Friday, December 17, 2010

Thinking about International Teaching Assistants' Thoughts about Race

[It’s been a busy couple of months. Glad to be back to the BLOG.]

A valued colleague at a fine western university recently queried one of my listserves concerning a situation he encountered while observing an international teaching assistant from Eastern Europe tackling a very difficult issue in class: social construction of race in America. What follows is the case as my friend described it and a set of resources we found helpful in extending the conversation helpfully (I have deleted all personal references in the case, but have provided kudos at the end for those who recommended resources.). I take small steps in my orientations and consulting to bring international TAs into workable understandings of what race means here, and then begin to work with them in negotiating difficult conversational contexts. The social baggage that many of them carry to our institutions takes a while to begin to unpack, if that process EVER starts. Diversity issues are complex enough for us; nearly undecipherable for many others entering the US without serious reflective exposure to addressing what these issues mean and how. I have to say, my colleague handled this beautifully.

“Yesterday in a micro-teaching in my ITA class, I had a student attempt to tackle the topic of the social construction of race. He is "white" and from XXXX and although the topic is fine, the way he handled it would be problematic in an American classroom. Issues such as racially loaded terminology, and listening to people of color and how they define themselves came up (We have a student from Africa who he basically told "You are not really black.” To which she replied, "Yes, I am." He then replied "No, you are not.").

The student who tried to cover this topic felt that he was being intellectually censored by me when I cautioned his approach afterward. On the following class day, he arrived late and looked sullen. We had a few micro-teachings to finish up, during which he was (unusually) silent. After the last talk, we began a brief feedback session. One of the issues that came up in the analysis of the last micro-teaching was the student's use of "he" as a generic pronoun, so I used the opportunity to talk about inclusive language. Well, that discussion on gender seemed non-controversial, so I easily slid the conversation over to why that has been an important issue, and then followed up by moving the conversation back into the talk on race.

I began by thanking him for his willingness to take on the tough topic, and saying that the ensuing class debate had really challenged me. We discussed many of the issues brought up by my colleagues, including that even native speakers would find it difficult to navigate such a topic, and the personal as well as societal levels of identity. We also discussed directness of debate style, particularly as pertained to Eastern European vs. American cultural preferences. He was very engaged, and seemed much more at ease after having some time to think about it. He really wanted to make clear he was not a racist and it was important to him that we didn't think he was, to which the class said clearly we did not. The one "black" student from Senegal in the class, with whom he had had the earlier non-productive exchange, then began to talk about race and ethnicity from her perspective, both in Africa and in XXXX. I'll spare the details, but suffice it to say it was a perfect addition to hear from her, and the class was riveted. More students chimed in with experiences and questions about the American experience.

We ended by nudging the conversation over to the language of polite disagreement, as well as the concept of leading students slowly to a point you want them to get to. It was a perfect segue to the next assignment we then introduced, discussion leading. I had several people come up and thank me after class, and I feel all the students gained valuable insight into American culture and teaching strategies. I have added several of the resources suggested by this list into our CMS, including links to suggested videos and readings. I still plan to build a broader resource to share.

I'm sure this will not be the end of the discussion, at least for me and him in our remaining 1-1 meetings, but probably for most of the class we are ready to move on.”

My colleagues responded with a wide range of thoughtful questions and helpful recommendations. Most ran the gamut from using expressions of English disagreement in academic contexts to issues having to do with “recognizing” race and allowing individuals to make their own claims about who they are. The content of the student’s statements was culturally offensive, but so was the language he used. The stark "No, you are not" was inappropriate linguistically for the context, in addition to other problems. If he had embedded his point in culturally appropriate forms like “Really? I thought that . . . ," Many ITAs’ experiences of racial & identity issues may be different from American students because of various political, historical, and cultural factors. Surely facilitating effective transition to understanding something this sophisticated in a new culture is one of the biggest challenges I face in helping international students and faculty adjust to teaching in America.

My western friend’s response to the incident revealed a powerful self reflective dialogue, deep awareness of cultural constructs, and an ardent desire to meaningfully influence his student’s approach to thinking and talking about race in American classrooms. In short, some damn fine mentoring and guidance.

(My thanks to MIT’s Jane Dunphy, Kate Martin, University of Minnesota, and Cheryl Ernst, SIU, for this reference list.)

Espenshade, Thomas J. and Alexandria Walton Radford. No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal: Race and Class in Elite College Admission and Campus Life. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009

Williams, Clarence G. Technology and the Dream: Reflections on the Black Experience at MIT, 1941-1999. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2003.

Steele, Claude M. (1999). “Thin Ice: ‘Stereotype Threat’ and Black College Students,” The Atlantic Monthly, August 1999. Accessed at: .

Treisman, Uri (1992). “Studying Students Studying Calculus: A Look at the Lives of Minority Mathematics Students in College,” College Mathematics Journal, vol. 23, pp.362-372.

Accessed at: .

Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning and the Office of Race Relations and Minority Affairs, “Tips for Encouraging Students in a Racially Diverse Classroom,” Harvard University 1992.

“Facilitator’s Guide for Race in the Classroom: The Multiplicity of Experience.” Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning & Office of Race Relations and Minority Affairs. Cambridge, MA: President and Fellows of Harvard College, 1992.

Cuyjet, Michael J., ed. African American Men in College. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006.

Howell, Annie and Frank Tuitt, eds. Race and Higher Education: Rethinking Pedagogy in Diverse College Classrooms. Harvard Educational Review Reprint Series no. 36. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Educational Review, 2003.  - Teaching and learning about racial issues in the modern classroom. - Diversity and complexity in the classroom from Tools for Teaching - Name Power: taking pride, and control, in defining ourselves - a perspective from the side of the non-black black student?

