Including the Human Aspect in Animal Sciences

Very often within class in Animal and Dairy Science, we place the animals we study in a hypothetical utopia of sorts. It is just the animal and their surroundings. They have enough food to eat, the climate is ideal, and the only illnesses are those clearly defined or those with the perfect example symptoms. Obviously this is not the case. The temperature fluctuates throughout the year. Some crops are better than others in for the use in feed. And not every sickness is as easy to diagnose as the textbooks let on. But one aspect that I feel is not touched upon in most classes is the human one, or rather the role of the actual farmers. Because the animals are the focus on the industry/business of animal agriculture, we tend to forget about the owners, managers, and staff that work day in and day out on these farms. They only have but so many hours in the day, and more importantly, so much money to spend on their animals.

The class I teach is a senior level course that focuses on visiting real commercial dairy farms, evaluating their current processes, and providing a thorough recommendation on how they can improve their farm. It extremely easy to just go in, provide the staff with recommendations, and leave thinking “Yeah we did a good job. That farm will be fine.” As one of the only classes that uses a real dairy farm in its lessons, I have to make sure that the students consider the human limitations to each aspect of the farm as well as the emotional impact the operation may have on them. Most of the families of owners of these dairies have been running the farm for decades, passing on the operation with each new generation. Sometimes the “easiest” answer might be to say close the farm, sell the cows, start a different business, but obviously that is not taking the livelihood of the farmers and staff into consideration.

It can get a little frustrating as an instructor, as this is the first time the students usually have to deal with messy/incomplete records or have to handle a case study that has a lot of limitations. When I was reading “How is Innovation Taught?” by Dan Edelstein, the discussion of innovative thinking in the humanities compared to STEM really stuck me as something to consider when developing my own courses. He says “that [humanities] students are required to practice innovative thinking earlier on in their studies” than those in STEM. At least in animal sciences, we only implement this sort of thinking either during graduate studies or maybe in senior level course. Maybe I should be teaching my courses in a similar manner? Or encourage those who teach the introductory courses to implement something similar, rewarding the students who have innovative or creative solutions to an unconventional problem? As I move closer to a faculty position, I’ll have to keep this in mind when developing my own curriculum. This could encourage more individuals to pursue a career related to research or at least help those who want to go into industry/be consultants develop creative solutions to on farm problems. It also could instill the practice fo critical pedagogy further, getting students to question the currently industry solutions and innovating those to adapt with the changing attitudes towards agriculture.

I also might advocate for developing a course related to humans in agriculture. We already have ethics and welfare courses, but again these focus on decisions about the animal. The hypothetical course could focus on the human side of animal science. What sort of emotional tolls are placed on those running agriculture businesses? What combination of factors lead to fatigue/exhaustion in running a dairy? What sort of recommendations/advice do real farm owners and managers want to hear and how should it be phrased? Overall, it may focus on taking the current “clean cut” cases from textbooks and examining how that would impact the farmer. I don’t know how popular the class would be, but it could be a new opportunity to implement the human side into animal sciences.

Let me know what you think. Would that course be helpful? Are there areas in agriculture where the inclusion of humanities could benefit the students? Could the inclusion of agriculture benefit the humanities students? i look forward to hearing from you. Thank you!

Being “impartial” and how it has the opposite effect

This week’s readings and podcasts kept reminding me of that phrase you might hear someone say “I don’t see race; I treat everyone the same.” The idea of being impartial when applied to teaching students does seem great. All students are taught the same, they learn the same, and they are all given the same opportunity to achieve. Unfortunately, this is only an ideal case. Going back to Dr. Brandy Faulkner’s discussion of the null curriculum, by treating all students the same and ignoring their social identities (race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. and their intersections), we ignore what make each student unique, ignore the experiences the students have, and ignore how these experiences affect the way the students learn. In STEM fields, this mode of thought seems especially prevalent, as the material is viewed as being right or wrong with little grey area. Therefore, it is viewed as an area of education that can be taught the same regardless of the student’s identity, when that is not the case.

