chronically ch(ill) – diversity as a spoonie

FUN FACT: you cannot be inclusive if you’re ignoring the invisible

I think about inclusivity often, but maybe not in the way that people would assume. Visually, I appear to be a completely healthy, happy, active person with a lot of privileges, but I have a secret struggle that I will touch on in a bit- I’m a spoonie. Haven’t heard of it? Don’t worry, we’ll get to that- but first, let’s cover the basics of the inclusivity discussion.

Diversity and Inclusion is important to me for many reasons- as an empath, I tend to feel what others are feeling, so a passion for social justice was inevitable. As a woman, I am passionate about advocating for my rights and equality in the workplace. As an individual in an interracial relationship, I have had conversations about how my children will have a different life growing up than I did, simply because of the fact that they will be biracial.  As future professors, we need to address topics related to diversity head on with compassion and the ability to step back and listen to those with different experiences. How do we address white privilege? How can we be inclusive to nontraditional students? How can we better include international students? Students from different socioeconomic backgrounds? Students who are non-binary? We have spoken before about intersectionality before, but while race, gender, and sexuality seem to be at the forefront of this discussion, I think inclusivity ranges far beyond these topics.

Let me ask you a question:
How often do you think about being able bodied?

“The Spoon Theory” was created by a woman named Christine Miserandino in an attempt to help explain to an able-bodied person what it’s like to live with a chronic illness. Imagine that every day, you wake up with an unlimited amount of spoons. Throughout the day, you use these spoonfuls of energy to do various tasks, and the next day you wake up with the same unlimited amount. People with chronic illness have a limited number of spoons, so they have to decide how they will spend those spoons every day, and what goes on the cutting board. Here is a little graphic to help explain to my visual learners!

I am an individual with an invisible chronic illness. I have a form of dysautonomia, an autonomic nervous system disorder that causes my heart rate to skyrocket and my blood pressure to plummet in response to triggers. These triggers range from severe pain, to stress, to simply standing up too fast- my heart starts pounding and my face turns white and WOOPS I am unconscious on the floor, sometimes with some very unattractive muscle contractions. I deal with severe migraines, chronic fatigue, disordered sleep, joint pain, gastrointestinal problems, brain fog, anxiety, and temporomandibular joint dysfunction all on a daily basis.  Basically, the more stressed I get, the sicker I become, and nobody can tell.My cabinet at home looks like a pharmacy. Living with an invisible illness brings with it its own set of issues (if you’re interested, NPR did a great write up about this).

In the classroom, I have to navigate lectures while dealing with fatigue and having to elevate my legs to keep conscious. If you just looked at me, you’d never know that I am not completely able bodied, which has led to professors thinking I’m just lazy or being difficult. Dysautonomia International even has a guide on classroom accommodations for individuals with this disorder. However, when I’ve told professors in the past, I am often met with skepticism, concern, and even exasperation. This past week, in fact, I had a professor tell me that having me in class on a really bad pain day is distracting, because “sometimes you put your head down on the desk because of the pain”. Also, sometimes chronic illness can ebb and flow, with some weeks much better than others. Then, you deal with the “so you’re all better now?” comments. Accommodating me, it seems, is more of a headache than the chronic migraines that keep me in bed for two days with a bag of frozen veggies on my head!

my constant dilemma

In considering inclusive pedagogy, I think we need to start inviting individuals with chronic illness and invisible illness into the conversation. Being inclusive means being accommodating, and understanding, and not dismissive toward people who are facing a private struggle. Just because you can’t see the pain and discomfort I am in, does not mean that it’s not there and making my educational journey more difficult. Let’s start having these uncomfortable conversations about racism, sexism, and ablism. It is only through open, honest communication that we can learn from one another and develop a more intersectional, diverse classroom where everyone has the same access.

Week 4 – Anti-Teaching / Mindful Learning

When I first got the syllabus for this class, I remember reading over the readings for each week and mentally putting a star by this one. In my own life, mindfulness has been such a beneficial resource for my own mental health, physical health, and education. While the word itself may make you think of something like this TED talk, the truth I have learned is that “mindfulness” can be applied to every part of your life- including teaching and learning. As the A New Culture of Learning reading pointed out, we must be aware and utilize the various “motivations for learning across generations, platforms, purposes, and goals” (p. 31). 

