GenX women in higher ed from around the globe

Posts Tagged ‘Higher Education’

Re-evaluating My Relationship With Student Evaluations

In Janni's Posts on 2013/04/23 at 01:17
Janni Aragon, writing from Victoria, British Columbia in Canada. 

Most universities use student evaluation forms as a means of measuring student satisfaction and teaching effectiveness of the instructors. What many do not know is that most instructors have a like and dislike relationship with the official student evaluations. For contingent faculty, the evaluations are crucial to keeping their jobs. The evaluations are an easy means for a department to let you go, noting, “Well, your student evaluation numbers are really low.” Furthermore, we all know that there is such a large pool of adjunct faculty ready to get a class or pick up an additional class in the quest to attempt to make ends meet. This is an important issue and I recall feeling that the student evaluations gave me that opportunity where I had to prove that the department made a good choice in offering me some courses, when I worked part-time at two to three college campuses or departments.

Anecdotally, I have heard from many faculty that they never read their student evaluations and others note that they wait until the end of the year to review them. I scan the statistics at the term’s end or the end of the year. If I have time, I might read the qualitative comments. You see, I get the statistics emailed to me, but I have to request to get access to the folder of qualitative comments, which means that I do not look at them often. When I started a new team-taught course, I read the qualitative evaluations immediately to assess what the students were thinking. But, usually I review the qualitative comments as I prepare my dossier for a review or some other official process. And, I usually dread reading them, as the one negative comment will stay with me for the next hour or day.

As part of a recent nomination for a Teaching Award, I had to update my teaching dossier, and I just reviewed 18 months of statistics and qualitative comments and I have to say that my relationship with the student evaluations has changed. I cannot even believe that I am typing this, but I found that the both the statistics and qualitative comments tells me exactly what I already knew: I am an effective instructor. From the qualitative comments, I read that some students really like me and a few students do not like me or the assignments. Some comments brought tears to my eyes: students deciding to major based on my course or that my help in office hours made them not drop out of the program or university. I read that I was making a difference in and outside of the classroom—that I should have clones; it was a validating experience to read pages of these comments. Sure, some noted that I require too much reading or writing and I always expect some to make those comments. The statistics also noted that across the board 82-100% of my students enjoy the courses, assignments, my availability, and the overall course. Those are statistics that I can happily live with and add to this the great, hilarious or constructive comments and I feel satisfied with my teaching.

Now, we all are aware of the websites that comment about instructors and I will not name them. Those websites really find the fans and haters making comments and possibly doling out a chili pepper to an instructor.  I do not visit those sites anymore, but going forward, I will make a point of asking for my qualitative comments the same day that I get my statistics.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

Taking time to think about expectations for women in undergraduate science

In Guest Blogger on 2013/03/21 at 01:15
Marie-Claire Shanahan, writing from Edmonton, Alberta in Canada.

Decades of research in higher education has sought to understand why students come to STEM fields and why they leave. This has been especially true for women in science degree programs. Efforts such as Sue Rosser’s 1990 Female Friendly Science sought to re-organize science and engineering programs and change teaching practices to attract and retain female students. Drawing on insights from women’s studies and cultural studies, she proposed that they put greater emphasis on cooperative work and practical applications and broaden curricula to include more opportunities to explore the history and culture of science. Decades later, there are still significant gaps in women’s participation and persistence, especially in physics and physics-related engineering disciplines such as mechanical and electrical, despite efforts to overcome preparation deficits, provide role models and mentoring, and build communities for women in sciences.

Accordingly, we must acknowledge this is a more complex problem. There are tangled webs of expectations that influence all students’ experiences in science degree programs. When students arrive on those very first days, they bring with them expectations of post-secondary science education handed down from their families and teachers, in addition to their own. They also run headlong into what their professors, lab instructors and peers expect of them. And sometimes the results are disheartening and hard to navigate.

The programs themselves sometimes create expectations for who students should be.  Lars Ulriksen from the University of Copenhagen has described this as ‘the implied student,’ inspired by the literary concept of the implied reader. This is a way of thinking about all of the assumptions that are embedded in any text about what the reader would and should think and feel. It describes what a reader must bring with them to the text to make sense of it. Analogically, the implied student is seen in the set of expectations placed on students by every element of their degree program, from the course outlines to teaching practices to what the professors, instructors, and peers say and do. All of these paint a picture for students of whether their science program is really for someone like them. And it’s here where many female students encounter difficulties in meeting the expectations.  Karen Tonso’s 2006 ethnography of undergraduate engineers, for example, illustrates several incidents where students struggle with the strongly masculine expectations associated with the implied student in their program.