One concept I try to keep in mind for my teaching philosophy is that every student has their own “funds of knowledge,” or experiences, abilities, and past learned information that a student draws from in order to dissect, comprehend, and learn new material. I have typically seen this term applied towards English-language-learner students (I think I first read it in Vélez-Ibáñez and Greenberg, 1993), but I think it can be applied to any social identity or experience a student has. In terms of applying it towards teaching, it boils down to trying to get to know your students and what experiences they have had. This can be tricky, as not every identity is extremely salient/visible, you don’t want to just outright ask what struggles a student has had, and as mentioned int he Heinemann podcast, it shouldn’t be the responsibility of those of a marginalized identity to educate the masses. But I’ve found simple conversations with students before classes start or when they come to office hours can provide at least some insight. If one student talks about how they have been traveling home to work at the farm all the time, I can work a similar example into the labor management module of the class. Or if there are non-binary students in the class, including characters with gender neutral names and pronouns in case studies might provide some more engagement.

By being impartial and ignoring what funds of knowledge our students have, we will not be engaging them as well as we could and they won’t be learning as well as they could be. One concept that I’ve found appealing is the exact opposite: Multi-partiality. Instead of treating all of the students the same, an educator is partial to the multiple differences in their student population. In doing so, they can create more engagement in the classroom and build a stronger bond between the teacher and students. In larger classrooms, this can be very difficult, as we aren’t going to know everything about every student in a 400 person lecture. But small things that aren’t as specific but demonstrate you are inclusive of the diversity in the student community can go a long way. This could be including your pronouns on the syllabus, using examples from history that aren’t just white men, or providing time and resources to students in class to work on assignments to reduce socio-economic biases that are prevalent in the collegiate community. It’s probably unlikely we’ll be able to include every identity of every student and their intersection, but the effort to be inclusive will go farther than the effort of trying to be impartial.

Dairy Science isn’t “black and white.” It’s mostly white.

If you can’t tell by my little picture/icon, I am a white, cis-gendered male.

And so is most of the dairy science department. From the faculty, to the graduate students, to the undergraduates, we are predominantly a white, cis-gendered, heterosexual department. Somewhat ironically, we are as homogenous and white as the milk we study.

I have noticed this for the past couple years I have been at Virginia Tech. It has caused me to be hyperaware of the student composition of the classroom, but I don’t know if I have done my part to improve the situation. It’s one thing to notice that my class is almost all white; it’s another to do something like bring the student’s attention to it. I am just typically unsure of how to address the lack of diversity or how to let others know I want to provide the space for anyone to study dairy science or agriculture

This is part of the reason that I really appreciated Dr. Brandy Faulkner’s visit to the Contemporary Pedagogy classroom this past week. She came and discussed the null curriculum, focusing on what is not addressed in a classroom and how the lack of discussion about the topic affects the students, primarily based around students of color who’s classes were not addressing the police brutality and increased visibility of violence against people of color. She also discussed a program she has developed to provide that space for students to dissect and dialogue about this topic. As one student pointed out, a lot of the undergraduate and graduate students who attend these dialogues are not from the traditional STEM based departments.

This got me to start thinking about me department and my classroom more. You could say that students of color just tend to not want to pursue a career in dairy or animal science, instead just preferring other careers. But having spoken with the few students of color in the department about this, they have made it clear their needs are not being met and that they don’t really feel comfortable in the department all the time. While they had mentioned it was mostly due to the other undergraduate students in the department and how they behaved, that does not mean the faculty and staff don’t have a responsibility, especially now that I know what sorts of behavior occurs outside of the classroom. I feel that as educators in dairy science, agriculture, and other STEM fields, we play an important part in creating an atmosphere where intolerance is not tolerated and inclusivity is put at the forefront.

I’ve heard people say “It’s math and science. It doesn’t see race, gender, sex, or other social identities. It’s the same to everyone.” Clearly this is not true. These marginalized students have different experiences that they draw from than the white, cis, hetero, male students. Therefore, us educators need to be keenly aware of the differences in these students and be partial to all of them. And if we can’t address all of the experiences in the classroom, we need to provide spaces, such as Dr. Faulkner’s, outside of the classroom for the students to discuss these matters. I’m aware I should not be trying to speak on behalf of these student’s of color. I do not share their experiences and therefore cannot speak on anyone’s behalf. But, I can say I’ve seen what providing spaces for marginalized students can do, and I will continue to try to improve my classrooms and the others within my department.

I’m sure I have made some mistakes or errors in how I am addressing this topic, and I would appreciate any corrections or comments on the matter. Thank you!

