What does my voice really sound like?

Sarah Deel’s thoughts outlined in Finding My Teaching Voice really resonate with me, for a number of reasons, and I find it pretty helpful in gaining insight into how my own personality can contribute to and shape my teaching style.  One major commonality between myself and Deel is our undergraduate educational background at small liberal-arts colleges, and the impact that experience has had on the way we think about teaching and interacting with students.  The mentors and infrastructure in general that fostered my learning and growth, specifically in a setting so supportive and engaging, represent the primary motivation for me that has led me to this career choice.  My former mentors have inspired me to pass on my passion for neuroscience and psychology to others.  I want undergraduates who may have been in a similar position as me, with limited research opportunities readily available, to gain exposure and feel encouraged to seek out those opportunities and dive into the world of research.  But what is the best way to open someone’s eyes and instill this passion in them?

Just like Deel has explained in her essay, my reference point is, naturally, those professors who inspired me so much during my undergraduate years.  How did they inspire and instill passion in me?  The most effective mentors and professors that have shaped me the most were first and foremost approachable and accessible.  Some of them were charming and funny, but in others the most inspiring characteristic was their pure passion for the topic they were teaching.  Flexibility in assessments and assignments made a huge difference for me too.  The classes and professors that were most successful in passing on knowledge used a variety of approaches for their students, and individualized these approaches in many ways.  Sometimes this meant students had the option for the final assessment.  Whether students felt their strengths were in presenting information orally or in using the written word to form a term paper, each student had the option to take advantage of their strengths.  Other times this involved incorporating classroom activities that allowed for multi-modal learning.  Visual learners and tactile learners alike equally benefit from these sorts of activities, giving learners of all kinds the ability to truly absorb and apply information.

Being aware of and maintaining boundaries between myself and others has also been a concern as I imagine myself as a professor, but also as a relatable human in the classroom.  As professor Fowler mentions in The Authentic Teaching Self and Communication Skills, you have to draw the line as the professor to avoid being on the same plane as students, but at the same time must encourage bi-directional teaching and learning.  You have to be open to learning from students, but must also maintain authority.  I think this can be overcome with a few approaches.  On the first day of class, I think it would be worthwhile to introduce myself as a scholar so students can know where I’m coming from and see what I’ve accomplished.  This would not be to brag, but to show students that although I’m a young woman, and I’m laid back and relatable and easy going, I also have qualifications and credibility, and deserve their respect.  This has always been an issue with me, as I believe I can come off as young and spacey sometimes, and I can imagine this being a huge problem if that is the students’ first impression.  From there, as Fowler mentions, building rapport would follow and could be accomplished by getting to know the individual students via ice-breakers, setting the tone of the class, and ensuring transparency in my choices.

So how does my personality lend itself to creating a classroom atmosphere conducive to optimal learning?  What does my voice really sound like?  I think my teaching voice will one day be defined by my preparedness, flexibility, creativity, and general attitude that promotes a trusting and respectful relationship with those around me.  I think above all else, I have the ability and willingness to be truly transparent in my methods.  As Deel discusses, I find value in overviewing my pedagogy, approach to assessment, and expectations for learning from the outset.  I think when students can see and understand professors’ motives behind their decisions, it makes them more approachable and honest right away.

The difficulty with narratives rather than grades

How do you assess without grades?  It seems like, as an individual professor among many other professors, it would be impossible to do this 100%, and really, truly eliminate grades, especially when functioning in a larger system that demands that ranking.  If an individual teacher wants to do that, the entire system must support it.  Are there universities that have eliminated grading altogether?

I understand the desire and necessity to eliminate grading and ranking, but how can employers or admissions boards really assess an individual without some kind of a quantified or standardized measurement system?  Narratives sound like a great solution, but how can an employer know that my narrative, as the evaluator/educator, is the most accurate assessment of an individual, and someone else’s narrative, a different evaluator/educator, is less representative?  No two different individuals can write the same narrative or endorsement, nor should narratives or endorsements from two different individuals be interpreted in the same way.

