Empathy, Always

While I am not a medical student in any way, shape, or form, there were way aspects of reading “When Do Medical Students Lose Their Empathy?” by Dr. Sonia Henry that resonated with me. I studied social work in my undergrad and am now in school for student affairs (helping in nature professions) and I saw connections between both and being a graduate student in general. First, Dr. Henry talked about the pressure and anxiety she felt being in school—while once again, I am in not medical school, but I think a lot of graduate students in other disciplines could also feel this way. I know that as I have continued in my program, I have had times where I have had anxiety and have been stressed out. I think it is universal to want to succeed when seeking graduate degrees and knowing the work it takes to achieve a graduate degree is high.                         Personally, I know that I have also rationalized my feelings of being overwhelmed with “everyone feels this way, its normal”, just as the article talked about. I am fortunate that I have a great support system in place to help me get through those times of feeling overwhelmed. However, I think more emphasis on mental health should take place in graduate programs if we know how common those feelings are for students. For example, I think it is great that Virginia Tech offers weekly drop sessions with Cook Counseling for graduate students. However, I think we need to make it more interwoven with actual programs to show students that while you should be challenged in graduate school, you should not always feel completely overwhelmed and what to do if you are.

Another aspect of this article that resonated with me was her point about losing her empathy. The author talked about how she had a patient that was given horrendous unexpected news and she did not think much of it until later in the day. Dr. Henry talked about how she went into this profession because she wanted to care for others and currently was finding herself losing that aspect of herself. I have heard this before from professions in fields that experience crisis routinely, that after a while you can become desensitized to crisis level situations because you are around them so much or you are just moving through the motions. While, my current area does experience some crisis situations, especially when serving on-call, I hope that no matter how long I am in the field, I never become desensitized to what others are experiencing. I think it helps to make you a good professional that you can empathize for what the person is going through to help them figure out how to get through it. I always want to feel and have empathy for those around me. I think this article is a good reminder of being cognizant of what you are doing and remembering why you are doing it. Theoretically, for whatever profession you are in, you started in it for a reason and it is vital to remember that reason and it keep it close to you.

Connecting the Dots!

I enjoyed listening to the Ted Talk, and was reminded of a small group task which one of our teacher assigned us in our senior secondary school. The task was simple, to pick up the text books kept on one side of the lecture hall and to carry them across the lecture hall and stack the books over there. She did not mention anything else about the task and continued reading something on her table. We were around 15 students in the class that day and we were not quite sure why were we asked to do this silly exercise. However, we did not question the teacher and obeyed the instructions. Once we completed the task, she asked us to repeat the task by carrying the books back to their original place. We were a bit annoyed but we still did not question and as ‘good students’ repeated the task assigned to us. Again, when we finished she asked us to repeat the task. Few of us were becoming impatient but were not brave enough to question the teacher that why are we doing it. After repeating the task for about 10 times, one of us finally figured out, we are doing something wrong and that is why we are being asked to do it again and again. By then we were all tired of doing this task as well. The classmate, who sensed that we were doing something wrong looked at the teacher for any hints, however, the teacher acted as if she did not see that student. The classmate thought for a bit, looked at us, and then asked all of us to stand in a horizontal line instead of each of us picking the books and carrying it to the other side of the class. Then he mentioned let us just pass books to each other instead of each of us walking across the lecture hall. This time we completed the task according to that classmate and were able to complete the task more effortlessly and saved time than before. The teacher at this point smiled at us and said did you learn something by completing the task.

This task was not the part of our regular class but we did not even thought once why we were assigned this task, and just followed the instructions. The teacher wanted us to understand the importance of teamwork. She had an objective while assigning this task. However, we did not know the hidden objective, still, we blindly followed the instructions. And when I was listening to this Ted Talk, I realized that this activity had another lesson which was to question. Question our-self, our peers, our teachers before we begin a task. In fact, this is more important than completing the task. Through this story, I would also like to highlight that being a ‘good student’ does not mean not questioning your teacher or your peers but to question, commit mistakes, learn from the mistakes and make new mistakes.

