Trigger Warnings or Transparency?

I started this post multiple times in the last couple of weeks. But after a couple of events, I am finally sitting down to write it.

Two weeks ago the author and academic, Roxanne Gay, came to my alma mater to do a reading and lecture. I live close enough where I was able to meet one of my closest friends there to hear her and meet Dr. Gay. Roxanne Gay is most known for her book, Bad Feminist. I had come across the book last year and read it quickly, with much of it speaking to me as a feminist and an academic. I had taken note of her essay on trigger warnings, but that was not the part that had stuck out to me initially. However, that essay was one Dr. Gay read the night I went. One thing she said when an audience member asked her about why she chooses to not use trigger warnings was that her pedagogical style is to have discussions with students throughout the semester about what they are reading and why. She is not shying away from topics that may be controversial or difficult for students, but openly discussing them and allowing for the challenging and brave spaces in the classroom.

This week the other GrATE fellows and I were chatting about different topics on pedagogy. We are getting ready to begin a brown bag series during the Wednesday office hours and one of the topics that we are discussing is trigger warnings. Some people are wondering what the right path is for using trigger warnings, whether they are necessary, and for which topics within their classes.

Finally, also this week I went to one of the theatre events on campus. I grew up around the theatre and theatre being provocative, including using the arts as a way of addressing social justice. The play I saw was a fairly new one (published in the last 6 years) and has won numerous awards. Yes, the topics begin to address race relations, gentrification, and social justice. That part was not what caught my attention. Rather, some of the other topics and items within the play that I was not prepared for caught my attention. There was a lot of language in this play, which on any given day wouldn’t be noticed, except for the fact that in my line of sight were two young girls under the age of 10 in the audience. Also, the storyline in the play is connected in part by an unseen character’s suicide and his family’s dealing with that. At intermission and after the show I started looking more intently in the playbill and the sign at the entrance to the theatre for any mention of the language or the content of the show and found nothing. I was shocked that this department, which normally is quite good about forewarning the language at least in a play, had said nothing about either item. I had read a bit about the play before going and have done even more reading since going, and there is no mention anywhere about the suicide topic within the play. So, if the department does not mention that this content, and the general write-ups about this play do not mention it, how are people who may have dealt with death, suicide, rape, etc. within their lives and want some warning or awareness of what is coming their way going to know?

I understand that a lot of the discussion around trigger warnings is that by using them and using safe spaces means people will opt out of hearing about tough things or having challenging conversations. I disagree. I think whether you use the phrase “trigger warning” or not, it is about being transparent in what is being discussed. It is giving a heads up to not be blindsided by something.

I am in a social science and human services discipline. We are always talking about people’s lives. And people’s lives include a variety of experiences, including traumatic experiences. So, for me, when teaching courses, especially when teaching Human Sexuality, I try to be cognizant of that. I rarely, if ever, use the exact phrase of “trigger warning”, however, every topic that will be discussed in a semester is covered in the syllabus. In multiple places and in multiple ways I try to link previous material to the current material and foreshadow where we are going next. I provide information about the resources on campus and in the community that may be of assistance or interest to anyone in the class who has had any number of lived experiences. Yet, I do not shy away from controversial topics or topics that may “trigger” someone.

So, for me, it is about transparency in what we are discussing and why we are discussing it. It has to be pertinent to the learning objectives and course material. I will always use some level of forewarning about what is coming up in lessons whether in an online course or in-person. It may look differently at different times, but on some level, I would rather have the open dialogue and preparation. With openness and transparency, hopefully students will feel that I and the classroom environment I create allow them to grapple with these topics.

Preparing a New Class

We are officially on day three of the new fall semester. This is the first semester in my life that I am not in the classroom as a teacher or a student. It is a little strange. Especially with the flexibility of my time. However, it does not mean I am not involved with teaching at all. I am one of the teaching supervisors/assistant for the teaching mentor for my department as well as a fellow for GrATE.

