This is the “mother blog” for the Food for Optimal Health course at Virginia Tech. Our wonderful masters of Nutrition and Dietetics students will post on this blog throughout the course this summer. Look forward to what they have to say about food, nutrition, and sustainability!
Part 23, “And yet we isolate students instead of connecting them” of Seth Godwin’s STOP STEALING DREAMS caught my attention this week. I felt isolated during my entire undergraduate program. I was lucky to have one or two friends in any of my classes. Like Godwin said, it’s because all assignments, tests, quiz, and homework are done individually for the most part. This is especially true for science disciplines, where everything is rote memorization, even the upper-level classes.
Biology, chemistry, anatomy, athletic injuries, exercise physiology, nutrition across the lifespan, even organic chemistry lab, whatever class you wanted to name, the course structure of the majority of my undergraduate classes was the exact same. We’d have our multiple choice tests, online quizzes, and homework assignments. If there weren’t homework assignments in a class, you would be expected to take tests every 3 weeks. This made it really difficult to get to know the other students in the class. If you weren’t able to make friends in your major, you likely wouldn’t have anyone to study with for the tests or anyone to ask questions about the homework assignments. You were isolated from everyone else who had friends within the major. I feel like the most successful students in my major were the students who had made friends early on, like in their first year, and continued through the program with the same set of friends.
“Oh but a solution would be to talk to whoever you’re sitting next to in class and make friends with them so you can study together.” That’s not easy. Especially if that person is introverted, shy about meeting people, or if everyone in the class is different from them. I was the latter. My career goals did not match any of my classmates, I wasn’t interested in the same hobbies, I didn’t participate in club activities that were related to my discipline, and I wasn’t interested in finding a physical therapist to shadow with. For the most part, students in my major (nutrition and exercise) were interested in a limited number of careers, becoming a physical therapist, physician’s assistant, or a dietitian. I wanted to do research in a public health setting. I thought I was in the wrong major because I wasn’t meeting anyone with similar interests.
I only had three friends who were in my major and I met them externally through my social clubs. Two of them were a year ahead of me so we didn’t have our core classes together. My major is the 5th largest major on campus and yet I had such difficulty making friends and meeting people through my classes. My friends in other majors, such as business or engineering, always had a solid group of friends that would study for exams together, work on homework assignments together, and, lacking in my program, do group projects together. We criticize our engineering and business programs for their issues with teamwork but we often overlook our science programs where there is virtually no teamwork opportunities.
I made my first in-major friend my senior year. She and I shared the same interests; we wanted to pursue a graduate degree in some sort of public health program and work in research. How did I meet her? We were two out of five students in a new class that our department was testing, Food and Nutrition Toxicology. The class centered around discussions and presentations. How did we both individually decide to take the class? We found that the course content was interesting and seemed applicable to our research interests. Also, we both struggled in traditional classroom formats.
“And again who are we seeing higher education is reserved for? It’s not about just not systematically alienating a segment of our population. It’s about all benefiting from taking a more inclusive approach. So it’s like at the end of every conference presentation there’s usually the Q and A period and somebody will so I don’t need the mic. But the mic is not for you, it’s for the people in the room who are hard of hearing. And it’s that the thinking that I’d really like to trigger as people think about accessibility.” – Rajiv Jhangiani, Critical Open Pedagogy
Out of this week’s resources, this quote really stood out to me. As instructors, we often rely on our experiences of learning when we develop our teaching methods. How often do we pause and think about the students in the room who come from learning backgrounds that are different from ours?
Rajiv’s podcast episode made me reflect on some important conversations that we have had in our class so far. The episode opened with a conversation about accessibility and the dreaded, expensive textbooks that most professors require their students to purchase. That made me think about the discussions we had in Week 3 – Digital Technology. The small group that I was in talked extensively about the affordability of technology in the classroom. One example that I gave was about when my friends and I shopping for laptops before the beginning of our freshman year. It was almost expected that each student owned a laptop and at the time, I didn’t think that anyone would have a problem with buying a laptop. However, I mentioned this conversation to my friend who went to a smaller university where many of the students were first-generation college students. She had a friend who didn’t have a laptop and never owned one throughout college. He took notes by hand and had to go to the library every night to do his homework. To me, this seemed like a huge accessibility issue since almost every assignment of any class requires a laptop or computer. I’m not sure if that school allowed their students to loan laptops, but I remember when my laptop broke down and I had to loan one from the VT library. The library has a small supply of laptops and some weeks it was difficult for me to borrow one because they were in high demand.
