A Few Things I’ve Learned

When I first started teaching, I was too nice. I had to establish better boundaries for deadlines, protecting my time, and protecting the learning environment of the classroom. Then, I swung to hard to the opposite side and was too strict and demanding. I’ve taught at four institutions and they spanned the gamut of a community college, comprehensive, and research one institution. What happened?

1. I caught a cheating ring in a class. All of the students submitted the same paper, but had moved some paragraphs around throughout the paper. They all earned a 0 on the assignment. One of the guilty students saw me in the library a few weeks later and bellowed at me, “You’re the reason I am not staring law school in September.” I knew most of the libraian staff and some came closer. While my heart was racing, I looked over and said, “You’re the reason you’re not going to law school in the Fall.” I walked away. This student was the only one who tried to deny that he cheated. The others dropped quickly and admitted it. Occasionally, I wondered if he did get into law school and if he’s a practicing lawyer. What I can say, he was a cretin. He was terrible to me and if I got treated this way today, things would play out differently.

2. I accepted any excuse for late work and was surpised to bump into deathly ill students in the campus pub, staffing a table, or at the gym. I soon realized that I needed to have a late policy that was more firm. But, I also didn’t like this “gotcha” culture with late work. I had to work almost full-time throughout my university experience and I’m sympathetic to work/life balance. Now, I rarely ask for proof. It’s just not worth my time or my students. The wording in my syllabus is firm, but in reality, I just want them to be successful and I don’t need them to go spend $25 on a doctor’s note.

3. I dress up for work and class. The first time I wore jeans to class at one institution a few of my students talked loudly about how I had jeans on and it was not professional. I had a nice blouse and blazer on and ignored their banter and started class. Fast foward almost twenty years and I still tend to dress up for class. But, if I could relive that time, I think I would have asked the two students to stay after class and chat about their comments. I wore jeans again, but in a more defiant way. I belonged in that classroom and in that institution even if there weren’t many who looked like me.

4. When I was pregnant and teaching, this opened up my eyes to the way in which my body was viewed as public property everywhere and how my body excited some and repulsed others. While lecturing the Cletus the Fetus moved its arm, and through the shirt the students could see an elbow and I thought a few students were going to pass out. Their eyes opened huge and they looked startled. It was quite funny to me. What I didn’t like, was the touching. I announced to the class that I did not want anyone touching my pregnant belly. It was uncomfortable. Imagine my surprise, when the chair of the Women’s Studies Department emailed me during the Western that a student had complained about this. The Chair supported me, but I still smirk that a student contacted the Chair and argued that it should be OK for her to touch my pregnant belly. It’s comical.

None of these scenarios took place at my current institution, but they all impacted me during those first five years of teaching. The biggest takeaway for me is that I am not here to police the students, to weed them out, to punish them or belittle them. I am here to ensure that they learn about the subject matter and during this time they’ll get a feel for the learning environment that I am in charge of and get a chance to think, write, and interact. This is simplistic, but this is one of several posts about what I’ve learned in two decades of teaching in Political Science, Women’s Studies, and Technology and Society.

I’m a Political Scientist

I’ve been at the annual American Political Science Association #APSA2017 meeting this week and I’ve been thinking about my two decades as a political scientist. Part of it is the fact that I have attended an array of focus groups and started off with the Women of Color in Political Science Conference #wcps17 in San Francisco, California.

#APSA2017 has been fraught with so much awesomeness and introspection. The focus groups have caused me to reflect on my time in Political Science. I’ve had some strong mentors and some great experiences; however, I’ve also had some interesting or terrible experiences. And, from the focus groups, I know that these situations and anecdotes are more systemic in higher education and perhaps not unique to Political Science. I want to blog more about this and this brief post is only part one.

Exhausted with the News

I'm finding that reading, watching, and listening to the news is at times exhausting. Exhausting in a way that is personally taxing and I am not used to this. I can usually consume the news and compartmentalize well. This is not the case. I find that I am playing with the kitten and cat more so and watching videos with lots of cuteness. Right now, I have gone to re-watching television shows for a few minutes after I consume news. The news feels raw. It hurts. I've included some cuteness here, Arwen and Buffy.

Radical Self-Care

I practiced yoga with a new instructor and she wore a shirt that read “radical self-care” and it positively affected my practice. The ability to take care of oneself is often viewed as a luxury or even unnecessary. Self-care is crucial to a healthy lifestyle. And, at times self-care seems antithetical to academe. There is always another paper to read, write, or a meeting to attend. The vagaries of an academic life means that we often do not leave the office. Wait, maybe some do, but the rest of us do not do this well. 

Radical self-care means not apologizing for leaving work early. 

Radical self-care means that taking time to get better from an illness is acceptable. 

Radical self-care means setting boundaries. 

Radical self-care means that you don’t have to do everything. 

Relax

If you’re anything like me, you don’t really like having someone tell you that you need to relax. So, I will not tell you to relax, but I will say that I am still in a post-vacation bliss. I took a family vacation last week and am almost through the first week back at work. What did I learn? 

I like vacations. And, I need to take more occasional tech detoxes. I had an unplanned tech detox thanks to problems with my Smart Keyboard. I was able to read Twitter posts, but not reply or type. That pretty much meant that I wasn’t on Twitter that much. I didn’t travel with my laptop and I ended up reading several books and caught up on some magazines and Netflix series. I also made lots of memories with my family and had ample opportunity to sleep in and do very little. It was perfect. 

It’s great to be back at work. And, I am looking forward to my next vacation, which will be more of a staycation. I have included a photo from my vacation. I had my first cup of coffee most mornings on this deck. 

On Being Human: Teaching Expectations

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I’m about to embark on my 20th year of teaching. I cannot believe it. It seems like just a few years ago, I was a graduate student. But, it’s been more than a few years. I love teaching. One consistent thing that I’ve witnessed though, is that I cannot get sick or have a family emergency. A small percentage of my students, must think that I live under my desk and have a super immune system, but alas occasionally I do fall ill. When I do get sick, it’s a whopper of an illness. Oh, like whooping cough and coughing so hard that I pass out or a terrible flu strain for almost three weeks.

I have had an accident, family emergency, and illness affect my teaching life three times in the last twenty years. Each time this meant that I returned grading a bit later than usual. It also impacted my office hours or availability. I did not think that it was a big deal, as I was honest and clear with the students. However, each time it was clear that a group of students did not find my personal situation relevant and were quite brutal on the official student evaluations, that one rate your instructor who you love/hate site, and in office hours/email communication.

I know this might sound like a whiny post, and perhaps it is. I would like some breathing room, so that when I get really ill every seven years I can get back in the classroom and not have a barrage of negative feedback about how my illness impacted their ability to come see me or better understand the assignment that is explained thoughtfully in the syllabus. Professors are people too, and sometimes we get sick or are family members get sick. There, I feel better.

The image is from interwebs–Yik Yak. I’ve never used my iClicker as anything except its intended use. My use of it here is cheeky.

Failing

I saw a job posting that noted that a strong candidate would want to fail miserably. I don’t have that link, but honestly I think that I have done that recently by taking some chances with my courses. And, guess what? I am fine with it. I am willing to take risks and have it fail. Fail miserably. It is a learnable moment. Sure, I often note the importance of a teachable moment; however, when I have failed miserably with a course I am learning. It is important to push boundaries and push myself.

My happy place is to push my students. But, recently I have pushed and failed. I have failed with books that my students did not like at all or assignments that did not work well. I held office hours in the last week and was a bit surprised to hear that the students liked the assignment. I am not convinced that it was a resounding success, though. Either way, I will have at it again with the next class.

3769283867_01c3214399 image is via Chris Griffith

Let Them Eat Cake: US Politics

The latest cover of the Mexican edition of Vanity Fair is particularly telling. While the photo of the First Lady is recycled, it’s a telling photo given the recent budget from the President’s administration. Some of the responses of the photo essentially say that the photo is in poor taste. I saw the photos and thought of Marie Antoinette saying, “Let them eat cake.” Although we do not have proof that Antoinette said this–the phrase fits. Let them eat nothing, while I twirl  my diamond necklace like pasta. One would think that the timing of recycling the photos could not be worse.

I was watching The Purge: Anarchy with my daughter and once the movie ended she asked if this situation could actually happen. Then, we had a conversation about US politics and the current administration’s treatment of the poor and aged. We talked about the probable dismantling of the Meals on Wheels program if the proposed federal budget is realized. I’m no Pollyanna and know that throughout the history of the United States there is no love for the poor. Somehow we are supposed to be industrious and be magically successful and not have to rely on the government. Note sarcasm. This current administration appears to hate women, the poor, most people of color, immigrants, queer people, and more. Gone are the days of compassionate conservatism or Ronald Reagan Republicans.

It is no wonder that George Orwell’s 1984 and other novels set in a dystopic future are selling well. We watch, stream, or listen to the news and we wonder if it is an episode of Saturday Night Live since it cannot be real. We have a Twittler in Chief who seems to angry tweet and has no problem libeling and slandering people. We are a witness a Bully in Chief and a change in US politics. The Southern Poverty Law Center’s site detailing the increase in hate crimes makes me sick. I wish I could not take this seriously and count the days until the next election. However, that is not my way. How are you coping with the current events?

 

On the Fly

Innovation requires that you are willing to fail. I am not willing to always do what is easiest in the classroom. Occasionally my assignments include working with a non-profit or another entity and then reflecting on this work or having students do podcasts or vidcasts. I find that there are some students who are most comfortable with papers and exams.

The students need to trust me with the assignment. How do you support non-paper and exam assignments?

To Take Roll or Not

After 19 years of teaching, I decided to not include a participation and attendance mark. I did have people sign in to assess attendance unofficially. But, what I really wanted to see is if not having participation marks made a difference. Oh, it did. And, the biggest proof is in the marks. I have taught my Gender and Politics course numerous times during my academic career at four universities and I can confidently say that there was a noticeable change in the students’ attendance and their assignments.

  1. Attendance was mediocre at best. And, by not attending announcements were not heard regarding assignments. My syllabus is lengthy, but I speak to each assignment in more depth during a class meeting.
  2. My office hours were not as busy as usual. While some might think that this is a good thing–it’s not. Office hours are important. This is when many students will get the check in to make sure that they are on the right track or the chance to chat about their assignments.
  3. Overall, the marks were the lowest that I have ever seen. Now, they were not terrible, but 3-5 points lower than usual.

My takeaway is that by not having a participation and attendance mark some students do not feel the pressure to come to class, to show up. I’m teaching in the again and I’m going to have a participation and attendance mark. My students benefit from it. I’m going to ask them to show up!

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