In my department we have a well-structured program of teaching apprenticing leading to independent graduate instructors. There is support, guidance, and oversight every step of the way when teaching within the department. I appreciate having this, as there are always people to go to and discuss teaching challenges and ideas. My role in this as a senior graduate student and assistant to the teaching mentor, is answering questions, providing feedback on syllabi and course sites, and generally keeping track of what is required by the department and university. As I keep saying to people, for some reason I have the institutional memory and understanding of policies where I am often the contact person for quick questions.

Within the role a fellow for GrATE I hold office hours in the GLC every Tuesday afternoon. I only had one person join me this week and it was a new student from my department who needed assistance with the LMS, Canvas. There is an interesting thing with the transition to Scholar to Canvas, and probably between any LMS’. Some people jump on the bandwagon quickly and are willing to give it a try and use any new technology to the best of their abilities. Others are slower to transition and really don’t want to. But that is an aside.

The start of any semester has people who have never taught before or never taught at a specific institution before. There are learning curves, such as figuring out a new LMS. But last week when we were speaking at the GTA Workshop, a lot of the new graduate students were wanting to know the first steps of preparing for a new course. The student who joined me in office hours is in the midst of helping a new faculty member prepare a course while also working with a returning faculty member in a different class. This GTA has a great view of what it takes to prepare and how once you prepare, it becomes easier and easier over time to get ready for a new semester.

At this point in my career (year 4 of my PhD work), I have prepped for three new courses and am getting ready to prep for my fourth new course. The pattern I tend to take when preparing for a course I have never taught before includes:

  • Seeking out syllabi and information from those who have taught the course before me. This primarily includes from within my own department, though it can include seeing what those teaching similar courses outside of Tech do. There are a lot of syllabi available online, which is useful to update assignment ideas and see which textbooks are being used. At some point, hopefully, GrATE will have a repository of syllabi as well.
  • Start reading through the textbooks. For some courses I have had a choice as to which textbook to use and some are standardized within the department. I have worked with both systems and don’t particularly have a preference. Mostly because, with the standard textbook, the number of different options I’ve seen don’t compare to what was chosen before my time.
  • As I work through the textbook(s), I am also updating or creating any slides and lectures I am planning on having. Again, this depends on what has been done before me in my department. Some courses have a more complete shell for us to launch from than others.
  • Thinking about, updating, and creating assignments for both in-class and out-of-class. Writing out the instructions and rubrics for assignments is helpful for me to do before updating the syllabus.
  • Update the syllabus. This includes updating any information that may have changed—office location changes, websites that are out of date, policies that changed over the summer, etc. I also update the assignments and the point system I am using for that semester. Each semester this gets more and more refined, even when teaching different courses, much of the information is similar across syllabi.
  • Creating the course site. One of the aspects of Canvas that I appreciate is that the course site shell is already created for us with the roster included. That has saved at least an hour or two of headache and fighting with technology. I also appreciate that with Canvas we can link information every time we use it, so students are always able to access what we need them to, no matter where they are on the site. The entire course set-up takes some time, but it still is less time than our previous LMS. If you need assistance with the course site, there are wonderful people all over campus who are great resources!
  • At that point, I am ready for the semester to begin! I typically prepare the first week’s announcements and/or anything particular I plan to do the first day of class (shifts for online teaching and in-person teaching). Of course, there are always things you are shifting throughout a semester, but you should be on solid footing to continue on with the semester!

Research and Funding

This blog post is in part processing a few research thoughts and working on research statements for my Feminist Research Methods course.

Last week was Grad Ed Week at Tech. Part of what that brought other than the wonderful free food that all grad students love, was the inductions of new members and associates for the Academy of Graduate Teaching (GTA) Excellence and Graduate School Awards. Of my classmates in Feminist Research Methods a few of us were recognized. Jordan Laney and I were named and inducted as two of the three Founding Fellows of the Academy. She also won a teaching award at the Awards Banquet while I was recognized for my service work.