My biggest question right now is how do we get “old school” professors to think in a new mindset where they alter their course to accommodate the needs of marginalized students? One of the professors that I used to TA for often goes to higher education pedagogy workshops and talks on campus. She aspires to learn new techniques to improve her class and make it more inclusive. However, she mentioned that every time she goes to these events, she always sees the same people. How do we include more professors to attend these workshops and improve their classes? In short, there are multiple reasons why they don’t attend, such as time and their focus on research, which takes priority over teaching. Maybe they’re not interested in changing the way they teach because they’ve been teaching like that for decades. However, being exposed to the discussions around open critical pedagogy may allow them to make subtle changes to their classrooms, which could benefit their students.
Update: Thursday 3/21
I just want to thank everyone for allowing me to share my story with you all in class. Thanks for letting me be vulnerable. I welcome any questions or conversations you might want to have about this topic. Let me help you out! There was so much more I wanted to say during class but I just couldn’t find the words and time to express all of my thoughts! I felt like a hot mess during class but I still have difficulties expressing how I feel about sensitive topics like this. I am fortunate to be in a class with so many people who can acknowledge and understand these issues.
This week’s readings brought me back to the 2016 presidential elections. I was genuinely surprised that someone could run for and win presidency with a platform that revolved around racial hate. It made me think about all of the racial equality themes that were stressed in grade school. I messaged a friend after the election and said “What happened? We live in a society where we all say “end racism!” (because no one would ever say “I support racism” besides hate groups). In grade school, we were taught about racial equality and to treat everyone with kindness. I’m surprised someone like him could be elected in the United States.” Sure there are other reasons why he was elected but in my mind, I couldn’t fathom how someone could even run on a platform that stressed hate. It didn’t sit well with me. Is racial equality something that people just say but don’t take action because we know that racism is bad?
You really don’t know your biases unless someone points them out to you and I went through a similar struggle myself. This is something I haven’t shared because it made me so uncomfortable and I didn’t come to terms with it until very recently. After I was accepted into Virginia Tech for undergrad, I looked into scholarships and decided to apply to a 4-year diversity and inclusivity fellowship because I thought, “Hey, I’m Asian, this is great for me. I know a thing or two about diversity.” So I wrote my essay and submitted the application. I was accepted into the program. But now when I think about my essay, I cringe. I basically wrote something like “Colorblindness doesn’t bother me because we should treat everyone equally.” I remember writing the word “colorblind.” I also had a couple of my teachers look over it and they all thought it was a great essay. No one called me out. As a minority, why did I write something like this? Growing up as an Asian-American in a community that was predominantly white and where Asians were the largest minority, I never really encountered racial inequality. This could be in part that Asians are seen as the “model minority” because we study hard and don’t get into trouble (which is not the case). College was about to change this for me.
As part of this fellowship, I had to attend a certain number of events that addressed diversity and inclusion each semester and blog about our experiences with diversity each month. The first year was easy for me. I had much to talk about the diversity on campus. I joined Asian-American student groups and I thought the amount of diversity on campus was amazing given that most of my high school friends were white. Then the second year set in and I really started to struggle. At the time, I felt like I attended the events but felt like I didn’t agree with everything that was being said. Basically, some of the sessions gave me the vibe that “All white people are bad because they did so many bad things to us (minorities) and we need to start doing something about it.” I didn’t agree with that. Not ALL white people are bad. Yes, bad things happened in the past but we need to move forward. I was hung up on “equality” and at the time, did not realize that “equity” is what we needed to achieve. Then, something happened in one of my friend groups.
