Thursday, October 29, 2015

Internet Sabbaths

The Myth of the Disconnected Life resonated with me on a number of levels. First and foremost, this is something I struggle with on a daily basis. I'm in long-distance best friendships, and I like to remain connected to my friends from undergrad or back home through texting, calling, or FaceTiming. While I think the examples provided - texting while walking down the aisle or runners physically running into one another because they're on their phones (and let me tell you, it's hard to be on your phone and run; changing the song is usually all I can manage) - are very extreme and dramatic, these are things that certainly do happen and may become more prevalent as we continue to become increasingly engulfed in technology.

The second level this post resonated with me on is more academic. The author mentions a book called Hamlet's Blackberry, which I read in a first year honors seminar during my undergraduate studies. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in this topic. After reading this book, we were given an assignment to take a "Internet sabbath" (24 hours without technology) and write a reflection about that time. This was a relatively short report, so I'll include it below. Reading through it, I'm reminded of how reliant we are on technology, especially the Internet in education. For example, when I turn on my computer each morning when I get to the office, without even really thinking about it, I automatically pull up my email and Scholar, and I stay logged into those two sites all day. I also spend more time than anyone would really like to on the library databases and Google Scholar. An Internet sabbath in grad school is completely unrealistic. With that being said, there are different facets of technology from which we can disconnect easier. For example, on weekdays, I often only look at social media sites in the evening, as there simply isn't time during the day or I'd rather spend the limited free time I do have talking to my friends or engaging with my office mates.

My research is also focused on social media, so to say I'm not interested in these platforms and they are not extremely engrained in my life would be simply untrue. However, even as someone who researches how other people or how organizations use Twitter, for example, I still recognize the benefits of human to human interaction. When I'm with the right people, I don't care about looking at my phone. When I'm in the office, though, I can't go without my computer and the connections it affords me, whether they be emails, access to articles, or looking up information. I'm not so sure this is a bad thing. In the past, wouldn't people have been as reliant on the library (you know, the physical building and all the books it houses) as we are on Google and Google Scholar? Just because we look to different technologies to get this information doesn't mean we aren't as interested in learning as we once were.

Realistically, disconnecting is often not an option, or at least disconnecting for significant periods of time isn't. If we aren't using technology for fun, we're probably using it for work. Like it or not, Hamlet's Blackberry and our reliance on technology are here to stay.

If you're interested, this is the reflection paper I wrote for my honors seminar following my Internet sabbath during my freshman year of college. The paper was dated April 1, 2012. 
I don’t think it’s any secret that this Internet Sabbath was going to be a challenge for me. I thought my main problem would be not using Twitter or Facebook, but not being able to use the Internet for other purposes turned out to be just as challenging. I did my Sabbath from Friday afternoon to Satuday afternoon, and I found myself fidgety with free time, feeling as though I should be doing something productive. My two main blocks of time spent on the Internet on the outskirts of both ends of this 24-hour time period were spent on legitimate activities, i.e. not on social media sites. Before I began my Sabbath, I attempted to make my schedule for next fall, which took a lot longer than I was expecting and hoping. I needed to use the Internet for this to find out what classes were offered when, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t pay a little bit of attention to reviews on when looking at classes. After my Sabbath ended, I again used the internet for academic reasons, visiting the library databases to find, save, and print articles that I could review on our bus ride in hopes of getting an early start on a research paper for one of my journalism classes. 
I committed to my Sabbath and did well except for one time Friday night when I forgot and checked my Twitter. I found myself looking at tweets, wondering why there were so many I hadn’t seen before I remember that I hadn’t been on for a while for a reason and needed to get off. Honestly, I missed Twitter a little more than I probably should have. I love being able to share funny moments with my teammates via Twitter, or even to say something as simple as “Alumni game #goherd,” which I tweeted after my Sabbath ended on Saturday. I didn’t really mind not being on Facebook too much; when I spend so much time with my team, I can go a day without seeing what they’re doing online and still feel connected. A lot of people I’m friends with on Facebook are not people I am genuinely interested in keeping up with, to be honest, but that is to be expected when you have close to 1,000 “friends.” There are a few from back home that I talk to on Facebook regularly, but one day honestly did not make me feel disconnected to them. 
I found that not being able to use the internet was more of an inconvenience than it was a frustrating thing. Like I said, I didn’t mind too much being disconnected from my social networks. I am a big D.C. United fan, and usually I follow their games online, but Friday night I couldn’t. However, my friend was at the game, so he texted me updates and funny happenings from the night; in a way being disconnected brought me more connected, which is ironic. I really felt apprehensive about not being able to do research on the Internet; I wanted to print out those articles and get my work done sooner than I was able to considering my Sabbath. When there is really no other option to find the information you need, I don’t think constant use of the internet is a bad thing. In reality, in this day and age, you can’t really avoid the Internet. I also don’t see a problem in enjoying tweeting; if it’s a technology that can bring us closer to people, I think that’s great, and I shouldn’t feel ridiculed or ashamed of liking to use it. 
My experience with this assignment surprised me. I definitely was expected greater feelings of detachment by logging off from Twitter and Facebook, and I never thought I would feel apprehensive to get onto Marshall’s databases and use their Internet resources to complete tasks on my to-do list. It was hard to refrain from using the Internet, both because of the habits I have and because of the needs I had, but it certainly wasn’t as bad as I was expecting.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Who is this Freire guy?