12799238_10154145210823578_5632464424736611130_n   [Picture from Academy Social and Induction]

During the Awards Banquet those who won a lot of the awards were from lab disciplines and the qualifications that their letter writers presented was about the amount of grant money the grad students received and the number of publications they had. One person who won an award had received $85,000 in grant money for their research. Other grad students had over 10 publications. After the Banquet, I was left with amazement that grad students could have that many but also the realization that their disciplines have different opportunities than mine. No matter how I look at it, even if I include all the grants and fellowships on my list for the Feminist Research Methods assignment to practice writing applications for money, it would not equal $85,000. In a lot of ways doing feminist and critical work means that money is a little bit harder to come by to complete. There are of course ways to shift what you are doing to do the work, but I am not sure the only way to complete work is to do it where the money is. Limiting the work to only where the money is, limits the research questions being asked and who is being discussed.

10398574_10154152117878578_6151948063232028333_n      [Picture from Graduate School Awards banquet]

Additionally, to do thorough feminist and critical empirical work takes a lot of time to complete and not always as easily dividable into multiple publications as lab work can be with a lot of people working on multiple projects all together. It can be important to do slow scholarship, as I have discussed before, to ensure that the work is worthwhile and makes an impact on the world. What we do is not just about the number of publications that we get or how much money we bring in, as much as our advisors and society want to argue it is, it is also how much of a citizen to our university and the world we are being. Are we helping those around us and those who may not have had the same experiences we have had? We do not have to necessarily perpetuate the Publish or Perish mantra or continue to only work in the neoliberal rat-race. However, as I write this, a friend from another university posted on social media about a GoFundMe page to help pay for her travel, supplies, and compensation to participants for her dissertation work. Sometimes to do the work we want and feel led to do, we have to get creative in how we fund it! It also requires us to be able to translate our work to multiple audiences.

The rest of this post will be on my research, to work on how I present myself as a researcher. I am in this awkward period where a few projects have been wrapped up and are submitted to journals or are close to being submitted and am just getting started on my next projects (including my dissertation). I have not fully gotten in the swing of the publication pipeline. So, I am trying to figure out the best way to present not only the research that I have completed up to this point but also how to describe my dissertation work. I also have a tendency to expect everyone to be on the same train I am, so I welcome feedback from my classmates as to what I am presenting.

Research Statement: My overarching work is on gender and sexuality within the family context. This includes intimate and family relationships through kin altruism and kin networks, family diversity (including sexual minorities across the lifespan and singlehood), dating and partnership choices, and sexuality education through media and families. Most family scholars want to strengthen families, relationships, and sexual health. However, when people do not define family in the same way, we need to understand how diverse family structures function including their strengths and weaknesses. The more we understand all relationships, including families of non-genetic kin (families of choice), the more we can work with all families to be the best they can be with success broadly defined.

Future Research: I will continue to work in the above areas, with my primary focus in my next projects on sexual minority baby boomers. Much of the literature of older LGBQ adults discusses the health challenges the community faces, using minority stress theory as the guiding perspective (it’s where the money is). When the literature discusses families it is often in that LGBQ individuals don’t have children and are not married (neither necessarily true and becoming less and less true). There has been the discussion of families of choice and caretaking in the face of health crises, such as AIDS and cancer. So, the primary question overarching both projects is how does the literature and LGBQ older adults conceptualize family?

I am particularly interested in single lesbian baby-boomers. There has been a renewed focus on singlehood, particularly single women as seen in the days leading up to Valentine’s Day 2016 with the Washington Post doing a series on singlehood, movies of ever-single women (“Hello, My Name is Doris”), and a set of books being released about single women that goes beyond the discourse of “how to get a man” (see Bolick, 2015 and Traister, 2016). The entire fact that the primary discourse until recently surrounding singlehood has been about what is wrong with women and their approaches for not being married is problematic in that it perpetuates compulsory heterosexuality (Rich, 1983) and heteronormative discourses. Historically, lesbian women have always been considered single because their relationships were not recognized legally and frequently not recognized by their families of origin (Franzen, 1996). Thus, for lesbian single women, there are two discourses—those that are legally single and socially single. My focus will be on legally and socially single lesbian women of the baby-boomer generation. They came of age during a time that allowed for more women to be single and to be out as non-heterosexual. It is also the generation that is beginning to retire and face old-age. So, how do women who are lesbian identified, unmarried and uncoupled define family? How does their position as historically marginalized individuals plan for their later years and retirement?

