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!

Advocate and Opportunity

At times like today, when the world is a difficult place to live in, people are afraid of those that should protect them and diversity seems to have become a threat to some, we need to stand up and advocate for our colleagues and students that find themselves struggling. All of us are are of the various unjust things that occur in today’s society but as fellow students and educators, I think we should all be able to discuss such matters and find ways to advocate for those that are having a difficult time just as Dr. Faulkner did.

I often sit and wonder when in class what the person sitting next to me or across from me currently has going on in their life. I myself, have a lot going on and several people do not know what I endure everyday but I keep pressing on. As future educators, it is important that we understand our student population. We should try to be prepared for what issues may occur in their lives, be willing to listen to their worries and concerns, create an avenue for them to be comfortable enough to express themselves and most importantly advocate for their needs. There is no way to be prepared for whatever may cause distress in someone’s lives but just letting students know they can come to you is sometimes good enough.

This week I learned of the “null curriculum” and it has me intrigued. Most professors have a syllabus planned and feel it must be followed exactly with no alterations. This idea of a null curriculum leaves the door open for opportunities for students to discuss current ideas or issues that may be on their minds. Discussion related topics going on in society often lead to unique learning opportunities that within a diverse classroom. Difference of opinion and often just knowledge from a different background can be helpful for students to learn. Creating a classroom where discussion can take place is a way to advocate for those students that may not have another avenue to talk about their feelings or express themselves. Although universities say they welcome inclusion and diversity, they do not often know how to make that smooth transition for all those effected. In my opinion, it is somewhat faculty’s responsibility to help assist in this matter by offering opportunity in the classroom for students to express how they feel.

Curiosity & Conformity

This week’s post focuses on the viewpoint article Curiosity as a Learning Outcome by W. Gardner Campbell, the Director of Professional Development and Innovative Initiatives in the Division of Learning here at Virginia Tech (link posed at the bottom).

I feel very torn by this article. On one hand, without a doubt I see and share the value of engaging and encouraging curiosity. I, like many, or possibly all, students know what it feels like to be forced to learn something that is utterly boring and un-engaging. There are certain subjects that I have a natural affinity for and enjoy engaging with. Other subjects never stop being a chore. This being said, I believe that it is beneficial to introduce students to subjects that they might not be naturally inclined toward. It is an enriching experience. Like the author propses, the times that I have felt the most “alive” during my education is when I stop thinking about school as school, I lose track of time, page-length, and letter grades and fully immerse myself in the pursuit of a curiosity. The satisfaction that comes as a result of fulfilling a curiosity is rewarding, and can even be addicting. This experience is what formal education should strive towards.

On the other hand I don’t believe that children, and often teenagers, should be left to determine how to spend their own time, because…they are children. They need guidance. They need to learn conformity, by compulsion if not by persuasion, in many ways until they reach an age where there are fully accountable for the consequences of their choices. For example, I know that as a 10 year old (and maybe even a 16 year old…or 25 year old) if I were given full autonomy over my education, I wouldn’t have one. Instead of learning, I would have spent the entirety of my time playing Twisted Metal 2 on my PS1 and eating toaster strudels by the crate.

So, in summary, conformity has its time and place. It isn’t a universal good or evil. Conformity is the way that a society establishes a set of standards that can make it function. It is true that conformity, like many other things, can turn from virtue to vice if not properly managed, but this is the reason for teachers, formal or otherwise. They help students, formal or otherwise, conform to society while concurrently finding their individual passion that will benefit the society that they are a part of. Simply put, it is important to both lead and to follow.


Emotions + Passion = Learning

One of my biggest hobbies lately is weightlifting. I spend a lot of my free time outside the gym looking at techniques and guides on improving performance, muscle size or diet; it’s easily become somewhat of a lifestyle for me. On a rather boring weekend I was over a friends’ house and we were killing time just laying around. I opened my phone to Youtube and started watching a video on different types of weightlifting techniques for shoulder growth. My friend heard the video and asked “why do I watch that kind of stuff on my spare time?” I told him that it’s something I have a lot of interest in; being able to watch the body grow and respond based on what kinds of food you eat and work you do, I find it fascinating. At the time, I didn’t know, but the emotions I feel when I start brushing up on this kind of stuff are actually what fuel my interest in the area.

