GenX women in higher ed from around the globe

Posts Tagged ‘Teaching’

What I Did On My Summer Vacation

In Guest Blogger on 2012/11/20 at 22:43

Guest blogger, Monica Miller, writing from Baton Rouge, Louisiana in the US. 

Sometimes, I want to be wrong.

I suspected it would to be tough to return to the grind this fall after the glorious summer I had. Particularly, after a three-week gig teaching Shakespeare to junior high students, I wondered how I could (once again) face a first year composition class at the big university where I’m working on my doctorate.

This summer, I taught “Shakespeareance” at Davidson University for the Duke/TIP program. It’s an incredible program—though my last summer as a Tipster was 1988, I’m still in touch with friends from then. Having the opportunity to be on the teaching side of things was an exciting prospect.

And the kids! I had eighteen students in class for six hours a day, five days a week, and three hours on Saturdays. After dinner, the students returned for an hour of evening study. Over the course of the three weeks, we read Twelfth Night, 1 Henry IV, As You Like It, and Macbeth. I loved watching the students adore Falstaff, argue about Lady Macbeth, and write their own endings to Twelfth Night. To be sure, students who are going to give up three weeks of their summer to spend this many hours studying Shakespeare are going to be extraordinary kids. Still, it was astonishing to ask a question to the class and have eighteen hands shoot up.

Also new to me was feeling such a strong connection to my students. Certainly, I work on fostering a sense of community in all of my classes, but being together for such long periods of time for such concentrated study meant that we quickly became a tight group. Plus, it was nice to have things in common with my students—not just as a nerdy academic who thinks it’s fun to study Shakespeare all day, but culturally, too. These kids worship David Tennant and Ian McKellan, they thought the Frye and Laurie skit about studying Shakespeare that my TA showed was hilarious, and quite a few of them have read Terry Pratchett. They told jokes about Cthulhu and Star Trek which I found funny. It was quite a change from my regular students’ references to football and reality television (which I rarely understand).

Outside of the classroom, I enjoyed a different sense of community with the staff, with whom I shared the top floor of the dorm. The first week of classes, we practiced two hours a night learning choreography for the lip sync contest the first Saturday—the result of which was an incredible sense of community. However, it wasn’t just tripping over each other trying to emulate Justin Timberlake that forged these bonds. About halfway through the term, it occurred to me that, though we lived and ate together, I had yet to hear any real negativity about teaching. Oh, sure, there were complaints—twelve year olds who lack parents telling them to shower every day are at times unpleasant to be around in the summer. But I realized that everyone on the academic staff was there because they wanted to teach; there was none of the “teaching is what we have to do so we can get to our *real* work” attitude which so pervades higher education. The combination of students who want to learn and teachers who want to teach was a singular experience for me.

I began to worry what it was going to be like to return to the land of students who resent having to read and colleagues who resent classroom time. Don’t get me wrong – I am fortunate to have many classmates and faculty who value teaching. This year, in fact, our English Graduate Student Organization is organizing pedagogy groups for teachers to share common interests and concerns. Upon returning, my intention was to try to hold on to the renewed love of teaching I found this summer and use it to inspire me in the classroom this fall. However, the first time a student expressed disdain for having to take English classes, and the first time my students rolled their eyes when I had no idea who [insert famous college football player here] was, I felt the gap.

I’m certainly not the first person to ask how to maintain excitement for teaching, I know. However, I want to know if it’s possible to get anywhere near the kind of engaged community that I had this summer in a class that meets three hours a week. Or with my colleagues without resorting to jazz hands?

Monica Miller is working on a Ph.D. in English and Women’s and Gender Studies at Louisiana State University, after earning an M.A. in English from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville in 2010. Her primary research interests are Southern and Appalachian literature and feminist and gender theory; her current work is focused on the figure of the ugly woman in Southern literature. She blogs about life in graduate school at

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

Is That a B or a C?

In Graduate Studies & Students on 2012/10/21 at 21:55
Deanna England, writing from Winnipeg, Manitoba in Canada.

I Will Now Stop Resenting the B+ I Earned Last Fall Quite So Much…

I was offered a position as a marking assistant in the Women and Gender Studies department, and offer that made my day/week/month.  I felt like I had finally “arrived” to be tapped on the shoulder like that. In my undergrad years I always envied the students who were asked to RA or TA for faculty members. They always seemed somehow smarter, or more together than I was. So to be asked now brought me back to my twenty-one year old self, validating my worthiness as a student. Silly, I know.

The course is Intro to Women and Gender Studies. A course I have never taken myself, though the Doctoral programs I have been tentatively exploring are in that area. I received my first batch of papers to mark this week, and I realized I was taking the course along with the students. I read the entire batch of reading responses, absorbing the summaries without making a mark. It was fascinating to experience the chapter from so many perspectives. Each of those students had read the same words, but not one of them repeated what another had to say about it.

Throughout the course of my education I, more than once, have been concerned that I would propose the same paper topic as another student. That we would write the same paper, but inevitably *they* would write it better. But reading those papers, I realized that such a thing would most likely never happen. One’s life experiences, culture, employment history, family, and a multiplicity of other factors would make that a virtual impossibility.

When I initially met with my Professor about marking for her, she asked me a series of questions about how I would handle the job. The more she asked, the more I realized just how much consideration went into every grade I have ever received. How *would* I handle marking for someone whose first language was clearly not English? I was not in the Math department where there is a universal language and only one right answer.  Perhaps this was going to be more challenging than anticipated.

And so I dove into the marking, with a mixture of both excitement and terror. These are GRADES.  These grades MATTER. They will be reflected on student transcripts, and permanent academic records, and what if they want to apply for scholarships and graduate school and jobs? I haven’t even taken this course! What right do I have to grade a paper when I haven’t done the reading myself?! What if they all hate me? What if I’m too harsh? Too lenient? What impact will my decisions have on their ultimate feelings of accomplishment or entitlement or future scholarly plans? Why did I take this job? This is WAY too much pressure! How do faculty handle this?


The professor and I had decided earlier that I would mark 10 – 15 and then meet to review how I handled it. I dove in, wrote comments, assigned a letter grade and attached a grading rubric scale to the papers. That rubric killed me. As I was checking off boxes that meant C or B I felt constrained. I found myself giving lower scores than my intuition told me was warranted.

And when we met yesterday, my Professor agreed. She, too, was dismayed at the number of C’s I was giving. We had a talk about not discouraging first year students before they have found their bearings in both the course, and often in University as a whole. While we had to be fair, we also wanted to guide them, and offer them the opportunity to grow into themselves as scholars. We decided that the attached scoring rubric had to go. I would be more gentle, encouraging and numerous with my commentary and hopefully instill a love of the subject in them.

It’s a big task. My sense of weightiness and responsibility was not diminished after that meeting. But I also have shifted my own attitudes. Grading offers an opportunity to act as an indirect mentor to students. With each check mark, and “good point!” I could be inspiring them to continue on in an area that was completely unknown to them a mere month ago. I got a C in my Intro to Sociology course and I never looked at the subject again.  Where would I be now if that initial professor had taken a less standoffish approach?

I think I could learn to love this job, once the terror subsides a bit.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

Professors Can Also Be Snarky

In Liminal Thinking on 2012/10/16 at 02:28

Denise Horn, writing from Boston, Massachusetts in the US. 

In putting together my dossier, I am forced to revisit my past teaching evaluations, and my student comments. For the most part, I receive a great deal of positive feedback, but of course, every once in a while you have that student who hates you with a ferocity that is only matched by his or her immaturity and insensitivity. I’ve blogged about that before, but now I want to do the thing you know we all want to do: answer them.

You see, I usually have a pretty good idea who the complainers are, even in the large course I teach. It’s even more apparent when it’s a student from a small group or one of my international programs. I think they know this, so their “anonymous” remarks are usually pretty thinly veiled personal attacks, the kinds of things they would be never be brave enough to say to anyone’s face. I know it’s petty to even consider them, but you know and I know how much these kinds of remarks rankle. In the alternative universe in my head, I dream about the ways in which I could respond. I’d like them to know I’m human, too.

So here goes…. (and before the usual comments rage across the blogosphere concerning feminist need for authority and how terrible I am to care what students say, okay, got it. Move on.)

The “She Hates Me Because I Disagree” Argument

“She is so obviously liberal—I know I can’t say anything in class because it will affect my grade.”

Sure, if you tell me that women’s rights are a silly thing to talk about, we’ll have words, because I know you can’t back up that argument. I’ll give you an A if you can. Really, I will, because I like a good argument. Not a passive-aggressive attempt to justify your own lack of engagement in the class.

The “Why Aren’t You My Mommy?” Complaint

“She rolls her eyes when you talk to her, which is mean” (this was on a trip abroad)

I’m TIRED. I’ve been dealing with a sick student, a student who idiotically fell into a hole, a kid who ran into a motorbike, and a lot of whining. Forgive me for rolling my eyes when you asked me if I it’s possible to get you food that is “more American.”

“She is so unapproachable.”

Did you come to see me? No you did not. Not once. I sat in office hours waiting longingly for you to stop by as the semester went on. I missed your face. Why are you so cruel?

The “I Don’t Know Why She Makes Me Read” Screed

“I really think she should tell us the night before that we’re having a quiz, so I’ll do the reading.”

Um. Really?

The “I Want to Make you Look Bad” Attack

“She lived the life on the beach while we lived in the dorm.”

I lived in a dirty bug-ridden homestay–that yes, admittedly was on a beach in a small fishing village—because it cost less than $20 a night, which gave us more money to spend on your excursions and the nice clean dorm you lived in. And after being in the classroom with you from 9:30-5:30 every day, I had exactly 20 minutes before the sun went down and I fell exhausted into bed to “live the life.”

Oh, and I washed my underwear in a bucket.

“She lectures once in a while, has too many guest speakers and lets her TAs do all the grading.”

Huh. I thought I was enriching your education by having those three (yes, just three) experts in their field share their extensive experience. I spent hours creating that syllabus and writing my lectures. And there are 250 of you. Do you think that I am some kind of machine capable of doing all the grading myself–in the two day-turn around that you told me you expected?

The “I Lack All Awareness of My Privilege” Defense

“I pay too much money here to not be allowed to use my laptop in class.”

No, you pay too much money here to not pay attention in class because you’re watching YouTube videos. I CAN SEE YOU.

The “A Body in a Seat Counts as Attendance” Argument

“I think it’s really disrespectful that she asks people to wake up in class.”

I was trying to help—you were drooling on yourself.

The “Any Woman is a Lady” Alert

“She doesn’t like it when you call her ‘Miss Horn,’ so be careful.”

I am old enough to be your mother, and we do not live in the Old South. If we did, I’d let you call me Miss Denise and we’d rock on the porch together in the evenings drinking sweet tea while someone rubbed my corns.

And finally…

“Who does she think she is?”

Your professor. Get over it.


This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

The Perils and Temptations of Plagiarism

In Anamaria's Posts on 2012/09/22 at 05:15
Anamaria Dutceac Segesten, writing from Lund, Sweden.  

I remember that, as a child, I loved to copy in a notebook the best parts of the literature I was reading.  I would taste the words in my mouth as I was transferring them from the page of the book and jotting them on my little pad, thus enjoying them even more. I must admit that secretly, I wished it were I who authored those pretty phrases, I who had found those brilliant and unexpected pairings between adjectives and nouns. But even if I was just the scribe taking down the notes of the divine inspiration of others, the activity of repeating the path of their pen was pleasurable and, later on, inspirational.

In some non-Western traditions, to reproduce faithfully the words of canonical authors is considered not a crime, but an  homage. It is as if these great writers have succeeded in putting into words the essence of an idea. To try to change anything in their expressions, in the turn of their phrases, would be to insult their craftsmanship, to put into question their talent. The pupil can only hope to copy the words of the master, in the hope that they will serve as medium for inspiration.

I have noted this trend when grading the papers of those of my students coming from outside the Western world. More than once I was met in the pages of the exams by words that sounded very familiar, too familiar: my own words that the students carefully took down during the lectures and that now returned to me as the embodiment of the best, or at least most correct, of the answers to the exam questions. When I confronted them with the accusation of plagiarism, they did not understand. Was it not the purpose of the exam to answer the question correctly? They thought that those words, my words, carried the seal of legitimacy, sanctioned as they were by me, the teacher.

In order to explain that what they have done was wrong, I had to go back and clarify that the point of the exam was not just to answer the questions correctly, but to do so with their own words, in their own way, bringing up their own examples. Only this would be proof that they understood the lectures, the course literature and the theories presented therein and that they could independently apply the abstract notions introduced earlier in the course to specific situations that they themselves chose as appropriate.

Plagiarism is not a crime unless originality, individuality and authorship have the weight of legal and social norms. Our love of the “original” as in the primary/unique version of a work of creation is not necessarily shared by other cultures. In other parts of the world, the social norm says that the value of something is not diminished by its reproduction in millions of copies. On the contrary, it increases: the more copied, thus the more famous, and ultimately the better the product.

Ideas, like products, are likely to spread widely if they are deemed to be good. The key here is acknowledging the sources. Quoting and making explicit one’s sources is to admit their importance – if not more, at least for provoking a reaction. Not referencing is a mark of dishonesty, and implies that one doing so lacks the capacity to reformulate or critically assess previous works.

For the sake of the argument though, let us also admit that sometimes our greatest inspirational sources remain unknown even to ourselves.  Perhaps those notebooks of quotes that I put together as a child are still somewhere in the cellars of my literary memory and that they emerge from there unacknowledged. If all creativity is combinatorial, then the plagiarism of ideas (omitting the parenthood of an idea) is more of a crime of inspiration and a fault of the imagination.  To use an oft cited quip, “all ideas are second-hand”, but some of their combinations may be entirely novel.

Additional references:

Harvard Guide to Using Sources: A Publication of the Harvard College Writing Program. What Constitutes Plagiarism?

Maria Popova (2011). “Networked Knowledge and Combinatorial Creativity”. Brain Pickings.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

Professors with Attitude

In Liminal Thinking on 2012/09/21 at 08:30
Denise Horn, writing from Boston, Massachusetts in the US.

Sometimes you can’t fake it.

This summer I was in Bali, conducting another of my social entrepreneurship trainings for a group of Balinese students and students from my university. In the past this program has been a real struggle for me and for my assistants, caused by personality conflicts, cultural misunderstandings, and less than helpful  “partners” on the ground. And my own attitude, it turns out, is a huge indicator of how much I will enjoy the (sometimes) grueling six weeks of the program, but, more importantly, how my students will experience my class.

I took last summer off out of sheer exhaustion—I had run the program in India during the spring semester and it was difficult on many different levels. My assistants and I (all women) were basically sequestered in our hotel every evening, as were the students (all women but one) because of cultural attitudes towards women in public places in the small city where we worked. I was homesick. I had a handful of particularly unhappy students (who were completely unprepared for the culture shock), and the divide between the relatively privileged students from my university and the Indian students — who were largely from small villages — made communication (both culturally and verbally) a huge obstacle. I was not happy.

I decided to dive back into the fray this summer, with the help of a local partner with whom I’d worked before and trusted. I took on two new assistants and started fresh. And it was an amazing experience.  The students were happy and joyful (they sang every day during breaks), my assistants were laughing and energetic, and I was feeling less stress than I had in months. I was enjoying teaching again, and it showed.

And so this makes me reflect on my own attitude, and how my personal life and stresses are carried with me into the classroom, no matter how much I think I can fool everyone.

I went back over my evaluations over the past few years, and sure enough, the student comments almost perfectly tracked my personal attitude during each time. Going through a bad break-up and divorce: “the professor seemed unapproachable,” “the professor was short and abrasive,” “the professor wasn’t very good at answering emails, or wasn’t around.” Those were the days I couldn’t get out of bed, or was giving my lectures on autopilot. Meeting someone new and falling in love “the professor was so energetic and a great lecturer!”, “the professor made class fun and made me want to study harder.” Those were the days I was practically skipping to work.

Teaching is more than giving a lecture. It’s about reaching into a deep reserve of good attitude, if we’re going to be effective. Sometimes that’s easy, and sometimes it’s virtually impossible. But I think it’s worthwhile to check in, and be singularly present in that time and space. Be happy in the classroom because, well, teaching is fun, or it should be. Especially when your kids are singing during breaks.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

Life Lessons From Patti Smith

In Happy Mondays on 2012/09/16 at 22:35
Mary Churchill, writing from Boston, Massachusetts in the US. 
I finished reading Just Kids last night – Patti Smith’s incredible memorial to her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe. I am grateful that she let me into her world and I recommend it to anyone who is interested in the social nature of creativity.
Smith’s working-class voice and sensibility made for a down-to-earth exploration of friendship, love, art, creativity, poverty, inspiration, and community-building. She did a fantastic job of illustrating the link between how the work we are able to do is directly related to the type of community we build and live within, and the people we choose to interact with.  (This was my read of the book; others may focus more on the sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll).

I think there are several relevant lessons from Just Kids.

First – WORK HARD – Smith and Mapplethorpe were obsessed with their creative work: drawing, painting, making collages and altars, writing poetry, creating their daily costumes. Although Smith’s depiction may be a bit romanticized, it is not a stretch to see this type of creative obsession in some of our students and fellow faculty members. I appreciate the fact that she does her part to debunk the genius paradigm.

Second – BUILD COMMUNITY – Part of building upon your past mistakes and successes requires creating community; solo creative work takes its toll. When most of the people you interact with don’t get it and are constantly questioning why you waste your time painting, writing poetry, writing books, or studying obscure literary movements, it is very difficult to continue to push yourself. Smith thoughtfully shows the reader how different creative communities were crucial to her evolution as an artist. From this retrospective view, she carefully describes those who helped her, pushed her, encouraged her, inspired her and also, those who turned her off and discouraged her. She was wise to avoid the nay-sayers and to intentionally build a community of muses, coaches, and supporters. Ideally, our classrooms and departments would represent a space where we could encourage a collaborative and supportive environment, an incubator of sorts.

Third – SEIZE OPPORTUNITIES – In the 60’s/70’s, in Smith’s life, this involved being at the right place at the right time – the Chelsea Hotel, CBGB’s, the Factory, Max’s – all of this built on community. It was about being in conversations with people who could push her ideas and her art but who could also offer her opportunities: roles in films and plays, performances at clubs, and funding for her (ad)ventures. Similar conversations happen across our campuses – how do we bring the right people together in discussions that create opportunities for students and professors? How do we encourage our students and faculty members to take creative risks and try out new ideas?

For the sake of brevity in this blog post, I’d like to focus on the second lesson and our roles in building community as a space to facilitate hard work and opportunities. How can we apply Smith’s lessons about the importance of community to the world of higher education?

While the majority of the scholarship on the socializing aspects of higher education has focused on students, much of it applies to faculty as well. (See Stevens, Armstrong, and Arum (2008) on college campuses as “incubators” that shape our social experiences). It is important for a professor to keep in mind as she manages her class, but it is equally important for a chair or dean to realize as she leads her department or college.  We are creating a community that is, hopefully, a creative and nurturing community.

Through sheer force of personality and luck, Smith and Mapplethorpe worked incredibly hard to create an incubator for their creativity. This is what happens in our classrooms, our departments, our dorms; while the student services folks have always understood this, academics have been less intentional about building community and incubating creativity. Some of us do it very well and some of us fail miserably.

Many academics find community through their professional societies and this can have severe limits on creativity: disciplines are interested in maintaining boundaries and gate-keeping within societies is rampant; some societies intentionally facilitate competition over collaboration and facilitate an atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust; and too many of the same types of people thinking the same types of thoughts can be stultifying rather than inspiring. The same can be said for departments and colleges within larger universities.  The life of the mind requires inspirational muses, supportive cheerleaders, and coaches who will push us. Creating an incubator that facilitates building this type of community is challenging. Many of us choose to create this type of environment in writing groups outside of our institutions and others find validation for their work in their local communities.

If Smith and Mapplethorpe had been “just kids” in 2012, they probably would be going to college this fall and it is likely that much of their creative work would be happening in online communities. This is where I am witnessing obsessive hard work, intentional community building, and entrepreneurial opportunity seizing.

The next Patti Smith may be a new student in your class this semester or a new faculty member in your department – how do you support their creative work and where do you find support for your own work?

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

What’s In a Hug?

In Afshan's Posts on 2012/09/15 at 22:23

Afshan Jafar, writing from New London, Connecticut in the US.

A hug. At its best it communicates affection, love, respect, admiration — a spontaneous expression of (positive) emotions. At other times, it’s an obligation — a turned cheek, a sloppy hand over a shoulder, a quick pat on the back and we move on, relieved to have put the encounter behind us.

When I was a young graduate student, I never hugged my students. I was trying hard to be taken seriously, by students who were barely younger than I was and were sometimes even older than I was. I was trying hard to establish my “authority” in the classroom. I even dressed very formally.

So when I became a professor, at first I simply carried those same old rules with me that I had learned and established in graduate school: Distance, authority, formality. The problem was none of that fit my personality (not even the clothes!) and none of that fit my way of teaching as I started to develop my own teaching style and persona. So I relaxed my rules about how I dressed, how I spoke in class, how much I joked around with my students. All of this was facilitated by being at a small liberal arts college, where we are encouraged to interact with our students outside of the classroom (lunch programs, talks/presentations in dorms, informal discussions in the coffee shop with smaller groups of students).

But there was one rule that I hadn’t changed much. I didn’t hug my students. Of course there were some teary-eyed students at graduation who always hugged. But graduation day isn’t really reflective of our normal relationships with students. But then something strange happened when I went on sabbatical for a semester. Towards the end of my sabbatical, I was involved in a departmental search for a new faculty, so I went to campus to meet with our finalists. As I was walking the candidate over to her talk, I ran into a student. The student ran over to me and gave me a big hug and asked when I was coming back. We chatted for a little while and then I went on. A few minutes later another student saw me and did the same thing! Then I got to the room where the candidate’s talk was being held, and another old student of mine came running from the other end of the room and gave me a hug. Embarrassed, I mumbled something to the other professors about how our students must really miss us when we’re gone.

Experiences like these continued whenever I showed up on campus during my sabbatical. Here’s the interesting thing though: after the first few times, my discomfort at hugging my students disappeared. My students were expressing spontaneous joy at seeing me. . . I should be happy about that!

I understand very well all the dangers for young professors, who are trying to establish themselves as an authority. Hugging your students is not seen as “professional”, and it (might) make students think that you’re just one of them. But as I’ve gained more experience over the years as a teacher, I’ve come to understand that the rules I had established for myself as a graduate student (about how to dress, what kind of language to use for instance) were merely “crutches”, making up for what I lacked: experience and self-confidence. As I’ve gained more experience in the classroom, I’ve learned to let go of the crutches and realize that I can do just fine without them. I wouldn’t advise young graduate student teachers, or somebody who is just starting to teach to go around hugging their students – the crutches are helpful to lean on until you become more comfortable in the classroom

Sometimes, hugging is not a matter of comfort or experience in the classroom at all. It seems to me (based on anecdotes and observations) that there is a significant gender difference when it comes to hugging. Male professors are generally much more cautious around students and they certainly need to be given that their behavior is more likely to be seen as predatory. As a woman I have the privilege of not having a hug be read as “creepy” whereas not many male professors can hug their students without raising eyebrows.

That’s too bad really. Because a hug is best when it is spontaneous, non-obligatory; and that’s exactly the kind of hug students give when they’re genuinely happy to see you.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

Classic Classism in Class

In Liminal Thinking on 2012/09/06 at 00:55

Denise Horn, writing from Boston, Massachusetts in the US. 

I’ve spent the past two years researching and teaching social entrepreneurship, what works, what doesn’t, and how we can help the world’s poor. I’ve beat the drum against the abuses of neoliberalism, and tried to help my students see the links between their actions and the impact they have on the rest of the world, particularly the bottom billion. Own two or more cellphones? You’re increasing the global demand for Coltan and possibly contributing to human rights abuses. Eat meat that was raised on corn? You’re decreasing the world’s food supply and damaging the environment. Etc. Etc.

Last semester a student responded to this high-minded brow-beating with an angry evaluation comment: “Prof. Horn seems to think that we’re all unaware of what’s going on in the world. Perhaps she should realize that some of us have lived through it.”

This student was absolutely right. I had done what I fight so hard to avoid: made assumptions about certain demographics, particularly class. I had treated everyone in the class as though they were all from the same socio-economic background and unaware of how hard life can be for not just the world’s poor, but the poor in our country.

I could be forgiven for this, of course. With rising tuitions and our university’s quest to climb forever higher in the rankings, we’re well on the way to becoming an “elite” school, and by that I mean “elitist.” Many of my students wear clothes and sport handbags that cost more than I earn in a month. A growing number of them are coming to us from international boarding schools, prep schools and advantaged zip codes. We have courted the wealthy foreign students who have the ability to pay full tuition, and come from top political families. They take international vacations during the breaks, and their parents fund most, if not all, of their needs.

But that’s only half the story. There are plenty of working-class kids in our university who have struggled to get here, who will incur massive debts to attend this school, and who will spend their vacations working so they can afford to take that one trip abroad (and thrive on beans and rice). There are the kids who come from Southie in Boston, who work to change their accents so they can better fit in. There are the kids who sleep on friends’ couches or in the library because they have nowhere to live. There are the excellent students who struggled to earn that scholarship, despite working jobs in high school, taking care of siblings, or dealing with ailing parents. There is the remarkable kid who worked on a fishing boat every summer to pay for his tuition and for his elderly parents’ mortgage.

But these students and their needs are often overlooked. When fees are raised on study abroad programs, or no money is available to fund unpaid internships, these are the students who suffer most, because they can’t afford these opportunities. When tuition is raised every year while yet another layer of administrative staff is added (the salaries of vice-presidents can get hefty!), these are the kids we are affecting.

I often get the sense that their presence is invisible to many in our community–that the assumptions that we often make of the poor and underprivileged in this country don’t really fit with reality of the poor among us. These assumptions, which are often expressed in discussions about taxes or government entitlements, reveal an oddly defensive attitude from students or colleagues who are and have been quite privileged: “they” are lazy, “they” are only trying to work the system, “they” spend their money on things they can’t afford while getting benefits, and “they” are taking up valuable real estate. But we forget that when these things are said, there may be someone in that space who has actually experienced the reality of poverty, and “they” aren’t that obvious because many of these assumptions are simply wrong.

But these assumptions don’t go unchallenged because the burden of class is silencing. The working class students, the ones with real hardships, won’t defend themselves against the subtle ways that class discriminates. Instead they will try to fit in as best they can–not buying books, but making sure they have an iPhone. Not eating properly yet buying the “right” clothes. Not buying the proper medications because they can’t afford them. Not explaining to professors that they can’t keep up because they are working 35 hours on top of attending class. Not speaking out in class because they feel as though they aren’t as smart as the other students.

Class is sometimes obvious, but often it’s not. I was that working class kid trying to make my way the best I could and on my own. I never went away for spring break. I worked in the dining hall so I could take home the leftovers; and when I wasn’t studying, I was working another low-paying job. It was not easy, and like many of my students, I’ll be paying off student loans until I die. I am well aware that where I went to school is often used by some colleagues to judge the quality of my scholarship, when it’s really irrelevant.

Do I know how much privilege I enjoy now? Absolutely. I am acutely aware of it whenever I return to my hometown or do my research. But I should know better than to allow these assumptions to go unchallenged in the classroom, especially when they were my own.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

WARNING: Reading Student Evaluations Can Make You Crazy

In Afshan's Posts on 2012/07/17 at 08:07
Afshan Jafar, writing from New London, Connecticut in the US.

Aaahh. It’s evaluation season. Time for the tables to be turned on you. Yes, you, the professor. You thought you were being so clever by trying to institute some kind of an email policy: Telling your students not to email you at midnight and expect an answer before the 9 am class. You thought you were teaching your students responsibility by telling them not to wait until the night before to ask questions about their papers. You thought students would enjoy reading that ground-breaking and critical work on the topic that is so relevant to their lives. You thought you could show them that grades are earned not given away and you thought they would respect you for it. You thought you could teach them good writing skills even though it’s not a writing class. You thought . . .

Well turns out, you thought wrong.  Or you think you thought wrong. Wait, maybe you should think what you thought was right. It’s kind of hard to say exactly what you should think sometimes after you read student evaluations. After all, you could have one that says: “love the discussions- need more discussions” and another that says “lecture more”. One could say “love the short weekly quizzes, kept me on task” another could say “hate the quizzes”. One could say, “love the weekly writing” another could say, “I don’t see why we need to write every week”. One could say “very open, friendly and non-judgmental” and another could say, “won’t listen to the other side of the argument”. One could say “THE BEST!!!” and another could say, “AVOID at all costs”. *

This is why reading student evaluations can actually drive you crazy. They are meant to provide you with feedback to improve your teaching, but do they really? I have been fortunate enough to not be on the receiving end of many negative evaluations (at least not in the last few years!). Still the couple of negative comments that are completely contrary to what everyone else says in their evaluations are what seem to grab my attention every time. If two students out of thirty think a particular section dragged on too long, is it something I need to change? If three students out of 28 think I should return papers faster, is that something I need to work on? Can we ever reach 100% of our students? Should we try to? If everyone is always happy with us, are we (especially social scientists) asking the right questions?  I know, rationally, that if two students find something wrong and the overwhelming majority doesn’t, that means I am doing fine. Better than fine. But I find myself wondering about those students (okay maybe fixating is more accurate), and wondering about why the student felt a particular way or why they wrote that particular comment in the evaluation.  I am not a perfectionist. So why do these comments bother me so much?

At moments like these I have to remind myself to stop acting like Frasier. That’s the character of Kelsey Grammar from the sit-com Frasier. In this particular episode –one of the funniest I’ve seen–Frasier is privy (behind a one way mirror), to a focus group’s assessment of his radio show. Everybody loves him. Everybody, except for one person. The rest of the show focuses on Frasier’s obsession with trying to figure out why this person doesn’t like him or his show. In order to get the answers, Frasier stalks him, tries to talk to him, and eventually (inadvertently) crushes his hand and burns down his news-stand.  All this is to say, student evaluations need to remain anonymous, if for no other reason than to keep the Frasier inside all of us at bay!

Why do evaluations make so many of us crazy? I think the most frustrating aspect of it for many academics (as it seemed to be with Frasier) is the finality of it. As academics we like to explore, we like to question, we like to think, re-think, discuss, re-evaluate, explain. There is no way to probe, ask why or how, or ask students to clarify or expand upon what they’ve written in an evaluation. The words are there, just staring back at you anonymously and all you can do is wonder to yourself, “what the hell does this mean?” I think that, ultimately, is what drives us crazy.

*These are not statements from my evaluations, (although some of them are). These have been gathered from conversations with many faculty, both male and female.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

How Far (Out of Your Own Discipline) Can You Go?

In Under the Rain With No Umbrella on 2012/06/11 at 23:58

Itir Toksoz, writing from Istanbul, Turkey.

I finally could offer my course “Science, Technology and International Relations” this past semester. The course had been on the elective courses list for the last three Spring semesters, but  enough students did not register before this year.  My guess was that the course topic was the deterrent: it obviously required being interested in science and technology, not a general characteristic of the average social sciences student. However, somehow the tides have turned this year and I found myself with nine students in the classroom.

This course brought me some positive results. I enjoyed a sense of pride since, to my knowledge, I am the first person in my country to teach such a course in an International Relations Department. I had taken similar courses when I was a graduate student in France and in the US and I felt like offering this course was a real contribution to the IR field in Turkey. It had been some time since I had taken these courses, so I had to look for new resources, study them and spend hours preparing to teach for my 3-hour class each week.  The resources I found were not often easy reads for a social science professor like myself and I had to rethink  and try to improve my own science and technology literacy. I enjoyed my teaching-oriented research so much that it had a spill-over effect on my research agenda and I decided to explore topics in Science, Technology and International Relations for future publications.

With this in mind, I decided to talk to one of the Physicists at my University, Prof. Dr. Serkant Ali Çetin who is also an active researcher at CERN. I was curious about Turkey’s march towards CERN membership and how the international cooperation among scientists worked in this field. Our first talk lasted for about an hour and a half. He answered some of my questions , gave me resources to read, but more importantly he told me the history of what I had read in theory and as case studies on paper. Through his vivid examples and anecdotes, I could see some of what I know on the theoretical level materialize before my eyes.

This led me to think seriously about our borders in academic disciplines.  Normally one would think that Physics and IR are light years apart from one another in academia. It’s expected that an IR scholar would be interested in History, Sociology, Economics, Psychology etc. and cooperation among such fields is necessary. However, my meeting with Prof. Çetin on CERN was probably one of the most fruitful and engaging meetings I ever had. I believe in interdisciplinary research; I feel I have no other choice. I am curious about things outside my own field, but I would hardly think that I’d find myself in a great academic communication with a Physicist (especially when I recall what a terrible student I was in Physics during high school).

A similar thing happened when my boyfriend introduced me to Evolutionary Institutionalism which can be oversimplified as the application of evolutionary theory to social sciences. Biology sounds like another field unrelated to IR; however, I found the approach very interesting and decided to apply it to my ongoing research on civil-military relations which let me discover new horizons in my understanding of my own field.

Now I’m convinced that you can go as far away as possible from your own academic field, yet if your goal is scientific research, exploring new frontiers, making sense of the world we live in and feeding curious brains (our own as well as our students’), no Faculty or Department in academic life is far. We are all neighbors who sometimes get bored within our own communities thinking and talking about the same issues over and over, and we are refreshed when we meet with the scholars from other fields.

I’m sorry for those scholars who lock themselves into their own narrow research area and miss the great minds, experiences and ideas that surround them. I hereby promise myself: I will never be one of them, and just as I try to meet with people from different parts of the world and cooperate with them in my field of International Relations, also as a citizen of the land of Academia, I will always make an effort to meet with people from the different regions of the scientific world.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed