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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.

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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

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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.

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.

Returning to the land of the employed June 28, 2016

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, engineering, teaching.
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I’m so excited! I finally have something to post about!  And it’s not just cat and dog pictures!  Or discussions about comic book characters!

I will be starting a new job in the fall as an engineering professor at a small liberal arts college.

I’ll be honest: no one is more surprised about this than me.  Until recently, I hadn’t ever thought about liberal arts colleges as a possible career choice.  Over the past couple of years, however, I’ve gotten the sense that I don’t fit well into a lot of research universities.  Despite a lot of places saying they wan’t people who do interdisciplinary research, it’s become pretty plain that they still want you to have all your degrees in one field.  Grant reviewers don’t like grants that are too far outside their expertise, either, which makes it hard to get funding.

All of that pushed me to start thinking about liberal arts colleges, particularly since I have a strong interest in education and pedagogy.  That ended up being a good decision.

The program is brand new, so I’ll be setting up some classes and labs from scratch.  While that’s daunting, it’s also exciting, especially because of the educational aspect.  Designing classes around a student-centered, hands-on approach is going to be easier (I hope) than trying to remake everything.  I hope my students will be okay being guinea pigs.  I’m certainly okay with getting to play with lab equipment.  The classes will initially be pretty small, but I don’t think they’ll ever get huge.  (I’ve been informed the largest classes at the school are around 50-60 students, and those aren’t common.)

The down side is that the school isn’t in town, so I’m in the process of finding a buying a new place to live.  It IS close enough that I’ll be able to come home frequently, but a little too far for a daily commute.  I am therefore also in the process of trying to teach the younger offspring how to cook…well, something other than mac and cheese or toast.

Anyway, the pace of life has definitely picked up, but that’s a good thing.

Octopi make better teachers June 9, 2016

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I was doing a presentation yesterday that involves drawing a diagram on the board.  It also involves holding equipment up at the board, so, since I’m not an octopus, it’s something that I need a couple people to help me with.  (Note to self: grow tentacles.)

I’ve done this particular activity before, but the space I had to work with was larger.  Yesterday, there was a permanent projector screen in the front of the room and a smaller whiteboard on the side rather than a very long white board with a pull-down screen like I was more used to dealing with.

In order to do the activity, I had to crowd in next to the white board along with two other people.  The small space was difficult to work in and some of the equipment wasn’t working as well as it should’ve because of how close everything was.  As we were constructing the diagram, we got to the point of the big reveal and one of the people helping me said, “No way!”

I laughed because her reaction was so awesome.  Then I realized that no one else could see what was going on because we were all blocking the board.

Doh!

Everyone was able to see it when we were finished, but I didn’t see the same reaction that the person helping me with the diagram gave, and that was a bit of a bummer.  I am hoping the attendees were still surprised by what they saw, but it felt a bit like that moment when you tell a joke and nobody gets it.

I guess this is one case where technology got in the way of teaching.  Or maybe it was my lack of tentacles.

Diversity statement woes April 27, 2016

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, education, feminism, science, teaching, work.
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One of the newer things I’ve seen in academic job postings is a request for a diversity statement.  If you haven’t seen them, it’s a statement addressing how you would address issues of race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, etc. I came across a request for one recently, and I have to admit that they make me cringe for a couple reasons.  On the surface, they make a lot of sense: obviously if you have a diverse student body, you want to make sure that you’re hiring someone who is aware of that and has communicated all they ways they are prepared to deal with it.

So why do they make me cringe?

First, I see a potential for abuse.  Academics tend to, on the whole, be a rather liberal lot, and one could easily see this as a screening mechanism to ensure that someone with a wildly different perspective doesn’t make it through the door.  While I personally find it frustrating that people have issues with marginalized groups (and FSM knows how much of this I’ve dealt with first hand), I still think this means that people with differing viewpoints will be weeded out.  I don’t see an easy answer to this, though.  As I said above, you don’t want to hire someone who refuses to work with these groups or who creates an asymmetric educational experience for them lest, as an institution, you end up on the receiving end of a discrimination lawsuit.  I’m just going to throw that out as a concern and leave it there.

My other concern, though, is more grounded in my background.  These requests are severely biased towards those in the humanities and soft sciences where many of them can use part of their course topics and research as evidence. If you’re in the hard sciences, that’s obviously not an option.  If you have access to resources to address this at all, it may be dependent on institutional support which may or may not be present. In the sciences, training for education/teaching at all is severely limited to begin with and what we do get has to be sought out through other departments in the university, if it’s even available.  Depending on the size of the institution, there may not be a women’s center or diversity office to provide information and training.