In Silvia’s Knowledge Emotion’s article , he expands the concept of emotions beyond the standards we all know (e.g. happiness, anger, sadness, etc.) and introduces readers to emotions we’ve heard of, but may have never connected to learning. Surprise, confusion, interest, and awe all play a role in igniting the flame of curiosity in a persons mind. That curiosity can make people desire more information which may generate even more curiosity. This feedback loop of discovery and curiosity can continue infinitely and evolves from a mere hobby or side project to a full-fledged passion. This passion for whatever subject it may be inspires people to learn as much as they can about it. Free-time, casual internet browsing, reading and more all tend to shift towards the field of interest, leading me to this question: what if we could get students to have that kind of emotion and passion in the classroom?

If you take a look at any syllabus for any class in schools today, you’ll see a list of learning objectives, concepts that a professor wants students to have grasped fully by the end of the course. A post by Campbell concludes that if 21st century education is to be at all effective, we must trade the standard compliance, yes/no learning objectives for curiosity. Rather than droning on about a subject for an hour and 15 minutes, if we generate curiosity within students from the classroom they’ll go out on their own and seek out the information. When you seek out information on your own, it becomes a bit more palatable, and includes information from other sources. When students congregate and share that information, they compare notes and add to their own knowledge.

I used to be a couch potato of the highest caliber, but at some point I tried some workout plan that gave me results. From there I started looking up even more content and went down the rabbit hole of fitness. If we could get students to feel those same emotions, that same passion about say, engineering or psychology, we could create a brighter, more innovative generation.

What inspires you? Any hobbies or subjects you can’t learn enough about? Let me know in the comments below!

Self-reflection on Academia and its Influence on Shaping my Authentic Teaching Self

This week we have a post break, but I have decided to write something that's been on my mind. This upcoming week were asked to think about "what kind of teach are you" and "how we would teach like to teach" and have insight on our "authentic teaching self". Recently, I have been considering research … Continue reading Self-reflection on Academia and its Influence on Shaping my Authentic Teaching Self

Genuine Authenticity: Thoughts about Yearners and Schoolers

Yearners and Schoolers, by Seymour Papert is a great paper with a lousy title. It outlines, literally outlines, the way that a teacher should find and use their own style while teaching and communicating in general. I would like to point out and comment on a few points that particularly spoke to me.

First, half way through the first paragraph the author writes ” You must work to discover who you are.” Through my own life I have realized that the “work” that must be done to discover yourself is service to others. For me, this service has happened in both volunteer and paid capacities. It was times when I was truly “present” for the people that I was with and focused on their hopes and needs instead of my own (for a change). It reminds me of a quote from D. Todd Christofferson. He said “The more we serve [others] in appropriate ways the more substance there is to our souls, we become more substantive as we serve others. Indeed, it becomes easier to find ourselves because there is so much more of us to find.” Discovering who you are, in opposition to popular opinion, does not come from focusing on yourself. Instead, counter-intuitively, it comes by focusing on others. I’ll post a link below to the video that I heard this quote from.

Second, in the second paragraph it says “it is good to adapt techniques that best conform to our individual style and authentic teaching self.” I have learned from personal experience that it is best to observe the way someone else does something, mimic as closely as possible, and once the basic concepts are understood, adding your own style to make it yours (sorry this sentence was so general). “Conformity” has become a dirty word in the modern era, and in many ways, conformity is toxic. Still, if you are consciously conforming in order to make improvements it isn’t bad.

Finally, the last item that I would like to comment on is in Section I.A.1 which simply says “Be genuine”. We live in a time where people idolize others to the point where they begin to lose parts of their own identity. People are increasing losing the ability to generate original thoughts. They act their way through life, trying to be the person that they think others want them to be. I find that I am happiest when I am striving to be the best person that I know I can be. This is my genuine self. It isn’t my natural, current self, but it the best version of me and I’m working hard to get there.

The authentic teaching self

This week’s topic naturally sparked some self-reflective moments in me. I think self-reflection is a key component for teaching. I have found it helpful, after every class to reflect back on what went well and what didn’t. However, I think it is important to not be so hard on myself, after all  I am my worst critic. I do try to be as honest as possible, but in a way that is not discouraging or destructive. 

Passion, preparation, and energy. 

These points by Fowler really resonated with me. I think they are the three main components in my journey to my authentic teaching self. 

Passion for the subject matter is so important when teaching. Student’s see that passion, and I really believe that it can spark something in them, possibly a passion for the subject too. However, passion is not enough. I bet we’ve all had educators that are clearly passionate but not very great teachers. 