In order to understand the challenges faced by women in science, I’ve followed the lead of others like Tonso and Heidi Carlone and thought of these expectations as part of an identity process. As students progress in their science studies, part of the learning process is developing an identity within a scientific community. This means seeing yourself as belonging in the community and, through your actions and abilities, receiving that same recognition from others.For example, Carlone and Johnson (2007) worked with 15 successful women of colour in science, meeting them first during their undergraduate studies and following up six years later when most had moved on to graduate studies or medical school. The ease or difficulty of that path from undergraduate studies to graduation and beyond was largely influenced by how much recognition they received from others, such as professors and peers, about meeting the expectations of being a science student. Those who held strong science identities received heartfelt and positive support and feedback from mentors and senior scientists. In contrast, there was another group of women who began their undergraduate studies with interest and motivation in science but became increasingly disillusioned and frustrated. Despite being strong students, their rocky experiences were reflected in the feedback they received from supervisors and professors suggesting that they shouldn’t be there or were not the right kind of science students.

Taking a similar approach, I had the opportunity to work with colleagues who had led the Persistence Research in Science and Engineering (PRiSE) project, where they surveyed college students nationally about their high school science experiences as well as their attitudes towards science in higher education. We looked in particular at students’ physics identities. Two of the main components were how strongly they felt they met the expectations of physics and how much recognition they received from others about meeting those expectations. Those with well-developed physics identities, and who had received important positive recognition, were at least three times more likely to want to pursue a physics degree. And what was single most important predictor of how strongly students held a physics identity? Their gender. Even when high school experiences, GPAs, and career orientations were taken into account, male students had significantly stronger identities, meaning that they saw themselves meeting the expectations of physics better and received more recognition from teacher, parents and peers. This is despite ongoing research showing that male and female students are not very different in the raw skills that they bring to physics programs (e.g.,Hyde & Linn, 2006). As Tonso’s engineering students found, gender expectations related to masculinity and femininity can’t be ignored when we think about what pushes and pulls students in and out of science degree programs.

These kinds of studies show that the constraints felt by female STEM students, and all students, go far beyond academic preparation and ability.  It’s sometimes hard to imagine how expectations like these that come not just from curricula and tests but from every interaction that students have with their professors and their peers can be changed. There are definitely no easy solutions, but it’s important to start thinking about things this way. For example, how can mentorship and development programs not only provide role models and skills but also help students navigate these expectations? How can program leaders and professors begin to ask if there is room to change the implied student that incoming registrants encounter? The first step, at least, is always asking the question.

Marie-Claire Shanahan is an Associate Professor of Science Education & Science Communication at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. When not writing at her blog, Boundary Vision, or hanging out with her students, Marie-Claire is a regular guest host on the science radio program Skeptically Speaking. She also writes about two of her favourite things, science and music, as DJ at the online science pub The Finch & Pea, where she squeezes in as much Canadian independent music as she thinks she can get away with. She tweets as @mcshanahan, can be found on Google+, and reached at mcshanahan at

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed.

Changing Places

In Sarah's Posts on 2013/03/21 at 01:11
Sarah Emily Duff, writing from Stellenbosch, South Africa.

On a recent trip to the UK, I visited a friend who works at the University of Birmingham. She took me on a tour of its really quite beautiful campus, ending at the Muirhead Tower, a brutalist monstrosity built in 1971. Its recent renovation has smoothed over some of the worst features of the original design, including the shards of concrete which had begun to fall off its exterior.

For such an unpleasant building, it has an unusually significant literary pedigree: as a plaque on a nearby building commemorates, it is one of the key sites in David Lodge’s Changing Places (1975). The first in a trilogy of consistently popular campus novels set in the fictional University of Rummidge, a barely-disguised version of Birmingham, the novel describes what happens when two lecturers in English literature, one British and the other American, take up visiting positions at each other’s universities. Hilarity and profundity ensue.