I had a great time with all you wonderful people!

I Multitask, Not

Most of the time I am reading through articles and blogs, I am learning something new. Then there are times when I can relate to an article. However, there are rare times, when the article says exactly the same thing I wanted to share for so long. It is so good to read them and realize that your feelings have been expressed somewhere by someone.

I am talking about an article on the myth of multitasking. I was never good at multitasking and that article helped me realized the truth: multitasking does not exist. One can do many tasks switching quickly from one to another but one can only do one task at a time. Of course, the tasks that either have been mastered or that don’t require the same parts of the brain may be performed simultaneously.


I have been told by many people that they can multitask like listen to me, understand it, reply back and still continue the other work and every time I used to ask them how they can concentrate on them at the same time, I would just hear some arguments, like it is all practice or you just have to train your brain, which were not convincing enough. Well, I have the answer now: they weren’t concentrating. They may be good and quick at switching but they can’t be doing all of it simultaneously. When we think of multitasking, one important thing that we tend to forget, we are humans. A machine may be designed to complete several tasks at the same time with different memory allocations for different tasks but we still have one brain with limited nodes. The brain has limited sections and can only handle a number of tasks. Even our machines hang up at times when they are overworked even if they are designed to perform such tasks. So it makes sense that humans fail at that as our brains are not designed for that.

I am not sure about future and with evolution may be the brain’s design is modified so much that humans can multitask. But right now, if you were trying to write a blog/comment while reading this article (or a couple of others on multitasking: 1, 2), discussing with a friend and listening to the podcast on the myth of multitasking (in case reading was not enough), stop right there. Do them one by one and you will get the most from all of them.


Open Pedagogy

After listening to the Teaching in Higher Ed podcast with Dr. Rajiv Jhangiani, I went looking for a definition of ‘open pedagogy.’ Though I wasn’t able to find one clear definition, it seems to me that the goals of open pedagogy are to engage students in their own learning, and to overcome barriers to education (e.g. cost).

In a TEDx talk, David Wiley says “teachers who are the best teachers, are the ones who share the most completely with the most students.” His point here is that educators should be open in sharing their expertise and experiences. After all, you can “share [your expertise]… without losing it.” Education is about openly sharing ideas back and forth, and collaboratively creating new ideas.

The use of open educational resources (OER), including open textbooks and open access journal articles, can substantially reduce costs of students. Students may find themselves asking: “After paying the high price of tuition, why is the information I’m supposed to be getting still behind a $1000 paywall?” Even worse, the additional cost may prohibit some students from being able to afford to enroll.

Traditional textbooks often get updated every 5-or-so years. Often for introductory textbooks, the new edition of a book might simply rearrange the order of the chapters, or add a few new figures– which probably isn’t worth the $150 price tag. I realize the need for updates can vary by field and sub-field. For fields that are rapidly changing, open textbooks may also be advantageous because they can be revised by experts right away instead of waiting five years for a new book to be published.



5 Rs of OER: retain, redistribute, remix, reuse, reise

It’s time for institutions to Design/Test/Iterate/Deliver/ Change

Multiple of the aspects of what Dr. Jhangiani discussed go beyond the walls of an institution:

  • Access to digital technology and the digital divide

…and to ideas that run counter to the value proposition of institutions:

  • A time-tested curriculum and faculty
  • Learning on one campus

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The three bullets above are interrelated, but students, professors, parents, and administrators have complex interests that only partially overlap.

Students experience the burden of a textbook (or 3, 4, or 5 textbooks) differently, but we know that some students may struggle to afford a textbook.

We’ve learned that one aspect of a learner-centered syllabus is having student input on the content.

Some professors want to explore new methods, but feel constrained by their institutions. Some parents would not be thrilled to learn that their child “was the guinea pig” in Fall 2018 Intro to Biology. Some administrators are concerned about whether the accreditation for a program will continue if professors are constantly testing new methods and content.