Preparation…this is huge for me. I am terrified of going into the classroom unprepared because to me that means that I am not doing my job. I can’t expect my students to put in effort if I haven’t. Preparation also gives me the space to explore my authentic teaching self, to connect with my students and just to have a smoother class. 

Energy is a tough one for me. I find that I get a burst of energy in the classroom, unlike anything I’ve experienced before. However, I feel this burst of energy can be overwhelming for some students. Sometimes I think that the more energy I bring to the classroom the more engaged my students will be. This is probably linked to the need I often feel to be a sort of entertainer in the classroom. Recently, I’ve come to recognize that my job is not to be entertaining but instead to be an educator that is there to guide and facilitate learning and understanding. 

So far, I think the worst thing we can do as educators is get stuck in our ways. For example, not being open to constructive criticism from peers/course coordinators etc. As well as not recognizing that you, as a human, are always evolving therefore it is only natural that your teaching self is too. 

It is a lot to tackle. This is my third semester teaching and every semester I have found myself growing into my authentic teaching self. I don’t think that I am quite there yet, but I am surely on my way. 

The Convergence of Best Practices and the Best You

I remember my first year as a teacher.  I knew the content of the courses I was assigned, I was good at building relationships with most of my students, and I always tried to make my lessons applicable (I wanted my lessons to naturally answer the question, “Why do we need to know this?” so that I didn’t have to mid-lesson).  Although there are only a few specific interactions and classroom activities I can vividly recall, I absolutely remember that I didn’t really know what I was supposed to be accomplishing or how to know whether or not I was doing a good job.  That was the hardest part of my first year teaching.*

I think my experience is similar to what a lot of first-year teachers experience.  This feeling that you really should know what you’re doing (we’ve been in school for at least 16 years, shouldn’t we have this figured out by now) set against the realization that you really don’t know if what you’re doing is right.  I felt this tension in Sarah Deel’s essay, Finding My Teaching Voice.

Deel describes the process she went through to become the best teacher she could be.  She did things she remembered her teachers doing that she liked.  She tried to be funny.  She tried to be cool.  She tried to be interesting.  I could relate because I tried to be a lot of things that I admired in others that I simply was not.  I tried to be impressively smart.  I’m not.  I tried to be a stern classroom dictator to maintain control of my classroom.  That didn’t work.  I tried to use instructional strategies I saw other teachers using who were considered model teachers.  That worked sometimes, but not always.  Honestly, it took me a while to figure out which way was up and what I needed to do to get there, but I think Sarah Deel and I found the same answer.

The most important thing I did was to learn how to be me in front of my students.  I’m much better at working with an individual or small groups of students.  I started doing more of that.  I am really good at planning lessons and activities that make the content applicable in a real-world setting.  I did more of that too.  I’m good at asking questions.  I had my students do more work that gave them control over elements of the deliverable so that they could incorporate things they’re interested in and I could ask them about.  That worked really well (high school students like talking about themselves, go figure).  Being me and playing to my strengths really worked, but it was only a start.  There was more room for growth (and still is honestly).

The next step was learning about teaching strategies that really work with students.  I needed to become better at whole group lecture and discussion.  I researched that skill and learned how to do that really well while retaining my personality.  There are so many good sources of information on this (one of my favorites is actually Visible Learning).  Professor Fowler’s Authentic Teaching Self and Communication Skills is a great resource for learning a lot of this in a really condensed way (seriously, where was this 15 years ago!).  Be yourself.  Teach in small chunks of time.  Don’t lecture for more than 15 minutes (10 is better).  Engage students in lecture with discussion.  Draw on student interests and past discussions.  Move around the room.  These are just a few of the “little things” that totally change your classroom.

Lastly, I’ll also say that now (15 years in) I see teaching as a journey that both changes me and allows me to change it.  Every day is a little different and offers opportunities to help me improve my craft and learn about myself.  I don’t see a way that I’ll ever become static in this line of work.  It wouldn’t work.  So my hope is to continue to grow as a person, learn more about the process of teaching and learning, and put it all together to be the best teacher I can be.

*For full disclosure, I started teaching without the benefit of having any coursework in education.  I had an accounting degree and had worked briefly as a software developer and even more briefly as an internal auditor at a credit union.  I was hired on a provisional license offered by the state that allows schools to hire teachers who have not filled all the education requirements in hard-to-staff disciplines for a three-year period.  I completed a Masters degree in Career and Technical Education in my first two years to become fully licensed.