The fear of failure

I suppose that I am not unusual in having a fear of failure. It seems to be pretty inherent to the human condition. At times in my life, that fear has been so strong that it has paralyzed my actions. I wouldn’t take on certain projects or jobs because I thought that I might fail. This was unfortunate, thinking back to the opportunities I missed.

I found that a fear of failure is incredibly difficult to maintain when teaching. Every single day that I am in the classroom I am in front of students. Doing my best to engage them and develop concepts that can help them understand the world around them. If I am not brave that is a difficult environment to go into.

I know for a fact that I have a failed a number of times in the classroom this semester. I attempted a group project which despite my best efforts simply didn’t work out. I think the students were bored and didn’t learn much out of it. But by showing them and honestly acknowledging to them that I make mistakes, that I fail at things, I think it has created an environment where they feel more comfortable taking a chance in the class. Like my Grandpa used to say “You got to risk it, if you want the biscuit”

The Joy of Teaching

My mother is an artist. She told me a long time ago that she paints because that is what she finds joy in doing. She has never made a lot of fame or fortune through painting. Nor are you likely to see any of her work hanging at a fancy museum anytime soon, but she does it anyways. I think she has given me a great example when it comes to choosing a profession. Teaching is unlikely to ever make me the kind of money that I could make in other professions, and it is unlikely I will be known throughout the world for my scholarship. I am pursuing this career anyways because it is what brings me joy.

Not only do I get so much out of working with students, and writing and learning myself, but I think that I can give a lot more to the students if I do so with joy in my heart. Whenever I have taught a lesson about something that really interest me, I find that my students become more interested in the subject. This is unlikely because our interest match up so precisely, I think it is much more likely caused by them responding to my attitude and energy. So I will endeavor to do whatever it is I am doing with joy.

Creating a safe place for all types of ideas

In political science there are often controversial concepts and topics which need to be addressed. It is almost unavoidable. The teachers who avoid controversy at all cost soon gain a reputation for bland or un-engaging classes. There are also some teachers who try to create controversy just for the sake of entertainment and I find those classes to be lacking benefits also. There is no magic formula. Each teacher must make his or her own decision about the types of balance they need in their classes. And each group of students has different dynamics and maturity levels, and therefore need different structure in the classroom.

I have grappled with the right balance throughout the semester. Often I feel like I risk sacrificing student engagement if I handle controversial subjects poorly.

I have come to believe that what is most important however is creating an environent where students are courteous, open, and thoughtful. I have tried to create this environment a number of different ways throughout the semester. I think that in the end if I am successful any kind of idea can be discussed in a safe environment.

The role of technology in a political science class

I began my career in political science when professors didn’t use powerpoints. Nor did they blog, or know what social media was. My professors lectured almost exclusively. Usually from notes on a yellow legal pad which look like it had been serving its purpose for years. Supplementary materials were exclusively books, not videos or other media.

I am not trying to teach in the environment that I studied in. Technology is so important to the average student in my class, that only the most experienced and competent professor could hope to hold their attention for 50 minutes just by talking. And just for the record I am not the most competent or experienced professor.

This leaves me with little choice but to accept the benefits and drawbacks of technology in the classroom which has become such a hallmark of the university.

I discovered in my defeat, in my surrender to this trend that there was actually a lot to be gained from utilizing technology. I supplement lecture with videos, blogs, or other things. I communicate to my students through a host of methods and have found it very effective. In the end some times you have to give a little to get a lot.

The Heavy Responsibility of Teaching

This week for the first time I had a student approach me about some personal issues that were affecting her ability to continue in the class. These are not the typical “my dog ate my homework” excuses that I am fairly accustomed to, instead, she came to me and shared some legitimate crisis that she was having in her life and wanted to know if I could help her.

Even though I am 31 years old, my intitial response was to try to send her to one of the “adults”. There must be some person who deals with this type of thing and is older and wiser than me. But she didn’t go to an “adult”, she came to me. And regardless of my age, I felt very immature when faced with this situation. I simply hadn’t had a lot of experience in this department.

I tried to hide my self-doubt and let her know that she could be open with me, and I would do what I could for her. She seemed relieved that I was judging her or worried about the quiz she had missed.

In the end I couldn’t do much for her except listen and refer her to some other services that the university offers. Since then I have seen her back in class and make a point of asking her how she’s doing. It turned out well, but it made me realize the sobering responsibility all teachers have towards their students.

Future of the University

One thing that I think should change is trend towards fewer but larger universities. There has been a trend since at least the massification of higher education after the Korean War to make institutions more efficient by making fewer of them and making them larger. There are obviously some important parts to this. Of course universities would save money by moving as many people as possible onto as few campus’ as possible. Services could be used by multiple people greatly increasing the efficiency of a university system. For instance landscaping or lawn care would be cheaper if they didn’t have to move from place to place and could just focus on one yard.

The question then becomes are colleges losing anything when they gain efficiency in this manor. I think very obviously they are. Classes become larger, students become less of an individual and more of a statistic, and professors are stretched thinner and thinner as they try to serve all of these students.

