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A New Semester January 17, 2017

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, physics, teaching.
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I’m teaching physics this semester, and I have to admit that I’m in a slight panic.  At most places, physics is a 4 to 5 credit class.  It’s only 3 credits here, and I have a pretty strict schedule on what I need to get covered.  I can do it, as long as I don’t get off track, but it’s daunting.

The down side is that sometimes students don’t realize right away that they will be taking the class, so they miss the first couple days.  In my case, that means a week.

I’m doing something different in terms of homework, though, to compensate for how quickly we’re moving.  The students are getting a “mini” homework assignment each class.  Part of me knows this is going to be a pain because grading is generally one of my least favorite part of teaching.  (I think that’s true of most people I know, so I don’t feel terribly ashamed about it.)  The class is also “big,” which means the grading is going to take me longer than I had hoped.  I wasn’t sure if this was a good idea until I went through the first homework.

One of my late additions very clearly didn’t know what was going on.  I saw this was a problem and so I suggested he come see me so I could go over the information he missed.  This afternoon, I stepped him through my notes.  Things were rocking along and then he got that look on his face: it was like a giant light bulb went off.  He stopped, his mouth came open and his eyes seemed to pop out.  Then, after a few seconds, there was that slight smart to a smile.

Oh.  NOW I get it.

I really love that expression, and I think he’s happier because I gave him the opportunity to redo it now that he actually understands what we’re doing.

The perfect finish December 31, 2016

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, engineering, feminism, teaching.
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I saw that Breitbart was proposing a cap on women admitted to STEM programs.  My first thought was a very sarcastic, “Well, that shouldn’t be hard.”  I read part of the article aloud to Mike, the part about how women don’t leave STEM because of external pressure.

Mike jumped in, “What ever happened to that one student you had?  The one that the other professor said should switch majors…”

I knew which student he meant.  I had a freshman who, when she went in for advising for spring semester, was told by her advisor that she should switch majors.  The reason he did this was because she was one point too low on the math placement exam to get into calculus, putting her a semester “behind.”  She came to me, almost in tears, because she didn’t know what to do.  She felt like she needed to listen to him but really didn’t want to switch.

I wasn’t very proud of what I did next because I know it was completely unprofessional, but it had to be done: I told her to ignore him and that he was being a jerk.  I don’t like ripping on my colleagues, but this individual had just told my BEST student that she didn’t belong in engineering.

It had been a while since I had talked to her, though the last time we spoke, she told me she had a summer internship at a local engineering firm.  I performed some google-fu and found an article that mentioned her.  It turns out that she graduated earlier this year with a degree in electrical engineering.  Even better, she graduated with honors.

I’ve always felt rather conflicted about how I handled that situation, but at least I can leave this year and begin the next with the thought that I did the right thing.

Have a happy new year!

The semester is over!! December 16, 2016

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, engineering, family, geology, teaching, work.
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My first semester at the new digs is in the bag.  It was actually kinda awesome.  (Sorry…I’ve never been able to ditch the word ‘awesome’…or ‘kinda,’ either.)

I’m not sure what I was expecting.  I was as nervous as the freshmen going in, and I admit that the first couple months were kind of a shock.  It’s not that there was a lot of bad stuff going on, but being at a small school was so different.  The environment was so quiet  compared to any place I’d worked or gone to school before, and it made me feel like something was wrong.  There wasn’t, though: I just had to get used to the way things are done here and the different pacing.  As the students loosened up, as well, we all began to have a lot more fun in class.  I really enjoyed teaching because I had some very interested and attentive students, and I think most of them had a positive experience.

The service part of the job was surprisingly very enjoyable as it gave me the opportunity to get to know faculty from other departments.  I learned more about accreditation and assessment, and I participated in my first search committee.  I also helped a couple other departments with student-related activities, both for our students and as outreach to the local schools.  It kept me busy, but it wasn’t too overwhelming.  One thing I realized pretty quickly: we have a lot of female faculty here so I don’t imagine I’ll have to worry much (if ever) about being on too many committees because of a lack of representation from women.