It’s in the Arts Building – the Muirhead Tower, in other words – that the American academic Morris Zapp, who usually lectures at Plotinus University (the novel’s take on UC Berkeley), discovers and is fascinated by the Paternoster, a kind of ever-scrolling, open-faced lift or elevator between floors of a building:

Morris … loved the Paternoster. … he…found it a profoundly poetic machine, especially if one stayed on for the round trip, disappearing into darkness at the top and bottom and rising or dropping into the light again, perpetual motion readily symbolising all systems and cosmologies based on the principle of eternal recurrence, vegetation myths, death and rebirth archetypes, cyclic theories of history, metempsychosis and Northrop Frye’s theory of literary modes.

Zapp’s ability to move from mode of transport – the lift – to a rumination on life, death, and literary theory is echoed in Don DeLillo’s White Noise (1985), when a discussion between Jack Gladney and Murray J. Siskind moves from Elvis to Hitler, and then death. Indeed, a Paternoster also appears in AS Byatt’s Possession (1990), another campus novel, where it’s used to underscore the differences between two academics: poised, precise, and successful Maude who steps easily on to its steps, and shambling, struggling Roland, who almost falls off it.

I thought a great deal about these and other campus novels as I visited several universities during my stay. What struck me forcibly was the creeping managerialism in so many of these institutions. At one, someone mused about the ‘career management strategies’ of young academics. I have never – and hope never to have – a ‘career management strategy’. I have a fairly good idea of how I would like my career to progress, but I’m not going to try to predict what I’ll be researching in ten or twenty years time.

Much has been written about the implications of this managerialism for academic research and teaching. As universities have come under increasing pressure to demonstrate the ‘value’ (whatever we may mean by that) of their teaching and research, so lecturers have had to account for their time more carefully, plan their research often to a ludicrous degree (how many of us apply for funding only after we’ve finished the research project?), collect and respond to student feedback, and do ever-increasing amounts of administrative tasks. Every good academic in my acquaintance – who publishes, teaches, and does administrative work – is chronically over-worked, and seems to be in battle with a fundamentally unfair system.

I had coffee with a friend who had worked ten hours that day, and was about to put in another two. A friend’s research unit was threatened with closure unless he could raise enough funding – the amount unspecified by management – to prove its value to his university. Another friend was told to ignore her students if she ever wanted to be promoted. The members of an acquaintance’s lab competed to be the researcher who sacrificed the most weekends for work. And on and on and on.

Changing Places and White Noise satirise the kind of fairly pointless research that academics in retreat from the world occasionally produce. I am not about to call for a return of the Paternoster – I am not so starry-eyed as to appeal to a return to the academia of the 1970s and early 1980s – but what these novels, including Possession, remind us, is that academia used to be humane, that it was an environment that allowed academics the freedom and the time to pursue research and to teach, without falling into bed at 1am and being in the office six hours later. And without having negotiate a system which seems to be designed to never allow us to win. Academia was a space in which the apparently inefficient and – indeed – dangerous Paternoster could inspire a train of thought in a lecturer in English Literature. It was a place that was conducive to playful thinking. I am not sure that the managed, efficient, corporatised university of the future will be a space for similar contemplation.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

Honesty As a Resolution

In Janni's Posts on 2013/01/29 at 04:35
Janni Aragon, writing from Victoria, British Columbia in Canada.

I was chatting with a friend and she asked what my New Year’s Resolution was. I paused and thought about how I do not really believe in these sorts of things, but then realized that my resolutions are formed in late August or September, prior to a new school term starting. Last year my resolution was to continue to make mentoring my mandate. This school year my resolution was for honesty. Now, this honesty works both ways. I mean to continue to offer my honest, helpful comments to my students, mentees, and graduate students who I supervise or coach as my Teaching Assistants. But, it also means that I expect honesty.

What has this meant this last term? I have not responded to emails that crossed the line. I have set up face to face meetings with colleagues or students who sent the email to discuss the matter at hand. Life is too short to not communicate clearly and if I have the opportunity, I would rather clarify an issue face to face. This policy has worked like a charm. I have felt clarity with an honest conversation where all parties really come from a place of “I” and not “you”. I think I have to thank the Human Rights office and the two committees that I have sat on for the last year and a half for the foresight and tools to make me a better communicator and also expect the same from my students and colleagues.

In terms of my blogging and social media visibility, this has also meant that trolls exert no power or emotional energy for me. I am not saying that they took up that much space before, but now they take up zero space. I easily ignore them and move on, and this is quite freeing. I have used this place of honesty as a way to forge productive energies. I do not think that trolls are practicing honesty. No, the keyboard warrior is actually a coward. I have previously heard that I am blunt or brutally honest, and I think that these assessments have been fair. However, I do think that this resolution of honesty is different for me and my interactions with students.