Beyond this class and the Preparing the Future Professoriate class I took with the Dean last spring, I don't have much experience studying or discussing issues of higher education other than what I can pull from my own personal experiences. With that in mind, sometimes we discuss academics or scholars in class who I've simply never heard of before, and Freire is one of those people. As such, this post here won't be anything too in-depth or mind blowing, but rather will just be me trying to work through some of the basics.

Dr. Fowler's powerpoint regarding this topic contains the quote, "Education can function to control and contain students and maintain the status quo.. Or, it empowers students to be critically engaged and active participants in society." This resonates with me quite a bit following our class discussion this week. I like to think that education is the most empowering force we have in society, and, as such, we need to make sure every child has access to a good, quality education. However, when children or people don't, that is how the status quo gets reinforced and maintained. One of the main areas I look at during presidential campaigns or even more local campaigns is the candidates' stances on education.

Continuing on to discuss Freirean pedagogy, Dr. Fowler highlights the importance of dialogic exchange between teachers and students. I see much more of this in grad school than I ever did during my undergraduate studies, and this exchange has been a main contributor to my educational growth and development over the past year at Virginia Tech. Education shouldn't just be one person teaching a group; it should involve active discussion and collaboration between all forces. 
"To teach is not to transfer knowledge but to create the possibilities for the production or construction of knowledge."

Thinking more about some of the questions posed in the Kinchloe article regarding critical pedagogy in schools, the author discusses how many people take knowledge at face value and children in contemporary education ultimately get to a point where they either know the information or they don't. I think this ties in nicely with my previous paragraph, as we should encourage people to question where this information comes from, if it appears that question needs to be asked. Instead of always asking "What do we know?," we should also be willing to ask, "How do we know that?," and this can come in that back-and-forth dialogue between a professor and a student.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Inclusive Pedagogy - I want to learn more!

While I think inclusive pedagogy is a topic of utmost importance in education, I personally do not have much experience with it. My cohort is not very diverse in terms of cultural backgrounds, so, as a student, my experiences with inclusive pedagogy come almost exclusively from our GEDI class this semester and the Preparing the Future Professoriate class last spring. I particularly enjoyed the discussion we had in class a few weeks ago about teaching from the perspectives of international students, but, as someone who has never been a part of anything other than the American school system or even traveled outside of the U.S., I didn't feel as though I could contribute to the conversation.