A Vanderbilt case based around a comment that "race doesn't matter anymore" - this includes the case and two faculty responses:

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Millennial Undergrads Apparently Are Now Graduate Students

Neil Howe and William Strauss's (2000) Millennials Rising had a profound effect on the ways  Administrators and (many) Faculty in higher education thought about serving the generation spanning (roughly) 1980 - 1994.  [See also Howe's subsequent handbook (2003), Millennials Go To College: Strategies for a New Generation on Campus—Recruiting and Admissions, Student Life, and the Classroom, and Strauss and Howe's Millennials as Graduate Students (2007)].  The authors have spurred some strong reaction to what others think is stereotyping.  OK, maybe so, but nonetheless their efforts have given us a useful means for identifying key sociological factors that play into this generation's success (or not) in college.

Generally, this generation has been sheltered, feels safe, is team-oriented, has very high expectations (but often no idea how to reach them), is plugged into tech 24/7, and likewise connected to their parents as no other generation.  Reality for them is no longer real.  By virtue of  their typing, texting, joy sticks, touch screens, and Wii, they have even given birth to a new kind of learning preference:  kinesthetic.  They are impatient, claim to be able to multi-task, and generally consider themselves consumers with the right to shape learning experiences by virtue of their desires, not necessarily yours.  That said,  even if occasionally insanely demanding, they respond pretty well to authority (provided you clearly set boundaries).  And why not?  For the most part they've heard from birth their parents, teachers, coaches, and peers telling them that they are special.  I guess it's also easy to feel that way during a time of nearly unchecked economic growth (the 1986 Crash notwithstanding).  As a by-product of their tech-savvy, they are seemingly more globally connected than any previous group.  They claim to respect Diversity and demand interdisciplinary programs, but have a difficult time with sophisticated intercultural interaction.  Finally, this generation feels pressured in ways that former generations have not.

I've presented dozens of workshops on how we might think about teaching this generation as undergrads.  A few of them have devolved into discussions prompted by angry faculty commenting about this generation's increasing incivility, unwillingness to think, and most often, their incessant demand for  wanting to know just "What's on the test?"  [I must add that a lot of these comments came from Gen-Xers (Who distrust everyone and feel like they've made it by virtue of just their own efforts.) and some late Baby Boomers, like me (Whose parents were so damn glad we left the house, they often moved without telling us.).]  It's the "Just-give-me-the-facts,-man" issue I'd like to address briefly today.  And I'd like to focus on the new wave of Millennials as Graduate Students. [See Debra W. Stewart's fine piece describing the challenges we face educating and accommodating this group, Getting It Right:  Graduate Schools Respond to the Millennial Challenge (2007).]

I see approximately 500 - 600 grad students annually in my MSU TAP workshop series, and about 100 or so when I travel.  I assess these experiences formatively and summatively, and have noticed over the last four years that I'm increasingly getting participant requests just to tell them "...what they need to know."  In a recent workshop, "Talking about Teaching in the Interview," five attendees (out of 60) complained that they didn't like to have to respond to questions unanticipated.  8 remarked that I should have spent more time on giving them "the answers." 10 wished that I had just told them what to do.  Remember, this was a workshop focused on the interview, one in which I provide supplemental materials and a well-defined process to help them come to their own answers for the anticipated  and surprise questions they are likely to get (You can take a look at the workshop template and many of the supplemental resources here, .  Scroll down.). 

So, I decided to a look back at 20 workshops to see if I could spot a trend in the comments that mirrored those I glommed on to in my most recent assessment.   I also took a quick look at two TA Seminar evaluations. (The TA Seminar is a type of orientation for new TAs.)  Keep in mind that I think I am hearing more faculty and TAs comment about how hard it is to teach Millennial undergrads. Honestly, when I tried to track trends, nothing significant stood out.  If anything, certain workshops elicited more of these types of "just give me the facts, man" responses than others. It could be that my efforts to engage new teachers reflectively on some difficult topics is falling flat in some cases.  In others, it seems to work.  That said,  I'm thinking a little more about how to balance the "tips stuff," which I think my grads are increasingly demanding, and my reflective approach.

So, Millennial Grads are here, and some of them seem to behave in ways that resemble the undergraduate behaviors that drive faculty and TAs crazy.  Perhaps it's not surprising then that in the hundreds of class evaluations I've conducted over the years, I've been occasionally puzzled as to how completely unreflective educational experiences garner high student evaluations.

So, I'm rethinking how written and web-based materials can give participants enough of "the facts" to put them in a position to work through the reflective exercises I use.  I often send out materials a head of time, but have been blamed for "...making workshop participants work."  I'm not kidding.   Oh, wait, did I mention that this generation reads more on-line than it does in print? And that they are chronically unprepared for class?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

A USMC Veteran Thinking about Veterans and Higher Education

[Occasionally in this blog, I will include verbatim exchanges with my peers about certain issues.  I like sharing my "on-time" development dialogues in hopes that they will give you a glimpse into how I work, at what my developmental philosophy is, and how tightly integrated I am with my colleagues.  I definitely do not work alone.  In this entry, I'm including parts of a conversation I had with a developer in another state looking to create resources for veterans.  My colleague sent me drafts of programmatic ideas she had and asked me what I thought.  This is what I thought.  At MSU, we're moving towards creating web based resources that not only focus on service to incoming veterans, but also on key teaching/learning issues associated with educating adult learners.  Many universities are beginning to create or embellish existing programs for veterans.  They often use the American Council for Education's guidelines as a baseline for program development.  I think the ACE's Serving Those Who  Serve ... site a great start.  But I wish more efforts would be devoted to helping faculty understand adult education and how those principles can solidly prepare us for working with this population.] 

