Monday, April 25, 2011

Not surprised

I am teaching an upper division ecology course this term. It's a class I've taught before and it's one of the best ones I get to teach. The two professors  allow me to run the discussion section autonomously. The rest of class is conducted in a typical lecture style with some interactive moments.  I often find myself sitting in the back of the room thinking about ways that I would change the delivery of lecture and the content. I'll be giving a guest lecture at the end of the term; this is both generous of the professors and also one less lecture they have to prepare for.

There. I've set the stage. It's a good class. The objective is to help students learn ecology. All of the emphasis I've added is on purpose. For the first exam, the professors gave the students 50+ essay exam questions to study from and said "10 of these questions will be on your midterm." They also, at the beginning of the term, emphasized how important it is to learn together, to work together to learn. However, when the students collaborated to create a G-doc in which they shared their answers for the exam questions one of the professors was appalled. How could they possibly learn from creating a repository of "answers"? he blustered. This is not what we meant when we said "work together"! This cannot happen again. We have to make a change!

Luckily, they asked me what I thought (and I am appreciative of them asking for a TA's opinion). I said, first, the students did exactly what you told them to do. They answered all of the questions and they worked together. And they did it in a highly technologically advanced, creative and positive way. Yes, there may be some free loaders, but those individuals who read (and trust) the answers that are given to them will not gain anything. Second, the syllabus you give your students at the beginning of a term is essentially a contract. Any changes you make later in the course ought to be agreed upon by both parties. Therefore, it's easier to make changes that benefit your students, but changes that redirect the class are problematic. And three, hello! Teaching is a learning process. And this incident is your "learning experience" and you can change how you teach the class in the future, as a result.

And I went home silently applauding my students for working collaboratively,  communicating with one another and grappling with tough ecological questions. That's what learning really is.


One of my greatest challenges as an instructor is to maintain perspective. I may find the subjects I teach to be fascinating, if not riveting, but as I look out across the classroom and I see students with their heads down, buried behind a computer screen, or trotting in late to class, it gives me reason to pause. Have I not made my classroom expectations clear enough? Am I really that boring? But I have to remind myself to stop short of asking: Who the hell are these people? Don't they know this is important?

I came across this post recently and had to pause yet again. I have to strongly disagree with the blog's author; the scenario as it's laid out is not about email etiquette, or about student ethos, this is a scenario about professors/instructors taking a moment to ask a question: What else is happening in my students' lives? What choices do they have to make and to what extent am I prepared to help them?

In this particular case the student is asking permission to go on a hunting trip. But it just as easily could have been a student asking for time off for a shift at work, taking care of a sick child, or no longer being able to pay for the bus fair to campus to even attend class. I sympathize with the bruised ego of the instructor (Why should I do extra work so you can go on vacation?), but I blister at the idea that the student doesn't care about class. I would argue the contrary, a student that communicates respectfully, who suggests alternatives and asks for help is the one who does care. Life is complicated, and messy, and volatile for both students and instructors. It's a matter of perspective.


I consider myself to be a highly self-motivated person, who appreciates a good coach. I respond well to being bossed around (but nicely, and within reason). In recent months, however, as I've been fighting my way out from an avalanche of responsibilities and projects that are not directly related to finishing my dissertation I've had to revisit my personal values and find, anew, my center.
In theory, this is what a disciplined me would look like:
  1. Go to bed: Setting a bed time (10pm or 10:30pm) and not using my laptop in bed. Reading something non-academic is allowed.
  2. Wake up: Waking up at a regular time every day (7am), and being speedy and efficient as I get ready for my day.
  3. Eat right: Pack a lunch, something healthy, something filling. Saves time and money later on.
  4. Exercise: See #2 and do it at the beginning of my day.
  5. Make time: for things that are important, and set aside one day a week where no school-work is touched. Or two half days. Whatever.
  6. Reward myself.
I can't say that I've already failed miserably, but it hasn't been pretty. I naturally appear to get work done at night, and I naturally prefer to exercise first thing in the morning (something to do with one shower a day, saving water, wackadoo), balancing my sleep schedule with my work schedule is rough. Oh, and I've already rewarded myself, prior to accomplishing anything (what? The boots were on sale!).

Graduate school, especially in the midst of field work, data analysis, teaching, etc., can start to feel like a grind. Wake up, work, sleep, repeat. Having a routine, a schedule, and self-imposed boundaries helps set a pace, a rhythm and a trajectory that I am once again interested in pursuing.