As a GTA, I have a bit more experience with international students or those for whom English is their second language. Teaching public speaking, it can be interesting to see how these students perform in a course where they are required to speak in front of the class often, and all have done quite well. In discussing the topic with a fellow GTA, he told me about a comment he received from a few students in his class from Germany. They expressed some concerns about being graded for articulation, pronunciation, and other aspects of their vocal delivery, arguing that, as students who had only be in the country a few years, it was unfair to be held to the same standard as students in the class who had been speaking English and been around the language their whole lives. The GTA told me that he often takes these things into account when grading, and that those students, in fact were not held to quite the same standard as those with more experience speaking English in terms of those aspects of their speech. (Of course, they were held to the same standards for message preparation, use of visual aid, engaging the audience, etc.)

I think it is extremely important to consider the role inclusive pedagogy plays in education and make sure every student is comfortable in their learning environment. Arao and Clemens (2013) wrote an article entitled "From Safe Spaces to Brave Places: A New Way to Frame Dialogue Around Diversity and Social Justice." The authors discusses learning environments with ground rules and guidelines for conversation en route to defining safe places by saying the following: "We often describe such [learning] environments as safe spaces, terminology we hope will be reassuring to participants who feel anxious about sharing their thoughts and feelings regarding these sensitive and controversial issues" (p.135). They proposed a shift from focusing on the concept of safety to emphasizing the importance of bravery.

This raised a question in my mind: Is it enough to make students feel safe enough to come sit through class and listen to others discuss a topic, or is true inclusive pedagogy only achieved when ALL students feel comfortable enough to stand up and take a stance on a topic or share their perspectives and opinions? As many of our readings for this week also suggested, I think we need to push for the latter here. Again, I don't have much experience with inclusive pedagogy or working with diverse students from various cultural backgrounds. As a result, I'd be very interested to hear the thoughts of readers who may be members of a diverse cohort, have worked with students from all over the world, or have worked more closely with inclusive pedagogy. As I progress through graduate school, I am certain I will encounter more individuals with diverse cultural backgrounds or "invisible" cultural identities, and I'm looking forward to the work we will do together and the discussions we will have.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Finding My Teaching Voice

Having only one year of teaching experience, I'm still trying to find my teaching voice. I struggle with some of the same areas Sarah E. Deel recounts in her piece - I'm a young, female teacher also very serious about education and detail-oriented, eager to be a popular teacher yet maintain authority in the classroom. When I began teaching last year at the age of 21, I was younger than some of my students, and that's still the case today. I also am often told I look like a 12 year old or a high school student, which makes it even harder to command authority based on physical presence alone sometimes. (Recently I got glasses though, so I'm sure this helped some :) )

I teach public speaking, a 2000 level course here at Tech. Most students are in the class because it is required for them to graduate; no one chooses to take public speaking as an elective or for fun. As such, I face an added challenge in trying to draw in students who are not necessarily interested in the material or students who are haunted by the traditional stereotypes of public speaking being a dreadful experience. I make it a mission to create a comfortable, interactive environment in the classroom so that students will have more positive experiences when giving their speeches and believe that everyone in the room is on their side and no one wants them to fail. The last thing a nervous student wants is to have to give a speech to an unresponsive audience and a teacher who acts like they don't want to be there.

With 2,000 students and a cohort of GTAs serving as teachers for public speaking courses, we all meet regularly and are given lesson plans and course information in order to make the courses as similar and fair as possible for all students enrolled. As such, there are times where I feel more like I'm instructing students on how to succeed on an assignment (in this case, a speech) than I am teaching them about how to be a public speaker. Those may sound like they are one in the same, but the former ends with a grade and the latter can be carried beyond the walls of the classroom. As a graduate student who is extremely busy, I appreciate this guidance and am very thankful that most of the preparation is done for me. However, I do know that if I had the freedom to design my own course around a topic I'm truly fascinated by, I would probably have a bit of a different voice as a teacher, though my goals of engaging students and instilling a passion for knowledge within them would ultimately remain the same.