“Many of the solutions to accommodating (that’s not entirely the correct concept) this group can be found rooted deeply in sophisticated thinking about what constitutes good teaching: organizational and presentational reflection, serious attention to good practice, context-setting and  facilitating audience awareness, and having sensitivity enough (and courage) to move in directions unanticipated. May I gently ask you to reconsider what I see generally in terms of your schedule: that is, treating my peers as “diseased?” Or somehow sick? Heaven (or whatever metaphysical space) knows, that the language of development unfortunately rests on “curing” something. Yes, yes, surely for those serving in wartime (in combat or not) things may have occurred that left lasting marks, perhaps potentially debilitating marks. But the very large majority of returning vets are ready just to get on being integrated in to the worlds they imagine for themselves. I think our roles as teachers are to help them make concrete their wishes and desires. If you’re designing programs specifically for those returning vets with issues THEY claim makes them need special accommodation, then do just that. Just as you would any population that doesn’t “fit” the imagined “norm” of 18 – 23 year old middle class college life. What’s increasingly interesting to me is that this population begs deeper discussion about long extant concerns about the psychology of our students; their origins, socialization, lives… Otherwise, I know when I stepped back into undergrad, somewhat older, somewhat scarred, but undeniably present (and scared to death that I wasn’t smart enough), all I wanted was to have a space where I could share how I thought what I’d gone through added relevantly to the classroom conversation at hand. When it wasn’t relevant, but still affected how I was relating., learning, etc., I saw a therapist.

(….), many vets carry with them issues that military service only exacerbated. In no way am I implying that this population doesn’t deserve at least serious consideration of how their experiences may have shaped their subsequent college life. If I may be frank, part of what has me concerned about the public rhetoric defining this group is that it often pushes faculty, TAs, anyone part of their classroom and lab experiences into having to be pseudo-therapists, often for ailments that never existed.

But of course, you and I know, for some the pain is there, and I would always want to be known as a teacher who had multiple ways of getting my students through school, or just getting them into their own heads in ways that they can get on. I am no therapist.

So, when I look at the proposed schedule, a few things come to mind:

1. Be very careful with the panel thing. Panels can be lovely ways for opening up dialogue; fantastically bad for conveying meaningful information unless well facilitated. May I suggest a fish-bowl panel with an experienced vet psychologist and a non-com officer and if possible, commissioned officer? The facilitator would have to be a good panel discussion facilitator, but also know how to work with military and non-military participants.

2. Counseling Center stuff: Excellent – if those talking about this stuff know what they’re talking about. I’m all for this. The problem is that this move casts relationships with VET students outside the realm of class. I can talk with you on the phone more about that.

3. The stress thing is real; but not so real GENERALLY as to be hugely different as one of my inner city Detroit students trying to integrate into predominately white, middle-class MSU. Here’s what I was stressed about: being older, feeling like I was “heavier,” wondering if and how all the powerful things I learned as a Marine would translate into academic contexts; negotiating age similarity with faculty; negotiating feelings of ineptitude because I felt like I wasn’t part of some imagined undergrad educational mainstream. In short, how could I connect my day to day understandings of my life to school? Could I make of my recent life something intelligible to my faculty? Might I be able to weigh in occasionally (and appropriately – classroom rules are huge to this group) with how what I knew, had experienced was relevant? Could I just be part of a well facilitated, caring, challenging, and acknowledging classroom experience? And occasionally, could I just disappear, and not be the “problem” student?

4. Yes on the disability/SPED  – I can never get as deeply integrated into those support services as I want. Personally, that frame is very important to me, but not just because of vet issues.

5. The brain thing is something altogether different than most other disability issues. I’m afraid you’ll need someone more experienced than me to sort out why…

We can talk more about what it means to socialize faculty to this group – but this group is widely, and wildly diverse. Get XXXX out there as a place that recognizes this. Program accordingly. How many vets does the state have? How many are there at your institution? What are their social, racial, cultural origins pre-military service?

Otherwise, my recommendation to your instructors is that serious investigation into who your students say they are, powerfully attentive listening, and authentic care for one’s charges ameliorates so much. For those that need more help. We’re there; not alone, but in concert with all the supports that schools can offer now."

{NOTE:  It's apparent that Iraq and Afghanistan veterans' experiences are unique in US military history.  They often serve successive tours, making the transiion back to civilian life difficult for many. }

Monday, October 4, 2010

Threats, Lies, and Videotaping

I received a cryptic e-mail last week from a TA wondering whether it was illegal for a student to video record an instructor without consent. My first thought was, “Ugh Oh.” My second thought? Something probably unmentionable here, but akin to how I feel when someone is being treated unfairly. My third: was there a legitimate reason to surreptitiously video this TA? And how should I handle that? A follow up with the individual concerned exposed several deep rooted issues he held about classroom interaction, student preparedness, departmental leadership, and what constitutes effective pedagogy. My conversation with him also poignantly touched on his notions of himself as a teacher, as a mentor, and as “one” with the population he teaches.