Professors at campuses that are part of consortia (think the Colleges of the Fenway) can leverage (and re-use/re-mix) the resources of the others if they can get buy-in from their administrations, but this can quickly become a bureaucratic albatross around innovation and efficiency.


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It’s time to try new things. We read about the harm that grading may do, then almost everyone still plans to provide traditional grades. We know that we can democratize the information in our classrooms, then we say it’s too hard to not go with the standard textbook. We are not wedded to anything beyond a semester, and maybe not even that long. Let’s try something closer to software design and engineering: design, test, iterate…

I would be ecstatic to build a course with a class. I vividly remember my freshman Biospyschology class, and that was many years ago. One of the most memorable features of the class was the unit on how illicit drug use affected the brain. The class voted on the drug we explored in the unit, and cocaine was selected. I still remember how cocaine affects the synapses. It was my first introduction to developing course content collaboratively, and it left an impression.

We have to start introducing a piece of collaborative design, a collaborator from another institution, a new piece of technology, a different form of assessment, and then keep building. Just as we design, test, and iterate in software we also have a backlog of ideas that we put out in two week sprints. We are not just iterating for weeks on end, but building on a foundation, which is continually being built onto.

agile scrum

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It was not raised during the Critical Open Pedagogy podcast, but institutions of higher learning have far reaching effects on the urban fabric of the communities where they exist and expand. They often bring jobs and stability, but can raise prices and wall off portions of communities. When we think about openness, the openness of facilities is also worth taking into account when many of our leading institutions receive local incentives and state and federal funding.

– – – – – – – – – –

While it represents a massive shift to address these factors, it could also provide institutions an opportunity to re-frame the value proposition of the university as a community anchor, a talent ignitor, a leveling force, and the type of dynamic place that tests and retests ideas.

Teaching As A Creative Manifestation of Ideas – By Efon

Paulo Freire tempo-political narratives of teaching are perhaps the most systematic assessment of pedagogy concepts that I have read in my educational career. While I agree with his banking concept of education, I would argue that social, economic and political philosophies may have stronger underlying influences than any actual teaching method. On the other hand, project-based learning practices are […]

Avoiding Inclusive Education at the Expense of Marginalized Groups: The Educator’s Role in Brave Spaces

Content warning: This blog post details my some of experiences as a gay educator and includes slurs and microaggression I’ve experienced.

Working in student affairs, I have attended many trainings around diversity and inclusion.  With content consistent among many presentations, I’m always excited to be introduced to a tool I’ve never used, a way of explaining a concept that students will understand, or a new nugget of information.  While I may not remember every detail of each training, an indicator of a good training is the one or two main takeaways that stick with me.

Last year, I listened to a speaker (whose name I cannot recall) and remembered her mentioning that education on diversity always comes at the expense of someone, and that it should be our goal to minimize that expense for those in marginalized groups.  At the end of the session, one of my peers asked whether this education could come about at no one’s expense, and the presenter responded with a firm “no.”  Though it was a bitter pill to swallow and difficult to process, the more I reflected, the more I realized it held true in my own experience as a gay man on the path to becoming an educator:

When I first moved into my college residence hall and was still in the closet, I watched the residents on my floor constantly insult my straight suitemate by calling him gay.  I didn’t say anything.

When I came out to a religious friend in a study group, she told me I didn’t have to live that way and said she’d pray for me.  We never discussed that interaction again.

When I came out publicly on Facebook, some people I called friends just seemed to fade away.  I let them.

During my first round of training as an RA, the prompt I was assigned in a role play scenario said that I had recently broken up with my significant other.  I specified boyfriend, but I awkwardly corrected my partner who kept saying girlfriend instead.

When a resident found out I was gay, it became a game of twenty questions.  Some of the questions assumed I was an expert on all things LGBTQ+, and others were very personal.

Through the a wall, I overheard one of my residents say his RA was a faggot.  I never addressed that.

When I off-handedly came out to another resident after he had said something to the effect of “no homo,” he became wide-eyed and backed away.  The follow-up was only slightly productive.

