Blog#5 Don’t let (little) people sit in sh!t

The reading this week definitely gave pause for reflection.  Parker Palmer said, “We are not fully human until we recognize what we know and take responsibility for it.”  Turning our head or doing things just because it’s part of the job or not part of our job are not acceptable excuses for not taking a human stand when necessary.  Palmer also said we are “in but not of” the institutions.  Dan Edelstein wrote about a liberal education that promotes “independently minded individuals” and Dr. Sonia Henry wrote about medical students losing their empathy. The writings reminded me to do the right thing, the human thing, and what I would want someone to do for me or my children.  I could share and say academic things that relate to this, but instead I’ll share a story about basic human needs. 

If you have a weak stomach or you are eating, don’t read the rest of this blog.  Not too long ago, I walked into the office to the most putrid smell I have ever smelled. It filled the entire office to the point where I thought I would vomit.  When I asked my secretary what happened, she motioned to a little boy and said mom was on her way (she lives about 5 minutes from the school).  The kindergarten boy had an explosion…the kind where there was brown up and down the back, coming out the socks and shoes, and everywhere in between. The mother had given the child a laxative and it hit him while he was on the bus riding to school.  We always have spare clothes for kids who have accidents and the staff is happy to help out, but this was going to require a shower.  When nobody showed up, I looked at my Assistant Principal and said get a bag and off we went to the nurse’s office loaded with wipes, clean clothes, and a little boy who needed somebody to the right thing. I told him I had a little boy once and that it was ok to have an accident.  I cleaned him up from chest to toe and handed the soiled wipes to my AP while she held the bag.  I told her that sometimes you have to override the decisions of others and do what is right for the child.  Some people were willing to let that little one sit there until mom arrived (which didn’t happen until 40 minutes later).  When I brought him back to my office all cleaned up, I asked him if he felt better.  He didn’t say a word, he just walked over and gave me a big hug.  As the principal of an elementary school, I can definitely say my most important job that day was to do the human thing and clean some poop.  I told my AP that the lesson of the day was, we don’t let kids sit in sh!t.

Connecting The Dots – Reflection


I have served as a teaching assistant and instructor in my time for several courses at the Virginia Tech.   The Contemporary pedagogy class has helped me to reflect on my teaching method, style, and strategies. But it has also made me think and rethink whether I want to continue teaching in my time in the United States. This brought me to crucial question what purpose do I seek from teaching and what should be my politics?

During my time at Virginia Tech, I heard several stories by Ph.D. graduate students of the experience of teaching undergraduate classes. The teaching experiences of my colleagues differed based on discipline, gender, nationality, race, etc. My best friend, who I spent almost every single day of my academic life working on several projects together, also taught classes in the political science department. He comes across as a white male with a mid-west English accent. His experience of teaching hugely varied from mine. He often got outstanding SPOT scores, good comments; students sent him to thank you messages, etc. My experience was the opposite. Being a woman of color, speaking English in desi accent, acceptance by the student remained a significant difficulty. I always had to try harder from him, and I had a lot to more to emotionally process. The rolling eyes of the students, rude emails, and not following instructions properly are a few things to mention. I vividly remember when one of my students used a racial slur to address me in front of my class.  I also want to acknowledge, I have got good responses and acknowledgments of my work in the class from students of color, international student, and students coming from the immigrant families.

I kept saying to myself, “It’s not me; it’s them.” But then I always questioned myself why to get into this emotional ordeal every year. What purpose do I achieve? As an advocate for subaltern rights, I have been a firm believer of the fact that education is the most empowering tool for the marginalized population. It gives the ability to recognize oppression and the ability to act over it. But as a social movement theorist, one of my key learnings have been to be strategic. ‘Being Strategic’ means when and how to act in a manner that you can be most effective in achieving the intended goals.

My best friend graduated this semester, and we talked over our aspirations for the future. He wants to focus on teaching. He enjoys teaching and feels that he can be an effective teacher. In my case, if given a choice I would not like to teach again in a predominantly white school. (But if I have to, I  teach, to sustain myself). Students in these schools have a sense of entitlement and instructors like me struggle to be more effective. I think if I have limited time in the United States I want to focus on research then teaching.



I wonder…

In the readings critical, complex and open pedagogical frameworks the classroom or a course were the analytic levels.  As has been mentioned throughout people’s discussions of the semester, that there are some difficulties in applying this to certain courses.  This, for me, has raised an internal question of what if we do this on the major/department level, and create a critical pedagogical arc? 

For faculty, there an be a challenge in operating within a system or structure that doesn’t support or advance these methods.  Some of the push back from the university, department and even students can temper adoption.  For students, I wonder how having the freedom to learn in one course, and then pushed back into the traditional format impacts motivation and drive in the long-term.

I wonder how student learning will be changed, particularly in STEM, if departments adopt an explicit critical pedagogy arc over the course of a program.  While foundational courses adopt critical pedagogical techniques to the degree to which they can, feasibly, sequential, high-level courses integrate techniques to an even greater degree of experiential learning, student-centered learning, collaborative course creation, etc. I wonder what would happen to knowledge if students could annotate readings and documents each semester to be used by those in the coming semester, or for themselves in later courses. 

I wonder what would happen if students and professors created a shared portfolio that traveled from course to course throughout the major/program, sans grades. I wonder if this would allow projects and interest areas to extend beyond one semester or develop in lower-level courses.  This portfolio could be used to guide project selection in future courses, and student skill development started in one course could continue in other courses (this would not include FERPA related information, but a co-created evaluation of the experience and items for other professors to continue). 

I wonder if this would create personalized knowledge/degrees, even within the “traditional” degree structures.  I wonder if this would change the notion of ownership that students have over their education from passively “receiving/getting an education” to something more powerful.  We discuss the freedoms that students take in this context, without fear of failure – I wonder if faculty, with support from the department, chairs and deans, would also take more risks.  I wonder if there would be more collaboration between faculty with regard to structuring syllabus, projects, and knowledge development if classes were seen not as stand alone check boxes or requirements, but one part of an integrated whole development process, centered on the student.

Hippy Underwear

Just kidding. Hippies don’t wear underwear. But their lawyers do.

The author returning home after three months in rural Texas. Mind the fuzz. It was a celebration. (2007)

Despite the title, the joke, and the image, it needs to be said: The battle of legalization isn’t being won by hippies. It’s being won by lawyers. Now, I am not going to dive into a political debate – that’s not what this is. But, I do want to give some examples of how people are making real changes from within a given system, like challenging the drug laws or raising money for charity. Even a father’s words might be useful for altering the status quo of our education system from within. We need to be critical.

I realize I’m painting with a broad brush, but bear with me. With the exception of medical marijuana in select states, decades of discourse have resulted in bupkis. That is, until Colorado finally called it up for a vote. Yes, the people spoke! but it wasn’t through peaceful protests and smoke-ins and parades. Those things also happened but it wasn’t until the work of lawyers who wrote bills and made cases in courts that legalization became a reality. And they did it with suits and ties on, no less! They made huge changes from within the given system by knowing the rules and playing them so damned well they couldn’t be beaten.

Yes, popular opinion mattered. Yes, action was needed. But the law of the land would not bend until the people of the law stepped up to the bar. Now, those people might have had tie-dye underwear on beneath their suits, but the change came from within the system of government. If you’re into legalization, thank a lawyer, not a hippy.

Ideas of internal changes have been around me for a long time, but they really began to form a dozen years ago when I regularly performed as a singer-songwriter in Floyd, Virginia, and some small town festivals. Crowd pleasers like Van Morrison and Sublime would be interspersed with powerful songs about politics and war from Darrell Scott and Scott Miller, and then I’d move back to the Stones and bluegrass. Back and forth. Sugar and Salt. It’s a very subversive way to play to the crowd, but it was still me. I could maintain my audience while also only playing songs I liked or wrote.

The author playing Front Porch Fest 2011. Courtesy of Fallon Kreye Photography.

Around 2007, I was asked to play a charity event for the Blue Mountain School, an alternative system. They’ve always sought to bring the community together, but times were hard. When I arrived at the venue, several barefooted unwashed dreadlocked people were dancing outside the door wearing facepaint and glitter, beating djembe’s and tambourines, playing wood flutes – you know, young dirty white hippy shit (broad strokes here, people). They were asking the Friday Night Jamboree crowd for money and donations – the old traditional crowd of farmers, hillbillies and country folk typical of rural Floyd – the old system. I knew this wasn’t going to be productive.

I watched as old-timer after old-timer stared in disgust and walked quickly away, leaving the revelers empty-pocketed, frustrated, and dismayed. I played to a sparse crowd of mostly BMS parents. They might have broken even after paying for the venue, I don’t know. You see, the system they were soliciting was anything but open to them. Traditional country folk aren’t going to give money to just anybody, especially if you aren’t offering anything in return but your drum circle. I believe the attempt failed because they didn’t know how to play to the crowd. It’s hard to ask strangers for money when you’re too in their face. What’s that southern saying? You catch more flies with honey than vinegar.

Fast-forward to 2019. The BMS has since changed administration, and ultimately its operation, back into a thriving community-minded school again. They’ve disguised the charity event as a Mardi Gras Ball, and who doesn’t love Mardi Gras? It is a well-known and more socially acceptable way to draw outsiders in without sacrificing the wonderful weirdness by which you live. It’s a party even rednecks can get behind, and they do. It sells out every year. Bring your honey and your money.

The author might be the masked man in the background. His honey is definitely the giraffe. Happy Mardi Gras for Blue Mountain School!

Whether in print or in person, I’ve often spoken of my dad being a career Marine, but I didn’t mention he was also a hippie. After his enlistment, he went to college on the G.I. Bill. His hair ran to his ass, his beard was long; he wore bell-bottoms and spoon rings and rose-colored glasses. He met my mom at the Yellow Deli, and it was love at first sight. He went back into the Marine Corps, applied to law school, and became a JAG. Even though he was a part of the system, he did his damnedest to fight for the rights of others. He did pro bono work for veterans after retirement and has openly expressed dismay for the persecution of LGBTQ in the military. My dad fought for those who could not, and he impressed upon me to do the same. “Stick up for others, Ben Kirkland.” he always said. “Even if it means getting your ass whipped in the process.”

The author and the ol’ man in 2012

How can we apply this to our pedagogy? Can we change a system from within? I definitely believe we need to look at ourselves critically, both personally and professionally. Our GEDI training has certainly asked me to question my preconceptions of what teaching is and could be. It’s caused me to reflect on my biases and actions, and more often, lack of actions. I’ve definitely had my moments to stand up for the right thing, but I’ve also had moment where I haven’t been vocal. Maybe it’s time to get my ass whipped again.

And by that, I do not mean to go out into the fray blindly, but to continually arm myself and others with information. We must create an environment conducive for critical thoughts and for preparing others to do the same. I haven’t always had it easy, but I damned sure haven’t had it as rough as I’ve seen. I’m a very privileged individual who needs to step up to the bar more. I must be ready “to fight at their side”, as Paulo Freire stated.

And to fight the good fight, we need to make the changes from within, because we need more lawyers in tie-dye underwear.

(Lack of Understanding leads to Fear,) Fear leads to Anger, Anger leads to Hate…

Through our class readings (and listenings) this week I must say I really enjoyed some of the perspectives Mahzarin Banaji shared in ‘The Mind Is a Difference-Seeking Machine’. With most things, I often believe people’s thoughts/feelings/predispositions can be explained by better understanding either their experiences or how they look at and interact with the world around them. I think the same can be used, to some degree, to explain why people exhibit racist ideals or fail to practice inclusivity.

I kept finding myself thinking back to a cartoon I saw a few years ago made by Zen pencils illustrating a quote by Mark Twain, see below. Here an individual trades their idealized symbols of hate for momentos after traveling the world and expanding their narrow world-view through experiences and understanding. I think the last part is especially important, as understanding breaks barriers and builds bridges.