Video (and audio) recording others without their knowledge has been in the news lately, and certainly YouTube is full of unknowing subjects caught on tape. Many states have restrictions against various types of recording without consent. Resembling language used to describe illegal wire tapping, most are as confusing as Virginia’s statute. This summer’s case involving video recording of an arrest prompted nationwide discussion about what state or civil entities could legally refuse witnesses’ requests to tape certain actions. One could, in the case of a Maryland motorcyclist, even be arrested for taping surreptitiously. In Michigan, there are laws governing rights to use recordings made without consent; most claim that one cannot use them for commercial purposes. A 2007 case at Central Michigan University, limiting the rights of a student to videotape a visiting politician without consent, spurred the ACLU into action, protesting that University restrictions of the CMU junior’s right to record in a public space were unconstitutional. There are no policies at my university for recording secretly for purposes other than commercial distribution.

Of course, several appropriate reasons exist for video or audio-recording (or both) in a classroom setting, which if not a legally defined private space, is considered private by most instructors. Faculty increasingly record lectures for podcasts and “shoot” themselves using software like Camtasia to record classes and make them available to students for later perusal. Many faculty and TAs allow audio recording of classes for students needing extra exposure to a class. Of course, all of these situations rest on consent of the parties involved. Things get tricky when someone feels like they need (?) or desire to record surreptitiously. In truth, a student could be recording simply for the fun of sharing a good lecture with friends and family. So why wouldn’t one ask if it was okay?

Well, because recording occurs for other reasons, as my colleague painfully discovered.

Apparently students in the course video-taped secretly to record what they construed as poor teaching. They took what they recorded to the department head, meetings ensued with all parties concerned, and the department head visited the class and pronounced my colleague’s teaching better than acceptable.  (Suffice it to say that the chair's willingness to look at the video breaks cardinal rules about proper administrative/supervisor behavior.)

Of course, none of this made things any easier on my friend, and in a conversation that nearly broke my heart, he exclaimed that “These are my people, Kevin. Why would they do this?”

This situation has brought into powerful collision several ideas I have about what constitutes appropriate classroom behavior, what’s ethical, what’s fair, and what students occasionally think is necessary. Addressing the latter, I have heard descriptions of teaching so poor as to make me wonder why this doesn’t happen more often. As to the former, I am reminded how important it is to set clearly defined expectations and to make sure your students understand them. I do encourage faculty and TAs to record themselves if they are comfortable doing so. I use video recording as a key element of my classroom consultation program, but the videos are nearly confidential (The exception being that tapes can be subpoenaed if something illegal occurs in class.).

Hmm, imagine me taping a student secretly taping the instructor I’m taping? Whew! What would I do with that?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Teaching "On-Time:" Strategies and Tips for Efficiently Planning and Facilitating a Class

"It’s 3 a.m. and you’ve yet to prepare for your 9 a.m. class (that would be the one on the topic you didn’t plan to teach, in a course you’re not quite sure you know much about.). It happens! How can we “economize” our preparation? Can we, as Seattle University's Therese Huston  claims, “…teach what we don’t know…” well? How can we take what we DO know and quickly (and effectively) make a useful lesson out of it!"

This blurb led description of a workshop I recently conducted for MSU TA's and post-docs.  Sprung from an idea I had several months ago for helping new teachers seeking to economize their teaching prep, the workshop's advertising provoked interesting reactions from several different audiences.  A Dean chimed in that "...I need something like this [but don't tell anyone.]."  One despondent (faculty) respondent fretted, "What am I supposed to think about my son's (expensive) education!" A former TA, now adjunct faculty at Wayne State (fresh off of 6 new preps in the last nine months) claimed, "This is the best workshop idea, EVER!" TA and Post doc registration filled in 24 hours.  Post-workshop assessment revealed that most attendees thought the experience would be mostly a "tips-driven" presentation, with me providing the answers to questions about how to put a lecture together in 45 minutes or craft in an hour a meaningful collaborative learning experience (AND ASSESS IT!) . Of course, there's something to wanting "...just the facts, man."  and I do like talking teaching tactics.  But the topic thankfully prompts serious reflection about one's perceptions as her or himself a teacher, instructors' roles and responsibilities, goal setting strategies, and how often one's diverse lives crash into one another.

And lives crash.  Facing research and publication deadlines, classroom demands, and often, family demands, TAs can end up in situations like the one above (Although one workshop participant claimed that no matter what, she's "...not getting up before 4:30!").  Faculty can face these challenges too.  And we all find it very hard to talk about (See James Rhem's conversation with Therese Huston in the NTLF.). Admitting that we perhaps haven't put enough time into our teaching for some is a potentially revealing, if not dangerous admission of defeat. We are after all, supposed to know it all (If not knowing how to teach it all.) . This, of course, stands for those who care about their teaching.  For those who don't, or for those living in that universe where you have all the time necessary to craft powerful learning experiences every time, stop reading here. (Oh, if you ARE in that place, please send me a postcard. Better, hire me.)

My partner and I laughingly talked about the all too common, and sometimes humorous tactics for teaching prep at hyper speed.  She loves the "Let's Free-Write!" solution.  I jested that I want students to read the textbook aloud (And yes, when I asked my grad students if they'd had faculty RECENTLY who did this, over twenty raised their hands.).  Of course, there's always the "Do-you-have-any- (more!)questions?" approach.  The "Get-in-groups-and-talk-about-something" tactic. The "Let's go over previous material" dodge, and at worst, the "Just-send-them-home" solution.  Of course, sometimes (but only rarely) that is the best thing to do.

