concerns? How should he deal with them?

I think the students concerns are totally legitimate, they are entering a new space with few information about it, change is always complex for humans. I would say instead of discussing the syllabus and having students make recommendations on the first class, it would be more beneficial to spend some time explaining them why they will be doing PBL, what are the benefits of the strategy, how they will be impacted in their professional career by the experience, and explaining how cool the problem they will solve is.

What do you all think?

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The power of technology and its dark side in education

I believe technology changed the world some decades ago, and will continue changing our world in a fast pace every day. In our current world the use and implementation of technology is a reality that we can’t avoid. New generations have a technological oriented culture that is not likely to change in the near future. There are several advantages regarding the use of technology that make it impossible not to think of it as one of the best things that happened to the world.

For example, one of my cousins was in a car accident, as a result one of her eyes was severely injured. One Doctor told her it was very probable she was going to lose it. However, one of the youngest doctors in the team had an online forum where she and colleagues from all over the world discussed atypical cases. She posted pictures of my cousin’s eye on the forum and thanks to the comments of two doctors, one from Brazil and one from India, she was able to find a very rare procedure for very rare cases that was very effective. The doctors also were able to practice the procedure on a computer thanks to a software developed for that purpose. In conclusion my cousin can see because of technology.

Several examples like that are present in so many fields where technology has been able to improve the quality of life of so many people.

However, technology has also negatively impact our society in different ways. First there is the social toll. It is more common to see people talking over cell phones than in person, even if they are in the same room. In addition, research has shown that the use of cell phones while driving increases the number of accidents.

In education, research has proven that technology can be a distractor to students that use laptops or other electronic devices during classes.

The big question is, should we avoid the use of those devices? should we try to change the new generations culture to stop them multitasking involving technology? or should we try to find a way to leverage the use of technology in our favor?

I would prefer the last option. I don’t think we can forbid the use of technology in classrooms. Such decision can create a negative impact on the learning community for those students that can’t live without their devices. Rather I believe we should find ways to incorporate technology in the class, I think we need to actively recognize that they are using their computers and make them include them in class discussions. For example actively ask students to google things of find resources online that relate to the class conversation.

Do you guys think we should change the way we approach and incorporate technology? or you think that we need to promote a culture of minimizing the use of machines, especially in social spaces, and classrooms?

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The feminine passion

I have been working on my teaching philosophy for a while. As a faculty member I think of my teaching philosophy as a document that reflects my personal values and vision of teaching. The document however, changes a little bit over the years, I think mostly because we are always finding ourselves as educators and by forming our teaching identity we always discover something new and valuable that we may want to include in our teaching statement.

Reading a blog post about the 8 pitfalls or writing a teaching statements gave me very good advice on things to consider to improve it. However, I am having serious issues with the tone of the author regarding the way someone should write. She mentioned that people must avoid to sound too feminine. Especially one of the pitfalls actually is “You are excessively emotional, especially if you are female.” 

How can being too emotional be bad especially if you are female? Why the distinction? is being a female something bad?

I have two issues with this. The first one is the use of the term female as something negative that can make you less marketable in the job market. The second one is to don’t show emotions.

In my case not showing emotions in something that reflects my philosophy about the thing that I love the most in the world (teaching) is completely impossible. I need to bring passion to everything I do and for me having to make my teaching statement sound like something cool that will attract employers make me don’t want to work for those employers.

Is the teaching statement something that we do to improve our teaching? is something that we do to reflect on the things that matter to us as educators? OR is the teaching statement some written portion of an application process where we should say the things that administrators and university leaders want to hear?

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