Mindfulness Incorporated with Teaching Agriculture

Reading Ellen Langer’s article on Mindful Learning, I kept revisiting how I have taught in the past. More specifically, was I teaching the students to learn mindfully, and if not, how could I improve this. According to Langer, mindfulness is “a flexible state of mind in which we are actively engaged in the present, noticing new things and sensitive to context.” And when it comes to Agriculture, and Dairy farms in particular, context is everything.

I teach a senior-level course at Virginia Tech that focuses on learning how to examine and evaluate dairy farms based on the way they operate. One important aspect that I try to stress with the students is that no two farms are exactly the same. The goals of each farmer may be different. The layout of their farms will differ. The type and number of cows they have on the farm with vary. And the work style of the farmer and their staff will most certainly vary. All of this needs to be taken into consideration when examining an individual dairy farm. However, when beginning to teach student’s these concepts, I start by removing as much of the variables as possible and have them focus on changes in specific areas of the farm (i. e. nutrition, housing, milking, health, etc.). Then as the semester continues, I’ll add a new portion of the farm to examine until they are taking the whole farm into context. This seems to be beneficial, as by the end of the course, the students are typically able to successfully provide recommendations to an actual farm.

However, looking at how I have taught the course, I still think I could help the students learn even more and become even better by intentionally getting the students to mindfully learn. As I question and assess my students, I have noticed they compartmentalize the sections of the farm, thinking about them individually, when in real life there is overlap between a lot of sections of the farm. They are focusing on some context of the situation, but not the whole context. I’m wondering if this is a result of my teaching, and therefore learning, mindlessly, expecting the students to make some of the ties between sections of the farm. It also could be a result of how we typically teach agriculture majors about their specific systems. For animal science, typically, we teach courses that are specific to one section of the farm. An entire class on lactation, then one on nutrition, then one on reproduction, all focusing on that one topic and nothing outside of it. The same seems to be true about other agriculture system. If there was a push to have the students think a little about the context of the entire farm in these topic specific courses, they might start to become more mindful learners and probably better critical thinkers as well. The same could maybe be said about other non-agriculture, but very applied majors, such as engineering or even those on education. However, I am starting to get outside of my sphere of knowledge.

This next semester I teach, I am going to try to teach more mindfully by getting the students to challenge the context a little more. Maybe after we run through a scenario, I could have them come up with a list of what other factors will be affected if one change is made. Or maybe we go over the scenario as if it was a typical United States dairy farm, but them put it in the context of a New Zealand farm that is more seasonal. Let me know what your thought are about mindful teaching in the context of your area of teaching. Is it anywhere similar, or does your department seem to have a better grasp on mindful learning? Thank you!

Embracing the Web in the University Classroom

Last week, in the Contemporary Pedagogy course, part of the dialogue that we participated in focused on the use of information collected by sites such as Canvas to catch cheaters performing an online or take home quiz. While one individual agreed that the data collected could be useful for performing tasks such as catching those breaking the honor code, I feel that this is placing too much of the responsibility and burden on the students to learn/behave in the expected system. As educators, we need to take some effort to ensure that the assignments given aren’t as heavily reliant on the honor system. The internet and online learning is a great tool for engaged learning, but us educators can take steps necessary to improve our methods of teaching. I think that because the internet has an inherent vastness, it can be daunting and worrisome for some to have assignments online. Students may be prone to cheat by working on these tasks together when it goes against the honor code, or they may use “forbidden” sources on the web to find answers. However, this is assuming our “classical” method of education must remain in tact. “Quizzes are to be done individually.” “Students can only use the sources provided.” “The gold standard for assessments only includes quizzes, tests, and essays.” This is NOT TRUE. Instead, we should be embracing these aspects and tailoring our assessments to include these aspects of the internet. The internet can serve as a place for networked learning to occur rather than just a place for sources to be found and assignments to the be submitted. Collaboration between students can be an amazing tool to both engage them and have them critically think about their assignments. The inclusion of social media, blogs, and discussion boards in assignments would foster this collaboration between students without making them feel that they have to be secretive about helping each other. If an online quiz has to be administered, expect that students may collaborate and include questions that are more opinion based/critical thinking driven. Maybe have a class blog where students post about questions they have from that week that also requires them to respond in a valuable fashion. By embracing the internet and its expansive nature when designing assessments, we can prevent the issues of students cheating and instead provide them the space to collaborate and support each other.