I would make the argument that simply “going through the motions” is potentially dangerous to education. While it is true that repetition is important to mastering a skill (we have all grown up hearing “practice makes perfect!), if we are not being intentional about our actions and choices, are we really learning? We have all been out driving to work or class and then realized we just kind of “showed up” where we were headed- how dangerous is this to our driving! Processing information with intention is so important to safety and growth.

I liked how the “Mindful Learning” reading pointed out that teachers have the ability to take large quantities of information and turn it into bite-sized pieces. In my own experience, I can confirm that sometimes it is hard to get students to focus when there is so much information stuffed into one semester. Once you lose the attention of your students, what is the point of continuing to lecture to a dead room?

 

Here are some of my resulting questions this week:

  • How could mindful learning improve your classroom as a teacher?
  • How could mindful learning improve your classroom from the perspective of a student?
  • What does mindfulness look like to you?

Week 3 – Engaging the Imaginations of Digital Learners

In thinking about how the field of communication can participate in the conversation about digital learners, I feel that the discipline is positioned to be a pioneer in education for the digital age.

I am a media scholar. In laymen terms, I research how media (from videos, to photos, to writings) impact the lives and identities of individuals and their overarching societal culture. Take for instance what classrooms look like- thirty years ago, people were taking notes by hand and attendance to lectures was necessary to succeed. Nowadays, as discussed in class, we are living in an age where information is instantly available and readily shared. The very culture of higher education is changing, shifting, trying to reflect the lives of the students they serve.

I feel the need, at this point, to point out that sentence again. The very culture of higher education is changing, shifting, trying to reflect the lives of the students they serve. I personally struggle with the “research first, students second” approach I have noticed at various universities. Of course, research is an integral part of education and vital to the growth of academic disciplines. However, if we are ignoring our students’ needs, their specific path to success, just in order for academics to pump out research, I think we are failing as educators in higher education.

We mentioned that there is no blanket statement, so clear one-size-fits-all way of teaching students today. However, I would argue that the same applied to students thirty years ago, and will continue to be true thirty years in the future. Students are ever-evolving, adapting to technological advances in society that inevitable impact the way they learn. I think it is vital for educators to take these advancements and changes into consideration and try to apply them in the classroom.

Take communication research, for example. Performative studies can be applied to the way people perform their identities online, so we should be integrating those points into our lectures. We should encourage students to apply concepts to their own lives- their actual, complex, messy lives!

The Talbert article (“Four Things Lecture is Good For“) really stood out to me, particularly how “information transfer” was not on the list. Rather, there is an emphasis on teachers performing their research, engaging students and connecting. I specifically loved the section about telling stories- in communication studies, we are very aware of how narratives shape our sense of reality and help us to connect with one another. Therefore, I think other disciplines can apply their own stories to lectures, offering students an opportunity to connect to their professors deeper. After all, a student who is thriving in their imagination and passions is more likely to be engaged and thrive in your class.

Week 2 – Networked Learning – GEDI

In taking this class, I am hoping to achieve three main goals.

1) to develop a clearer understanding of teaching pedagogy
2) to create a portfolio of works I can utilize in the future
3) to grow in my journey as a student and an educator

This week’s readings have gotten me off on the right foot, I believe, by giving me a look into what the future of education may entail. If you had told me ten years ago that blogging and online presences would be the face of higher education, I would probably laugh and readjust my dial-up connection. And yet, here we are! The advancements that have been made in networked learning just in the span of time when I was as an undergrad to now as a graduate student is astounding.

I especially appreciated the emphasis on using online resources and technology as “experiential” learning, as a way of knowing by doing. The Campbell reading suggested “the experience of building and participating within a digitally mediated network of discovery is itself a form of experiential learning“, and that really struck me. After all, isn’t the point of teaching to help others develop an understanding of a subject? Why, then, shouldn’t we encourage our students and colleagues to extend our learning to online communities and outlets?