That was all during my first two years of college, and though I was wildly unprepared to educate others, I became a part of that process simply by being gay.  However, as time went on, things changed.  The microaggressions and slurs didn’t stop and if anything, I was asked more questions, but I learned more, discovered some language to use, developed more confidence in my queer identity, and got a lot more “practice.”  At 18 or 19, I was not ready to have those conversations, so I ignored opportunities to have them or gave them a go, unprepared as I was. However, at 23, as difficult as those conversations still can be, I’d rather engage in them than allow that education to happen at the expense of someone who is not ready.

That said, I think it naïve in concept and unhelpful in practice to think that we could prevent all marginalized learners from having experiences where they must educate others about their identities.  Students have experiences away from formal learning environments where these issues are bound to arise, and rising to meet the challenge of educating others is a developmental opportunity I would not want to remove entirely.  However, I think we can be allies by creating a brave space to contribute to a learning environment that is suitable for all and modeling interaction in that brave space.

Before one can create a brave space or model bravery, knowledge of different forms of power and privilege is required.  In order to educate about groups different than one’s self, one must have knowledge of those groups, and that learning is an intentional process.  By simply being gay, I learned about issues that affect gay people.  However, I realized that I didn’t know what it was like to be a woman, be transgender, live as a racial or ethnic minority, have low socioeconomic status, or live with a disability.  To learn about those experiences was important, but it was also vital to consider how to do this learning with minimal expense to those who are vulnerable.  I found that a combination of internet research and dialogue with advocates has been helpful.  Without this knowledge, one cannot engage in an informed conversation.

Using that knowledge, one can then challenge non-inclusive practices and model dialogue in a brave space.  Even in discussion of topics unrelated to inclusivity, it seems important to have these conversations as they naturally arise.  Whether these conversations are planned (or at least easily anticipated) in a history, literature, or political science course, or unexpected when a controversial comment is made in a math class, it is important to use these opportunities to model respect, challenging ideas without attacking others, agreeing to disagree, and not taking things personally (concepts from the work on brave spaces of Arao and Clemens).  In the moment, this might be standing up for the marginalized groups who otherwise might not have a voice, but it also models these skills for students so that they may feel more prepared to engage in dialogue outside of the classroom.

Lastly, I think it’s key to never let expertise of inclusive practices hinder us from interacting with learners as humans.  A mentor of mine once said that it was strange for her to learn and grow while her students were perpetually 18 or 19.  I find this important to remember when working with difficult topics around inclusivity.  While I’ve learned and grown, able to throw around words like “microaggression” and “intersectionality” and willing to show more vulnerability with greater confidence in my own identities, I still work with young people who do not have those experiences for the most part.  Whether students are part of the majority group – totally new to the nuances of diversity and inclusion – or part of the minoritized group and requiring support when faced with structures of power and privilege, they all are facing a difficult issue.  A true willingness to engage in dialogue and learn with and from these people will go farther than a formulaic approach to inclusion.  The process is undoubtedly difficult, but intentionality on our part can make the process easier for those who are most vulnerable.

Week 7: “Always the tone of surprise.”

“The privilege of being able to go to a library and find a book that has a character on the cover that looks like you. A book that has a story that is about you or as simple as watching a commercial and finding a product to shampoo your hair. To learn about that from watching TV, which is not an experience that I have. I have to take other measures to find out about different products for my hair, as a black woman. I don’t have the privilege of just watching network TV and just seeing a commercial that is talking about people like me, who have hair like me.”

–Sonja Cherry-Paul: Dismantling Racism in Education

I’ve had a lot to think about lately, but I’ll focus on this week’s topic. The readings have been primarily about where diversity fits in higher education and how to navigate the inevitable minefield that is created when a diverse group of people come together to figure out what it means for them and their institution. However, my intuitive response to the readings and the word “diversity” is a visceral, gut-wrenching realization–a reminder, really–of my difference, my Otherness. Being a young woman of color in higher education is both an incredible opportunity to affect change from within and a daily dose of prejudice from all sides: because I am young, female, and nonwhite, I contend with three different forms of bias at a minimum. Because of my background, I had to grow up quickly to grasp the implications of my embodied experience (e.g., a nonwhite, female body moving through primarily white, male spaces) and every possible snap judgement that could be made about me as a result. For as long as I have been able to read the news, I have understood that being who I am actively works against my safety, my bodily autonomy, my freedom, and my peace of mind, all of which are basic human rights, rights that are not guaranteed to me.

