Becoming a professional

I recently had a professor ask me how I introduced myself to others. I usually tell people, “I work with [advisors names] on [research].” Apparently there are still people who refer to themselves as “students under [advisor],” or just as students. But as graduate students, we’re not “just” students. We are early career professionals. In my case, that means that I am just as much an entomologist as anyone else in my field. As a professional entomologist, I realize there is more to it than the practical skills of keying out or pinning insects. Sometimes it seems like we’re made to feel that the best scientist is the most emotionless one. This is why Parker Palmer’s essay is so valuable. Emotions and ethics have an important role to play in guiding our actions professionally and personally. Rather than acting as we’re “supposed to” on the outside, we should honor how we feel on the inside. There is a reason why depression, anxiety, and alcoholism rates are so high among graduate students! We have the opportunity to do tangible good in the world, but that would be much harder if we completely walled ourselves off from how we felt or imploded from the process of getting a higher education.

 

Image result for leaf cutter ants
Being a professional isn’t about “staying in line”

“Is Google making us stupid?” Living in the age of technophobia

Many articles, such as this one, emphasize the potential perils of technology in our lives. Will we become too dependent on computers? Will the machines rise up? This needless, even counterproductive, fear-mongering is reflected across media.

Image result for evil technology
Watch out.

Technology changes fast however and can seem threatening, even if it improves our lives. The internet as we need know it has only been around for about 20 years, and has only become accessible to most people even more recently. As technology (and it’s marketing) improves, we can only expect it to become more and more integrated into our daily lives. This is a great NPR piece showcasing the potential for greater computer and internet integration to enhance our relationships and work. Having, for example, reminders about upcoming events and details of friends’ personal lives in real time as we interact with them could provide new depth to preexisting relationships that might not normally be possible given our relatively limited ability to remember “random” details. Being able to recall facts and figures in the modern era is not all that important given how easy it is to look things up (even without a fancy interface). Computers and automation will only increase as time progresses, which is not necessarily a bad thing. The human brain is the best tool we currently have for critical thinking, and will likely remain so for some time. I think that technology that provides additional information and resources to us almost instantly will only enhance that. There is a difference between information and intellect. I don’t think that “Google is making us stupid.” Rather, it is setting us up to reach our full potential.

 

 

Our dystopian obsession has grown up in our nightmares as a true monster, which can only be countered by something truly beautiful. Simply, we need a hero. Our fears are demons in our fiction placing our utopia at risk, but we must not run from them. We must stand up and defeat them. Artificial intelligence, longevity therapy, biotechnology, nuclear energy — it is in our power to create a brilliant world, but we must tell ourselves a story where our tools empower us to do it.

— Michael Solana, Wired

 

Inclusive Pedagogy and Bias

Fostering an inclusive environment is essential for creating a functional learning environment. Interacting with people from different walks of life only enhances our experience. Unfortunately, studies have shown that even young children are prone to unconscious bias against those who are different from themselves, and it’s not something that improves with age. The key is to be aware of our biases or the potential for bias. No matter how hard we try, bias can insidiously creep into our thought processes. This can prevent us from seeing the whole picture or from coming up with creative solutions to problems. They key is to be aware of this “hidden brain,” and to try to get out of autopilot mode. Last semester in our intro to the future professoriate course, we discussed the following riddle  which illustrates this point well:

“A father and son are in a horrible car crash that kills the dad. The son is rushed to the hospital; just as he’s about to go under the knife, the surgeon says, ‘I can’t operate—that boy is my son!’ Explain.”

People came up with all sorts of explanations for this, such as maybe the “father” was a priest, but overlooked one explanation. The surgeon was the boy’s mother! This was a group of people who prided themselves on avoiding bias, but even they had fallen for this riddle. This phenomenon has serious repercussions in the real world. Only by actively working on our biases will we improve in this area.

Three years later: Teaching with a voice

Of all of our readings for this week, I enjoyed Dr. Fowler’s “The Authentic Teaching Self and Communication Skills” the most. It summarized my own experiences with teaching well. I’m in a fairly unique position this semester as an instructor. I taught labs for two semesters when I started my MS in 2013 and 2014, and now I’m teaching labs again in 2017 as part of of the requirements for my PhD program. I am having such a different experience this time around! Granted, this is a different institution and the course material that I’m responsible for this semester is also very different, but I don’t think those are the only reasons. When I think back to when I first taught, I was 23 years old and was just getting started in this world called academia. I was barely removed from my students in age and experience and pretty introverted. I had very little experience giving public presentations, let alone being seen as any sort of authority figure. Being responsible for 75 students a semester and getting called “professor” on a regular basis made me uncomfortable and anxious. Who was I to be teaching these students? Inexperience and impostor syndrome combined to make teaching incredibly stressful. Of course there were amazingly rewarding moments where I connected with students on personal levels or saw them improve over time, but those often felt overshadowed by my own frustration and resentment, stemming in the end from a lack of confidence I think. I was relieved when my teaching responsibilities were over, but also saddened. Teaching and sharing knowledge are so important across disciplines, so I wanted to do so much better! I wanted to enjoy it! I hoped that I would have the opportunity to try again.

Over the next couple of years I was consumed by my MS research, but I did have many opportunities to practice speaking and teaching in both formal and informal settings. With every presentation, I slowly but surely went from blindingly anxious, to nervous, to just some butterflies 30 seconds before the talk. In the moment it didn’t feel like I was making that much progress, but apparently I was! This became especially apparent when I started teaching again this semester. I don’t get nervous at all. It is mind-blowing to me the difference between now and then. I think my lectures must come across more clearly and the students genuinely seem to be enjoying themselves. As I mentioned before, there

This katydid is a member of the family Tettigoniidae (unless you completely mispronounce it in front of an audience)

are definitely differences between the course I’m teaching now versus the one I taught in the past, but I don’t think that it’s entirely due to that. I think I am more comfortable with myself as a speaker and instructor. I speak with confidence from my own experience during my previous degrees, my studies now, and my life in general. When I talk about the scientific method, interesting insect species, or the things that can (often humorously) go wrong during field work, I use real examples from my own research. I try to present myself as honestly as possible. I am unafraid to laugh with my students when I flub the pronunciation of a scientific name or if make some other relatively trivial error. No one can get everything right all the time! I try to leave space for both myself and my students to improve. I am both unapologetically sarcastic and prone to making cheesy jokes. This is as much for my entertainment as it is for theirs. I know that the material that they’re learning is tough, but it doesn’t have to be torture, and neither does teaching itself. As an introvert, I never thought I would get so much satisfaction from public speaking. I can report that I am enjoying teaching much more this time around, and would happily teach again in the future.

Traditional vs. Authentic Assessment

Assessment has been one of the main focuses in education for as long as I can remember. From elementary school onward, there was always some big state exam on the horizon, in addition to the nearly constant steam of other kinds of evaluations. Does this focus on assessment actual increase students’ abilities to learn? What about long-term retention of knowledge? Alfie Kohn suggests, citing many sources, that our obsession with assessment may actually be counterproductive. It causes students to focus on the wrong aspect of being in school. Rather than trying to “make the grade” students should be encouraged to enjoy the process of learning itself. The inherent enthusiasm for learning that most people have is not harnessed by a grades-centric approach. Kohn suggests that usually it is the instructors and administrators, not the students, that benefit most from a focus on assessment. Shouldn’t education at all levels ultimately be about the students? As  Diana Oblinger lays out in “Making the Grade: The Role of Assessment in Authentic Learning,” traditional assessment methods miss the mark . Authentic assessment is a superior alternative to traditional assessment. It focuses on students’ learning of concrete, real-world skills and critical thinking over time. Memorization of facts and adherence to rubrics is not found in authentic assessment regimes. Ideally, at the end of such a program, students would be prepared to creatively handle complex situations. Putting such a program into practice is difficult however, given the current status quo and funding difficulties. Perhaps over time enrollment in institutions that do not focus on grades will become more commonplace, but for now, the focus on grades remains.

Experiential learning vs. “teaching to the test”

Education today does not adequately prepare students for the modern world, which is unfortunate considering how important it is. Universities and all other levels of education should be set up to create the next generation of scientists, teachers, scholars, and informed and discerning citizens. As indicated in this TED talk, current instructional practices focus on “teaching to the test.” This is largely due to initiatives that emphasize test scores as the most important metrics of learning. However, learning is a process, not an outcome. Teaching to a test does not teach students to think critically and understand the world around them in a deeper way. I think this is due partly to the fact that education is underfunded, leaving schools and teachers with fewer resources and less time available to work with students. However, this harms students in the end. I don’t think that students benefit very much from multiple choice testing and other similar methods that emphasize rote learning over critical thinking. I am hopeful that we will more towards a more experiential type of model. As we saw in Michael Wesch’s baby George talk, we learn better through experience in a positive, supportive environment than in a drab, stadium seating classroom. Some of my most memorable and beneficial experiences as an undergraduate and graduate student have been from independent research projects and papers. This is something that I think should be available to all students, not just those who are lucky enough to go to a small school for their undergrad or to graduate school. Part of the emphasis on standardized testing comes from the way instructors are evaluated, so this would need to change first. We need to reward instructors for taking the time and effort to truly engage their students. I am hopeful that we will get there eventually!

Networked Learning

This week, we are tasked with writing about the benefits of networked learning, e.g. blogging, in higher education. Blogging is something that prior to last semester’s Preparing the Future Professoriate course I had never tried. It seemed like too much pressure for too little reward to post my writing online. What if I said something stupid? Anything you post online, even after you delete it, lives on in one form or another, never to be truly reclaimed. For me blogging has been helpful in helping me get over this. As Seth Godin says, it is more about the exercise of forcing yourself to write than the final product itself. It really forces you to think about what you’re saying and how to get it across concisely. Doug Belshaw suggests that working openly by default has virtues in and of itself. Much like the open data movement, sharing as much information as possible as broadly as possible can only help further discussions with colleagues and others in your field. It may even help those in similar fields dealing with similar challenges. The potential to create a more public dialogue using blogs is immense. Hopefully over time, we as academics will learn to use blogs and other media to converse more openly and effectively with one another. Technology changes all the time, but online discourse will continue in one form or another so there is no harm in getting in as much practice as possible!

 

References:
Belshaw, D. (2014, June 14). Working openly on the web: a manifesto • Literacies. Retrieved from http://literaci.es/working-openly-a-manifesto

Campbell, W. (2016, January 11). Networked Learning as Experiential Learning. Retrieved from http://er.educause.edu/articles/2016/1/networked-learning-as-experiential-learning.

Godin, S. (2009, April 18). Seth Godin & Tom Peters on blogging. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=livzJTIWlmY&feature=youtu.be

Hitchcock, T. (2015, July 27). Twitter and blogs are not just add-ons to academic research, but a simple reflection of the passion underpinning it. Retrieved from http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2014/07/28/twitter-and-blogs-academic-public-sphere/

 

Assigned Post 5 – Future of the University

Are important cornerstones of modern society. They serve the public through service and educate the next generation of scientists, teachers, scholars, and citizens. It is not something that is going away anytime soon. While the modern university is a great thing, there is always room for improvement. I think that the cost of education needs to be reduced. Private colleges and universities, and even public universities, have become prohibitively expensive. Education should be available to everyone, not just those with the resources to buy it. There are many potential ways to address this, and none of them are perfect. As a society, we need to decide how to proceed with this. Increasing funding for education overall could make education accessible to more people. I also think that there are many opportunities to integrate technology and social media in the classroom. As I mentioned in a previous blog post, many people are afraid of how pervasive technology is in modern society. We have never had so many tools to educate the public as we do today, and it would be shame not to use it out of distrust. Another area for improvement is to reduce the emphasis on standardized testing. I don’t think that students benefit very much from multiple choice testing and other similar methods that emphasize rote learning over critical thinking. I am hopeful that we will more towards a more experiential type of model. Some of my most memorable and beneficial experiences as an undergraduate and graduate student have been from independent research projects and papers. This is something that I think should be available to all students, not just those who are lucky enough to go to a small school for their undergrad or to graduate school. Part of the emphasis on standardized testing comes from the way instructors are evaluated, so this would need to change first. I think the future of the university looks bright, as long as we remain open minded about ways to improve what we have!

How do we end up in graduate school?

Most of the jobs I knew of (doctor, veterinarian, teacher, etc) I knew required college at least, but I didn’t really understand how much was entailed until later. When I was growing up, I knew that I liked insects, but didn’t think you could make a career of it. I didn’t think I would ever train to be “Dr. Quinn: Bug Doctor.” I wasn’t even aware of what graduate study really was. So how do we end up here? There are so many smaller choices and random acts of chance that lead us to grad school. For me, it was a number of factors. A strong interest in the natural world and an independent streak definitely went a long way, along with tenacity to get me through moments of self-doubt. Thinking back however, I think it was really the mentors that I had during my undergraduate study that led me to where I am today. They were the ones that put time and effort into helping me to develop as a scientist. They did not have to give me research opportunities, a shoulder to cry on, or second chances when I messed up, but they did. I think this is the greatest gift that instructors and advisors of undergraduates can give. With their support, I stumbled my way into something that I loved, and held on tight. I’ve been working as hard as I can at it ever since. On those days where everything seems to be going wrong in my research, I turn back to these important people and remember how much they have believed in me. Studies have shown that advisor involvement can have an overwhelming positive impact on undergraduate outcomes.  I think there are many factors that could lead someone to graduate school. For me though, it is the actualization of a dream that others helped me to find.