In utilizing resources like Twitter and encouraging students to blog, I think we can extend knowledge to the online classroom. With so many of us getting our daily news fix from social media, it makes sense to create an online presence that is focused on furthering academic ideals, rather than simply social ones. I for one am excited to see where our advancements take us, but also hope that the importance of face-to-face education is never doubted.

May we all be like Baby George, excited to fail in order to get that one step closer to succeeding.

Blog Post 5: Changes in Higher Education

The main thing that I think should chance in higher education is the process of getting tenure. In addition to causes stress on the faculty, I believe that tenure-track has the ability to make students feel uncomfortable in their own classrooms. As somebody who has taken classes from both tenured and non-tenured faculty, I’ve noticed that most of my professors who are currently tenure-track are so focused on their own research projects that my projects and classroom experience seem to come second. This can also lead to ethical issues of crass faculty who feel protected by tenure. I don’t believe that anybody should ever feel like they are untouchable in a department, as that can turn into a teacher acting inappropriately. Likewise, I believe that sometimes tenure-track lends itself to sexism.  I know of a Virginia Tech professor who is currently being paid less than another tenure-track professor who started at the exact same time, with the same credentials.

Another issue lies in the decision making process- who decides who gets tenure? I feel like there is the underlying issue of various power plays, in which professors feel the need to pander to whomever is deciding which professionals get tenure. If you are only publishing a quantitative paper because you know the decision committee likes quantitative research, I think it’s missing the point of research itself. I believe that if professors were less focused on pumping out publications and conference papers, they could shift the focus from research to actually teaching their students. I have been discouraged by the push to value research over teaching- why become a professor if you aren’t going to value teaching and developing relationships with your students? One of the readings for the last week, focused on this very topic, was one that I agreed with a lot. They emphasized the importance of finding a balance between being well-researched in your field of study and having the skills to properly teach these concepts to students.

This is not to say that I don’t believe in tenure at all. As a whole, I think it’s a really important process that can provide job security to hard-working academics who have a passion for their field; I am just suggesting that the process to get tenure should focus less on simply cranking out publication after publication, and should further take into consideration how the professor is with students. After all, professors are there to teach students, not just be the best in their field. There needs to be a balance, and I just don’t think we are there yet.

Week 13: My Ethics and Personal Ethos

When considering my own personal ethics, I think it’s really important to take the time to consider who I am as a person in addition to who I am as a scholar. Yes, one of my greatest passions is studying communication, but the core behind that is my passion for people. One thing that I kept coming back to was the Strengths Test I took prior to my first semester teaching at Virginia Tech. The test told me that my top strengths were 1) Empathy, 2) Developer, 3) Positivity, 4) Connectedness, and 5) Intellection. Looking at these, the test suggested jobs that work directly with others- one of the first suggestions was as a teacher! As a GTA, I am living that role currently, so I think it’s important for me to remember on hard days that I am acting as both authority and mentor, and I have to be aware of the ethics involved in that duel-role.

Within my experience in grad school, I have noticed a huge push for publishing work and attending conferences. However, I feel that the networking aspect has been more of an afterthought. Considering my own strengths (which are overwhelmingly relational in nature), I think that my beliefs and values lie in developing positive, intellectual connections with others. My focus has always been on finding ways to connect with people, so my own personal code of conduct is more focused on the people I work with rather than the physical work I am producing. I hope that, moving forward, I can utilize my relational strengths while still maintaining my own sense of professionalism. Likewise, I hope to see over time more acceptance of relational strengths as equally valid as technical strengths.

Week 12: Declining by Degrees

The first video, which was posted in 2007, I think gives a clear snapshot into what academic life was like at the time. However, I think some of the concerns raised are still applicable to life today- for example, I liked how one of the students pointed out the huge number of readings required in classes, as well as the fact that very few of them apply to students’ daily lives. Likewise, the debt that college students faces is staggering- a friend of mine is considering joining the armed forces after she finished nursing school just to get some of her loans paid off.

The film Declining by Degrees was a PBS documentary that I found both eye-opening  and frustrating. As somebody who now works as a GTA, I can definitely tell when my students aren’t doing work in my class, or are trying to just skate by. Ethically, this is an issue; if we are just trying to get through in order to get a degree without really trying, doesn’t that diminish the value of our degrees?

Considering my own experiences, I feel that the film leaves out the experiences of some non-traditional students. One of my roommates in undergrad was an out-of-state student who worked two jobs to pay for her own education and graduated early. Her experience, even though we were at the same school, in the same program (and living in the same room!), her experience was totally different from mine. If I were to remake the film, I would like to get the perspectives of students working, students who change majors, and students handling personal struggles in addition to academic ones.

Campus Resources

Additional blog Post #5

As the topic for my final paper, I wanted to use the conversation around campus resources as my final additional blog post prompt. Virginia Tech is the second university I have attended, and I noticed that the campus resources available to students varies from school to school. Within the context of higher education, I feel like campuses exist as their own small communities, and in a way are almost self-sufficient by providing resources to the members of the area. I will cover these in more detail in my final paper, but I wanted to give a quick overview of the three I have heard mentioned by my students the most often. The deep need for comprehensive physical and mental health resources on campus led me to a search of what Virginia Tech had to offer, so I wanted to discuss a few found on campus here in Blacksburg.

Cook Counseling
Virginia Tech’s counseling center, Cook Counseling, provides both individual and group counseling to students on site. From groups focusing on eating disorders, depression, and anxiety to individual sessions addressing home life and academic performance, there is a little bit of everything at Cook. One thing that I always remind my students is that mental health is just as important as physical health, and therefore if they need to take a day for their mental health, Cook Counseling can provide a note to excuse them from class. I would always want my students to be proactive about their health rather than let their struggles spiral into a more serious issue, so I often refer students in distress to Cook for help.

Schiffert Health Center
Something new to me was the concept of a health center that could provide actual medical help! It sounds strange now, but my undergraduate experience was that if I felt sick, going to the on-campus center wouldn’t help much at all. However at Virginia Tech, Schiffert serves students with services from allergies and immunizations to a women’s clinic, and even nutrition guidance! I didn’t realize how many services they offered, and in my research I was reassured that a campus of VT’s size was providing adequate resources to their students. While a few of my own students have mentioned it can get pretty crowded around flu season, I think a well-run health center is vital to any higher education institution of this size.

CommLab
As a public speaking GTA, I spend at least one hour every week in the library working in CommLab. This is a resource that helps students with any and all public speaking assignments or personal projects. From listening to practice speeches to helping construct speech outlines, CommLab is a wonderful resource for Virginia Tech, especially considering how many majors have a public speaking requirement. I am well aware of how many students with speaking anxiety or a general distaste for standing in front of a group of people for a presentation, so CommLab can help every step of the way, giving students the skills and ability to craft a well-researched speech and practice it until they are fully confident.

With these (and many, many more!) resources available on campus, I am proud to be a GTA for Virginia Tech. When a student comes to me with a problem, I feel more confident in my abilities to refer them to the proper organization, and I feel like access to a variety of campus and community resources can help a university become a stronger institution of higher education.

 

Global Perspectives and Education

Additional Blog Post #4

Considering my own ignorance about higher education around the world, I believe that the value of a strong global perspective of higher education lies in the ability to connect with people from different backgrounds. In addition to developing relationships with other people, conversations about others’ experiences can open eyes to see the bigger picture; it is so easy to get wrapped up in what is happening in our own little corner of the world (or our own little corner of the United States!). The world does not begin and end in the Commonwealth of Virginia, so it is important to broaden students’ horizons and understandings of others’ experiences.

Likewise, I feel like international students bring perspective, fresh ideas, and a dedication to education that I really respect. I am always so excited to learn about their experiences in their home countries, and am continually impressed by the work ethic of many of my international students. Likewise, I hope that by having open conversations I can develop a deeper empathy for all of my students, and treat all of them with the respect that they deserve.

I know that during our last PFP class, I learned so much about the countries we spoke about, and even ended up looking up some popular media from a few of the countries discussed (I somehow found myself four episodes deep in a Korean drama on Netflix that has become my new obsession). By sharing our lived experience with people who would otherwise not know (I had no idea it was illegal to sell gum in Singapore!), I think it improves both educational and relation dimensions in class. I hope to continue to learn about my classmates’ backgrounds, and hope that I can be an educated, attentive peer.