Several issues influence thinking about how we can manage short preparation time and still do a decent job for our students.  For starters, considering at base level what your responsibility is for that day is crucial.  The ultimate acceptable default is to "Teach only what they absolutely have to know." After confirming with the workshop audience that no one was recording me, I recast that approach into something akin to "Teach the test." After all, most students just want to know what they're being tested on, right?  Ugh.  The "responsibility thing" is tricky to engage, in part because we can slide into descriptions of our teaching roles that rest solely on notions of ourselves as content deliverers, information transmitters, as the dreaded monotonous drones that go on and on and on...and truly, at the heart of many new teachers' conceptions of themselves lies a desire to cover as much content as possible. EGO = CONTENT COVERAGE! So, when coming to terms with how to economize preparation, many instructors are going to have to face tough decisions about choosing what's most important.  Because, not everything is. Nor is your purpose to be the sole link to all course information. This dilemma weighs heavily on transmitters and serves as one of the two main issues I've faced in the last ten years of consulting with instructors.

Thirdly, considering how to manage effective teaching with short preparation absolutely depends on teachers doing two things well: 1) creating a classroom learning environment early on that prompts student involvement in their own learning, and 2) clarifying and connecting learning objectives, goals and expectations.  No matter the class, we should be asking ourselves "What should my students be able to do after today's experience?"  Or, "...after this section, unit, etc?"  And particularly, "...after the semester is over?"  This holds true for 2+ hour preps, 45- minute preps, a hurried slug of 4 shots of Pete's Coffee/on the bus to school preps...whatever.

Funny how thinking about goals like this can clarify objectives and intentions. Funny too how startled even faculty 25 years into their tenure look when I've introduced them to that idea.

So, how do we do this?  Perhaps the Guidelines for Thinking about Class Preparation will be helpful (Scroll down to workshop and links to supplemental resources.).  This grid is designed to help students consider how to organize as efficiently and effectively as possible given certain preparation time constraints.  I don’t consider this a blueprint, nor as a set of iron-clad standards. A close look at this might reveal to the reader that time demands -- although they may curtail classroom activities and certainly certain content coverage -- do not necessarily have to restrict a teacher’s essential mission (which some readers might construe rests in the lower right corner of the grid.  Sometimes, that level of prep and presentation is all we can do.).  Of course, defining that mission, clarifying class and lesson goals, creating organized and efficient presentations and meaningful assessment make up the core of pedagogical development.  One could argue that no matter the constraints, good classes contain all the elements of the upper left-hand corner.  For us, TAs and new teachers, getting a handle on the fundamental elements that go into creating a learning experience that “works” is crucial, no matter the prep time we have. 

Other last minute solutions: 1)  Invite someone to fill in, but be careful! 2) Rely on peers' materials and advice.  3) Keep it simple.  4)  Make available supplemental information, especially information you couldn't get to.  5) Create analytical rubrics to help students handle difficult reading material. Another way to think about how to avoid trouble might be to consider Richard Felder and Rebecca Brent's "Three Steps to Disaster..." :  Go it alone; try to cover everything known about a subject; and make yourself available for EVERY question ANY student MIGHT ask. I might add, one sure-fire way to invite disaster is to have an incomplete or just plain bad syllabus.    

My workshop participants were very sharp.  A young physicist asked at the beginning, "How long did it take you to prepare for this? Aren't you modeling?"  (Bravo, Brent!)  Of course, I'll never tell.  A couple of other attendees commented that they always had enough time to prepare.  Deeper investigation into what that meant for them revealed that they transposed text material to PowerPoint's (or even better, used the available media package.).  Hmm, that doesn't really prompt learning but, sometimes that has to be good enough.

Jazz drummer Art Blakey claimed that (and I'm paraphrasing) The great thing about the next day is that you can clean up the mess you made the night before. 

Thank heavens there's almost always a next day, and that it doesn't have to start at 3 a.m.

Friday, August 27, 2010

The First Day of Class: How Much Do We Reveal about Ourselves?

[Greetings!  The next few posts focus on recent experiences I had facilitating our International Teaching Assistant Orientation ( ) and MSU TA Seminar ( .]

In one of those classic teaching moments, when a profoundly powerful question arises with little time to adequately engage it, I have to admit that I recently fumbled a chance to respond meaningfully to a new TA's questions concerning how transparent an instructor should be with their students the first day of class.   Given the timbre of our general workshop discussion, little time remaining, and my concerns over attempting to answer a question that begged so many fundamental issues, I had trouble sorting on the fly.  Imagine fish flopping around in the bottom of a skiff and me trying to catch them bare handed, and you'll get some feeling about how my brain was firing.

Hope I can begin to make up for that now.

We do a lot with new instructors and first-day issues (visit , scroll down to "Creating Learning Environments that Last."). The first day provides powerful chances to set the semester's tone, lay the groundwork for communicating openly, and of course, covering administrative and policy fundamentals.  First and foremast, I recommend we don't just explain the syllabus and let them leave.  To use my (JMU) friend Chris Womack's phrasing, "Hit the ground running..." with your new students, and make sure they know how to find ways to keep up (Also, be willing to slow down when you need to.).

Recognizing that classrooms are social spaces, and that part of building classroom community means engaging your charges in multiple ways beyond content, inevitably teachers must come to grips with how to much to give away of themselves.  Fact is, all kinds of great teachers give up widely variant amounts of who they are to their students.  One need not be a friend to our charges, but it helps to at least display a modicum of friendliness.  When asked what they'd reveal to their students, a recent group of faculty I worked with were all over the place concerning whether to reveal political views, socioeconomic status, religious inclinations, home phone numbers, opinions about texts, and sexual preferences.  Many, concerned that in a position of power that their opinions would inappropriately shape their students' views, decline to share much of themselves at all.  Others, believing that transparency justifies kind of social (and pedagogical) legitimacy, were more apt to share background information about themselves.