I believe Ms. Banaji agrees, as she commonly discusses how a lack of understanding leads to misconceptions and even hate. Taker her example from an Eastern European country where ‘a survey was done where they were given a nonsense name of a group and asked, “How much do you hate them? How much would you like them not to come to our country?” They got large numbers of people saying, “We don’t want them here, we really dislike them, they’re filthy and mean and nasty.” And they didn’t exist. That was a made-up name.’ A lack of understanding and familiarity allowed this made up group to become something to be feared and avoided, even though they didn’t exist.

I think it is human nature, some leftover survival mechanism, to be wary of the things we do not understand or are unfamiliar with. I also do not think it is inherently bad to be hesitant, as danger does exist. The same idea applies to why you don’t get in a car with a stranger, or why some people carry pepper spray with them – not everyone’s intentions are pure. I do not think anyone would disagree that terrorists (whether domestic or foreign) are bad people and are to be despised. The problem is when a minuscule fraction of a group is used to shape an opinion on the whole.

People like to put other people in groups, I think it’s just a rudimentary way of keeping track of things. People I like, people who root for x team, people who drive y make of car, people who like to hike, people who voted for z political party and so on and so on. I do not think the action is necessarily wrong or right, it just is. However, a problem arises when these groupings are used to shape ones larger world view and attach judgements to people who we ‘think’ fit into various categories.  Ms. Banaji pointed out an example of the power of these groupings in how you dissipate fear, stating “we discovered is that fear reduction is deeply based on who that other is. You will reduce your fear towards previously fear-producing others if they are members of your group. For whites, you lose fear to white faster than to black. To black Americans, you lose fear to black more quickly than you would to white.”

To me this circles back to understanding. We are more ready to accept and forgive (and to some extent re-categorize) what we understand than what we do not. Quite simply, most of us fear the unknown and to quote some wisdom from a well-known green master ….

Men are better at Science than women : a case of gender bias in Academia

Imagine a scenario of an aspiring woman Physicist,  attending a workshop on gender issues and underrepresentation of women in Physics and an invited speaker gives a talk on how women are worse at Physics than men and that Physics was invented and built by men. How would that woman and many others sitting in the audience feel? This is what happened last year in October when a prominent Italian scientist, Alessandro Strumia,gave a talk at one of the biggest Physics facility in the world, CERN,  claiming that women are underrepresented in Physics because they are “under-performing” to a group of women starting their careers in Physics. 

One of the major claims he made were that Physics is not sexist against women, but against men. He produced various half-baked studies claiming that women were hired and promoted in positions unfairly and that women scientists receive less citations for their publications as compared to male scientists which prove that males perform “higher quality research”. 

His talk was condemned widely worldwide and CERN issued a statement describing his talk “highly offensive” and that CERN stood for diversity. First thing that came to my mind was how he was allowed to give the talk at the first place. After reading more about it I realized that the organizing committee did not have access to his slides beforehand and his talk was supposed to be on gender bias in citations which was an important issue to be addressed.

He himself told in his talk that a woman with considerably lesser citations than him was given a position which he believed he deserved which makes me think that this talk was more a result of anger. Then the main basis of his talk was the number of citations. Citations are not a good measure of scientific performance as number of citations depend a lot on peer-review and there have been numerous studies suggesting that peer review process is biased against women . This blog in particular examines how his claims regarding citations were wrong.

There have been similar incidents in the past and there might be more in future but I think inclusive pedagogy is something that can play a big role in reducing these biases and addressing the underrepresentation of women in STEM. There needs to be an inclusive culture in classroom which can help women believe and trust that they are as good as everyone else and that Science is above all these biases. Everyone can do science and nobody should feel excluded by gender. To end this post on positive note, one of the most ironic things that happened in the same week as this CERN incident was that a woman scientist, Donna Strickland won the Nobel Prize in Physics for 2018. This shows that good work will continue to be recognized even if these biases exist.