One of the things I enjoyed most was having my own office again.  I really hate working at home, and I loved being able to keep work and other stuff more separated.  Sometimes I would drag home some grading while watching TV (which made it take three times as long), but for the most part, I did a lot of that at work.  I definitely need ideas to decorate the place, though, as all I have now in a nerd clock and a grumpy cat poster hanging up.

 

The hardest part of working here is the back and forth to see family.  I get a lot more done during the week so I don’t feel so bad taking some family time on the weekend, but it’s still hard not to see them every night.  Thank goodness for google chat and unlimited cell phone minutes.

I’m excited about next semester: I will be teaching university physics. When I was a TA/tutor for physics in undergrad, a lot of my lab students would come to me for help in the class.  I’ve been told a lot that I was very good at teaching it, and that’s stuck with me.  I sure hope they’re right because I remember it being one of my favorite classes in undergrad.  I also get to teach a general science class for non-majors, and I chose a geology-oriented topic for the focus.  It’ll be interesting to see how it goes teaching non-majors again.  My last experience was as a TA in grad school with students who really didn’t want to take science, so it wasn’t the most positive for me.  However, I’m starting to learn that I can’t base anything off past experiences, so I’m aiming for that class to be fun, too.

And now, I think I want a nice cup of hot cocoa…

Deep thoughts on student retention December 7, 2016

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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.

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

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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

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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.

Stop telling boys to go into STEM December 18, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, engineering, feminism, science, teaching.
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Stereotyping is always a bad thing, and most people don’t realize that men suffer just as badly from stereotypes as women.

Let’s look at science: there has been a ton of work going into how to attract girls and women into scientific endeavors, particularly those that are very math-intensive.  Much of the discussion centers on countering two issues: the first is the societal expectations that women go into ‘caring’ professions like teaching and nursing and the second is the stereotype that men are better at math.  There is nothing wrong with these efforts, but there’s a flip side to this stereotype that has a negative impact on men: there are a lot of men who go into STEM fields (probably engineering moreso than science) that probably don’t belong there.

Lest you think I’m just being negative toward men, this is actually something a man told me.  I had an English professor who was one of the best college teachers I’d had, I think in part because he was very knowledgeable in science.  In fact, he’d received a degree in engineering from Stanford but then shuffled around for several years before finally getting a master’s degree in English.  During one conversation, I asked him why he got a degree in engineering when he really loved literature.

There’s a strong expectation that if you’re a smart boy who’s good at math, you’re going to go into engineering.  That’s what everyone expected, so that’s what I did.

During the course of my teaching career, I’ve seen a lot of this.  I like to have students write me an introductory essay so that I can learn more about them and what they were hoping to learn from the class.  Many of them reiterated almost exactly what my professor said: “I went into engineering because I was told it was a good career for someone with good math skills.”

I’m not saying it’s not a good career for someone with math skills of either gender.  However, making a career choice should not be an either/or proposition based on problem-solving ability (lots of careers use that), and people are multi-faceted.  People can be good at math as well as art, literature, music, biology, communication, caring for others, etc.  Just because you’re good at something doesn’t mean that’s what your calling is nor necessarily where you should focus your energy.

While the majority of my best students were men, strictly as a result of the skewed sex ratio in my classes, the women were almost always in the top 20% of the class.  None of them were there simply because they were good at math: they almost always really wanted to be an engineer.  However, the least engaged students were always men: a lot of them were there because they hadn’t found their passion and felt they had to do something.  Engineering was it.

The flip side of the ‘men are good at math’ stereotype is that many of them go into it even when they would be much better off doing something else.  They’re discouraged from pursuing more ‘feminine’ careers and made to feel like failures if they don’t enjoy it.

So do the boys a favor: if they’re not sure where they want to go, don’t make engineering the default answer even if they are good at math.

 

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