Especially in the humanities I think that students do much better when they get more individual attention, something that is impossible under the current mega-schools.

Week 7: Everything I learned about inclusivity, I learned from Uncle Sam

This week’s readings on inclusivity in the class room and hidden biases made me think about my time in the Navy. Much like the university setting the Navy brings together people from all walks of life. All races, all genders, all sexualities and all religions were represented in the Navy. From day one we were taking good ol’ boys from Alabama and black kids from Detroit and saying that not only are you going to sleep in the rack above this guy, but you are going shower with him, eat with him, work with him and depend upon him doing his job to keep you alive when things get bad. The situation that these young men and women were put in seemed unlikely to work– people from such different backgrounds obviously couldn’t come together to create a cohesive team, and yet overwhelmingly the Navy has been successful in bringing people together.

I think Uncle Sam has developed some skills which might be applicable in the college classroom.

  1. There is ongoing training that sailors are exposed to on dealing with people from a different background. Whether that is a sailor of a different race gender or sexuality, the Navy gives lots and lots of training about the importance of inclusivity.
  2. There is a clear point to the training and inclusive behavior. Sailors learned that hidden biases or bigoted behavior made them less safe, affected the quality of their work and the work of their shipmates, and created an environment where the Navy couldn’t fully take advantage of everyone’s strengths and talents. Nobody was expected to do participate in these programs just for the sake of doing them.
  3. Finally, I think that sailors were given a new identity that became more important that their backgrounds. We became sailors, we became members of a specific community, we joined a 200 year old fraternity of men and women. I think the esprit de corps that developed, helped people not discount the differences between themselves but realize that the similarities were more important.
The Navy like the University is certainly not perfect and there is a lot of work left to do in creating more inclusive communities. But whether it is giving students more training, letting them know the practical benefits of the training, or creating a Hokie identity that unites all of our students, the lessons created to keep men and women safe at sea can be used to keep our community safe in Blacksburg.


Blog Post 5: Ethics and Professionalism

I thought the readings this week were all very interesting and thought provoking. Specifically the UNC scandal involving “paper classes”. Reading the report on how UNC student athletes were put into classes that were academically not sound to boost their GPAs, is such an obvious and egregious example of the types of challenges universities face everyday. Even though Deborah Crowder was the main culprit in this crime, it is pretty clear from the report that she was working within a culture at  UNC that was, if not permissive at a minimum ambivalent, to what was going on. From advisors suggesting these classes to students, to her supervisor, to the students themselves there appears to have been a culture where ethics and professionalism took a back seat to other goals.

It seems unthinkable that a situation like that could occur at Virginia Tech, but when you think of all of the different goals that the school tries to balance, it is not impossible that something like this could happen unless an ethical and professional culture is actively maintained to fight it.

I think that there will always be bad actors in an organization as large as a university; people who willfully choose to act in inappropriate ways. Having these actors, like Deborah Crowder, is impossible to avoid. Having a culture which allows them to continue operating however, is not at all inevitable. It takes proper training and oversight but with the right program we can ensure that incidents like this are caught and corrected.

Discovering my authentic teaching voice

Finding my authentic teaching voice is I think easier said than done. I have had a number of instructor positions in my life. Each one has in some way contributed to my actions and behaviors in the classroom. And yet I do not believe that I have truly found my voice in the classroom yet.

The questions in the reading forced me to rethink how I am in the classroom. Specifically “how can I be genuine, sincere, and fully present in the classroom”? Today I was in the classroom and I had roughly ten minutes of non-stop lecture. I had the thought that I had been rather robotically talking, and I looked at the students and noticed that they were rather robotically taking notes. Without getting to metaphysical, I felt like I wasn’t present in the classroom.

I immediately started to ask the students questions and try to engage them in discourse. The shift in tactics seemed to refocus the class and reengage them. I think that as much as I admired my professors who would give these great lectures, their voice is not mine. I had a Professor Saladino who would lecture for two hours with no powerpoints and no notes and the students would sit spellbound listening. I think that the longer I am in the classroom the more I realize that my real strength lies in facilitating a discussion.

I am excited to see the evolution of this process. As I gain more confidence and experience, I hope that my voice becomes more natural and authentic in the classroom.

Blog Post 4: Tech innovation in higher ed

The prompt this week asks us to look at how higher education is using social media. When researching this subject I noticed a discussion about how higher education is using social media as a way to further monitor students and at time faculty. This is slightly a different spin than most of the other post, but I think it is an important topic for students and faculty.

In Nico Perrino’s article “Universities: where you go to learn – and be monitored”, Universities new ability to “snoop” on student’s e-mails, Facebook and other social media pages. In the enhanced security environment we live and work in these actions by administrators are justified as safe guarding students. But in reality, these actions are often just heavy-handed strategies colleges use to control their public image – at students’ expense.

The article cites incidents of potential over reach by college administrators across the country, including a recent e-mail scandal at Harvard University. It is clear that social media offers students and faculty an excellent way to communicate and enhance the learning experience, as well as strengthen security around our often vulnerable college campuses; but, it is also clear that more discussions are needed on how Universities are using social media to ensure that the rights and privacy of students and faculty are protected.