Changing our Approaches to Diversity and Inclusion

This week’s readings brought me back to the 2016 presidential elections. I was genuinely surprised that someone could run for and win presidency with a platform that revolved around racial hate. It made me think about all of the racial equality themes that were stressed in grade school. I messaged a friend after the election and said “What happened? We live in a society where we all say “end racism!” (because no one would ever say “I support racism” besides hate groups). In grade school, we were taught about racial equality and to treat everyone with kindness. I’m surprised someone like him could be elected in the United States.”  Sure there are other reasons why he was elected but in my mind, I couldn’t fathom how someone could even run on a platform that stressed hate. It didn’t sit well with me. Is racial equality something that people just say but don’t take action because we know that racism is bad?

You really don’t know your biases unless someone points them out to you and I went through a similar struggle myself. This is something I haven’t really shared because it made me so uncomfortable and I didn’t come to terms with it until very recently. After I was accepted into Virginia Tech for undergrad, I looked into scholarships and decided to apply to a 4-year diversity and inclusivity fellowship because I thought, “Hey, I’m Asian, this is great for me. I know a thing or two about diversity.” So I wrote my essay and submitted the application. I was accepted into the program. But now when I think about my essay, I cringe. I basically wrote something like “Colorblindness doesn’t bother me because we should treat everyone equally.” I remember writing the word “colorblind.” I also had a couple of my teachers look over it and they all thought it was a great essay. No one called me out. As a minority, why did I write something like this? Growing up as an Asian-American in a community that was predominantly white and where Asians were the largest minority, I never really encountered racial inequality. This could be in part that Asians are seen as the “model minority” because we study hard and don’t get into trouble (which is not the case). College was about to change this for me.

As part of this fellowship, I had to attend a certain number of events that addressed diversity and inclusion each semester and blog about our experiences with diversity each month. The first year was easy for me. I had much to talk about the diversity on campus. I joined Asian-American student groups and I thought the amount of diversity on campus was amazing given that most of my high school friends were white. Then the second year set in and I really started to struggle. At the time, I felt like I attended the events but felt like I didn’t agree with everything that was being said. Basically, some of the sessions gave me the vibe that “All white people are bad because they did so many bad things to us (minorities) and we need to start doing something about it.” I didn’t agree with that. Not ALL white people are bad. Yes, bad things happened in the past but we need to move forward. I was hung up on “equality” and at the time, did not realize that “equity” is what we needed to achieve. Then, something happened in one of my friend groups.

My friend groups were very homogenous. In fact, the majority of my friends were Asian-American who grew up in similar situations as me and never personally encountered racial attacks or situations where they realize “wow someone is purposefully being racist to me.” We had a couple of white friends in our groups. On one occasion, one of my Asian-American friends attacked my White friend for appropriating Japanese culture. He lashed out at her while we were all at lunch one day and caused a scene in the middle of Hokie Grill. My friend started crying, I started crying, and some of our other friends straight up left because they were so uncomfortable but I stayed with my friend until my other friend was done ranting. It was extremely uncomfortable. My White friend wasn’t intentionally trying to appropriate Japanese culture. In fact, we were all in an organization called Japanese Culture Association because we all loved Japanese culture. What’s worse and something that my friends and I still don’t understand is that our friend who lashed out at her isn’t even Japanese. So then is it okay for another Asian-American, not of Japanese descent, to appropriate Japanese culture but not for a white person to? The logic didn’t make sense. My Asian-American friend was a “social justice warrior” and this was my, and most of my friends, first encounter with social justice. After this encounter, we all had a bad feeling of social justice. It didn’t seem inclusive of everyone, instead it seemed like a movement where only certain groups of people wanted power, but still didn’t stress equality for everyone, which didn’t sit well with us. We didn’t realize that what we witnessed was one extreme side of social justice.

That situation, coupled with attending seminars and workshops that I didn’t agree with, eventually stopped me from writing my monthly blogs and attending events. I didn’t feel comfortable about sharing my thoughts and feelings on my blog or with the program coordinators because I didn’t agree with how people were approaching these issues. I knew that there was still racism in America and something had to be done but these approaches were just too extreme. Since I stopped everything, I was dropped from the fellowship program during my junior year. Could I have reached out to someone about my thoughts and what I was going through? Sure. I just didn’t because I was so uncomfortable.