My friend groups were very homogenous. In fact, the majority of my friends were Asian-American who grew up in similar situations as me and never personally encountered racial attacks or situations where they realize “wow someone is purposefully being racist to me.” We had a couple of white friends in our groups. On one occasion, one of my Asian-American friends attacked my White friend for appropriating Japanese culture. He lashed out at her while we were all at lunch one day and caused a scene in the middle of Hokie Grill. My friend started crying, I started crying, and some of our other friends straight up left because they were so uncomfortable but I stayed with my friend until my other friend was done ranting. It was extremely uncomfortable. My White friend wasn’t intentionally trying to appropriate Japanese culture. In fact, we were all in an organization called Japanese Culture Association because we all loved Japanese culture. What’s worse and something that my friends and I still don’t understand is that our friend who lashed out at her isn’t even Japanese. So then is it okay for another Asian-American, not of Japanese descent, to appropriate Japanese culture but not for a white person to? The logic didn’t make sense. My Asian-American friend was a “social justice warrior” and this was my, and most of my friends, first encounter with social justice. After this encounter, we all had a bad feeling of social justice. It didn’t seem inclusive of everyone, instead it seemed like a movement where only certain groups of people wanted power, but still didn’t stress equality for everyone. We didn’t realize that what we witnessed was one extreme side of social justice.
That situation, coupled with attending seminars and workshops that I didn’t agree with, eventually stopped me from writing my monthly blogs and attending events. I didn’t feel comfortable about sharing my thoughts and feelings on my blog or with the program coordinators because I didn’t agree with how people were approaching these issues. I knew that there was still racism in America and something had to be done but these approaches were just too extreme. Since I stopped everything, I was dropped from the fellowship program during my junior year. Could I have reached out to someone about my thoughts and what I was going through? Sure. I just didn’t because I was so uncomfortable.
What my friends and I needed were time and understanding. A couple of years later, we all started to realize, one way or another, that racism does happen to Asian-Americans in America. We all just needed to have those personal experiences, whether it be micro-aggressions or blatant racist actions. We needed someone to educate us in a way that wasn’t so radical and we needed open discussions about inclusivity and racism. Perhaps approaches to these issues need to be tailored so they can be relevant to different groups of people. Obviously, my experiences gave me a bad taste about social justice. I felt like my narrative can be best described by the typical “Stages of Grief.” Not like I was actually grieving about anything, it just took me a long time to realize why I was approaching diversity and inclusivity incorrectly and how to have appropriate conversations around racism.
Many parts of my narrative bring me to this week’s readings. I knew that people create social groups that are homogenous (as mentioned by Steele in Whistling Vivaldi). My friends and I are no exception. We felt like we could relate to each other with our experiences, which is why we are friends. Another point is that the way that racism, inclusivity, and diversity is taught in schools, both k-12 and college, is not effective. We all need to work together to make these topics into something that is more digestible and something that can be easily discussed. Like mentioned in the “How Diversity Makes Us Smarter” article, the discourse around diversity and inclusivity is particularly negative. It shouldn’t feel like a burden to have these discussions but we have to keep in mind that these conversations have to be inclusive (of course) and we have to allow everyone to speak their mind. In addition, I think that discussions about diversity and inclusion can be applied to any topic. As a student conducting social science research in the health field, these discussions are especially pertinent in the classes that I take. How about other fields where social science isn’t a large component? What are other ways we can incorporate discussions around diversity and inclusion into our classrooms?
A couple years ago, I stumbled across an article that I thought was relevant to this week’s reading. It’s a quick read and I encourage you to check it out. It’s titled “Doing science while black” by Dr. Ed Smith, who is a professor at Virginia Tech.
This is the question that I ask myself and will always ask myself. Now that I am in my 20th year of education, I still have not figured out the most optimal way for me to learn and retain information. Although, I think I am close in finding the answer for myself. But even after I manage to answer, “What is learning?” will my answer apply to anyone else? Probably not because everyone learns information differently. That is one of the reasons why I am in this class. Throughout this semester, I want to learn about new methods of teaching, as well as develop an understanding of the debates that occur in the pedagogy field.
For me, experiential learning, or “hands-on” learning is the best way for me to learn, which I why I enjoy research so much. In research, we sometimes make mistakes, which is mostly fine; except in some circumstances, the consequences of making a mistake while working on a research project is higher than making a mistake in a class. In a class, I might get docked a couple points on an assignment or a test that is worth a fraction of my grade. Therefore, I feel the need to know everything before I start a research project. I wonder if others feel this way about learning and weighing different educational priorities in their life.
Watching “What Baby George Taught me about Learning” actually made me think about my journey through the systematic education system that we have in the United States. I was a pretty lousy “learner” all throughout K-12 and undergrad. I hated studying and memorizing concepts for tests. If I was presented with the option of studying for a test or sleeping, I would sleep. I never felt the urge to study everything before a test and would often go into tests unprepared. I was better at presentations and papers; however, my science major did not have many classes like this because the classes had too many students. This also makes me wonder, how can we integrate this type of “hands-on” learning to large classes that everyone has to take? For example, this semester I am a TA for a senior level class with 200+ students. Maybe some of the students do really well with traditional lecture style classes but are they learning? or are they memorizing? And what about the students like me who do poorly in this type of education setting? Should they be docked points because they can’t conform to the traditional learning system?
I want to touch on blogging as well since we had readings related to blogging. I am one of those people who dread blogging. Sure it has many pros (mentioned in Tim Hitchcock’s article and Sam Godin and Tom Peters’ video) such as serving as platforms for debates, establishing public positions, and improving writing skills, but I just can’t get myself to do it. I am an awful debater and I avoid conflict as often as possible. I do not like seeing or being a part of online debates or “Twitter Wars” because they often get really nasty. If I were given the opportunity to debate a scientist in my field I would do it. I just do not feel comfortable taking a side in issues that I do not fully understand. There is a part of me that always believes that I probably will not fully understand everything, even topics that I research about. I feel like there is always someone who will know more about a topic than I do and that they are more qualified to speak about it than I will. Another reason is that I feel like my writing is not great; therefore, I need to practice before I publically write anything. Or else someone may call me out and say something like “this person is not credible because her grammar is awful.” These barriers prevent me from blogging or tweeting publically.
With this being said, I am excited to work with all of you this semester! I want to learn about new perspectives of teaching, which will help me shape the way I view learning. Perhaps I will learn new techniques to help me help my 200+ students in the class that I am a TA for.
One of the most important things that I’ve learned through this class is that ethics is very complicated. It seems like there is never a “right” answer to any sort of ethical dilemma. Something as simple as catching students cheating on an exam or homework assignment might never have a straightforward solution. I always thought that if a student is caught cheating, they have to go to honor court, but then I met others instructors or professors who are hesitant to report students because they do not want to destroy their future career. The consequences of honor court may be severe enough to prevent someone from going to professional or graduate school or even prevent someone from getting their “dream job.” This was something that I had never thought of before.
When I think of myself and ethics, I always think of a zero-tolerance policy. So for example, I know that cheating is wrong, therefore I will not cheat because there will always be consequences, no matter how small. Besides cheating and academia, I follow rules and laws of our society but I think it is alright to criticize them. Criticizing is important in a democracy, it gives people a voice, which I think is more crucial now then ever. Also, discussing ethics in this class has opened my eyes to how everything can have an ethical dilemma. This class has challenged me to further question things that I thought wouldn’t have thought as of unethical.
I have finished my final project. I would say that my interviews went pretty well. My participants and I often shared stories about our teaching experiences. If I could change anything about my project, I would have tried to recruit more participants. Many TAs were busy during the week that I conducted my interviews. All in all, this was a good project for me, as I learned something from everyone’s teaching experiences.
I, and I hope my fellow graduate students and professors, have a lot of opinions on higher education. There are many factors that play into an undergraduate student’s success in college. I know professors absolutely do not set their students up for failure, but rather I see it as professors have high expectations for their students, which is totally fine. However, some students think their professors are “too strict” because they might make them write many papers or give difficult tests.
The documentary provided some facts that surprised me. I did not know that nationally, one out of four students drop out before sophomore year. I did not think that the percentage would be so high. Especially since I also attended VT for undergrad, I did not see many of my friends or fellow students drop out so soon into their college career. Also in the documentary, there are clips of students who are about to fail classes or rely on extra credit to scrape by. I think extra credit is very beneficial but students cannot rely on extra credit to pass a class. In my opinion, extra credit should be used to bump yourself up a letter grade.
As for solutions, I think that students should receive better education during their high school years. High schools should focus on life skills that are translatable through various careers. I think writing is an important skill that all students should master before college. Then in college, the student’s writing skills can be enhanced based on the required style of writing they need in their major. (Technical writing skills for science and engineering majors, creative writing for English, etc.) If these skills aren’t enhanced during college, these students will graduate and their employers might be disappointed that their employees have terrible writing skills. Just a thought.
I understand that issues around higher education are difficult and take an extremely long amount of time to solve. I am glad that people are thinking about restructuring higher education.