Avoiding Complacency

As the semester draws to a close, there seems to be a communal feeling of exhaustion that unites all levels of the university system. Everyone seems to be united in counting down the days to summer break while simultaneously listing off every task that must be accomplished before the semester can officially be over. I can completely relate as I found myself on the verge of dozing off while standing in line at the grocery store this afternoon. With all of the end of semester busyness, meaningful reflection and critical thinking seems to get pushed to the side in the name of productivity.

So, when I read the New Yorker Article, Personal Best, this week, it resonated with me. Here was someone seemingly at the top of his game, who was still seeking to improve his skill set. He did that by allowing himself to be vulnerable and open to constructive criticism and showing the gumption to make the changes suggested. He didn’t settle even when he could have without the questioning of others. The veteran middle school teacher in his article didn’t settle either.

As this semester draws to a close so does my first semester as a teaching assistant. While I wasn’t responsible for a whole course, I lead two lab sessions throughout the semester and got a small taste for what it is like to teach. After seeing the amount of work that goes into preparing for just the lab section of a course week-to-week, I can see the temptation for making minimal changes year-to-year. However, if there is anything that I have taken away from this semester, it is that true learning doesn’t take place in the classrooms of complacent professors. For effective learning to take place, everyone has to be engaged, and change is inevitable and inseparable from learning.

Watching people who are further along in their careers, it is fairly evident to me that the busyness doesn’t fade away; it often expands. With that being the case, being an effective educator must be a continual practice to make engagement and self improvement a priority much like the surgeon demonstrated in the article. It is a choice not to settle for what seems to be working but to strive for what could be truly exceptional.



Critical Pedagogy

This week the topic of conversation focused on critical pedagogy. My reading was an expert from Paulo Feire’s book, Philosophy of Education, chapter 2, the Pedagogy of the Oppressed. His writing in this chapter focused on movement away from the banking concept of education and towards a more liberated classroom. The idea essentially being that the professor relinquishes the complete control over the course and allows for students to teach each other and the professor. It recognizes that the students have a wealth of insight and perspective to offer as opposed to the idea that they are “empty vessels… the be filled with the contents of the [professor’s] narration”.

Thinking back on my own education, I realized that the professors whom I’ve had that bought into the banking concept were often the most boring. Even if the concept the professor covered was quite interesting, the approach was dry and tended to stamp the enjoyment out of it.

I also realized that my freshman/sophomore college had courses which were actively structured towards a critical pedagogy approach. They called them inquiry-based courses.

“Also called Ways of Inquiry, INQ, or simply Q courses, these classes help sharpen your critical thinking and problem-solving skills. In INQ courses, you’ll learn to understand and question the ways in which knowledge is pursued. And you’ll develop abilities that transcend disciplines, honing skills in reading critically, communicating effectively and pursuing knowledge independently…. INQ courses will stimulate your intellectual curiosity and independent thinking—and many have service components.”

At the time, I signed up for them because they were a course requirement or because it was over a topic that I had an interest pursuing. Recently, I went back to my college transcript to see if there was any correlation between the classes I felt I learned the most from and the critical pedagogy structure. All but two of those classes fit into that category. One of the things I liked about those courses was that I felt like I had a voice. Participation was encouraged and expected.

To be fair, there were a couple of courses which fell into that category and were not enjoyable. One being a statistics course with rather ambiguous problem sets that my friends and I somehow muddled through. However, overall, those courses were a highlight of freshman and sophomore education. They helped me to think rather than memorize, and the time spent in the class was more meaningful. I also felt more compelled to show up because I felt valued by the professor.

Inclusive Pedagogy

Georgetown university defines inclusive pedagogy as the following, “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.”

I have been reflecting this week on what inclusive pedagogy could look like in the classroom I am assisting in now and the potential classroom I may have in the future. In the context of an entomology course, issues of diversity and inclusion aren’t topics that you find in the syllabus, but just becuase it isn’t in the ciriculum doesn’t mean it isn’t seen or felt by the students in the course. It’s also not always a topic that is planned to be discussed.

During the GTA workshop this spring, a speaker from the office of diversity and inclusion talked about how important it is to be an advocate for diversity in the classroom and when working one-on-one with students. He talked about the level of influence you have as a TA and future professor, and how students will look to you to provide guidance and be an advocate. During the conversation, some of the TAs pushed back saying that the course they were teaching didn’t have anything to do with diversity and inclusion, so why did they need to talk about it at all? He responded with the notion that as educators we should consider this part of our role even if the context of the course doesn’t directly relate.