 

Slow Scholarship and Building Community to Thrive in Graduate School

When I first started at Tech, for my PhD and after my masters, I wasn’t thinking about friends or colleagues. I was so focused on starting my new program and succeeding at what I came for. I had some “townie” friends still around, which were wonderful in reminding me to stop what I was doing work-wise and be present in having a social life. Different groups of friends—some near, some far are important as is family in whatever way we define that. But finding and giving support to one another as graduate students and as professionals is also important. This can be a challenge as people move in and out of town—the transient nature of a college town and this stage of our lives.
The further I get into graduate school, especially following a long break in my hometown without most people around, I have been thinking more and more about community. Though, it must have been on my mind for longer than I realize, because I spoke about it a lot with Cathy Grimes as we talked when she was writing the story about the Academy of GTA Excellence. Dean DePauw has been writing about challenging us all for thriving in graduate school rather than just surviving. Part of what she discusses is the community that the Graduate School can bring for students. Between reading Dean DePauw’s blog post, some of the books for pleasure I read over break, and even the readings we have already had in my Feminist Methods course this semester, I really think we all need community to thrive in graduate school and beyond as we enter into our career in academia or industry.
We live in a neoliberal society, and our universities are no different. Everything is about making money, being the best, being competitive—between each other and between institutions. We are all about being elite. We are about pride and self-promotion. We are all about output, rewards, maximizing our utility, impressing the world, and building up our CVs (Brooks, 2015). We like to compare ourselves to others, though we are especially good at comparing ourselves through others’ highlight reels that they choose to tell us about in person or through social media. I don’t know about anyone else, but I have a bad habit of looking at people’s CVs when they are public to compare myself to them. Especially newly hired assistant professors, so I have some idea of what I need to do to get a job once I am finished at Tech.
With the world of academia constantly shifting and those who are young and still entering into long-term academic employment, we are forced to be publicists for ourselves—yes, advocate for ourselves, but also promote ourselves via websites, blogs, cultivating our online presence. We are supposed to be known—but only for positive things and our academic work. So, when we are trying to be our best selves, which for many of us include trying not to be too prideful and to be humble, being forced into this public self-promotion is a challenge. Even as I write this, I am aware that it is a form of self-promotion. Yet, the part that I like about blogging and posting when I write to multiple places, is it helps to bridge some of the gaps of different colleges and institutions, where I can then begin conversations with people from multiple locations around the country and even the world. It is a way to build a community and network in a digital space, that then can bring community in a physical space. It allows people to broach conversations with you that they may not normally do so. It allows you to process through what is running through your head, as I am doing now.
Mountz et al. (2015) wrote about slowing down our work and our scholarship. That we should challenge the status quo of the academy. This can be in part by not competing with each other. We don’t need to be all about the quantitative areas of our life and work—a counting culture. We do not need to force self-surveillance and self-auditing. I think this includes not touting how many hours we worked that week. I fully admit that I am a workaholic and yes, I know how many hours I work on average, but that has more to do with knowing how many hours I need to be busy so that I am not bored and thus, grumpy.
We live in a society that focuses on and touts busyness. We like to tell each other how busy we are and often in frantic ways. It is nice and better when we get the chance to stop and spend time together, even if it is time to stop and spend time together working. It can be more important about slowing down or stopping to take the time to listen, converse, engage with each other. In this time to slow down we build community, we allow for creativity. We allow time to process everything that is going on. You never know what sort of connections you might make—personally and in your work. Dwight Eisenhower supposedly said that people should make mistakes slowly, as it was better to proceed to a decision gradually rather than rush into anything before its time. That life organized around self-restraint rather than self-expression (Brooks, 2015).
Some people take writing retreats—especially if a group is working on a project together and are at different institutions. But I don’t know that it has to be as big as taking a weekend or week to go somewhere to work together that can help build community, slowing down scholarship, etc. It can be as simple as sitting in a coffee shop working together at a table on your own thing in silent solidarity. It can be getting together with those who are in your program at someone’s home to chat, catch up, and eat goodies, and drink for those who do so. Though I think traveling together builds community faster and in a different way than hanging out can. But I also think that community is built in a multitude of ways. It can be through different groups we are involved with–including groups outside of the university world. For some people this is through religious organizations. I like having multiple groups of friends and community to turn to to help me slow down and process things. Not every friend or group can do and be everything for us.
With slowing down and coming together, we can make our work environments better and more supportive. We can listen to and read what others/each other have to say. It allows time to stop, reflect, reject, resist, subvert, and collaborate, allowing more reflexive academic cultures (Mountz et al., 2015). We can talk about work, we can talk about life—they are not clearly delineated unfortunately. We can step forward in discussing our dreams, our failures, and our fears to help each other do the same. We can come together to have these discussions and to work through our differences with care and grace.
Community is a challenge in our individualistic society. It is difficult to cultivate, to maintain, etc. Graduate school can be an incredibly lonely time. Added to the natural stress of being constantly challenged to go outside our comfort zone, the loneliness is all the more acute. We may have people we see regularly that we like, but do we have people we can turn to in crisis or as we are processing things? Do we have people who will stop with us and slow down, talk through what we are doing with work and with life? Or are we trying to compete with those we are around too much to get to know each other and see their point of view and benefits? I think this is part of why I have enjoyed traveling with my Graduate School colleagues in the last year—it allows us to slow down, talk, step outside our academic disciplines even for the 8-12 hours we are visiting campuses or in meetings.
In the end, it is about assisting each other, supporting one another, learning about one another’s work as we navigate this bizarre, stressful, yet thrilling period of our lives that we call graduate school.