I no longer circle around comments and waste time trying to not offend and choose my words ever so carefully. I offer constructive, honest comments and if this means that I state, “This is not your best work. This is sloppy work. You did not review my syllabus closely.” I will say it. I have said it. The reactions from students have varied and I know that one student thanked me profusely for my honesty. His next two assignments were stronger, and during the holidays he sent a nice thank you note. I was clear that he had not submitted his best work and that I expected more from him. I have told my mentee that I expect her to participate more in class—that she does not get a free pass—no favoritism. Guess what—she started talking more. I raised the bar, and many students responded with better work.

Sure, there was a student or two who noted something to the effect of, “I’ve never had a professor be so forward or speak to me this way.” My response was that I was sorry that no one had taken the time to be honest. I do not live my life by the students’ comments on sites about professors—see I won’t give them a shout out. I prefer to see the student do well, try harder, and graduate. I am not in the department to make friends. I am mentoring students and this includes honesty.  The year is halfway over and I will continue on with my resolution of honesty.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

What the Food Network Can Teach Us about Feedback

In Janine's Posts on 2013/01/26 at 08:26
Janine Utell, writing from Chester, Pennsylvania in the US.

I’m not a big television watcher, especially when baseball is in the off-season, but I am a Food Network junkie. This semester, my rethinking feedback (how to give it, what it should focus on, how it contributes to the conversation of a course) while also watching “Chopped” and “Next Iron Chef: Redemption” got me noticing how the programming on the channel is actually focused a lot on giving feedback. We think of cooking channels as providing opportunities for teaching — most of what fills out the daytime schedule, with attractive people in even more attractive kitchens preparing meals that even YOU can make at home with a $5 budget and a $5,000 set of appliances — but the Food Network has shows — especially in prime-time, where the competitive edge comes out — that actually take grading as their emphasis.

My conclusion after much Food Network watching is this:  There are two types of feedback available to chefs, and possibly also ordinary people like students and faculty:  failure-based, with an eye towards exposing weakness and asserting authority; and facilitative, with an eye towards building skills and creating opportunities for growth.

The first  category, failure-based, might be seen in shows like “Chopped” and “Iron Chef.”  Here the work takes place in a cutthroat and competitive environment:  “Iron Chef” is even set in a place called “Kitchen Stadium.”  Chefs who do not complete their timed tasks with weird ingredients (example:  make an entree out of gummy worms, venison, savoy cabbage, and instant grits) will be “chopped,” finding their pathetic attempts at originality, even edibility, rejected by judges who consider with a cold eye “whether they have what it takes.”  The public critique on these shows features fault-finding with the ultimate goal being elimination.

The second category, facilitative, might be seen in shows like “Worst Cooks in America” and “Next Food Network Star.”  Here, chefs work with contenders in a teacher-student mentoring relationship, often in a one-on-one setting targeting individual strengths and weaknesses. Contenders are given challenges, again involving timed tasks and weird ingredients, and are given feedback as part of the same kind of  public critique.  Along with this, however, are extensive conversations with chefs as teachers/mentors suggesting ways to improve and highlighting potential.

It is interesting to note that  “Next Food Network Star” did not used to follow this teaching model.  In its original incarnations, it operated more in the failure-based category; but last season, the format was changed wherein a “star” currently working on the network was paired with a contender as his/her “producer,” and was responsible for mentoring said contender into a finalist position.  Not only is the growth and improvement of the contender at stake; the producer/mentor celebrity chef is held accountable for the extent to which her contender succeeds.  It’s not just the wannabe chef who gets judged:  the celebrity chef is judged equally on whether or not she is a good teacher.  Even “Worst Cooks in America,” which sounds judgmental on the face of it, takes as its starting point the belief that everyone is teachable with the right teacher:  you might have accidentally given your family food poisoning with your tuna noodle casserole, but with the right feedback, guidance, and practice you can do better, possibly even well.

In both cases the standards and expectations are high, but facilitating learning and constructive work means giving the feedback that might enable someone to meet them.  I’m struck by the tension between these two impulses, because it strikes me as not unlike my own work.  Is our job in giving feedback to reward the excellent and punish the weak?  Do I approach the giving of feedback from a failure-based standpoint, or from a commitment to be facilitative?  In higher ed teaching in general, and in the work we might do as faculty and administrators, what seems to be the dominant mode of thinking about student and faculty work?