Another way of thinking about this is the practical implication of what happens when two equally qualified students are vying for the same spot at an undergraduate or graduate university.  How can anyone tell from two different narratives or recommendations that one student is truly more qualified than the other?  One student could have enlisted a more eloquent writer, a more convincing advocate, for them than the other student.  Does that mean this student should be accepted to a university while another student of the same caliber, who may not have as shiny a recommendation, should not get accepted?

Taking advantage of cognitive flexibility

The writings of Douglas Thomas & John Seely Brown in A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change (particularly Chapter 3: Embracing Change) got me thinking quite a lot about cognitive flexibility and adaptation in a constantly changing technological world.  The authors point out the insane rate of change, especially in regards to technology, but I think it’s worth mentioning that our ability to adapt to that change is also increasing at an absurd rate.  I think that the more we’re exposed to the digital world, the more literate in it we become.  When we use technology often enough, and in enough of its various forms, we can eventually reach a gestalt and more readily transfer knowledge and skills from one domain into another.  For example, I have some foundation of basic computational skills and literacy, and I think that allows me to generalize my knowledge beyond simply my laptop, my operating system, my video game console interfaces, etc.  I have enough experience with such a breadth of technological devices that when my phone or computer undergo a massive overhaul in firmware/software updates, I can still rely on context clues and prior knowledge to adapt to those changes.

Obviously this flexibility and adaptability was at a very different stage in their example with color TVs.  When this specific technology was the first of its kind, of course no one knew how to use it or what to expect at the outset.  It takes some time to reach proficiency when you’re using a system to go from zero to full comprehension in any context or domain.  We, as a society, had to learn how to use these systems at this time with no prior knowledge, background, or experience to relate it to.  But as these resources continue to expand, and truly explode, we can transition more easily.  We do have a mental prototype or template now for what we expect technology to look like and what we expect technology to be able to do.  We can adapt our prototype when something is similar enough, and we can piece together a variety of knowledge bases to make sense of something a bit new.

Their statement of “When change comes slowly, adaptation is easy” comes off as somewhat too general for me.  I think it’s more accurate to say that adaptation is easy when the changed product resembles the original product, regardless of how slowly or quickly that happens.  When there is no original product with which to make a comparison, slow is better.  But when we have the progression to trace, that adaptation can happen more readily.  I think it should also be noted that this adaptation is possible only with the accompaniment of a mindful approach, such as that described in Ellen Langer’s Mindful Learning.  To me, this means using prior knowledge and experience in a critical manner to evaluate the current iteration in front of you, and then intentionally incorporating the past (familiar) and present (newer) iterations to derive some kind of context on which to move forward.  To employ this approach when faced with a firmware or software update is one thing, but we can, and should, extrapolate this concept to all areas of learning.

What do you want to be when you grow up?

There was a small piece of the discussion from last class that stuck with me the rest of the week, and I’ve found myself thinking about it pretty frequently.  It seemed there was agreement that higher education is widely viewed as training for a job and less so as educating for the sake of learning or personal discovery.  “Training” and “education” are sometimes treated as synonymous in our system, but in reality those are distinctly different concepts.  This mindset of higher education as a means of training for a job, with the end goal of making money and supporting oneself, contributes to what some may consider systemic problems in current pedagogy, and I don’t wholly disagree.  But I do think there’s something more than that.

The notion that we go to college to qualify ourselves for well-paying jobs is almost too generous, and assigns too much credit to what I believe is probably the majority of individuals.  From my experience, higher education (or at least getting an undergraduate degree) is less intentional, planned, and active than finding one’s purpose or training for a job.  I think in today’s climate, it’s simply what you do after high school.  I personally watched all of my siblings (3 older brothers, 1 older sister) graduate from high school and move on to college without questioning whether or not they should.  In my senior year, it’s what everyone did, and it’s all everyone talked about—SAT scores, college applications, visiting campuses, acceptance letters, rejection letters, safety schools, etc.  And I think that’s at least a national phenomenon, if not international.  No one questions why they’re putting themselves in this position, they just follow the crowd, in an incredibly passive manner.  And as Mark Carnes points out in Setting Students’ Minds on Fire, many fail to graduate, which he attributes to a lack of interest and motivation.  When we passively find ourselves at a university of higher education simply because it was expected of us by the rest of society, it’s no surprise that the result is often a lack of interest and motivation.