Readings
Brooks, D. (2015). The road to character. New York: Random House.
DePauw, K. P. (2015). Thriving in graduate school. Retrieved from: https://blogs.lt.vt.edu/kpdtge/index.php/2015/12/01/thriving-in-graduate-school/
Mountz, A., Bonds, A., Mansfield, B.,…Curran, W. (2015). For slow scholarship: A feminist politics of resistance through collective action in the neoliberal university. ACME, International E-Journal for Critical Geographies.

Transformative Graduate Education in a Transformative Year

I have not blogged much this semester. In part because it was a weird semester in that I was not teaching (it is amazing how much that kept me on track with all of my other work!). I also was not taking any theory or content courses and I was not doing any of the Future Professoriate courses for the first time since Semester 1 at Tech. This program was one of the things that drew me to return to my hometown and earn my degree at Virginia Tech. Knowing I wanted to work in academia for my career as a faculty member, the program of preparing future faculty as teachers, scholars, and productive academic citizens greatly appealed to me.

This semester, I have still tried to be involved with Preparing the Future Professoriate (PFP) and Transformative Graduate Education (TGE) as I could. For one, the building of the Academy of Graduate Teaching (GTA) Excellence has gotten some press. I am proud of the work that we have done to build a community of current and future instructors/faculty. I am writing about TGE and PFP, because, though I am not yet a faculty member (someday soon I hope!), I am already seeing the strength of these programs that our wonderful Graduate School Dean has developed for us at Virginia Tech.

This year I was asked to serve as the graduate student representative for a subcommittee to a university project. This subcommittee has faculty, staff, administrators, and students sitting on it along with support staff for the project. The project has gone very differently than I was expecting in multiple ways. The one that has caught my attention time and again has been the lack of understanding of the basic functions of the university by faculty, including the mission statement and how that navigates decisions by administrators. Each time I am able to explain the functioning of higher education and our university, I am thankful for all the opportunities I have had within PFP and TGE. Each time I have a slightly different perspective of where higher education is and where it should go, I am thankful for the programs. I am seeing first hand how having courses and discussions and experiences that teach what life in academia will be and challenging the status quo within that is beneficial as I prepare to enter into the professoriate.