I was given the opportunity to serve as a guest lecturer in one of my advisor's classes last year, which was truly a great experience. I got to design the lecture about something I'm truly passionate about, and, since it was also my research focus and thesis topic, I felt extremely prepared and credible to speak about the information. I also have personal experience in the field - sport and corporate social responsibility - from when I was a college athlete and my team participated in community events. I feel like the best professors are those who have experience in the field and bring that into the classroom, which is what I tried to do during that lecture.

As a person, I have a unique mix of a fun-loving, humorous spirit and a seriousness and respect for academics. This can be tricky for people who don't know me to understand. They may think that because I make jokes or say things to be funny, I'm not a smart person or I don't take academic seriously, which couldn't be further from the truth. I try to bring both sides of me into the classroom and integrate humor into my lectures each day to keep students engaged and showcase my personality a bit more, but, like Deel mentioned, we all will get blank stares from time to time, although generally my students do laugh when I hope they will, which certainly makes me more comfortable in front of the classroom. Ultimately, I feel like my teaching voice must be a genuine representation of the person I am; I don't want a completely different personality when I am a teacher, even though some differences are certainly required.

To sum up my teaching voice, I'll say this. I hope that, as a teacher, I create a comfortable, engaging environment for my students to learn. To do this, I showcase my personality, the one that has carried me this far into academics with great passion and success. Humor and fun are important, but so is the ability to know when to be serious and when to relax a bit. Knowledge is important, but I want to encourage students to learn this through a passion or desire they have, not simply put a textbook in their face and say, "This material is important - learn it." I look forward to the day where I can develop and design my own course to let my passion for education shine and hopefully inspire my students to foster their love for learning and find success both inside and outside of the classroom.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Maybe you can be the next Walt Disney

In his article "Setting Students' Minds on Fire," Mark C. Carnes discusses the idea of incorporating games into education, making the classroom a competitive environment in which students are driven by the desire to win and feel a strong sense of personal investment in their role on the team. As a former Division I college athlete, I am extremely intrigued by this idea and wonder how developing a game that would run the course of the semester would inspire learning in our students. Having competed in athletic competition at a high level, I understand the importance of preparation, personal investment, dedication, and hard work, among other required characteristics; all of these are also needed in the classroom!! The term "game" often presents something as being fun, but it can also belittle something. We would have to set the right tone from the beginning that this game is a serious part of education and, while it should be seen as a fun activity, it should not be taken lightly or blown off based on the stigma of games on a playground being purely for fun.

Let's tie in imagination here, where my mind immediately goes to Walt Disney. Disney had probably the greatest imagination of the 20th century, creating a world that transcends generations. Disney is famous for saying "Laughter is timeless. Imagination has no age. And dreams are forever." Dreams and imagination go hand in hand, yet many of us don't realize that. We think of dreams we have as goals, and set out to find things already in existence to use as means of achieving them. For example, if my goal was to get an A in a class, I would probably bury my nose in a book. But what if we can imagine a better way to do this? What if we can think outside the box? Imagination is key, and, like we talked about last class, you must first imagine something before you can create it. Who knows, with a good and nurtured imagination, maybe one of us could have an impact on education the way Walt Disney impacted his time and all the generations that followed.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

I hope I get an A on this post: Some thoughts on grading in higher education

The topic of grading receives an immense amount of attention in higher education. Alfie Kohn's "The Case Against Grades" provides a nice overview of the debate. While I found the entire post stimulating and thought provoking, there are two points I want to focus on here.

Kohn talks about motivation in his article by arguing that the nature of motivation is an important consideration. Are students motivated extrinsically by grades or intrinsically by passion? Does it have to be one or the other? I personally am motivated by my interest in a topic, but my desire to earn an A is also very strong. I do not believe a student can truly learn if he is motivated purely by grades; he will do the work required to earn the grade and not worry about what information is retained, what knowledge is explored, etc.

This section of the post reminded me of something I learned in a psychology class once about motivation. If a child is rewarded early in life for good behavior, when those rewards stop, the motivation to do a chore, their homework, etc. often diminishes. When I was in elementary school, we used to have an event each year where you the library would give us colored paper with various rows to cut out for every X number of minutes we read. We would then loop them together and hang them throughout the library, judging which class read the most by the color of loops that appeared most frequently. Everyone loved to read during this event, but not so much once it ended.