As I’ve been contemplating writing such a statement, it leaves me in an odd spot.  I could personally use some of my blogging about women in the sciences.  However, depending on who is reviewing the statement, I may also get dinged because this may be viewed critically rather than as an asset.  The same goes for membership in female-oriented professional societies such as IEEE Women in Engineering, Society of Women Engineers, or Association of Women Geoscientists.  Realistically, some people who review these statements will have a negative view of such participation and advocacy even while the statements are a required part of the application package.  Let’s be honest: not everyone sees the need to increase or address diversity in their departments, and being too much of an advocate could have negative repercussions during the selection process.

My personal feeling is that, in STEM, a lot of these issues are going to be limited to classroom accessibility and student mentoring.  I would prefer that universities could ask STEM faculty how inclusivity of these groups would be addressed as part of the teaching statement and omit requests for a diversity statement.

 

Sanders’ “sexist” behavior March 7, 2016

Posted by mareserinitatis in feminism, Politics, societal commentary, teaching.
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I almost made a tweetstorm about this topic, but when you have to confine your thoughts to 140-character morsels, it kind of ruins the flow of ideas.

Apparently Bernie Sanders is sexist for asking Clinton to stop interrupting him during last night’s debate.  You won’t believe how hard I laughed at that notion.

Let’s start by looking at the other debates that have been going on.  Part of the reason that the GOP debates have been such a horrible mess is because the candidates constantly interrupt and talk over each other and then someone gets mad and starts shouting.  As many people have noted, these debates haven’t exactly been the high point of civility, and the behavior of interrupting and talking over other candidates is exactly some of the problem.  I am taking the tack, therefore, that interrupting is rude.

Let me restate that.  Interrupting is RUDE.

This is something that, as a woman, has made me absolutely insane.  I have had a couple male colleagues in the past who would not let me finish my sentences.  I don’t think they’re doing it because they’re sexist (although one of them certainly is).  It’s something they often do to men, as well.  I think that interrupting is just a jerk thing to do because you’re telling the other person that you don’t care what they have to say and that whatever is going on in your head is more important than whatever idea the other person is trying to get across.

When dealing with one colleague, I’ve seriously had to bite my tongue.  I had fantasies of offering to bring in the younger son to demonstrate to him how to have a respectful conversation.  Failing that, though, I’ve also fantasized about telling him simply, “Wait your turn! I’m talking!”  I spent a lot of time wondering how to say it so that it wasn’t perceived that I was being rude…despite the fact he was being rude to begin with.

I see a lot of this dynamic when teaching, as well.  I had one individual student who would sit and talk with his friends in the back of the class, often to the point of being loud enough that nearby students couldn’t hear.  As the teacher, though, there was a bit a power dynamic I could use, so the student and his buddies were told to move to the front row of desks in the classroom where they would sit for the rest of the semester.  I told the students that I liked them which is why I moved them to the front of the class instead of just kicking them out altogether.  Was that rude?  Perhaps, but so is disrupting the class and, as the teacher, I need to maintain at least a minimal level of authority and dominance in the classroom.

If you look at interrupting in the big picture, there’s a dynamic in the workplace where men are more likely to interrupt than women are.  This is because men’s communication style tends toward using conversation to express dominance and women tend to use other styles more geared towards making connections.

On stage, Clinton was adopting, very appropriately for politics, a male style of communication where she was attempting to use discussion as a way to maintain dominance.  It’s a way to mow down Sanders’ ideas and make her own dominant.  In politics, like in many professional areas, women have to learn to adopt this communication style in order for their male colleagues to take them seriously.  Sanders did the thing that so many women have a hard time with but need to learn to do.  He essentially said, “Stop talking. Stop interrupting.  I was speaking. Wait your turn.”  It wasn’t sexist: it was a way to prevent himself from being mowed over.

The problem is that, like Sanders, women who assert that they won’t have their ideas mowed over are often seen as rude and pushy.  The consequences for drawing  your conversational line in the sand can be pretty severe, especially if you’re a woman.  If the roles were reversed, Sanders would have been seen as sexist for interrupting and not letting Clinton speak.  Clinton would have been doing the right thing to tell him to stop interrupting.  If it had been two men, it would’ve been shrugged off.

My take away from this is that the conversation dynamic between Clinton and Sanders shows Clinton and Sanders see each other as equals.  Clinton attempted to dominate the conversation (the way many men do) and Sanders wasn’t going to play the subordinate.  If you really want to make something sexist out of this, maybe more women need to learn to follow both of their examples, and more men need to not freak out when it happens.

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