In the last 7 months I have also taken two trips (check out #gppecuador and #gppswiss15 on Twitter!) and in relation to TGE, which really were transformative. Each time I have returned from these trips with my colleagues from across colleges on campus, I have written in my notes that I am excited and proud of the future in higher education and research with them. We are the 21st century faculty. We are the ones who will be higher education, can change it, the ones who can challenge the status quo. More and more I think that takes on a global perspective. The world is getting smaller and smaller with access to Internet and easier travel. When we were at the Swiss Embassy in June, someone from the Council of Graduate Schools brought up that there are plenty of jobs available for finishing graduate students, if you look at the world as a whole rather than solely at the United States. I think our scholarship and understanding of higher education also should not be U.S. centric, rather than seeing the strengths and challenges of higher education around the world. How this looks for each of us, I don’t know. I am not even sure how I want it to look for myself at this point. That is something I am still wrestling with. But, I am confident that as 21st century faculty, we need to understand the global perspective.

 

Traveling

I was not particularly good about blogging while in Switzerland and I still have not really caught up with it. Probably over time as I get back into the habit of blogging this fall.
However, a quote caught my attention recently that very much plays into how I am feeling about my time since the trip, so I will do a quick post.

“And if travel is like love, it is, in the end, mostly because it’s a heightened state of awareness, in which we are mindful, receptive, undimmed by familiarity and ready to be transformed. That is why the best trips, like the best love affairs, never really end.” – Pico Iyer

The reason that quote spoke to me right now is that even though I have been back in the United States for two months now, I still feel like I am picking away at what I learned and observed while in Switzerland. I am slowly connecting what worked there and what happens here and how those things are similar and different. I think this will be ongoing for quite a while as I continue on my path at Virginia Tech and even after I leave Blacksburg.

Michael asked most of the group on our last night in Riva San Vitale why the Global Perspectives Trip was so good and if it had to be in Switzerland. I’m not even sure what I responded then, but as I reflect on the quote and on that question, I think the trip is powerful and meaningful for all of us who have had the honor and privilege to go on it because we are not in the U.S. Yes, you could have “grad school camp” relatively close-by and learn a lot of things about other nation’s higher education, but it is being forced into a situation and a country that you are not familiar with that changes you the most. The country probably does not have to be Switzerland, but it does have the best of multiple worlds—where English is not a primary language, but most people do know it. That is helpful for those whose first time out of the U.S. was this trip. Traveling so far away from home meant that we were all ready to be transformed. We went into it with an open mind and curiosity and we got a lot out of the experience because of that.

I look forward to more transformative travel in the coming times.

On the Eve of Departure

I am just under 36 hours from take-off towards Zurich and there are so many thoughts and feelings running around my head.

First and foremost I am excited. I have been to Europe twice before and love it. I am glad to be going back, learning more, and experiencing a new culture. Earlier in the semester we were asked to journal about our expectations and one of the things I ended up writing about was the food. Dean DePauw and Michael have been discussing the food in Switzerland a lot and I really look forward to enjoying that. In addition to new places and new foods, I look forward to the slight difference in the way foods are made in Europe. I have such clear memories of drinking Pepsi, eating Pringles, and Nutella while in Germany and how different they tasted. For Nutella in particular, how much better it tasted.

I look forward to spending time with and getting to know my colleagues better. We all come from different backgrounds and different disciplines, but have similar career goals. We will all have a unique perspective on our experiences.

We were each tasked with doing a little bit of research on one of the institutions we are visiting to share with the group prior to our arrival. I was doing my research the other day on University of Basel. The further I read, the more excited I got about all that they do and the structure of their university. I am really looking forward to seeing this particular institution and hearing about all that they do. I am hoping the practice is as strong as the websites make it sound.

In some ways I feel somewhat prepared for the culture I am entering into. Yes, Switzerland is unique and it’s own country and culture. Yet, just as there are influences from other areas in the U.S. and Blacksburg, there will be influences from other areas in Switzerland as well. The other countries I have been to are Germany and Italy. The regions of Switzerland we are visiting speak German or Italian. I am hoping that will help a little bit with culture shock. I grew up learning German and am fairly confident in my reading and comprehension of the language. However, if any of you have heard my stories about my time in Germany, hearing someone speak it does not always go well for me. It is where I discovered just how bad my hearing actually is and the fact that people speak quickly and mumble means I have that much more trouble understanding the spoken language.