What details do you share?  Why?

And it's the Why's of my new TA's views that had me in a bit of a rhetorical twist earlier this week. With a fervent nod to Patricia Cranton's powerful little book, Becoming an Authentic Teacher... (and its impact on my thinking about reflective practice), in my First Day sessions I broach the notion of considering one's "authentic" teaching least in terms of one's developing self as they decide how to interact with their students.   In that context, and with ten minutes to go in the program, a workshop participant asked, "Should you come out to your students on the first day?" 

Those are the kind of questions that have me nodding...reaching for my water bottle...and duck-feet-beneath-the-water scrambling for an answer that validates, informs, and encourages but also one that communicates a bit of a warning, particularly for conservative middle-class students like those at my state institution.  For the record, I'm not sure sexual preference is one of those things I'd want to communicate. But then, apparently I'm not primarily a social justice kind of instructor (See and take Collins and Pratt's Teaching Perspectives Inventory - It's not that I don't advocate for social justice, it's that my sensitivity to diversity issues apparently has me damn careful about advocating for certain types of change.  Oh, I'm a Developmentalist.) .  Anyway, after a few slugs of H2O, I responded with a watered down, "I think you need to consider how coming out "...helps, and not hinders..." your communication with your students." [Okay, I stole some of that that phrasing from Linda Johnsrud.].

I've seen hundreds of reactions to what I've had to say about things, many of them encouraging, but this one reminded me of all the times I've encountered eyes glazing, smiles dropping, heads nodding, and in some cases, sneers emerging on the faces of those who weren't hearing anything helpful from me.  Upshot?  He left, the workshop ended, and I immediately began engaging friends and colleagues about how to better meet those kinds of queries.

I'll continue this story once I've made some sense of what my mates tell me.  In the meantime, your comments, suggestions are welcome.  I've been a strong diversity advocate and spokesperson for STEM education, and would like to think my ears and head are open to talking about (and supporting) what it means to be oneself as a teacher.  In short, anything that opens communication and prompts reflection is fine by me.  But of course, you can't always control what others think.  If we're not sure we can motivate, how do we absolutely avoid de-motivating?

All the best,

[Note:  Profound thanks to A. T. Miller, Director, Global Intercultural Experience for Undergraduates, U of Michigan, for his input and support.  His worksheet, "Teaching Diversity:  Inclusion in the Classroom for the Educational Benefit of All," remains a fundamental part of my presentations on higher education diversity issues.]

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Boundary-Setting, Incivility, and Why I Want to Live in Hawaii with M.D.

The following is a response to a valued colleague who is thinking about how to work with his faculty on boundary setting issues.  My templates for preventing and handling incivility and boundary setting are on our web-page,  I thought that letting you into my thinking about how I define workshops themes on this subject might prompt meaningful reflection for you.  As always, contact me with questions and comments.

NOTE:  If you are interested in teaching and learning issues in higher education, I recommend that you join to very helpful listservs:  1) Rick Reis's Tomorrow's Professor and 2) the Professional and Organizational (POD) Network Listserv .

"Dear M.,

Because I believe all development is local, let’s do this together and you shape themes I use relevant to your environs. How about if we consider the issues following as a means for engaging conversation about what it means to set boundaries? Allow me to advise, you cannot teach others in this context to set authentic boundaries (I believe professionals exist in other learning contexts in which one can, but not our general training ones.) Of course, I’m addressing something beyond the importance of regulating contact and establishing clear guidelines. In my experience with talking about these issues, I’ve found that many of my colleagues must come to an understanding that boundaries exist for a reason, they must identify what they are, they must embrace the idea that social space is ALWAYS negotiable, and that sometimes my friend, we lose. That said, a little awareness raising can go a long way to helping others prepare, organize, and facilitate learning contexts that minimize potential conflict. I generally consider boundary setting, volitions, errors, crossing, repairing, and retaliating (I’m not kidding) as foundations for my workshops.

1. One person’s “no problem” is another’s “I can’t believe you just did that!” And wow, how opening a newspaper can hit people in different ways always amuses and confounds me. One thing I try to do is to get folks to identify what bugs them. After doing that, multiple opportunities arise to talk about why. I will send you an attachment personally. It’s a template for a longitudinal project I have in the works. It’s unique in that it asks participants not only to rank behaviors, but also that they rank their imagined abilities to handle them. Until I get official funding for this, you are welcome to use it as you see fit. If you do, share your results with me. Oh, I’ve got my conflict stuff on our website too. It’s available for all.

2. Why consider this stuff? My quick public response is that we’re concerned with creating workable and effective learning environments and that inappropriate conflict inhibits our ability to do that. But that’s not why I really do this. Conflict makes me extremely nervous, especially the kinds we most often address, those emotional assaults that render meaningful dialogue impossible. (I, of course, am “heart full” in sympathy with those feeling physically threatened. But that is a rarity.). In fact, emotional bullying is wildly more threatening to me than a threatened punch in the face. The latter is so easy to deal with because it’s clear. Anyway, as developers, the large proportion of what we face with our charges is helping them to avoid or negotiate gray space – that thing that emerges when dialogue seems impossible.

3. A dear colleague, decades of powerful impact and support, believes that as teachers, our decisions about what we do shouldn’t be about solving our own problems, needs. By the way, what are those? I am in agreement with her for most issues. I’d like to think that teaching is the ultimate expression of my desire to connect with the human race – of course, that could cause some conflict, but you know what I mean…

4. What’s making us respond in certain ways to certain situations?

5. CASE STUDY – Do you invite undergrads in a senior seminar over to your palatial hut on Waimea for dinner and class? What about your grad students? Really? Why? Why not? [Heck, when can I hang out in your five-bedroom, three-level 10,000 square foot party house?]