But that’s what happens when bias is at its worst. In my everyday life, bias is more subtle than potentially fatal police encounters and gender-based violence. Whenever I think of how stereotypes have affected me in my daily life, I can’t help but remember the first installment of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, in which Hermione is shocked–SHOCKED!–that Ron is capable of stepping up to the plate to do something brilliant like save the life of Nymphadora Tonks (one of the best characters in the entire series, if I say so myself). It happens less often now that I’m older and have the look of someone who spends more time in the library than anywhere else, but it still happens: I’m in a place that People Like Me™ don’t stereotypically go or I’m dong something that “we don’t do” or that’s “for [insert literally any other demographic here] people” (and I’m usually the Only One there anyway, which always raises a few eyebrows), and someone feels the need to comment on it.

Having read the articles on Difficult Discussions and what to do if a subject gets “too hot” for one or more parties in the class, I have real concerns about what could happen in such a scenario, precisely because of my background and the potential for things to become…hairy. I have real concerns about how to navigate a tricky subject that may be “too hot” for me. I have real concerns full stop.

To look at these conversations as hard conversations is one thing, but to look at these conversations that are going to solidify friendships, to look at these conversations that are going to strengthen professional bonds, to look at these conversations and say these are conversations that are going to sharpen my abilities to teach kids, I think that’s the win.

–Cornelius Minor: Dismantling Racism in Education

chronically ch(ill) – diversity as a spoonie

FUN FACT: you cannot be inclusive if you’re ignoring the invisible

I think about inclusivity often, but maybe not in the way that people would assume. Visually, I appear to be a completely healthy, happy, active person with a lot of privileges, but I have a secret struggle that I will touch on in a bit- I’m a spoonie. Haven’t heard of it? Don’t worry, we’ll get to that- but first, let’s cover the basics of the inclusivity discussion.

Diversity and Inclusion is important to me for many reasons- as an empath, I tend to feel what others are feeling, so a passion for social justice was inevitable. As a woman, I am passionate about advocating for my rights and equality in the workplace. As an individual in an interracial relationship, I have had conversations about how my children will have a different life growing up than I did, simply because of the fact that they will be biracial.  As future professors, we need to address topics related to diversity head on with compassion and the ability to step back and listen to those with different experiences. How do we address white privilege? How can we be inclusive to nontraditional students? How can we better include international students? Students from different socioeconomic backgrounds? Students who are non-binary? We have spoken before about intersectionality before, but while race, gender, and sexuality seem to be at the forefront of this discussion, I think inclusivity ranges far beyond these topics.

Let me ask you a question:
How often do you think about being able bodied?

“The Spoon Theory” was created by a woman named Christine Miserandino in an attempt to help explain to an able-bodied person what it’s like to live with a chronic illness. Imagine that every day, you wake up with an unlimited amount of spoons. Throughout the day, you use these spoonfuls of energy to do various tasks, and the next day you wake up with the same unlimited amount. People with chronic illness have a limited number of spoons, so they have to decide how they will spend those spoons every day, and what goes on the cutting board. Here is a little graphic to help explain to my visual learners!

I am an individual with an invisible chronic illness. I have a form of dysautonomia, an autonomic nervous system disorder that causes my heart rate to skyrocket and my blood pressure to plummet in response to triggers. These triggers range from severe pain, to stress, to simply standing up too fast- my heart starts pounding and my face turns white and WOOPS I am unconscious on the floor, sometimes with some very unattractive muscle contractions. I deal with severe migraines, chronic fatigue, disordered sleep, joint pain, gastrointestinal problems, brain fog, anxiety, and temporomandibular joint dysfunction all on a daily basis.  Basically, the more stressed I get, the sicker I become, and nobody can tell.My cabinet at home looks like a pharmacy. Living with an invisible illness brings with it its own set of issues (if you’re interested, NPR did a great write up about this).

