What My Students Have Taught Me

I submitted my students’ grades and I have now completed my 18th year of teaching. I want to reflect on this year, but also begin to think about the next school term. This post offers some thoughts about what my students have taught me.

What have I learned from my students?

  1. Some of them are at university as a placeholder. Everyone tells them it was next for them. For many of them they are in the right place, but for some they will need some time off or to do other things, and this is fine. We have to support them.
  2. Their first year is hard. They are acculturating to university life and possibly living away from their parents. You have to treat the students with extra patience during the first term. Be firm, but patient.
  3. They are excited. You really want to keep that enthusiasm up, as it will for them when they are exhausted, homesick or second guessing themselves.
  4. You are part of their university experience.
  5. Working with first years for the bulk of my years, you are one of many who have impact on their ability to get through the first year. It is important to set guidelines, but be kind.

Overall, my first years have taught me humility. They are the hardest students to work with, as they demand the most of me. They also offer the most harsh quantitative and qualitative assessment of my teaching. It is ironic that a class full of people who are for the most part new to university are assessing my ability to teach. Who are they comparing me to? But it is important to hear from all my students, and learn from them. They make me smile with their compliments and criticism. It’s interesting to see that three students might like my use of “keener,” but one thinks that it is offensive. Yes, offensive. I cannot please everyone, and I do not try to do so. It is impossible!

I really look forward to year 19, which starts next month with the new term. I include a photo of my favorite Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who is also known as the Notorious RBG.

notorious rbg


The Academic Interview: Visit, Talks, and Politics 

  The last time I had a job interview for a tenure-track job, I was successful and got the job. I had spent 2/3 of my academic career as contingent faculty and felt like I caught the golden snitch. Now, that I am several years past the job interview I am thinking more about the process. I have some points to share based on my experience as the job candidate and sitting on numerous hiring committees between two universities. 

You can never be over-prepared. Do your research about the university and the department. You need to speak to the classes you can teach and how you can add to the teaching, learning, research, and overall community in the department. Practice your job talk and teaching talks with friends, who can offer you advice about your presentation and “working” the room. Choose what you’re going to wear for the trip with special care. Be prepared for a jam packed day or days at the campus. You will be scheduled from dusk to dawn to meet everyone on campus. 

You likely will meet with students in the department. Make sure that you give them the attention that they deserve. They might not have a vote on your position, but these are the students who you might work with come the next term. Have questions for the students. Some of the student are really invested in who you are and are likely interested in who will join the department. 

When you are done with the process, send the department chair a thank you note for the opportunity. 

Odd things that happened to me during my last interview process:

1. A student came up to me and let me know that he supported my candidacy, but the student course union did not. I smiled and reminded him that the course union does not have a vote. However, I will say this. The student leaders with their closed arms during my talk was something that I remembered for the next school year, and then let go. When some of them later approached me for letters of reference, I was surprised. Their behavior was rude. 

2. Hiring brings out the best and worst in the hiring committee and you have little control over this. There is often different factions in a department and this is not about you, but perhaps your supervisor or old arguments in the department. 

3. If you work at the campus where you’re interviewing, you will see the other candidates getting escorted around campus, at lunch, and elsewhere. Roll with it. 

4. If someone falls asleep during your job talk, do not take it personally. I have seen this happen and was surprised, and felt terrible for the job candidate. If you do something silly, recover. I recall one job applicant coughing out his mint. He recovered well. I don’t remember his name, but I remember how smooth he was with the issue. 

5. Be prepared for things you cannot control, people coming to your presentation late, texting during it, and making sour faces after you answer a question. While this behavior is uncollegial, at times it is really not about you. 

Related to the five brief points: be gracious. If you get an interview, you will feel like you won the lottery. Do not lose the ticket, and prepare for the interview. 

Good Luck! 

This is the first of a few posts related to the interview process. 

Mentoring Graduate Students

I am assessing the last year and thinking about my mentoring of my Teaching Assistants (TAs) and Research Assistants (RAs). While I need them to grade and facilitate the tutorials, the other thing that I want them to do is learn. I am a firm believer in giving them ample opportunity to learn and lead. And, a major part of this is trying to get them used to project management and working with people. Another key thing is to help them have better work life balance. It is easy to get caught up in the “flexibility” of our academic jobs and to work all of the darn time.