6. When are boundaries “blur-able?” When not? Braxton and Bayer’s (1999) fine work concerning “norms” still shapes my thinking about this stuff. What absolutely positively shouldn’t be “crossed.” What’s less serious?

7. Are boundaries ethical or moral issues? Both?

8. When do you break your own rules? You don’t? Really?

9. At the root of many boundary setting issues, lies a startling denial of what it means to have power in the teacher-student relationship. Wow. Can I hear an “Amen!” from the congregation!

10. How does your professional life emerge in your teaching? Just what are we modeling?

Okay – let me know how you take my seminal themes and mold them into the great instructional/conversational space you create for your faculty."


Monday, August 9, 2010

Building Your Own Professional "Tool Box"

Cheers, my last post has me thinking more about that pre-semester development "head" me and my mates get into; that would be the one focused on gearing up for the Orientation things we do pre-semester.  Most of us want to make sure we're getting to our colleagues everything we can to help them 1) have a great TA year teaching and, 2) put into play opinions, options, and ways of thinking that have them creating their own means for getting all the professional development they want (Whew!  My one-sentence teaching philosophy?  Arm my charges with everything I can so they can teach themselves.... What's yours?).

My colleagues at MSU and I have recently discussed professional development books for future faculty.  Darley, et al., The Compleat Academic:  A Career Guide (2004, 2nd Ed.  I think there is a new one.) came up last week.  Although not focused specifically on being "The Compleat Graduate Student" (Come on! Kevin Carlsmith, get it done!), the book nonetheless does a good job addressing all the issues no one tells you about concerning what it means to be new faculty; or, at least, no one's telling you about this stuff helpfully.  I have a plethora of guides to faculty success, preparing for faculty success, successfully negotiating faculty get the picture. They are widely focused, considering the interpretive lenses they use and the populations they address.  But I don't think any of them pull together approaches to understanding tacit knowledge about working in the academy as well as The Compleat Academic:... Check out CA.  Not for its depth, but for its breadth and it's unflinching approach to some tough subjects.

If you're interested in a great out of the box approach to teaching development, please check out Carolyn Lieberg's Teaching Your First College Class:... .  Carolyn will be presenting the opening plenary at our upcoming TA Seminar, August 23rd: .  We're attempting the first "paperless" seminar and will have a ton of great resources on thumb-drives for participants.  You can get those resources from our home page soon!  Part of our thinking about the flash drive thing?  We hope to create an organic base resource for PhD students to collect, alter, and add to their professional development archives. Maybe MSU Teaching Thoughts will get you started thinking about teaching development basics too!

Send us some of the resources that have most helped you!


Friday, August 6, 2010

Gearing Up for a NEW Year! What Do I Wish for New TAs

Many institutions this time of year are gearing up for new TA arrivals.  There are several Research One schools around the country who offer fine orientation programs for new teaching assistants.  Our three-day inaugural has a spot for new faculty (former TAs) and ABD-TAs (that just looks weird) to provide their "Wish Lists" or, "Best Recommendations" advisories.  As I open up TA Confidential this year, I'd like to post a set of recommendations from former TAs , now MSU faculty or on the verge of getting their degrees, which I think might be helpful for those of us just beginning the TA experience.  I am grateful to Jim Lucas, PhD; Angelika Kraemer, PhD; Walter Sistunk, PhD; and Daisy Levy, PhD Candidate, for their following recommendations.  See also, 2010 MSU Teaching Thoughts # 19:  Outstanding MSU TAs Talk about Their Teaching "Best Practices"

What might you add?

Jim Lucas, PhD – Office of the Associate Provost for Undergraduate Education

Teaching tips
1. Put relevant class policies in the syllabus whenever possible (e.g., attendance and tardiness, late assignments, formatting guidelines, disability information, classroom etiquette, etc.).

2. Good, clear organization can go a long way in helping students learn and keeping them engaged.

3. Try to make the material practical and engaging (e.g., leave time for discussion, insert activities, connect the material to real world problems or issues, let students know how what you are teaching them will be important later, etc.).

4. Students have very different learning styles and abilities, so vary your teaching technique or delivery methods when possible (e.g., use visual aids with your lecture, post notes to ANGEL, give practice exercises, etc.).

5. Address problems and expectations early.

Getting through your  program

1. Do something fun or for yourself at least once each weekend.

2. Take advantage of all the events, activities, and opportunities available to you on campus, inside and outside of your department.

3. Build yourself a support group of peers and don’t ever think that you are alone in thinking or feeling what you are going through day-to-day.

4. Overestimate the time it will take you to write your dissertation or thesis.

5. Do not compare yourself to your peers. Your program is your own, and your work style is unique.

Walter Sistrunk, PhD

African American and African Studies Program

Top Ten Pointers

1. Prepare: Don’t assume because you know the subject that you know it well enough to explain it to a person who does not understand. If you know your subject well, you should be able to explain it and its importance to you mother. Just because your subject is hard, its complexity does not excuse you from not being able to explain it.

2. Explanation: Use explanations that do not include the concept that you are explaining. Often times, students have trouble relating disciplinary jargon or categories to the concept or phenomena these terms describe. In other words, repeating to students that a “tesseract” is an “octachoron” does not mean that you have adequately explained what a “tesseract” is.