In the classroom, I have to navigate lectures while dealing with fatigue and having to elevate my legs to keep conscious. If you just looked at me, you’d never know that I am not completely able bodied, which has led to professors thinking I’m just lazy or being difficult. Dysautonomia International even has a guide on classroom accommodations for individuals with this disorder. However, when I’ve told professors in the past, I am often met with skepticism, concern, and even exasperation. This past week, in fact, I had a professor tell me that having me in class on a really bad pain day is distracting, because “sometimes you put your head down on the desk because of the pain”. Also, sometimes chronic illness can ebb and flow, with some weeks much better than others. Then, you deal with the “so you’re all better now?” comments. Accommodating me, it seems, is more of a headache than the chronic migraines that keep me in bed for two days with a bad of frozen veggies on my head!

my constant dilemma

In considering inclusive pedagogy, I think we need to start inviting individuals with chronic illness and invisible illness into the conversation. Being inclusive means being accommodating, and understanding, and not dismissive toward people who are facing a private struggle. Just because you can’t see the pain and discomfort I am in, does not mean that it’s not there and making my educational journey more difficult. Let’s start having these uncomfortable conversations about racism, sexism, and ablism. It is only through open, honest communication that we can learn from one another and develop a more intersectional, diverse classroom where everyone has the same access.

Ok, so what is the RIGHT way to teach?

When reading Deel’s Finding My Teaching Voice, I found myself thinking a lot about what kind of teacher I wanted to be and how I wanted my students to view me. I’ve always struggled to think about how I would want to portray myself in the classroom. On the one hand, I want to be approachable and for my students to feel comfortable reaching out and interacting with me especially if the material is not clear to them and they need help. On the other hand, I worry about being too approachable and losing my sense of authority. At the same time, I have heard of some students having explicit or implicit biases and expecting more lenient or nurturing treatment from female professors. I’ve also heard about biases toward and disconnect from professors of color. Being at the intersection of these two identities, I have always been concerned about how to present myself as a professor with authority that teaches effectively to all students while being approachable and ideally well liked…..that’s all.

3 things in particular stuck out to me in Sarah Deel’s writing:

  1. It may create better buy-in from my students if I keep them in the loop about what pedagogical strategies I am trying to utilize. I guess I have always thought that professors crafted these strategies behind the scenes, apply them, and then cross their fingers. But it makes perfect sense to me now to share that information with my students. At least if they feel like something is foolish and they don’t see the point if I explain the potential value to them and WHY I want them to do it (or that it could help their fellow classmates) they may engage more. I also just think transparency is key, so that really hit home for me.
  2. There is no “right” way to teach; it may be more about how you use different strategies than which strategies you use. This thought has always been in the back of my mind, but it is reassuring to see it stated explicitly. Just because one particular teacher is extremely effective doesn’t mean if I use the same teaching strategy as they do I will magically be just as effective. It is okay for me to use another strategy that pairs better with my own personality and even what course I am teaching.
  3. When it comes to fairness, equality is not the same as equity. I have been discussing these terms of “equality” and “equity” with several colleagues recently, but I had never thought about the difference between these two in the context of teaching. If I want to ensure equality, I would treat all of my students identically, make sure I said the same thing to all of them, and expect equivalently excellent results from everyone. I don’t think that model works, as Deel alludes. Not all students need the same set of information or real-world context, nor do all students share the same or even overlapping learning styles. So if I want all of my students to excel to the same degree, I need a more individualistic approach that ideally addresses the specific needs of each student. That is where equitable learning comes in.

I look forward to crafting my teaching philosophy and my teaching persona based on these points and many more. It won’t be easy, but it does make me feel a little better that there is no “right” way to teach.

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