Academy of GTA Excellence

Discussions and Thoughts as I work with and in the Academy of GTA Excellence

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.


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.

Significance and Montessori in Higher Education

This week as we were discussing mindfull learning and anti-teaching I came across this blog post from an instructional designer at Rice University that discusses some cognitive research on children and how they are being taught and what they do with what they are taught. Even though I found the post a few days ago and tweeted about it then, it has still been playing on my mind. What the research boiled down to is that the children who were explained exactly how the toy worked then proceeded to spend less time playing with it. The children/students were not interested in figuring out other ways that it may work or other things that it may do. In the end the direct instruction limited creativity.

The study reminded me of the readings from this week that discussed practicing lessons to the point of overlearning it and mindlessly accepting information. This allows for when individuals come across a challenge, they do not know how to work around it and come up with a solution without repeating the formula they already learned and had repeated dozens of times. When we force students to learn our way of how things work we are limiting their own creativity. We are also limiting how students will find significance and how they may use the information in the future.

These are ideas and conversations that are not only on-going within Virginia Tech and higher education as a whole, they are also ideas that are constantly floating around in my head. As I have mentioned before (or if you dug deep enough in my blog site) I was involved in a MOOC last semester in which Mike Wesch led the discussion about “Why we need a Why”, in which the discussion brought up the idea of significance. At the time I was a few weeks into teaching a new course to me, and blogged about my student’s view of the significance of the course. This semester, now my second semester teaching this course, my students have found other significance in the course. In particular, they see how knowing and understanding how children and adolescents develop will make them better able to understand human processes as they enter into their careers of hospitality management, education, counseling, physical therapy, computer science, etc. My students are finding significance in the course far outside of the significance I would have gotten from it, which is wonderful and potentially one of the benefits of teaching a social science.

Another way that I try and guide them to find significance in the course that can translate outside of this one class is by guiding them on a semester long research paper. Yes, it is relatively structured in that they have certain portions they have to do within a certain time frame, and they are some-what limited to their topics. However, their topics are broad enough, where they can make it their own, such as bullying and gender. Some choose topics because they were already meaningful to them while others choose them based on what they know the least about, and others have chosen some based on what they think will be most useful to them to know about in the future. This paper allows them to read through the research that is out there on these topics, figure out what is most meaningful, and write a coherent paper. I hope that along the way they learn the skills to repeat the process again and be able to read the literature out there on the topic of child and adolescent development.

One of the topic choices that I give my students is on Montessori method of education. For those of you who have never heard of this approach, here is a short history of it. Maria Montessori was an Italian physician in the late 19th/early 20th century, who spent her career researching childhood education up to age 12 (the last age she studied before dying with plans to go further). Within her educational method, children are able to move about the classroom as they wish and choose the work that will be most meaningful to them at the time. The teacher is a facilitator to their learning. The Montessori method is constantly playing on my mind as to how it can relate to higher education. I would love to develop my thoughts on it more as I continue down the path of teaching in higher education. In part, I think it goes back to not limiting the creativity of students, allowing them to find answers for themselves, working on what speaks to them, and finding significance in the work that they are doing.

Conveyer Belt Teaching

I found this while exploring some of the previous semester’s GEDI blogs: I loved reading about someone’s experience as an outsider visiting my alma mater. I love Hollins and to this day I will occasionally go to Roanoke just to knock on the Dean of Student’s door to chat with her about something. I am also one of the alums who provides a lot of volunteer support to the institution.

It is my experience at Hollins that has led me to where I am today. It also is an added challenge for me as an instructor at a school so different from Hollins. As a graduate student who is also an instructor of record, I do not have an office entirely my own to meet with students. All graduate students who teach share a space. Being more physically accessible for students is something I wish I could do. There are so many ways in which I wish I had the chance to connect with students more. I want to see them grow even past the one semester that I have them in my course. I want to be one of the instructors that is accessible to my students, like I had as an undergrad. I am just not completely sure how to do so when I have a new group of 80 students each semester and am teaching online.

I feel like I am not truly getting to know them. I can see their work, but they are staying anonymous. I feel like all I am doing is helping them check off these CLE classes so they can graduate. I am seeing some growth and development throughout the semester, which is good, but I do wonder how much is sticking with them. If they are struggling with something outside of class, or even something that affects their schoolwork, I often have no idea and very little way of helping them once they leave my class. I guess one way to look at it is I am trying to reconcile some of my small, liberal arts school ideals in such a large university. There is the question posed to students as they are looking for which college to attend about whether they want to be relatively anonymous in a large school with large classes or known fully in small classes and even as an instructor I would love to know my students more fully. I am trying to find ways to do so in these large online classes, but am definitely not satisfied with how I am doing with it and probably never will be.

I found this article as I was thinking about a lot of this recently: I also tweeted about this article. The article discusses how students desire instructors, faculty, and administrators to notice them. To have a human connection with them. The author, James Lang, talks about providing plates of knowledge without truly looking at those we are handing the plates to. In some ways, that is the way I feel. But the analogy that I see is more like a conveyer belt. I deliver the goods to the students and help them check this requirement off of their to-do list. But am I actually reaching them? Is what I do and what I require of them making a difference? How am I to know when I never see or hear from them again?

Last semester I participated in Connected Courses, where in conjunction with the international MOOC, a group here at Virginia Tech met regularly to discuss what was being taught and talked about in the bigger MOOC. It was a group of graduate students and faculty who had a special interest in connected courses. It opened my eyes to a lot of pedagogical discussions I had not previously known about. It also allowed me to begin developing a network of other budding professors who share some of the same values in teaching that I do. I left knowing so much more and having so many ideas, yet not completely sure my what next step with these ideas should be. One thing that I am struggling with is how to use technologies for classes that I am not entirely comfortable with. I think that is something that will be slowly developed over the course of my career.

Something that I did come away with, however, is the acknowledgement of how amazing blogs can be to connect you with people far outside your institution and your discipline. I received a response to one of my blog posts ( that I have really taken to heart. I believe the person was from CSU-Chico, so approximately 3000 miles away from my institution. She said that every time she meets with a student she asks them how they are doing. It’s simple, but it can be so powerful. I am not always great at remembering to do that, but in a similar fashion, I think something that we can do is be more mindful in our interactions with students. One thing that I have been trying to do this semester is thanking the students when they e-mail me a question. I am also being a bit more thorough in explaining why I am asking them to do something. How it benefits them, their classmates, and sometimes, how it benefits me. Those two things have already helped to develop connections with students and we are only a week into the semester. I hope that as things become busier in the semester, I can maintain that, as I see the benefit.

Welcome Back!

This semester I will be continuing to maintain this blog. I will be doing it in relation to three different projects and classes I am involved with. The first being the GEDI (Graduate Education Development Institute) course here at Virginia Tech, which discusses pedagogical practices in the 21st century. The second being the Global Perspectives (GPP 2015) study abroad opportunity and seminar. The final being as a part of the new Academy of Graduate Teaching Assistant (GTA) Excellence in which I am a “founding member”.

For those of you who have not read my blogs and are now getting to know me through one of these avenues, here is a little bit about me: I am a third generation academic and the second generation at Virginia Tech. I was born and raised in Blacksburg, and though I see its weaknesses, I still love it. I went to Hollins University in Roanoke and earned my bachelor’s in psychology. It is a small all-women’s liberal arts college where I grew so much and could not have asked for a better undergraduate experience. I then earned my master’s degree in general psychology from University of North Carolina Wilmington. I made some wonderful friends and loved living by the beach (and watching them film TV shows and movies!). Now, I am back in Blacksburg as a PhD student in Human Development with a concentration in Family Studies. My broad research area is in sexual minority (LGBQ+) couples and families.

If you want to know more, ask! I look forward to widening my community and network through this blog and these experiences this year!