At the conclusion of this semester, I made a commitment to be more facilitative up until the very end, sort of like the adjustment described in this ProfHacker post:  not just judging the final product of a course but thinking about where that student might be in a few weeks at the start of the spring semester and beyond.  The “mind hack” described by Lincoln Mullen is about keeping that process-oriented approach up to the end of the semester and beyond; facilitation doesn’t end with a paper deadline.  At the end of it all, students might not be celebrity chef quality, but hopefully, I taught them how to create a few new and exciting dishes that won’t poison anyone.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

Teaching Difficult Topics

In Afshan's Posts on 2013/01/26 at 08:23
Afshan Jafar, writing from New London, Connecticut in the US.

I am a sociologist. I teach some of those courses that many academics wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole. One such course is Sex, Gender, and Society. I also teach other courses or segments of other courses that deal with sexuality, globalization, imperialism, wars, religion, sweatshops.  These are all difficult courses and topics to teach.  Many of my colleagues think I am a glutton for punishment for wanting to teach these courses (if these weren’t enough I just added Sociology of the Body and Embodiment to the list of courses I teach).

These are some of my favorite subjects to teach, but I also know, especially as a junior faculty, that these subjects can create a backlash among students and how they view and evaluate the teaching of these subjects. Over the years, I have realized that there are some steps that I can take that make for a better experience for me (and maybe better evaluations that actually judge my teaching and not penalize me because of the topic).  Here are the three most important lessons I’ve learned about teaching sensitive topics:

Dealing with the “F” word:  Feminist. That’s the dirty word that students are afraid to say out loud but is on everybody’s mind when they walk into one of my gender-related courses. By now I know very well what students think of feminists: biased, man-haters, no sense of humor, angry, and so on. So now, I discuss what it means to be a feminist from the first day of my gender courses. I encourage students to voice what their concerns might be coming into a course like mine and ask them why they chose to take this course. Turns out most of them have what would be classified as “feminist” reasons for taking the course! I spend a lot of time making them comfortable with that label and getting them to embrace it. Most of the difficult subjects we teach have some baggage in terms of the preconceived ideas that students bring with them about the subject and its teacher. These notions need to be addressed and corrected starting from day one, and then the message needs to be reinforced repeatedly throughout the course (for instance feminists aren’t man-haters; if you teach race, it doesn’t mean you hate white people and so on).

It’s Not About You: As a sociologist one of the messages that is most important in my classes is getting students to see how our actions, our lives are part of larger patterns and larger systems. One of the most difficult things about teaching sensitive topics (race and gender for instance), is that it’s bound to make people defensive. Discussing male privilege or white privilege often gets read as a teacher accusing them: “You are sexist” “You are racist”. My job is to constantly remind students that “It’s not personal”, that this is about larger structures and patterns of privilege. Related to that is the need to get students to see past their personal experience (see previous post and the section on “personal as proof”) and evaluate the evidence in front of them.  This particular message cannot be emphasized enough when teaching sensitive topics.

But Sometimes It Is About You . . . And About Me: I once received a comment on a course evaluation that said, “she is the scariest professor I know”. People who know me well (including my students who’ve taken several classes with me) find this utterly hilarious. Me? Scary? What had I done? I had held the student accountable and hadn’t extend the deadline for a paper. I think this speaks to gendered notions that students bring with them when they come to the classroom. As a young female professor, especially a young mother, they expect me to be nurturing and when I am not, they get frustrated or scared. Clearly, sometimes it is not the message being conveyed, but who is conveying the message that rubs students the wrong way. While I have some colleagues who are very critical of immigration policies (in this country and in Europe) their message, as White Americans, is seen as nothing more and nothing less than critical insight. The same message delivered by a brown-skinned immigrant can be seen as “having an axe to grind”, being “anti – (fill in the name of the country in question). I now make it a point to discuss students’ expectations of and reactions to their professors and how these might vary (even when the subject itself doesn’t) based on the professor’s gender, race, nationality, age, and so on.