What my friends and I needed were time and understanding. A couple of years later, we all started to realize, one way or another, that racism does happen to Asian-Americans in America. We all just needed to have those personal experiences, whether it be micro-aggressions or blatant racist actions. We needed someone to educate us in a way that wasn’t so radical and we needed open discussions about inclusivity and racism. Perhaps approaches to these issues need to be tailored so they can be relevant to different groups of people. Obviously, my experiences gave me a bad taste about social justice. I felt like my narrative can be best described by the typical “Stages of Grief.” Not like I was actually grieving about anything, it just took me a long time to realize why I was approaching diversity and inclusivity incorrectly and how to have appropriate conversations around racism.

Kubler-Ross – Five Stages of Grief

Many parts of my narrative bring me to this week’s readings. I knew that people create social groups that are homogenous (as mentioned by Steele in Whistling Vivaldi). My friends and I are no exception. We felt like we could relate to each other with our experiences, which is why we are friends. Another point is that the way that racism, inclusivity, and diversity is taught in schools, both k-12 and college, is not effective. We all need to work together to make these topics into something that is more digestible. Like mentioned in the “How Diversity Makes Us Smarter” article, the discourse around diversity and inclusivity is particularly negative. It shouldn’t feel like a burden to have these discussions but we have to keep in mind that these conversations have to be inclusive (of course) and we have to allow everyone to speak their mind. In addition, I think that discussions about diversity and inclusion can be applied to any topic. As a student conducting social science research in the health field, these discussions are especially pertinent in the classes that I take. What are other ways we can incorporate discussions around diversity and inclusion into our classrooms?

A couple years ago, I stumbled across an article that I thought was relevant to today’s reading. It’s a quick read and I encourage you to check it out. It’s titled “Doing science while black” by Dr. Ed Smith, who is a professor at Virginia Tech.

Let’s talk grades, young man.

I haven’t seen my nephew since Christmas, so I took him out for some errands this weekend, thereby giving us some needed catch-up time and his parents some needed alone time. For reference, G (as my nephew will be called) is my sister’s only child. He’s 14, and he’s going through the awkward stages of puberty. This means he towers over his mom now, walks with a little uncertainty, and his voice is hovering two octaves below his uncle Ben’s. Where’s the time gone, man?

For a little more about G, he is autistic; he often addresses his elder family members by their first names (his mom is ‘Gina’); he often stammers through his thoughts in a halting, stream-of-conscious way. For example, when asked if he thought homeschooling was a good idea, his response was this:

G: Kinda. I think it is… well, A) they don’t have to be… eh.. and I mean.. eh.. I’m not sure, I guess, I’m going to totally,.. I do… Yeah, I really do not think… eh, I will… [sigh]

B: Take your time.

For this reason, I will simplify the conversation we had for expediency, as I would like to share his thoughts on our education system with you, dear reader. At times he is contradictory. At others, quite pensive. He gives no full answers, but he’s brutally honest in his attempts. I tried to keep my inputs to a minimum, and I prodded mostly to keep him on topic. I have left some tangents along for context and flavor. [some of my inner thoughts are available, too].

Here’s how it went down: Driving down 460, I asked him “How’s school going, G?,” and he promptly dove into a dialog about the current conditions of learning in the school system, beginning with [wait for it] assessments – our current class topic! I realized how interesting this might be for some, so I asked if I could record. He agreed but continued talking before I could fully capture his next sentence. It began along these lines: “Grades are killing learning, Uncle Ben. They should do away with grades and create…”

B: Wait, what? We need to ‘create more _’ what?

G: World preparation centers. We need world preparation centers.

B: What are ‘world preparation centers?’

G: I guess they help students to prepare for the world.

B: And you think there should be more of them?

G: I think they should exist.

B: Okay.

[you heard it here first, folks. make it happen and send the kid some college cash.]

G: One should exist, and we’ll see how that does with students… [long pause] I guess school technically is. I think we are entering a new age – the information age, or something. And, I think technology is helping learning. I mean, there’s online school, and more and more students are being home-schooled… [long pause]

B: And you think that’s a good thing?

G: Kinda. I think it is. Well… [sigh]

B: Take your time.