One thing that I set up with my TAs is that any email sent on Friday at 5pm through Sunday is considered a Monday morning email. They are not on call to me and I want to have productive boundaries with them. I also set up with them the guidelines for responding to emails from me Monday through Friday and from my students. I think it is important to offer clear guidelines for working with me.

It was hard to let go and give more freedom for how they lead tutorials, but somehow this is easier for me. I have to trust them and that they will learn what works for the group of students in the tutorial. The art of letting go is important to offering the TAs a chance to get comfortable leading discussions and learning how to work with a supervisor. What have I learned? Some of my TAs are dedicated and others have different skill sets that will serve them well elsewhere.

My most successful TAs and RAs are the ones who take direction well, are organized, and think ahead about the course material or the project. These graduate students are generally more receptive to feedback and have a willingness to learn and do more. These particular graduate students take pride in the work and do not act like the job is funding—they treat the work, like a job. I am thankful for them.

Continuing the Conversation about Guilt: Academics on Academia

I’ve enjoyed my conversations with Liana Silva. Her last post really touched me and troubled me. I was not frustrated with Liana, but with the truths she spoke about the ways in which academics allow the constant blurring of our work and personal lives. She made me look into the mirror and think about my work and the infamous to do lists that I keep. I spent all last week thinking about guilt. The guilty way I feel when I think about my day and the constant struggle to get all the tasks completed.

There is always a paper to write, assignments to grade, lectures to work on and other work. Then, add to that projects, publications, and service in the department, faculty and wider campus. The reality is that most academics do not work a 40 hour work week. No, we work easily work 50-60 and during the crunch periods more than this. And, this doesn’t include all the time responding to emails or thinking about the job. Alas, we do not get to bill by the fifteen minute increments!

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Academics on Academia: We Belong

I am happy to have ongoing conversations about higher education with my friend and colleague Liana Silva. Our first one is really about that sense of belonging or fitting in academe. Reading Liana’s  piece reminds me of my experience as an undergraduate and then later as a graduate student. I was a first generation college student, who graduated with strong grades from high school. I took the array of Honor’s and Advanced Placement courses during high school and participated in sports and other activities.

But, nothing prepared me for the other side of the university experience–the culture of academe. Everyone assumed that I had money, since I was in university. I don’t know where this came from and I certainly was not going away for Spring Breaks or Summer vacations. Add to this that as a Latina, I noticed that suddenly I represented the “woman of color” in class and the expectations in the classroom varied among my different professors. I was at an institution with a good number of Latinas/os, but not enough to be more than a small minority. When I began to entertain graduate school the process seemed alien. I was fortunate to connect with Graduate Women Scholars of Southern California. It was in Scallops (slip of the tongue by our faculty advisor who hailed from Boston. She meant to say Scholar and Scallops slipped out and it stuck) that I learned about how things worked in academe. This peer mentoring group was one of the best things that happened to me during the last year of my undergrad, as it made the transition into grad school that much easier.

After I earned an MA in Liberal Arts and Sciences and entered grad school in Political Science, I learned that most did not have the strong mentoring that I had and almost no one in the cohort had presented at a conference, had a CV, and were familiar with the vagaries of the tenure track process. Wow. My mind was blown. While I felt like the step-cousin in the department with my areas of research, I was ahead of the curve with my knowledge of academia, which proved useful. I also noticed that Political Science was also very conservative methodologically and politically, and very white. If I thought that Women’s Studies was not that diverse–well, Political Science was a completely different terrain.

Reading Liana’s post really stirred up some memories for me and makes me once again realize how important mentoring (peer and otherwise) is crucial to successful experiences in academe. When you don’t have the mentoring network, it is so easy to feel that you don’t belong…that you are an imposter. Add to this the incredible whiteness of academia and this becomes more complicated for people of color. I will never forget my first experience at the American Political Science Association ( #APSA ). I felt lost and kept on telling myself, “You belong here.” I attended meetings related to Women and Politics and the meetings for the nascent Race, Ethnicity and Politics section. I went outside of my comfort zone and tried to network on my own. It worked. I was emboldened by the good mentoring I had, but at the back of my head occasionally was–do I belong here?

I remember those moments and now make a special point to speak to people new to the conference–especially graduate students. So, Liana, I think we have started an important conversation.