Teaching sensitive topics is difficult and there is no way around that. But I do think that the above steps have helped me over the years (sometimes more successfully than others), to get students to evaluate their own responses and reactions before they evaluate me as a professor.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

Teaching an Unmotivated Audience

In Under the Rain With No Umbrella on 2013/01/23 at 04:19
Itir Toksöz, writing from Istanbul, Turkey

In Turkey, students are admitted into universities through a nationwide test. After the students take the test and receive their scores, they submit a list of choices of the institutions and programs they want to attend to a nationwide center which places them to one of their choices. This placement is a result of not only the test score of the student but also the relative scores of all other students who made the same choice across the country.

Getting into a university programme is a highly competitive process, often called a race, which requires a high investment on all fronts, in terms of the hours students spend studying after school and taking practice tests to prepare for this one big exam; in terms of the money spent on the part of the families since the students often attend extra courses at the weekends or take private lessons to do better on the exam, and in terms of the focus in the classroom in high schools since all the attention is geared towards getting the students better prepared for this exam during their last year.

The result is generally twofold: a tired student body entering into university life and a considerable number of students who are placed into programmes, and therefore into professions and futures, that they do not like to begin with.

The tired student body entering into university life is a factor which reduces the quality of higher education when students get into university after one or two years of intense, non-stop studying. Especially if they come to study in a city where they won’t live with their families for the first time, they often end up going out and enjoying life without enjoying the educational experience that they have worked so hard to attain. They mostly study just to pass exams; although they are clever and can do better, they have high rates of inattendance and read almost nothing outside of the minimum assigned for their class.

Of course this cannot be said for every university student. There are some very motivated students in higher education. As I don’t have statistics, I cannot give an exact number about the rate of students who are placed into programmes they don’t like. However, from the informal conversations I have had with students over the course of the years, I know that the number is far greater than many academics would like to admit. The number is also enough to make teaching a challenge.

In the short term, this process results in an unmotivated student body, disconnected from the classroom, uninterested in the topic they study. In the medium term, it creates a body of fresh graduates out of higher education who don’t know what to do in life. In the long-term, it causes a part of the population being unhappy with their jobs and their lives.

Since changing departments or universities is very difficult (which means either you have to retake the test or you try to get a good GPA to qualify for a transfer to another department, which in itself is difficult since the process is only open to students with a good GPA, something a student is not likely to have when he/she does not like his/her department or if a student applies for a double major which again has the GPA requirement) and since the investment to start over is too high, the students are stuck in their majors.

Teaching intensively in the classroom, it’s been a huge problem for me trying to reach out to these students, engage them, attract their interests and feel that I am able to teach them something about the substance. I am not in a position to suggest solutions to this nationwide problem. However, I must find ways of reviving my class atmosphere when I have such a group of students.

Linking topics with the everyday lives of the students is one way of engaging them. Group work asking students to deal with the topics among their peers and using teaching methods which include material such as films, cartoons, and songs which the students find easier to relate to is also important.

Since I teach international relations, doing the above is not difficult, as events of international politics are on the news everyday. I wouldn’t know what to do if I were teaching a different topic not so closely related with our everyday lives.

Any other suggestions would surely be welcome…

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

In Praise of Female Friendships: Women Professors, Women Students, and Academic Generations

In Liminal Thinking on 2013/01/15 at 23:10
Denise Horn, writing from Boston, Massachusetts in the US.

One evening last month, I met up with a small group of young women, and went home feeling uplifted, happy and inspired. These are women I have known for many years, and they are more than dear to me. They are funny, smart, witty and adventurous. We have traveled together, had countless dinner parties together, gossiped, and learned together. The common bond between us (aside from a mutual affinity) is that I was once their professor and they were once my students.

I have been teaching in my university long enough that I have witnessed the development of several classes of students from young, naïve, bright-eyed 18-year-olds to savvy, confident and sometimes cynical young men and women. And over the years, long after they have graduated, many of these students still see me as a mentor, but many see me as a friend. They are not afraid to come to me for advice, nor are they afraid to offer their own.

I have felt so enriched by these relationships that I am always surprised by fellow faculty members who never see beyond professor/student roles, and those who are very clear that they want no other role (except, perhaps to write letters of recommendation for grad school). I understand the need to keep a student at arm’s length when one is directly supervising the student. As a feminist, however, I believe in the vital importance of the mentoring relationship, particularly between women. I also appreciate that women often relate to each other in non-hierarchical ways that offer the possibility of fostering deeper relationships—not mentorship, but friendship.