[See what I did there? G dives into a long discussion of the political climate, a favorite topic of his, and he states our country needs better people in the world.]

B: How do you suspect we get better people?

G: I don’t know. We should educate them better. Yeah, we need to educate them. And we need to stop teaching them stuff they don’t need. And we need to teach them stuff that they do need. People may not like school, so maybe we should have school… be important. We should try to fix school in some ways, I guess. Like, remember when you woke up early to go school?

B: Yeah. [I still get up early to go to school, but that’s beside the point].

G: Well, I hear that some schools in the UK are being asked to shift their school days an hour or two forward.

B: True.

G: Because at different stages of your life you have different sleep cycles. And, like, people around my age generally continue to sleep through the early part of the morning and don’t even start learning until later, like mid-morning.

B: What kinds of things do think students are learning that they don’t need?

G: I don’t know. [long sigh] I guess maybe school has its purpose. Let me ask you this, Ben: Do you think learning about the fact that the mitochondria are the powerhouse of the cell that important?

B: It is if you’re a biologist.

G: Okay.

B: It’s good to know it’s out there.

G: I guess. Maybe we do need… I think…

B: I mean, in truth, I’ve never used it in my life. I do understand it a little bit, but… I’ve never had to use it.

G: I guess some people might have to use it. I guess school does have its purpose.

[We were just starting to make our exit]

G: By the way, I think tests are absolute… ugh! Maybe schools should stop worrying about tests. Because seriously, grades make students feel like they need to worry about grades. And I’m like, students shouldn’t have to worry. Students shouldn’t let grades define them.

B: Where are you learning this stuff?

G: I don’t know. I think I’m trying to do a little research in what people think of school, I guess.

B: Okay.

G: And, I think Ameri…

[G proceeds to go hard on the president and his policies. G is not a fan of Trump, much to the happiness of his parents and to the chagrins of (some of) his grandparents. After the venting and much fine toeing of strong language boundaries, he mellowed into more typical teenager subjects of Kid Cudi, the Chili Peppers, Eminem, Facebook and Instagram. We were somewhere near Lowe’s when he picked up the thread again. And once again, I hit record in the middle of the action…]

G: It makes children feel like grades define who they are, even though they don’t. I mean, I know Gina told me to try the best I can, [but] I always dreaded… most kids are worried about, or always say, ‘what’s going to be on the test?

B: That’s true.

G: Eh, it’s just, I think school needs to teach more important things and have less tests. According to Google, tests can help children memorize, but… but I’m not sure if we should necessarily have, … [He loses his thought at the red light. I try to steer back into the lane.]

B: So, with the tests, did you ever feel that you were trying to study for the grades and only for the grades? Or were you actually enjoying what you were trying to learn? I mean…

G: I felt like I was just studying for the grades.

B: Okay.

G: Yeah. I guess it just felt like I had to learn it. I’m glad my mother was like, ‘Just try your best.’ I’m glad my mom didn’t get absolutely furious with me when I got a bad test score.

B: When did you get a bad test score?

G: I think I’ve gotten a couple bad ones throughout my school years.

B: Okay. [long pause]

B: So how do you learn? What’s the best way that you learn? What are you finding that’s most effective for you?

G: Um… I … I honestly don’t know. I guess when I was in home-school… Gina is really passionate about me learning. And, I kinda feel like I should be learning?

B: Okay, but do you want to?

G: Eh, no. I’m not really into that, but I’m like, ‘okay, I’ll look up this, and I’ll look up that.’ Some of the stuff that Gina wanted me look up was actually useful. However, some of it wasn’t… Gina says she’s not a good teacher… and I understand that [she’s] probably not a good teacher… but I really do think she could teach me a few life lessons. Actually, she does, and when she does teach me life lessons… I think she does a good job of that… I gue… yeah… [the struggle is real with this kid!]. I don’t know.…

[extra long pause]

All rivers must run their course. Our conversation was coming to an end. He later told me that his friends and his aides, the persons who guided him through the public school system, were the best resources he had for the enjoyment of learning. A quick note: after failing an SOL in 2017, G was required to spend his summer in school – no time for free play. His anxiety shot through the roof, and he could no longer focus without heavy medication and therapy. My sister applied for the Homebound program and pulled him out of public school. He has been in the program ever since and done well. He’s dropped most of his medications and doesn’t have to see his therapist so often. He is involved with his life and wants to make changes for the better. I’m so proud!