The impact of so many more people holding undergraduate degrees has a ripple effect on the rest of higher education.  So many people enroll in colleges and universities, that a bachelor’s degree probably holds a lot less value than it may have had 50 years ago.  At one time, a bachelor’s degree set people apart.  I think the devaluation of this degree over time has pushed many people who are serious about setting themselves apart to pursue master’s degrees and PhDs.  In fact, many people do pursue graduate school to do just that.  But I would venture to say that many people also pursue graduate school as an extension of their indecision.  It allows us to keep pushing reality a bit further away, and postpone the day in which we actually have to make a decision regarding our career.  Obviously this is not true of everyone, but personally it was definitely true for me.  By the time my undergraduate years were coming to an end, I realized I still had no idea where I wanted to end up.  It was another passive move.

I think this all comes back to the question of: What do you want to be when you grow up?  If I don’t have a good answer, I’ll choose to put myself in an environment of constant learning and personal discovery to increase my chances of stumbling upon that answer.  I’m not interested in going through all of this education and “training” to find the job that will make me the most money.  Personally, I’m interested in pursuing higher education to open up as many doors as possible in an effort to pique my intellectual interest and identify my passion.  So far so good.

Vulnerability & Credibility

After reading each of the articles provided, I had the strongest reaction to Tom Hitchcock’s piece.  His argument to me is mainly in increasing the reach of a researcher’s work and impact, and doing so by taking advantage of common platforms that were built to encourage networking and sharing of ideas.  He concedes that many scholars are reluctant to publicly share their work through blogging or tweeting due to the opportunity for them to be harshly criticized or for their ideas to be scooped.  What seems to be more important than these fears, to the author, is advancing the current state of knowledge in an uncomplicated, immediate, and pervasive way.

I understand his argument, but to me not blogging and not tweeting has nothing to do with worrying about me being ridiculed or about my ideas being scooped.  These modalities of communication, to me, are personal forms of expression.  I’m not sure that I’ve been reluctant to put myself out there due to an insecurity of being ridiculed, but I think it’s something else.  For me, it has to do with vulnerability.  My writing is mine, it originates in my heart and in my mind, and I don’t always want it to be available for the world to see, regardless of whether it would welcome ridicule or praise.  Either way, my words are mine.  This feeling started early on in my younger years as I started writing poetry, and has remained through my biomedical research endeavors to some extent.  Though he’s advocating expressing scientific concepts and not necessarily a glimpse into the deepest recesses of my mind, or poetry, it’s still too personal for me.  These lines of communication are too informal and too vulnerable for me.

If the issue is engaging in a larger and more meaningful conversation, I find I can build a public dialogue through other means—not only by presenting my work at conferences, but by engaging with the community as well.  Public talks may be limited to the audience that’s present at the time, admittedly an infinitely smaller audience than could be reached via online platforms, but it still enables networking and making an impact on a personal level.  That is the kind of impact I’m more interested in.  Though Hitchcock turns his talks into blogs by his own confession, I just don’t feel the need to present my ideas on a public, massive platform.  I’m more comfortable letting my (written) science speak for itself through traditional means, after enduring rigorous review from experts.

Buried in my reluctance to open a Twitter account for any reason, or blog on a regular basis, is likely the issue of credibility as well.  I know there is so much more to the story, and this is a very shallow approach to a much more complicated dialogue, but part of me thinks that if anyone at all can write a blog, the degree of credibility becomes far reduced overall.  But if this is the direction the scientific world is unanimously moving, I may have to overcome whatever temporary discomfort this type of communication may bring, and embrace it anyway.