I think of the long friendships I have with many of my former students in terms of academic generations, in which my experience of growth is joined with theirs. Among the relationships that I cherish most, for example, represent my first and second years of teaching–I was younger when I met them, and, in a sense, grew up with them. They were looking to me for guidance and advice when I was in the process of figuring out my own life—navigating the unfamiliar territory of a new career and a new university, going through the growing pains of intimate relationships, and for all intents and purposes, becoming an adult.  Each one of those friends/former students from that time buoyed me up with her wit, her curiosity and her creativity, without actually knowing she was helping me learn as well.

Our profession is inherently social and personal—we are, after all, engaged in shaping minds and fostering learning. As women academics, we are, by nature of our gender, role models to countless young women, and I take that as a serious responsibility. Our strengths, our weaknesses, our successes and our failures can always be material for teaching and mentoring—in the true feminist sense of the personal being political.

Yes, being an academic and being a teacher are intellectual pursuits, and worthy of the respect that many professors demand from their students. But the satisfaction of our jobs may actually lie elsewhere. When, someday, I look back at my career, I’ll think of the books and articles I’ve written, of course. But, I will see those as artifacts of a former me who explored ephemeral puzzles and was fascinated by esoteric theories. The “real” me, the lived me, will be traced in different ways: those that I have loved, those that I have cherished, and the academic generations of women who have or will have taught me so much, even as I was teaching them.


This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

Learning Disabilities and Academia: The Untold Story

In Guest Blogger on 2013/01/15 at 23:06
Guest blogger, Anna CohenMiller, writing from San Antonio, Texas in the US.

I have been wanting to write about this for a long time but have not known if it was a safe topic in academia.

I have a learning disability and it is something that is generally (almost never) spoken about. I have chosen to keep it a secret because I have had bad experiences growing up sharing this part of myself. A couple of years ago, I thought I was ready to share this information and had even considered focusing my dissertation on students with learning disabilities in academia, but ended up not feeling ready.

Today, it is taken for granted that I can have a learning disability and be a good student. Yet life has not always been smooth sailing, such as in high school when my AP English teacher yelled at me in public about how learning disabilities do not exist, and how I was “making it all up!” People did not understand how I could be a “straight A” student and have a learning disability. It just did not make sense to them. Aside from teachers not understanding, even my best friend did not get it, and eventually our friendship ended.

Fortunately two decades have now passed and some things have changed. I am now ready to share my story.

After high school, I moved a thousand miles away to go to college, and found an incredibly welcoming academic environment. No more teachers who yelled at me for telling them about my learning disability. Instead, most professors were incredibly thoughtful and happy to accommodate me. (As a side note, although it is the law to accommodate students with documented learning disabilities, it does not have to be done happily.) On campus, there was a center for learning disability services staffed with graduate students trained to work with each registered student. Each undergraduate was assigned a graduate student who was our personal support system and advisor. The graduate students received credit for working with us, as well as hands on practice, and we met regularly throughout the semester to see if there was anything they could do for us.  I felt good. I felt like I was a responsible student (which I was), who was capable of doing my work (which I could).

In a nutshell, I was treated with respect. In general being treated with respect is a non-experience. Respectful behavior often goes unnoticed; it is the essence of unremarkable, until it disappears. At least for me, that is what happened.

Fast forward to today. The university I attend as a doctoral student has a disability services center, however it varies drastically from the one I experienced in my undergraduate days. My experiences have included ones that were okay, such as being listened to when I called or came into the office.  However, my experiences have also included being ignored, talked down to, and having my water bottle removed during a testing session because “you might spill it on your test paper and you are allowed only one paper” (this was told to me in a slow, measured voice which in the best scenario was condescending).

Being treated in this – disrespectful – manner, has left me uninterested in dealing with the disability office and reminded me of my negative experiences sharing with others that I have a learning disability. The fears of being yelled at, ignored, or treated like a child feel exceptionally fresh in my mind.

Yet I know today that this topic of learning disabilities and academia is significant. I believe that it is important to write these words and have others read them. I once saw a documentary that included people who had become famous talking about their learning disabilities and struggles growing up. Their willingness to share and make themselves vulnerable was important for me to see, and I hope this piece will help someone else in a similar way. In talking about my own struggles to gain and maintain respect as a doctoral student with a learning disability, I hope to provide voice for an unvoiced student and perhaps help university policy evolve to a constant level of respect when addressing everyone, including those with learning disabilities.