I am also nervous as I prepare to embark on the trip. More than anything I am nervous about the first few hours in the country. I will be the first to land in Zurich and will need to get money, go through customs, and get to the hostel on my own. Or I just wait in the Zurich airport for others to land a few hours later. Part of why I am nervous about this is what I remember about the jet lag and lack of sleep when first landing in Germany and in Italy. I really hope I will be able to sleep on the flight to Zurich.

Today will be all about packing and trying to make sure I don’t forget anything. The goal is to get everything into a carry-on size suitcase and my travel backpack. That may be a challenge when it looks like it will be cool during the first leg of the trip, but you have no idea about the second half. I have done everything I need to for leaving work for a couple of weeks. And luckily I am not having to close-up a house or anything like that. That makes it just a little bit less stressful. It also keeps occurring to me that the last time I was in Europe, Internet and smartphones were not as good as they are now. I am much more confident that I will be able to keep up with things stateside if need be.

Final Reflections

I was traveling last weekend and had decided to bring with me Ann Patchett’s book of essays, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage. I was on the plane flying back to Charlotte when I got to the essay, “Fact vs. Fiction.” It was originally her convocation speech to the Miami University of Ohio in 2005. The essay/speech began with discussing her best friend, whom she had met in college. About halfway through the essay/speech was when I got excited about this particular essay. Below is what she wrote:

“There are two kinds of educational experience you can have in college. One is passive and one is active. In the first, you are a little bird in the nest with your beak stretched open wide, and the professor gathers up all the information you need and drops it down your gullet. You may feel good about this–after all, you are passionately waiting for this information–but your only role is to accept what you are given. To memorize facts and later repeat them for a test might get you a good grade, but it’s not the same thing as having intellectual curiosity. In the second kind, you are taught to learn how to find the information, and how to think about it, for yourself. You learn how to question and engage. You realize that one answer is not enough and that you have to look at as many sources as are available to you so that you can piece together a larger picture….Everyone adds a chip of color to the mosaic and from there some kind of larger portrait begins to take shape.”

In many ways, this one paragraph summed up my teaching philosophy and many of our discussions in class this semester.

The essay/speech goes on to discuss how after you have forgotten the classes taken, the books read, the papers written, you remember the people you met while in school. As I reflect back on this course, I find that true. Though I have gotten to know many new people who I may not have encountered otherwise from across campus and that I did not get to know all, I know that through this course we have a large community of budding scholars and professors who are willing to think hard and work harder to progress higher education into the 21st century. I am excited to be the future of higher education with all of you.

My Thoughts on Online Teaching

So, my department is preparing for summer teaching in the next couple of weeks. For many it is the first time they have taught online (all of our summer courses are online). When I was first trying to figure out online teaching I was talking to everyone I could about it because I found it very intimidating, especially since I had never even taken an online course. I also recently had a conversation in which I was asked to explain what I meant by the fact that online teaching is a “different ballgame” than teaching in class. With these two things in mind, I thought I would write out some of my thoughts on what has worked and has not worked in my four semesters of online teaching. It plays on my mind a lot and I do write about it within some of my other posts, but I wanted to get some of my thoughts in one place. Almost like a 4-semester reflection for myself on what I have learned and still potentially want to change.

Some of how I approach online teaching is influenced by my teaching philosophy, especially in the part that I want students to be self-motivated learners and spend time on areas that excite them the most. At times that is easier than others. I also want them to be somewhat self-sufficient in my class. Something that I have discovered with online classes is that you have to repeat yourself in many different ways and in as many locations on the site as possible. I try and put everything in the same location and label it as clearly as possible (for example: Week 1/ Chapter 1) yet students will still miss the information. One thing I would really like to figure out how to do is to imbed links to the specific folder where information can be found within my syllabus. I may even do that within my introduction PowerPoint. Many students seem to take online classes because of the flexibility of time with them and I try to honor that (in addition to the fact that it also fits within my self-motivated learner philosophy) by having all work open for them 2-3 weeks prior to the due date. I do still use due dates as I want to be sure they turn things in so that I can provide feedback before the next bit is due, though I have contemplated doing away with them completely.