I think some of this boils down to what we view as the role of a instructor. Is the instructor simply someone who conveys a set list of information, or is she someone who helps shape the way students think? For our students sake, I hope we chose the later.

Is this blog post for a grade?

The first time I heard about a college that didn’t give out grades, I had a knee jerk, dismissive and appalled reaction. My friend told me about a college in Scotland where students were graded only on a pass/fail basis; it seemed so odd. How do they measure students? Would the students even come to class if they weren’t being regularly measured on their understanding of the concepts? Would they learn anything?

In the readings for this week, we were introduced to the concept of grade-free learning. To be fair, this differs a bit from the college which I mentioned earlier. The college based their pass/fail decision on an end of semester test with a minimum score that demonstrated proficiency. The concepts we were introduced to were much more comprehensive in their measurement standards, but my initial reaction was the same. Would this actually work? Will they really learn?

Then, I watched the video from Dan Pink about how motivation works. In his TED talk, he explained how the carrot and stick model of motivation, which companies use quite often to motivate their employees, often stifles creativity and lowers productivity. Afterwards, I watched a video by Sir Kennith Robinson. In which, he talks about how we educate our children from the waist up until we are only focused on educating their right brain. He then argues that this sort of education is limits students in their creativity and ability to overcome being wrong. He also argues that the model of education worked to train pupils for factory work but is inadequate for preparing students for the modern era.

The other reading that stuck out to me from this week was the one by Alfie Kohn. He argues that we have known the grading system to be problematic since the 1930s, yet we have continued to use it.

My initial negative reaction to the grade free system can be boiled down into two parts. One is the aversion to change, and two is the lack of a clear picture of what grading does to the student. I had this idea that we must be using this system for so long because it works and is the best option we have available. Why would we change something that doesn’t need changing? I’m realizing now the naivety of that viewpoint. If our goals as educators is to provide an education that engages the whole student, then it seems that change is what is necessary.

The Case Against Grades (##)

The technology balancing act

At the end of class last week, our discussion revolved around the idea that technology in a classroom was either a good or a bad thing. As we jostled with this issue, the last student to speak (sorry, I can’t remember your name)  proposed the idea that technology wasn’t the problem it was how it was utilized in a classroom setting that created issues.

The NPR article from this week had an professor, Jesse Stomel, who expressed similar sentiment.

“There may also be times, he says, that the phone or computer can be an in-class tool. “We can also ask students to use their devices in ways that help them and the rest of the class, looking up a confusing term, polling their friends on Facebook about a topic we’re discussing or taking collaborative notes in an open document.”

On the other hand, says Stommel, there may be times and places to shut it down, too: “We can ask students to close their laptops at particular moments, recognizing that it is useful to learn different things, at different times, in different ways.””

It is easy to say there can be times when technology is acting as a learning aid and times where is is distracting. What I see as a learning curve, as a first time TA this semester and a potential future professor, is finding the balance .

I’m curious what your experience, as students and educators, is on achieving this balance. Outside of testing environments, are there other situations where you limit technology? Alternatively, what are the ways in which you saw it as an aid in learning?

NPR Article:


Blogging…the running of the internet

Based on the readings from this week, creating a digital presence is one of the best ways to engage yourself and your audience with your materials whether it be research or coursework. One of the ways we’re practicing a well rounded digital presence this semester is through blogging.

If I’m being honest, blogging is not something that comes easy to me. As an entomology PhD student, most of my written communication about my own research is in passive voice, and that is far from engaging for a general audience. Considering my lack of experience, my plan for this semester is to treat blogging like running.

Image result for everything hurts and i'm dying gif

I have been an runner on and off for the better part of four years, and running for the first time or starting back after a break is always difficult and uncomfortable. It’s hard to know when to breathe and what pace works, but at some point, usually about a month into it, an internal flip switches. The discomfort gets replaced by a steady rhythm. There are still days where it’s difficult, but for the most part, it becomes a second nature.

I’m hoping that blogging will follow a similar pattern. The first few weeks might feel a bit shaky and strained. Finding my voice might feel a bit like finding a rhythm and building up strength, but at some point, I’m hoping for that internal switch.

By the end of the course, I want to take the practice of blogging about classroom topics and expand it into blogging about my own research. Building a foundation of digital engagement as a graduate student would hopefully provide for a smooth transition of digital engagement as a professor.

The Future of the University

There are many things that should be changed in the university system, but one of the things that I find most important is a push for work-life balance with professors and students in the university system. The research and pressure to publish can seem overwhelming and unending leading to longer hours and less activities outside of the institution. This is both unhealthy and unsustainable. As someone who is looking to possibly join the professional side of academia after completing my PhD, I would like to see upper level faculty and staff prioritize this balance and take on the responsibility of pushing younger faculty towards maintaining it as well. I understand this will take a broad culture shift, but it seems like a necessary to continue cultivating an environment which facilitates in the creation of innovate ways to address the past, present and future.

Rural America and Higher Education

The Atlantic recently published a profile piece about the low college enrollment rates for students from rural America. The authors of the article discussed how the students who come from a rural background are less likely to enroll in college and those enrolled are less likely to remain in college than urban and suburban native peers. The reasons they cite behind the problem is the history of jobs which were once well paying in rural areas and available without a college diploma. The switch from labor intensive coal mining, agriculture and manufacturing in the rural areas caused a lack of jobs in the area but the culture lagged behind with low cultural motivation for students to look to higher education positions. The authors also claimed that the lack of employment opportunities that were once there and the sense of hopelessness in the region lead to the anti-establishment sentiment which resonates in this region.

One of the most promising takeaways from the piece, which seemed rather depressing as a whole, was the program in the Kentucky Valley coal mining country that connected high school students with students from their area enrolled in higher education. The authors stated that it created a support system and increased the likelihood that the students would enroll and remain enrolled. The system seems simple enough in concept that it could be easily adopted by other regions of the country in similar predicaments.


Rapping Up a Dissertation

Please excuse the terrible pun.

In February, the Chronicle wrote about a student activist a Clemson University defended his dissertation in a rap. The student, now Dr. A.D. Carson, created a 34 track rap album instead of a typical written document. He also created a digital component with lyrics, music videos, and more. Through his work he explored social issues on campus and in the rap community, along with racism and different aspects of black life.

This concept and execution is so unique and relevant in the way in which he uses a medium to address issues and concepts within the same medium. His field of study was in rhetoric, communications, and information design, and he also has been actively involved in the protests at Clemson, which are addressing university’s racial climate and looking for change. This confluence of subjects made the way in which he structured his dissertation distinctly fitting.

While I can’t envision my dissertation committee allowing me to do something quite as inventive (having a research subject of an invasive stink bug can stifle out of the box dissertation presentation ideas), I think it is really innovate of him to address his study subject in this way. It also allows for research, which can often get lost in academia, to become relevant to a wider audience. Seeing someone craft his research into an art form pushes me to think about new ways in which to make my research more relevant to a wider audience.

Chronicle profile: https://www.chronicle.com/article/An-Activist-Defends-His/239335?cid=wcontentgrid

Link to his digital album: http://phd.aydeethegreat.com/

Diversity in Graduate Stem Education

The New York Times recently published an article entitled, “The Disappearing American Graduate Student”. Although the title makes it seem like the article is about graduate education as a whole, it focuses on the low numbers of American students who enroll in graduate education computing and engineering fields.

What was interesting for the article was the highlighting of the shift in demographics of students from undergraduate to graduate with 80% of undergraduate students being US residents and the opposite being true for graduate students. The article stated there is little demand for the American student for these degree programs as many of the jobs in the technology field are already quite good with an undergraduate level of education. The international students which enter into these programs, the article claims, are coming in search of greater opportunity and out of a love for research.

The attraction of these fields to international students is something that I find rather appealing as it provides these departments with a richness of different backgrounds that is not seen as often in other academic areas. This article also mentioned that the current political climate towards Muslim-majority nations may be negatively influencing the number of applicants to these programs citing a 30% decrease in applications at the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth. This decrease is concerning as these departments should be viewed as a place of academic growth, exploration and opportunity, but their attractiveness may be lost in looming political climate. While the article claimed it is still rather early to decipher if these trends will hold, lawmakers should be taking larger ramifications of their actions towards these countries into account as they negativity impact the students and the university.