Although I have had some difficulties with disability services at my university, it should be noted that overall the office has an excellent mission and all of my professors have been exceptional in their support of me and my learning disability.

Anna CohenMiller is a doctoral student in the department of Interdisciplinary Learning and Teaching studying adult education at the University of Texas at San Antonio. She has a background in anthropology, education, and Spanish and is focusing her dissertation on the institutional obstacles to motherhood in academia for graduate students and junior faculty. Anna is an avid artist and examples of her photography can be found at You can follow her on Twitter @annaramona or contact her via email at

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

The Chronicles of Nonsensia: The Sad, the Infuriating, and the Incredible

In Afshan's Posts on 2013/01/14 at 00:44
Afshan Jafar, writing from New London, Connecticut in the US.

If you’re in academia, chances are you’ve spent some time thinking about and discussing student writing. You may have found yourself enraged at something, or laughing out loud, running to share the hilarity with the nearest living being. Maybe you scribbled it down somewhere, or perhaps it seared itself into your brain and never needed to be written down.  Following are some themes from student writing that resurface over and over again and some memorable quotes from over the years. Some will make you laugh, others will make you cry and some might make you do both.

The Either/Or, Good/Bad:  This is the kind of writing where nuance and complexity don’t really exist. Things are either all bad or all good, and the idea that most things, people, cultures are more complex than that, is not really entertained. There is a need to come up with a right and wrong answer, to take sides, to conclusively declare something as good or bad.

The Appeal to a Higher Power:  As a sociologist, this one is probably one of the more frustrating ones.  This can take many forms. For instance:  “Mother Nature intended it to be this way”, “This is God’s doing”, “It’s only natural”. “It’s because of testosterones”. Sometimes the higher power is of an interplanetary kind: “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus”.

The Hyperbolic/The Grandiose: This kind of writing is prone to showing up in an opening sentence, where the writer wishes to impress the reader by making a grand, sweeping statement. Of course the problem with grand, sweeping statements is just that: they are grand and they are sweeping and thus inaccurate. Students particularly love these kinds of sentences in introductory paragraphs. Here are some examples: “Since the dawn of time . . . ”, “Ever since Adam and Eve . . . ”, or for those of a less religious nature, “Ever since cavemen . . .”, “In all societies throughout history . . .”

The Resigned: Contrary to what you might think, this kind of writing doesn’t necessarily strike the particularly pessimistic; just the particularly lazy, who don’t want to think through a specific issue too deeply. This kind of writing comes out in phrases such as: “That’s just how it is.” “That’s how it’s always been”, “Nothing will ever change”.
(Notice how resignation is combined with the hyperbolic in the last two examples).

The Supernatural: These are rare and often deliciously hilarious. They often come about due to sloppiness and not reading (and writing) carefully. I will share with you an example from some years ago when I was a graduate student teaching assistant. A student was summarizing a crime from the previous night’s news and wrote: “The parents woke up to find themselves dead”. Wow. That’s rough. And I get cranky waking up at 5:45 am. And no, this was not a news story about the paranormal.

The Conversational: This kind of writing fails to distinguish between a formal essay and (sometimes a late night) conversation with a roommate. Consider the following example: “The girls were struttin’ their stuff, trying to snag a piece of ass for the night”. This kind of writing shows up more commonly in less egregious forms than the above example, as a piece of writing that sounds like a conversation instead of a research paper.  “The man is insanely muscular” (analyzing images of masculinity in the media), “Her boobs are jacked-up (analyzing images of femininity in the media).

The My-Dog-Daisy or the Personal as Proof: This is the kind of writing (or in-class discussion) where the student insists on presenting a singular incident from their life as evidence against the social scientific research being discussed in class.  Many years ago I had a student present “evidence” of the inherent differences among races by stating that his “dog, Daisy, a very sweet and loving dog, never barked at anyone except black people”. Daisy knew something that criminologists had apparently missed. Other examples:  “My brother is very sensitive” (thus it is proof that there is no expectation in American culture for men to be in control of their emotions); or “My grandparents were immigrants and went on to become very rich and successful” (thus it is proof that the American Dream is alive, well, and not to be questioned).

Let me be clear: This is not just another rant against our students and how poorly they write. I think these themes reflect larger patterns of thinking in American culture. They also represent how information is presented in various media outlets. It is no surprise then, that our students replicate these ways of thinking in their writing.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed