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Deep thoughts on student retention December 7, 2016

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, engineering, teaching.
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While there are several differences between my new uni and and the previous ones where I’ve taught, I have to admit that the students have been one of the biggest differences.  One of the things that made me nervous (I admit it) is that so many of them are athletes.  Other faculty told me this was a good thing, but my past interactions with athletes have been a very mixed bag.  Some have been fantastic students while others made me want to pull my hair out.  There’s not usually much in between.  I certainly don’t mind the great ones, but knowing I could have a lot more of the not-so-great really scared me.

Here, though, almost all my students are athletes, and the experience has been completely different.  I’ve enjoyed teaching this semester far more than before, and a lot of it has to do with the students, almost all of whom are athletes.

I started wondering about a separate issue, though, and it hit me later that they may be somewhat related.  Coming out of this first semester, it’s looking like we are going to have very high retention in the program.  Even the students who have decided to change majors aren’t doing horribly.  Admittedly, it’s just one semester and they haven’t hit some of the ‘weeder’ classes yet.  I am, however, definitely not seeing the extreme negative end of student behavior that seems to plague the intro classes I taught before.  It occurred to me that the students were definitely far more on top of things than I had run into in the past, and it made me wonder if the athletics have a lot to do with it.

There are two things that I think may have contributed.  First, athletes in college are almost always athletes in high school.  They’ve already had to learn to manage their time and probably have a leg up on lots of kids who never had to put a significant commitment toward an activity while going to school.  The second contribution may have come from the athletics infrastructure: the teams generally have organized study sessions, athletes are required to check on grades throughout the semester, and if there’s a problem, you’re encouraged to let the coach know.  In essence, the athletes have a built in support structure and mentors to help them adjust to the transition into college. They have people to help them manage all of it.

I’m honestly not sure how much of this success is the students themselves or the support structure; I suspect it’s a combination of both.  I’ve also seen that the uni does a lot to support non-athletes, as well, which may skew the results a bit for the better: athletes can take advantage of non-athlete support, as well.

This has been reinforcing my notion that support beyond financial may be a huge factor in one’s ability to get through school.  Students coming out of high school are supposed to be adults, but they’ve very seldom had the ability and latitude to act like one and so have little practice.  In particular, I’ve been thinking back to many of the students I’ve had and “lost” in the past.  If they had a support structure in place like that, would they have decided to leave the major, change schools, or, in the worst scenarios, flunk out of school?  How do you set something like that up for a non-athlete?

I am not sure I have any answers, but obviously I have lots of questions.  It may shake out and our retention won’t be any better after they hit some other classes, but I’m cautiously optimistic that we’re on a good path.  I am going to spend a lot of time watching to see what’s working, though.

Paper woes and highs November 21, 2016

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, education, engineering, papers, research, work.
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I really, really hate grading papers.  I’m not sure why I assign them, except that I hope there will be a decent amount of reflection and introspection on the part of the students as they’re writing them.  However, I would rather grade problem sets or even lab reports than papers.

Part of the problem is that I’m looking for content and it’s not always in the same place as you go from paper to paper.  In problems and lab reports there’s generally a set structure.  For papers…it’s not entirely clear.

The other part of the problem is that they just aren’t engaging for me, so I end up falling asleep reading them.  I’m one of those people who has a hard time sitting down to read a book, even for fun, unless it’s intensely compelling.  I will, however, be fine listening to books on tape (or CD or iPhone or whatever they are now).  I thank this means I need to hire a really good voice actor who can read them to me. At the very least, it would be slightly more engaging.  But then I would still have to assign a grade.  :p


On the up side of papers, some of mine are finally getting cited.  The good ones, I mean.  I have watched over the past three years as one of my least favorite papers on which I’m a co-author steadily gained and gained citations.  I couldn’t figure out why except that it’s in a “hot” area.  Now two of my papers are starting to pick up citations (and my h-index is starting to creep up).  One of the papers is a good theory paper which was accepted to a rather selective conference while the other was more experimental in an area I’d like to keep doing research in (at least the theory aspect of it…don’t have the equipment to do experimental work now).  I’m just going to keep my fingers crossed and hope that they pass up the crappy paper in a couple years.  If either one does, it’ll be a reason to make something especially delicious and celebrate.

The day after November 10, 2016

Posted by mareserinitatis in Politics, societal commentary, teaching.
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I went to bed Tuesday knowing that Trump was president.  I didn’t wake up to a shock, and even when I went to bed, I wasn’t that shocked.  I guess having lived through 8 years of George W Bush made me rather cynical about the way our country deals with problems and adversity.  (That is, usually in the least constructive manner possible.)  Unlike a lot of people, I’m not raging and upset at the outcome: I’m just disappointed and know the next four years are going to be tough.

I pondered how to handle it with my class, though, and decided the best solution was to not bring it up.  As I’ve mentioned before, this is one of my most diverse classes ever.  About 1/3 of them are international students (whom I suspect believe Americans are nuts), 1/4 Latino (whom I suspect are stressed about the election), a couple of black students (who keep their thoughts to themselves), and the last third are from the midwest (and I suspect there’s a few Trump supporters in there).  I figured it had no place in engineering and I didn’t want a fight to ensue on top of that.

After class, a student walked into my office, quite upset, and closed the door.  Then he asked if I’d voted for Trump.  I’ve had encounters with angry students before, so I, to be perfectly honest, was rather scared in that moment.  I simply said, “No, I didn’t.”

At that point, he sunk into a chair and started venting.  This student was very upset because of dealing with some other students who were Trump supporters.  I think he just wanted to be around someone who would understand where he was coming from and as I’m female, he felt there would be a good chance I would agree and possibly validate the frustration and anger he was dealing with.  He did calm down and seemed to be in better spirits when he left.

This has made me ponder if “keep quiet” was the right thing to do, however.  If I could go back, I would probably have said the following:

Some of you are probably pleased with the election.  Others of you probably are not.  Regardless of which side you’re on, I’d appreciate it if you gave everyone some space to deal with their thoughts on this.  It’s important to remember that we all have to live with each other after this, and there’s no reason to be gloating or angry because someone made a different decision than you did.

Not sure if it would help or hurt, but maybe acknowledging how everyone was feeling (and has a right to feel) would’ve helped remind the students how we are supposed to behave as mature adults.  That’s part of what they’re supposed to be learning at college, too.

Waiting for the student to pop… November 3, 2016

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, teaching.
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I really enjoy teaching, but there are some aspects of it that frustrate me.  In particular, during my previous teaching stints, I often had a student who would be exceptionally rude or bothersome.  In one case, I had a student who sat there yelling at me, and I was thankful other people were present in my office at the time because I was worried he was going to get threatening and/or violent.  It happened when I was a TA and it happened when I was an instructor.  As an undergraduate TA in college physics labs, I remember one student who showed up to a make-up lab drunk.  It was not the first time I’d had incidents like this, so the chair of the department asked once why I always ended up with the crazy students.  After the episode with the yelling student, I realized that this student didn’t treat male professors or TAs the same way.  I am fairly convinced that a lot of the behaviors I see is based on the fact that I’m a female instructor and students feel free to take liberties with me that they never would with male instructors.  (And before you object, there’s a lot of research on this…)

I realized today that I’ve been holding my breathe, waiting to see who this semester’s one student will be.

It’s no one.  Not a single one.  All of my students are generally respectful and polite.  They don’t get on my nerves.  They’re nice kids.

Admittedly, this is also my first time teaching at a liberal arts college rather than a public university.  Second, I’m only teaching engineering students currently.  (It may be different teaching a general education class, but I won’t know until next semester.) It’s also a smaller group than I’ve taught before, so I may have numbers on my side.  What I’m noticing, though, is that I don’t seem to have students in the ‘extremes.’  I have really good students, but none so worked up that they’re freaking out if they’re not getting an A+ or arguing about every point they lose on each assignment.  Likewise, even the kids who are struggling in my class are still showing up and putting in a decent effort.  As I mentioned before, one of my biggest issues is how some (but not most of them) address me.  There have been a couple other bumps in the road, but none that have been really terrible.

Maybe this isn’t a surprise for those of you who’ve taught at a liberal arts school for a while, but it’s been rather amazing to me.  It’s made me wonder why I didn’t think about a school like this before.

Or maybe it’s all a fluke.  I certainly hope not, though.

Midterm reviews October 27, 2016

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, teaching.
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I scared my students to death yesterday.

“Pull out a blank piece of paper.”

The look of total panic was hilarious.  Probably not for them, though.  I shouldn’t have been so amused by it, but it didn’t occur to me until I saw their faces that they thought I was going to give them a pop quiz.

No, instead I gave them a few minutes and left the room while they wrote down, anonymously, a couple things they liked in the class and a couple things that needed improvement.  I told them that the comments needed to be constructive, though: if they don’t like my hairstyle or my wardrobe, I really don’t care.

I was kind of scared to look at the comments, but I was actually very impressed with the quality of the feedback.  I’ve never had end-of-semester evaluations give me this kind of information.

Some of the comments were expected: nearly half complained about the ungodly earliness of the class.  (This is something that doesn’t bother me except that half of the class will fall asleep on lecture days, so it will be changed in the future.  I personally am in favor of early a.m. classes.) I only got one “the instructor is very nice” comment.  I have mixed feelings on comments like that, but I was happy to also see that they liked how the class was structured and said I gave good explanations.  Those are the kinds of things I DO like to hear.

On the negative side, I had a couple complain about the number of ethics problems, so I will have to explain to them about this little thing called ABET.  A couple were confused about the grading, so I will also have to discuss my grading rubric, although I won’t be changing it for the one person who said I graded too hard.  One person wasn’t sure what the point of the class was.  All of these are fair questions that I think can be easily addressed.

Then there were the mixed bag things: some hate the book (or its expense) while others love it, some feel class is too easy while others feel it’s too hard, some like the pace while others feel it’s too fast, etc.

I was surprised that there were more students who wanted more group projects than those who wanted less.  Apparently the group work is actually a positive thing, so hopefully that means I am structuring it well (or well enough).

And, best of all, they definitely got the message that I really don’t care what they think of my hair.

A professor by any other name October 26, 2016

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, feminism, societal commentary, teaching.
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I decided that after my previous teaching experiences, creating a sense of distance between myself and my students was prudent.  I never understood this from the student perspective (likely because most of my teachers tended to the formal side so it was seldom an issue), but as a professor, I definitely see an advantage.  I want to help the students and be approachable, but being approachable doesn’t mean I want to be their friend and I also expect them to treat me professionally.  In the past, not all students have been courteous, to say the least.  Even when I started out more formally and then loosened up, it seemed like the loosening up was a bad idea because it was taken as a sign that I’d stopped having boundaries.

When I was in undergrad and later doing my master’s degree, I took several classes from a particular professor.  This professor had this quirky habit of calling all students either Mr. or Ms. LastName.  It was strange, particularly since, as a Quaker, I really shy away from using titles as much as I can.  It grew on me, though, and created this sense that you were being treated like the professional colleague he intended you to become once you graduated.  (I felt bad for him, though, when my last name kept changing because of a divorce and later a remarriage.  At some point, he said, “What am I supposed to call you?!”)

I decided to experiment and, with my former math prof as inspiration, I have been addressing all of my students as Mr. LastName, despite it being somewhat uncomfortable. (I have no female students, but I intend to call any I may have Ms. LastName.)  I also said specifically that I expected to be referred to as Professor LastName or just Professor.

While it has taken a bit of getting used to, I’m starting to get the hang of it.  When discussing students with faculty or administration, though, I have to use both first and last name since others will often refer to them by their first names.  This leaves me confused as I will have no idea about whom they are talking.

On the flip side, I don’t know for sure how the students refer to me when talking amongst themselves.  I have an idea, though, because I received an email from a student addressed to me by my first name.

*deep sigh*

I wasn’t sure what to do about this lapse and I needed to respond to the email promptly, so ignored the address, although I suspect I shouldn’t have and won’t in the future.  I figured I would check with my colleague, who goes by Dr. LastName.

I popped into his office the next day and asked, “How do you deal with students who refer to you by your first name?”

He cocked his head to the side, thought for a moment, and responded, “They never have.”

It truly is amazing to me that in several years of teaching, no one has ever referred to him by his first time, yet I can’t make it three months without it happening.

Mercurial biology text October 3, 2016

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, science, younger son.
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Younger son was reading through some biology homework when he suddenly pipes up, “Mom!  Did you know you need mercury in your blood?”

I was of course quite shocked at his proclamation because that just didn’t make any sense.  I asked him to read me the sentence.  It said something about how the blood’s pressure needs to remain at xx (where xx is some number I don’t remember) mmHg.  “And Hg is mercury!”

While I can see where he would get that impression, this instigated a long conversation about how we measure air pressure.  It also made me wonder why they don’t bother explaining units before they start using them. I suppose it may be because they don’t think like younger kids, who could easily read something into it that an adult would never have thought of.

I’m just glad he thought to mention it before he went and got a hold of some mercury.

Answering the sexism in STEM question September 27, 2016

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, engineering, feminism, science, societal commentary.
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I’m not a big fan of career panels for women in science, at least for those in college and above.  However, panels of women in STEM careers for high school students and younger, I think, are important, primarily because they show young women that there are other women who are scientists and mathematicians and engineers, even if they do nothing else.  Being able to identify with a panelist because of sex/gender is going to go a long way to breaking down stereotypes.

I was involved in one such panel over the past weekend.  I was one of three women who has a career using math outside of being a mathematician, and we were talking to high school students about our careers in math-intensive fields.

I feel awkward when the question comes up (and it always does) about whether one encounters sexism as a woman in a STEM field.  I don’t want to say anything discouraging, nor do I want to lie.  I also get nervous, worrying that I may be the only one who has had to deal with it.  I was fortunate this weekend in that all three of us seemed to have a range of experience dealing with this, but we were all able to say that it was not the majority of the time.  Yes, we told them, you’re going to run into it, but it’s primarily a handful of individuals who are that way.  Most of the time, you’ll be treated as respectfully, as a colleague.  And unlike in the past, if you find you’re dealing with more of it than you want to, there are a lot more opportunities to find a career in greener, less sexist pastures.  We all agreed the situation had improved significantly in the past twenty years.

That being said, I would really like to stand in front of a group like that and say, no, it doesn’t matter and you won’t see it.  I suspect I will be waiting a long time, but I keep hoping.

The first week September 5, 2016

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, education, engineering, work.
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I finished my first week teaching in my new institution, and I have to say it was very strange.

I started college at a small university, but it had twice as many graduate students as undergrads, and it was in the middle of a large metropolitan area.  While the campus wasn’t huge, it was relatively busy.  I finished my undergrad at a mid-size state school, but the department I was in was tiny.  I had very small upper-level classes but most of my generals were in very large classes, one even having about 500 students. For my MS, I switched to one of the largest departments, which was a jolt.  While my classes weren’t huge (15-20 per class in the grad program), there were a lot of people around and pace and flavor of the department was far less intimate.  There were people in the building nearly 24 hours. For the PhD, I was in a very large state university in a big city but in a small department.  Even so, my classes typically had at least 20 people in them.  At all of these places, it seemed like, at least during the school year, the pace was hectic and there were a lot of people always around.  I always felt like I was busy.

Now I’m in a new department (I’m one of two faculty) in a small liberal arts college in a small town.  The feel is completely different.  The classes are smaller, and the students always seem to be off at class.  The campus quad is usually quiet, unlike the last place (the really big university in the middle of city).  At the big school, people would eat lunch while listening to the Christian hippy-looking fellow standing on a ladder in front of the library, preaching fire and brimstone or playing inspirational music and singing slightly out of tune.  Other students would be playing frisbee or football.  Now I mostly see people walking from one building to the other (usually on the sidewalks!), with the occasional line coming out of the student center because everyone decided to grab lunch at the same time.

While I’m kind of surprised by the quietness, I am also enjoying the lack of everything feeling so hectic.  My colleagues generally seem to be laid back, the students are mostly pleasant and polite.  Everyone is getting things done, but no one seems to be running around all frantic and the campus doesn’t feel like a beehive.

Of course, it’s early in the semester; I’ll have to revisit this train of thought in December.

Brand new professor  August 27, 2016

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, engineering, teaching, Uncategorized.
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I finished my first week as a new professor. It was exhausting. I spent most of the week drinking from the firehose of information about my new institution. A colleague says every institution does the same thing to new faculty and he doesn’t understand why, but I think I do: it certainly creates empathy for the students. Going to college is at every bit as stressful as being a new faculty. 

The hardest part for me is just being around unfamiliar people all day. While my colleagues are almost entirely warm and welcoming, my introversion was severely stressed and I really needed down time in evening with no people. As much as I don’t like the commuting arrangement, I greatly appreciated the much-needed down time it afforded me.  I also was short on time for running (also good stress relief), so I tried to tell myself that the multiple flights of stairs I was taking daily to reach my office were an adequate substitute.

I finally met some students yesterday. Many of our students are athletes, and I saw an unexpected and very interesting side benefit to this: 2/3 of my advisees were minorities.  I am very excited by the possibility that there may be enough students that they won’t feel out of place. Unfortunately, there are no women, though I think we should start a SWE chapter anyway.

My final experience this week as a professor was with one of my advisees. We shook hands and, after he sat down, saw the hand sanitizer on my desk and asked to use some. I said feel free, but then became worried that I should be using some, too.

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