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.

On Being Human: Teaching Expectations


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.


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

#BCTech: 2nd BC Tech Summit

Tuesday marked the first day of the second #BCTech Summit. This year the event was considerably bigger and better than last year. However, last year’s summit was amazing. Bar raised. It is clear that the technology sector is big in British Columbia. And, the summit highlights this with the Research Runway, Trade show, Start Up Alley, Tech Talks, and more at the summit. bctech one

Tuesday’s opening plenary included lots of different speakers. BC’s Premier Christy Clark also spoke and offered different data regarding the tech sector. Her speech was peppered with the usual political moments, but the most telling moments were the ones that she made reference to other countries. The other countries and the policies were really about the United States or that is my perception. BC and Canada will look outward and embrace diversity. This perhaps is a chin wag to the US with the recent travel bans and overall culture of fear.

bctech three

My political perception aside, the first day was fabulous and I look forward to day two at the #BCTech Summit.

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!