3. Train: Teach students how to be students. Our ultimate goal is to replicate ourselve.

A part of our job is to teach students how people in our field think about or approach our subject matter. The human body is going to be viewed differently by an oncologist, sociologist, and postmodernist.

4. Get help: Don’t hesitate to ask colleagues for help (professors, fellow students, administrative assistants).

5. Establish a reputation for being on time: It is important that you be on time for the first half of the semester. Things will happen in the latter half of the semester that may cause you to be late. Students will not remember the few times you were late if you establish a habit of being on time.

6. Be assertive not confrontational: When you have to enforce a university policy, simply repeating it is asserting it. There is no need to argue with a student, be polite, even apologize then recite the policy again.

7. Expect mistakes: Expect to make mistakes, don’t take yourself so seriously that you cannot admit that you made a mistake. Also if you don’t know the answer to something admit it. You don’t have to be the authority on everything.

8. Boundaries: We naturally have interest in our professors so expect students to want to get to know you. Setting boundaries will make the task of mentoring and teaching much easier. Sometimes students will share personal information with you. Often they do so because they do not think of you as their friend. Since you have maintained a distance, they feel it is safe to share this information with you.

9. Show you Care: Relate to students that your aim is to build onto their person and that the materials from your class enables them to understand the world “mo’ betta” which makes them a better person.

10. Be flexible but consistent: If you say you are going to do something, do it; if you cannot you better have a good reason why you can’t. However, don’t be so rigid as to not make adjustments that will collectively benefit the entire class.

Daisy Levy – Doctoral Student, Rhetoric and Writing

Top Ten, or How to Sort Out a Graduate School Life

1. Listen first, Think second, Speak third. This will help with just about everything you have to do as a graduate student, and also as a teacher. The context of your life will be shifting constantly, even within one day. Keeping your different roles straight is really REALLY important. Give yourself time.

2. Be flexible. This one may seem like it conflicts with the other entries on the list. But it’s super important. One minute you may have very clear ideas of what you want your students to do, or what you want your dissertation to be about, and the next minute you’ll read something that will completely change your mind. Be open to it.

3. Make boundaries. At the same time that you are striving to stay loose, consider what you have to give, who you want to give it to you, and when you want to give it. You can always readjust, but thinking this through ahead of time will save you time and energy. Be clear with yourself about your limits.

4. Make friends. Someone very smart said to me once, “No one gets through a PhD by herself.” You’ll need your peers, your faculty, and your GRADUATE SECRETARY.

5. Ask for help. This is a huge campus with tons of resources for pretty much anything – academic, tech support and training, counseling, health care, professional development, social life, teaching, financial support, how to get from one end of campus to another. Use it.

6. Strive for a regular schedule, even if you know it won’t happen. ‘Nuff said.

7. Relax.

8. Remember why you are here.

9. Enjoy yourself.

Angelika Kraemer, PhD

Office: Dean of Arts & Letters

Curriculum Development Specialist

1.a. Time management: Set aside certain hours for studying, teaching/grading, research, AND fun.

1.b. Keep in mind, you are student first, and a TA second.

2.a. Teaching: Be strict during the first weeks, set clear rules on day one, dress professionally. You can become more "personable" later in the semester. Be friendly, but not a friend.

2.b. Talk to experienced TAs in your unit for advice on grading, preparation, classes to take etc.

2.c. Be flexible.

3.a. Department: Be nice to the secretaries. They hold the keys to many things! A smile can go long ways.

3.b. Go to your professors' office hours. It's a great way to get to know them, learn more about their research/teaching interests, and it shows them that you care.

4.a. Professionalism: Attend functions in your department/college. See and be seen!

4.b. Be involved and network. Think about serving on department/college committees in later semesters, join area specific regional/national/international organizations, find out more information about the GEU and RSOs.

4.c. Read unit handbooks and know about dos and don'ts.

4.d. Talk to graduate students and professors in other units. Great for networking, learning about courses that might interest you, finding potential research topics.

5.a. Balance life: Eat healthy, do something to keep your sanity and health.

5.b. Take advantage of university resources. Check out the surplus store, university stores, student farmers market.

5.c. Sign up for dental insurance.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Greetings! BLOG BACK IN ACTION January 2012

[I started this blog over a year ago in part to test whether I could keep one.  Well, despite a promising start, apparently I couldn't/didn't.  My apologies to those who provided thoughtful comments to my earlier posts. A NEW JOB (Associate Director, Center for Teaching at the University of Iowa as of 1/3/2012 has me thinking that I'd like to give this thing a go once more.]   

I am Associate Director of the Center for Teaching at the University of Iowa, and a good bit of my professional life centers on preparing future faculty for their teaching lives in higher education. I intend this blog to be a space for teaching assistants (or, graduate student instructors (GSIs), research assistants (RAs), and graduate assistants (GAs), etc.) to talk about their professional lives -- their accomplishments, challenges, and gripes -- and if possible, about things they'd like to "do over." I'm hoping ultimately to create an interesting, humorous, and supportive public space for any grad students (and interested faculty, my development colleagues, and administrators) seeking to engage and reflect on their teaching and teaching lives. As facilitator of this blog, I will seek to "get out of the way" of conversations that emerge here. In over fifteen years of helping grad students think about their teaching practice, it's clear to me that you learn best from one another (and me, from you.). There will be a few stipulations about posts, but very few.  Of course, your critique's and other comments are welcome.

[Okay, enough of this formality. Of course this can't be completely "Confidential," but roll with me.]

I (we) look forward to hearing from you...
Kind Regards,