On the eve of departure …

It is the eve of departure. The departure of the Global Perspectives Program Class of 2019. This trip will provide each of us with a unique experience that brings together students across disciplines who have a common interest – that of learning about higher education from a global perspective. I am very excited to begin this new adventure that I am sure will teach me a lot about myself, my peers, and about higher education in Europe. I feel immensely appreciative to have been provided this opportunity and look forward to embracing as many experiences as possible while abroad. As I prepare for a career in academia, I am particularly interested in learning more about the differences between American and European higher education systems and how each system can complement the other. Having the opportunity to interact with colleagues from several other universities and learn first-hand of their individual and collaborative experiences is exciting! Additionally, I look forward to learning more about my peers travelling with me – what their research interests are, what they do for fun, how their previous experiences differ, what their career aspirations are, etc. I anticipate many meaningful conversations that I am sure will leave lasting impressions on me and will further culminate my interest in and understanding of global practices in academia.

It is the eve of departure. And while I may be a little nervous, I once heard that “if we were meant to stay in one place, we would have roots, not feet.” So “alpaca” my bags and let my feet lead the way to a great adventure.

Surprises About Switzerland

It was very interesting to learn about Switzerland at our last GPP meeting from citizens. There were many things that were discussed that surprised me, though I think the fact that surprised me the most concerned how the Swiss government is structured. More specifically, the three political levels include: (1) federal/confederation, (2) 26 cantons, and (3) 2721 municipalities/communes. There is a decentralized division of power, where issues are solved at the lowest level possible. The government is also run on the basis of solidarity, where fiscal transfers occur from richer to poorer regions.

Perhaps the most surprising part of the government system is that the President changes every year! The President is a member of a 7-person cabinet, where each cabinet member is elected by the 2 chambers of parliament (coming from 4 different parties, as opposed to our two party system in the United States). These members go up for re-election every 4 years, where most members will be continuously reelected until they choose to retire. Cabinet members may retire within a given 4-year term, at which instance, an election is held to fill that one position. I was also surprised that there were no term limits for cabinet positions and that the only requirement to serve on the cabinet is that you are 18 years old, though nobody has ever been elected when that young.

The President is one of the 7 cabinet members. Typically, who becomes the President is based on seniority. After serving for one year, the next senior member tends to take over as President. A major difference between the President in the United States and the President of Switzerland is that the President of Switzerland has very little power in and if him/herself. Their major job is to lead all of the cabinet meetings and to welcome any foreign delegates visiting Switzerland. Additionally, members of the cabinet are not allowed to discuss their own personal views on political matters – they are expected to stand for the views of the political party, regardless of their own personal opinions on different matters. In fact, they can get in trouble if they make statements that do not directly align with their political party’s. This is in stark contrast to the political opinions of politicians in the United States – where people tend to fall within one party or another, but most politicians do not hesitate to express their person opinions on given matters, regardless of how well it may align with their party’s view. There seems to be a lot more “gray” area in American politics.

Overall, our government and the Swiss government appear to be very different on many levels. It will be very interesting to learn more and see first-hand what these differences are and how politics does, or does not, affect higher education in Switzerland (France and Italy too)!

US Higher Education

I am 30 years old, and I have been in “college” since I was 18 (with less than 1 year break somewhere in the middle). This is my 11 year in higher education within the United States system. One might say that this amount of time in “the system” makes me knowledgeable. Perhaps, in some ways, I am. However, I still learn more and more about the United States system every day.

Wikipedia defines higher education in the United States as “ … an optional final stage of formal learning following secondary education. Higher education, also referred to as post-secondary education, third stage, or tertiary education, occurs most commonly at one of the 4,360 Title IV degree-granting institutions, either colleges of universities in the country. These may be public universities, private universities, liberal arts colleges, community colleges, or for-profit colleges. Higher education in the United States is loosely regulated by a number of third-party organizations that vary in quality.”

This definition, even, has taught me something new about higher education in the United States. I did not know what Title IV meant, so I googled it. Title IV refers to a portion of the Higher Education Act of 1965 that talks about federal student financial aid programs. As discussed in a previous reflection, higher education in the United States is IMMENSELY expensive. People spend decades paying off federal and private loans that payed for their higher education. While I have been very fortunate in that I have received scholarships, fellowships, and grants that have covered 100% of my higher education (bachelors, masters, and doctoral), I fully recognize that this is not the norm. My wife is in a lot of debt from her undergraduate degree, and we are now accruing more debt as she pursues a doctorate in physical therapy. Her debt is becoming mine, which makes me more and more (painfully) aware at the stress that debt causes.

Currently, 44 million people collectively owe $1.5 trillion dollars in student loan debt in the United States (Forbes 2018). One. Point. Five. TRILLION. Dollars. Sheesh – it is hard to comprehend this. And, the average person who owes student loan debt, owe nearly $40,000! It is depressing. We go to college to get an education so that we can get a job and support ourselves (and sometimes others). But, we continue to drag the ball and chain of a huge amount of debt long after we “finish” our degree. Something needs to change. Education reform needs to happen. How do you fix this? I do not know. Maybe a few more years in higher education will give me the answers. LOL.

That all said, I am greatly appreciative of my education and the opportunities it has presented to me. I have been fortunate and have had numerous excellent experiences. But … I am not personally in debt.

European Higher Education

Last weekend, I was visiting with my family in Richmond. Our neighbors, a nice couple in their late 70s, are good friends of ours. Dr. Bergland is a professor emeritus at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) who has traveled the world. He told me that, based on his experiences abroad, it seemed like European universities were trying to adopt a more American approach to graduate education. For example, he mentioned that graduate students do not appear to get as much one-on-one time and attention from their advisors, which sometimes leads to discontent among graduate students who feel they still have a lot to learn. He also mentioned that many graduate students in Europe do not have committees – they are solely advised by one advisor. The benefit of having a committee, as opposed to one advisor, is that you have more direct access to a number of researchers with various areas of expertise that you can utilize for your Master’s degree and/or dissertation.

That all said, it seems like we (in America) would like to adapt more European qualities prevalent in higher education. For example, the Bologna Process, signed in 1999, helped make higher education much more affordable for anyone attending university in the 19 countries that signed. In Europe, higher education is heavily subsidized by local governments; thus, higher education costs range from free to the equivalent of a couple hundred dollars per semester. Additionally, graduate students are also considered employees and are payed as such (with benefits). In high contrast, higher education in the United States costs upwards of $25,000/year (at more “reasonably” priced universities), which puts people in thousands upon thousands of dollars in debt. It seems that people are told that to get a “good” job and make “good” money, one must obtain at least a bachelor’s degree. However, to go to college, we spend a huge amount of money and often end up in debt that takes decades to pay off. Higher education is becoming more and more of a “required luxury” so to speak in the United States. We need to go to make money, but we will be paying for it for the rest of our lives. Furthermore, in the United States, graduate students make little if any money, are provided limited (if any) benefits, and often have to pay their tuition (even if it is “research” hours).

While these are only two areas that strongly differ between higher education in the US and higher education in Europe, it appears that perhaps a compromised approach to higher education is mandated. The European models perhaps should add more emphasis on post-bachelorette instruction, while the American model needs to determine how to make higher education more affordable. Perhaps if more students and more universities create and participate in programs such as Virginia Tech’s Global Perspectives Program, a happy medium can be created using the strengths of both approaches and improving upon the weaknesses of both. I will be very interested to learn more about these differences, and I am sure countless others, while I am abroad this summer. I am especially interested in learning more about diversity-related issues in Europe, mental health awareness, and approaches to disrupting academic bullying.


Critical Pedagogy and Disney

Kincheloe. Freire. Hooks. These three educators, students, facilitators, trailblazers, and HUMANS have been extremely influential in the growing field/ideology/movement of “critical pedagogy.” So, what is critical pedagogy? Countless definitions abound, but our group thought critically and worked collaboratively to create this definition: 

“Critical pedagogy is a humanistic, interactive process that challenges hierarchical systems of learning, and establishes the co-construction of knowledge in collaboration with educator (facilitator) and student.”     

 ~Arash Sarshar, Erin Heller, Sogand Mohammadhasanzadeh, Patrick Salmons, Hana Lee, Jyotsana Sharma, and Selva Marroquín, 2018 ~

So how did we get to this definition (Mulan – “Let’s get down to business)? We can’t take full credit for it of course (and when you think about it, can we ever take full credit for anything we create, as our thoughts are the culmination of countless interactions and experiences obtained through interactions with countless of the other people … but that is another blog), as we used the expertise and thoughts of the above three stated pedagogical sensai. Their writings all shared common themes of the importance of less clear boundaries between students and teachers (or the elimination of these boundaries all together) … teachers are students and students are teachers … and the importance of teaching should not be merely the transfer of knowledge but the sharing of concepts and the encouragement to think for oneself (remember everyone always says “think outside of the box!”) The idea that ritualistic memorization and regurgitation of facts is not truly learning and that we need to shift away from this outdated approach to “judging” the intellect of students. We need to encourage students to think about things that are not explicitly taught, to think about things never thought about (or verbalized) before, and to not just judge others on their ability to retell what has already be told. School should not be about Beauty and the Beast — that is “tale as old as time.” New ideas, concepts, and theories are the core of growing, developing, and learning. If students only learn what they are told, everything remains stagnant. That brings us full circle (Lion King – “The circle of life!!”) to define the different aspects of our definition of critical pedagogy:

Humanistic: the ability to be human and be vulnerable with students. As an educator being able to convey that one is not necessarily an expert and that knowledge is not an absolute but co-constructed by all the individuals in the classroom environment.

Interactive process that challenges hierarchical systems of learning: it emerged from the necessity of continuing to create an atmosphere of democracy in education because education follows political structures.

Co-construction of knowledge in collaboration with educator and studentWhen thinking about teaching and learning, it should not be understood as a simple student-teacher relationship. Rather what these readings demonstrate, and our own anecdotal teaching experience illuminates, is that there should not be an oppressive figure teaching what should be learned. Thinking about knowledge and its construction between multiple variables allows for diversity, opinion, and actual critical thinking. Opening up the conversation in a Hegelian fashion allows for facilitation by the educator.

Okie. That’s all we got. Education should be like acapella singers — the culmination of ALL of our voices (thoughts) is what makes us great. Drop the mic.

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What animals can teach us about inclusive pedagogy

Wildlife & inclusive pedagogy. How do these words correlate? For some, the relationship may be unclear. But for someone like me who studies animals, the animal kingdom can teach us (humans) a thing or two about inclusive pedagogy. But first, what is inclusive pedagogy? According to Georgetown University “Inclusive pedagogy is a method of teaching in which instructors and classmates work together to create a supportive environment that gives each student equal access to learning. In these courses, the content takes into account the range of perspectives in the class, and is delivered in a way that strives to overcome barriers to access that students might have. Inclusive classrooms work to ensure that both teacher and student participation promote thoughtfulness and mutual respect” (https://commons.georgetown.edu/teaching/design/inclusive-pedagogy/). In other words, inclusive pedagogy is simply making sure that students with different backgrounds, learning styles, perspectives, and experiences all receive an education that works for them (i.e., there is no “one size fits all” in education).

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While animals most likely do not consciously think about inclusive pedagogy or teaching in general, some animals raise and teach not only their own young but the young of others as well. These animals are inclusive. It does not matter to them that some of their pupils/babies/friends/choose whatever word you want, look different, sound different, smell different, act differently, etc. All that matters is that these animals are put in the care-for and teaching role – and they embrace it. Stories about an animal of one species befriending, taking care of, and “teaching” an animal of a different species are relatively commonplace. Of course there are stories that are twisted and misconstrued to pull at heart-strings (e.g., the lioness and the antelope), so it is important to take this all with a grain of salt, but countless examples of true mutual relationships between species exist. For example, there is the dog who is best friends with a duckling and helps teach the duckling to swim and the cat that adopts a baby squirrel that fell out of a tree and teaches the baby squirrel to purr (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Gr5P-36w1Q). I know – my point here may be a bit of a stretch, but I kept thinking about this all weekend and so had to get some of these thoughts out!

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Now, I realize many will argue that these examples of animals taking care of other animals is not teaching and is driven solely by some maternal or paternal instinct. And part of me agrees with that. But, another part of me has observed animals enough to know that they have empathy and compassion towards others and that they communicate in ways that are often too subtle for us to notice. I have watched my dogs teach my puppy how to do certain things (same species example, I know). However, it really doesn’t matter why animals will raise and teach other animals. It only matters that they do (and that it is really cute!)

Mimicry … Crime or Flattery?

As humans, we mimic each other. We mimic the behaviors we see, the way we hear people talk, and the way we interact with others. Therefore, it is not a far leap to say that whom we become as teachers is likely based (at least somewhat) on whom the teachers we have had are/were. Ideally, we only mimic the behaviors, actions, nuisances, etc that we deem positive; yet, I know for a fact that mimicry is much more complicated than that. Unfortunately, while we may pick up some positive traits from others, we also pick up negative traits. Even worse, we can lose sight of whom we are by trying to be someone else.

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They say that mimicry is the greatest form of flattery. And, to an extent, I understand that. If someone likes what you are doing enough to attempt copying it, it is gratifying. That said, however, our teachers should not teach us to be like them. They should teach us how to be the best versions of ourselves. Sarah Deel points this out in “Finding My Teaching Voice” where she discusses how important it is to be genuine as a teacher. Students will not respect you if they realize you are being fake – thus, if you are not funny, don’t try to be. If you are not super animated and extroverted, don’t pretend that you are. Deel further states that teachers are not entertainers … yes, teachers need to hold the attention of their students, but it is not their job to act. It is important that teachers be themselves. Your teaching voice should not be worlds-away different than your every-day (professional) voice.

That said, teachers should still be trained (cough, taught) to teach. While to some, teaching comes naturally, to others, it does not. This is one thing that baffles me about our higher education system. When I was an undergraduate, I assumed that all of my TAs were experts in the fields they were teaching. While at times I suspected otherwise (we all have had a TA or two who made us question this), I didn’t fully comprehend the fallacy behind this until I became a TA myself. I attended a brief 2 day seminar that discussed teaching and tested me to see if I could talk in front of others and relay information. But, I was not tested on my knowledge of the material to be presented in the class to which I was assigned. I was fortunate in that I have taken numerous Biology courses and thus felt relatively comfortable giving biology lectures 3 days a week. However, I still had to brush up on the basics. Since then, I have heard of many people who are assigned to TA or teach classes they have never taken before. To me, this is crazy. Students pay thousands upon thousands of dollars for a college education, and we give them people who have never even learned about the topic they are teaching? Even professors, who hopefully are experts in their fields, do not have to have teaching experience. And, sadly, this often shows. Many don’t even like teaching, and, as the saying goes:

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So, what is the solution? How can we teach people to teach without them just mimicking others? Personally, I believe that the answers starts with encouraging creativity and fostering the ideal of self-confidence. People who are confident in themselves are less likely to feel the need to copy others. What are others’ thoughts?

Assessing Assessments: How We Discourage Learning by Trampling Imagination

We are assessed everyday of our lives, whether we realize it or not, on pretty much everything we do. Obviously, we are assessed in school on how well we can remember what is taught to us and are given a grade that reflects the teacher’s opinion of our performances. We are assessed when playing sports based on how well we run, throw, shoot a basket, etc and are assessed by either making the team or not and then by either starting or bench-warming. Outside of these more obvious examples of being assessed, we are assessed based on what we wear, how we look, what car we drive, what food we buy, etc. And, sadly, I admit that I am guilty of assessing people (typically subconsciously) on all of these accounts. I think it is probably pretty fair to say that all of us do this, unintentionally. For example, when I go grocery shopping, if I see someone with a cart full of soda, cookies, chips, etc with no fresh fruit and veggies, I typically think that this person is really unhealthy and/or poorly informed on nutritional guidelines (even though they could just being buying a bunch of food for their Super Bowl party, and that particular shopping cart is not at all indicative of their overall eating habits). This is a perfect example of why grading students on everything is not ideal. That person at the store would have received an “F” in Health Ed based on that day’s shopping cart … but maybe overall, he/she/they would get an “A+. Grades are snapshots … not the big picture.

Assessment is a part of life, whether we like it or not. But, there are so many approaches we can take towards assessing others. In regards to our education system, grades are king, despite the evidence showing that grading students reduces their interest in what is being taught and encourages students to take the path of least resistance in order to get good grades (Alfie Kohn, “The Case Against Grades”). Kohn discusses how some schools have found success in replacing letter/number grades with “narrative assessments” or to have students assign themselves grades and then have the teacher and student discuss the reasons behind this assessment. The teacher, of course, has the final say – but I like that this enables kids to think critically about how they perform and gives them a voice. However, this seems like it would be a huge amount of work for the teachers – and therefore, likely not possible in large college classes. That said, this form of assessment is commonly used in “the real world” through our annual reviews where we self-assess, get assessed, and discuss with our superiors. Since a major point of going to school is preparation for “the real world,” shouldn’t we assess students in a way that directly translates to how they will be assessed later in life? Giving grades on everything would be the equivalent to my advisor micromanaging me every day and critiquing everything I do constantly (rather than look at the bigger picture of my strengths, weaknesses, etc). Our assessment should be part of our learning adventure – not an evaluation of how we “perform” every step along the way. If I were to run a marathon, I might trip at mile 15 but still get a PR.

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In my opinion, the biggest problem with grades is that it can discourage imagination, creativity, and risk-taking. Students are encouraged to follow the path of least resistance, which minimizes the creation of novel ideas. Liu & Noppe-Brandon (in Imagination First) discuss how Einstein is the picture of intelligence not because he was necessarily significantly smarter than the average person (though he very well may have been), but because he was not afraid to imagine, create, and fail. Failure is such an important learning tool, but in school we are taught that failing is bad, and it means we aren’t learning and succeeding. Most people will admit that they learn more from their failures than their successes, so why do we make “failure” such a bad thing? At the end of the day, qualitative feedback is much more beneficial than a letter or numeric grade. When grades are assigned, even if teachers provide qualitative feedback, most students ignore the feedback if they are happy with the letter/number grade (or if they just don’t care). Students would learn more if they were actually asked to read and absorb the feedback and make the corrections.

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At the end of the day, assessments will never go away. And I don’t think that they should. Being assessed encourages us to grow. It is HOW we are assessed that matters.

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Why are we taught to be sheep?

Although I study animals, I do not study domesticated animals. Despite this, I know that sheep like to remain in flocks (or is it herds?), as they take the evolutionary approach of survival based upon the power of numbers. They follow each other around and do not stray far from others. They do not seek alone time; they do not follow a butterfly to greener pastures; and they do not question their version of authority. Because of this (and because they have no sharp teeth or claws to defend themselves with), sheep are considered meek. We even define the word sheepish as lacking self-confidence. Yet, our education system “trains” us to be just like sheep. We are taught that certain things are facts, and that is just the way it is. We are typically not taught to question, to ask “why”, or to contradict what authority says is true. In fact, it is commonly stated that once you get to graduate school you have to “learn to think for yourself.” So, let me get this straight – we spend 20+ years learning to think like others before it is ubiquitously expected for us to think individually!?!?

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Reading Ellen Langer’s article “Mindful Learning” really hit this home for me. She discusses how we are taught the basics until the basics become second nature. We automatically drive on the right side of the road (in the US); we put forks on the left side of the plate when setting the table; and we don’t question “why.” Now, I am not suggesting that you got out tomorrow and see how you feel about driving on the left side of the road around here – some things we are taught should be followed. However, if you travel to England, you have to ditch your learned “second-nature” of driving on the right to be safe. I particularly liked the example about how we set the table. I had never thought about why we put the fork on the left side of the plate and the knife on the right. It really doesn’t make sense for the majority of the population, as right-handed folk typically hold their forks in their right hands and knives in the left. As a child, I was just taught that “this is how it is done,” and so, I accepted it.

As I got older, I was rewarded in school for blindly accepting what I was taught. I got A’s if I memorized what my teachers told me and did not do well when I didn’t. But what if the teachers are wrong (and having taught in the past, I can assure you that I was wrong sometimes)? Every day, research is showing us how things that were historically considered “common knowledge” are now incorrect (e.g., the world is flat; the Earth is the center of the universe; smoking doesn’t cause cancer). Every day, people prove that pushing the boundaries and not listening to what everyone told them furthers our understanding of the world. If everyone stayed a sheep, there would be no change. We need to start teaching children to think for themselves – it is as simple as saying “this COULD BE the answer to that question” vs “this IS the answer to that question”. In part, graduate school is so challenging because it is the first time we are truly and consistently evaluated on how well we can think for ourselves. Maybe, graduate school would be less daunting, less stressful, and less likely to cause or contribute to mental health concerns if we were “taught” how to think for ourselves.

I could go on and on about this topic. But I leave you with this: it’s good to be the “black” sheep (even though we are taught it is not). It’s even better to be a rainbow-colored lion. So go out there and ROAR!

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Let’s talk WITH our students – not AT them

How do we, as educators, compete with the increasing number of distractions around our students? How can we get students to learn when their attentions are split among several things or are elsewhere all together? The answers to these questions are simple: we can’t compete, and we can’t get students to learn when their heads are somewhere else. But, what we can do is learn to teach in a way that engages students, so that their minds don’t have time drift away. So, how do we do this?

In my opinion, to do this, we must move away from the dominant lecture-style teaching format. Cellphones, laptops, iPads, Apple watches, etc all provide students with constant access not only to their friends and family but to the entire world via the internet. There is no way that they can listen to our voices droning on and on while they read the latest tweets and status updates. Don’t get me wrong, lecturing has its place in the classroom and can be an important teaching tool. For example, Robert Talbert discusses how lectures can be used in a beneficial manner in “Four Things Lecture is Good For” (2012) by stating that lectures are bad for transferring information from teacher to student but are good for covering a lot of material. He also states that people who are good at lecturing incorporate big-picture views about the topic being lectured. That is – lectures should not just spew fact after fact about one topic – they need to explain why the facts are important and relate the topic being lectured to other topics.

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However, standing in front of a group of people talking AT them for an hour plus doesn’t accomplish what we want it to. Instead of talking AT our students we need to talk WITH them. We should not be the only voices being heard in the classroom. Our students should express their thoughts, their ideas, their opinions, and their experiences in class (when appropriate and asked for, of course). Everybody has a different set of knowledge and skills that make his/her/their voices have something unique to say. And just because we are educators, does not mean we should not be educated every day as well. Even if our students don’t know more about the topic being discussed than we do, they may ask a question that sparks an engaging conversation. Or they may have a comment that insights feelings in other students that prompt them to speak up. Even the statements of “I don’t understand” or “can someone explain this in a different way” are extremely valuable to us as teachers. This lets us know that we need to LEARN to express something in a different manner. As Marc Carnes states in “Setting Students’ Minds on Fire” (2011), students are dropping out of college not because they cannot afford it (though that does play some role) but because they are not interested! Why spend thousands upon thousands of dollars on “not learning” something you’re not interested in?

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We cannot (or should not) forbid technology in the classroom without major pushback (see “Laptops and Phones in the Classroom: Yea, Nay Or a Third Way?” by Anna Kamenetz,2018). So, we need to get students to engage in their classes so that they are not bored and want to read that “Bob just got his hair cut and is feeling fresh” more than listen to us talk. Just as we are taught as children to earn the respect of others, as teachers we need to earn the attention (which can translate into respect) from our students. Making them feel talked at and unheard won’t accomplish this. I realize I am not providing any answers here on how to engage students, particularly while incorporating technology – that is up to us to discuss WITH our teachers and peers!