In a similar domain to repeating instructions and information in multiple places and multiple ways, this semester I decided along with my introduction announcement I would include tips and tricks to doing well in my course. It included items such as the fact that my tests are considered hard (I always get this feedback and no matter how hard I try to ease up a bit seem to do—just one of my quirks), to read instructions carefully, and read any feedback provided. I am really glad I did this as it re-iterated certain expectations while still making me approachable as someone who cares and wants them to do well. And in fact, I have seen an improvement in quiz grades (my guess is that they took my advice and studied prior to them rather than relying on the open-book format) and overall work in addition to really good e-mail relationships with students.

In some ways having the anonymity of an online class can be good for students, but there are still ways for them to be seen, heard, and to build a community. I use forums a lot. I sort of fell into using them by accident, but love them for the students. I have them complete a forum every week (multiple in a week for summer or winter courses) within their assigned groups. I aim for 10 students in each group and divide them alphabetically. This backfired on me this semester due to add/drop and have a group of 5 and another group of 16, but I want them to get to know a small group of their classmates rather than all ~80. It has been wonderful to read the posts and watch them grow in their thinking by having to type out what they think or how they understand a concept and explain it to their peers. There are often great discussions through this format. Depending on the prompts, some forums are better than others and get them fired up in different ways. These really do help to build a community, even when we do not meet within a physical space. I have seen people build friendships and support each other through job interviews, sports events, etc. That part has definitely been gratifying but I really cannot take credit for that.

What I like about the anonymity is that it allows students to process controversial topics without the eyes of ~80 of their peers watching. They can read, think about, and form thoughts and opinions before reacting. That is where I often see some great growth. When I read one of their privately turned in assignments and provide feedback and then in their next assignment (or a few assignments later) see how their thoughts have grown or changed. That has been amazing to see at times. It was something that I didn’t necessary feel as though I saw or at least saw so intimately when I was teaching a seat-based course.

If you had asked me a year ago if I would like teaching online, I would have told you no, especially coming from a residential all seat based undergrad experience myself. However, I am truly seeing the benefits of it and love it. Not only do I see the strengths of it (of course there are weaknesses/limitations too, especially in what you are able to do) but I also see how much it has taught me about my own pedagogical beliefs and practices. I feel like for someone like me who is fairly quiet and naturally shy, it has helped me grow and gain confidence as an instructor, so when I do go into the classrooms, even for guest lectures, I have a better handle on what I am doing, how I am teaching, and why.

Connection with Instructors

As I mentioned in the previous blog, on Wednesday I went to the Classroom Inclusion panel. Two different students asked questions of the panel about having more of a community with faculty, getting more support from them, and having more of a connection with their instructors and peers. The answer these students got bothered me, even though I had to agree. The response faculty said was that in some ways they would never get that because faculty at places like Virginia Tech and University of Georgia (where Dr. Bettina Love is on faculty) put more emphasis on research, so to be able to keep their jobs they have to close their door to students frequently.

This is true. If your appointment is anything greater than 40% research there probably is not enough time to have a completely open door policy for our students. I am not saying that one way is better than another and in the end it is what is right for students and individual faculty members, but when I heard those students ask those questions, I felt bad for them. These large research oriented universities have great benefits for students, but there are drawbacks as well.

As someone who came from an extremely small undergrad, it has been difficult for me to not have the individual time and open door policy for my own students that I had with my faculty. I think my biggest class in undergrad was 15 with the average between 3 and 6 (and this pedagogy course may be the biggest one I have ever had). I knew the faculty very well, which I still appreciate. I try my best to get to know my students individually (with the added challenge of it being online) and give them individual instruction and feedback. Though, admittedly, I really can keep about 20 students stories and challenges straight in my head out of ~70 and the rest I keep notes about. When I taught face to face, I would recognize student’s faces but often could not remember their names.

As I mentioned in one of my earlier posts, I often feel like our students are just on a conveyer belt that we help them check off boxes. The Gallup survey has shown that making at least one connection with a faculty member helps students succeed after college. Each student may need different things and will connect with different faculty/instructors. I like to think that it may not be our job to connect with all 100+ students we have in our courses each year, but if we can connect with a few, we are doing our job well.