But, this also comes at the expense of not learning with his peers. This coming fall, he plans to attend an “alternative” school system, which shows promise to his interests, his well-being, and his abilities. It is my understanding they promote an emergent adaptive learning system, and I hope they are responsive to my nephew’s inquisitive mind. Anything has to be better than the traditional prescription. I look forward to his next report.

B: Thanks, G. We’ll catch up later.

G: Bye, Uncle Ben.

From struggling undergraduate to PhD student

I was suspended for a semester as an undergraduate. I came to Virginia Tech in 2011 as a freshman. I was thrown into an incoming freshman class of around 5,000 students. My high school graduating class had 23 people in it. We were a small, close-knit group and I had had the same teachers since 10th grade. I came in as a University Studies student with the dream of getting into engineering. In high school I had always been better than average at math and science and I thought that engineering seemed like an obvious fit. After a semester of terrible performance, I was put on probation. After another semester of more of the same, I was suspended. At the time, it was devastating. But looking back on the experience now, I am able to appreciate the positive changes it helped me to realize in my academic career.

There were several reasons for this turn of events – some in my control, and some under the control of the University environment:

  1. I didn’t go to class as much as I should have.
  2. I was not prepared for the anonymity that massive class sizes provided.
  3. I was convinced of my own multitasking skills (i.e. using laptops in class to ‘take notes’).
  4. I was taught entirely in lecture format classes.
  5. I had a lot of growing up to do.

The themes of this week revolve around teaching styles and obstacles to student learning. I’d like to take this time to address lecture-style classes and use of technology in class.

Regarding lectures, as the readings have shown, there are some positives and negatives. For the student, it is useful to be lectured to in a well-balanced education. However, it cannot be the only method that instructors use. In many of the classes that freshmen are expected to take, lecture is the primary teaching tool. It seems as if that norm may be changing in recent years, but students could really benefit from less lecture and more active forms of learning. In the classes that I teach now, I try to mix it up as much as I can. I like assigning in-class group exercises, discussions, and presentations. Yes, lecture is still necessary. And yes, there are still some students who do not engage in class and despite my best efforts, resist my efforts to pull them in. But, overall, when students are given the opportunity to share their thought processes and grapple with tough issues, rather than just listening to someone else talk about them, it seems (in general) that the material sinks in a little more.

Now on to the issue of laptops – a much debated issue. Honestly, after reading about whether they should be allowed in class and engaging in countless discussions with peers and professors, I still don’t know where I stand on this. I truly don’t think that people can multitask. But I also don’t know whether it’s the instructor’s responsibility to ‘force’ students to pay attention, or if that’s even possible. Although smartphones and laptops are recent technological advances, daydreaming has been around for a long time. If you take away one distraction, it’s very possible that students could find another. I will say, that in my own experience, I missed a lot of opportunities to learn as an undergrad due to my laptop use. It wasn’t until I took a class in my first semester back from suspension, when a professor had the whole class complete an exercise designed to show our futile attempts at multitasking that I put away the laptop in class for good. Sure, I got it out now and again when needed. But from that point, I knew that if I had it out, I probably wouldn’t be paying attention to what was going on around me. The point of that story is to say that maybe it’s not the instructor’s job to force students to put away the laptops and pay attention. But, maybe it’s a teachable moment. Instructors can demonstrate the harm that laptops are having on their student’s focus and attention and maybe convince a few of them of the benefits of giving the class that they’re in a little more of their attention.

I started out this post with the story of my failures during undergrad. I learned a lot of lessons as I plummeted downwards and I also learned a lot as I struggled to improve. I came out the other side as a pretty decent graduate student. So, while I might have been an undergraduate with some of the worst habits and zero interest in my classes, I learned for myself what it took to succeed and (probably more importantly) learn.