As grad studies, we all possess some degree of intrinsic motivation. Common thought in society is that a bachelor's degree will get you a job, but we've all decided to continue on in education because there is something there we want to continue exploring. To me, intrinsic motivation will also stimulate more interest and learning than extrinsic. However, if I were to receive a C on something I worked very hard on, I would probably become resistant to whatever information that assignment was covering, which would be an example of an extrinsic motivation (the grade) diminishing my intrinsic motivations.

A Grading Democracy?
Switching gears here, Kohn also proposes in his post that assigning grades doesn't have to be a unilateral decision and that students and professors can collaborate to decide on a student's final grade. No. Just no. I think that is a terrible idea. This leaves the door wide open for students to brown nose, play the sympathy card, look for pity, or do a variety of other things to manipulate their grade. I know this is a pessimistic approach, but there is a hierarchy when it comes to grading for a reason. Should a classroom discussion feel democratic? Sure. But not the grading that accompanies it.

Kohn suggests that people who oppose this idea view grading as a way for a professor to control students, which seems ridiculous. I don't value the ability to grade my students' speeches because I want to have all the power. I have been trained to do so, and I want to share that experience with them in a way that they respect. If we share the responsibility of determining their grade, the grade doesn't mean the same thing in the end. What weight would it carry outside of the classroom? How would institutions know if it is legitimately earned or not?

Final Thoughts
Grading is a controversial topic and a broken part of the educational system. Students look for that end goal of a grade and don't focus enough on the journey along the way. However, I don't see any alternative to grading. And I'm not as opposed to the current model as others are. I'd be interested to hear more opinions on the topic, though, from people of other disciplines. For example, in communications, often I'm told I can make certain decisions regarding my research methodology, focus, etc. as long as I can justify it strongly. In math or more scientific disciplines, there might be one right answer that earns you an A. Grading will continue to receive attention for as long as education exists, so it'll be interesting to see where those discussions take us.


Thoughts on grading, part two (an addition to my initial post)

I wrote the above post based on my responses to Kohn's piece, but, after reflecting on grading more based on some of my own coursework, I began thinking about the topic from a new perspective. Today I woke up to an email containing weekly response questions for a class I have tomorrow. Having had this professor before and being familiar with the way in which having discussion leaders works in her class, I was expecting this email and somewhere in the range of 25-30 questions, as had become the norm last year. I was shocked when I opened the document to see 60 questions, drafted by my peers who would be leading the discussion in tomorrow's class. As a nerdy student with a fear of failing who completes every assignment, does every reading, and works on papers well before they are due, I obviously was going to complete these questions. I even completed the readings earlier in the week with the plan of reviewing the material while answering the questions today. But, I wondered if all of my classmates would take the time (easily 1-2 hours) to answer questions that are meant to prepare us for a discussion and are in no way connected with a completion grade. Additionally, I knew that the number of questions for this week - the first with discussion leaders - would establish a precedent of having that many questions for future weeks, as people want to do as well as other classmates in order to earn maximum points for leading discussion, rather than appear as a slacker or less prepared.

As I continued to think about my reactions to opening that document and the grading stipulations associated with it, I began to consider the concept of grading in a different context: undergraduate vs. graduate. For an undergrad, this type of assignment would most likely be collected in class and assigned some sort of grade, probably in a homework category. In graduate school, there is rarely such a thing as a homework category; you are expected to do the work in order to come to class prepared and contribute to the discussion. This raises an issue of accountability that could even be tied to the types of motivation I mentioned in the first installment of this blog post. In graduate school, we are responsible for our own learning much more so than in undergraduate studies. If someone wanted to skip these questions and piggyback on a fellow classmate's responses during the discussion to feign the appearance of having done the work and being prepared, they probably could easily do so, and with no grade penalty, it might be tempting to some. While that can be annoying at times, I have to remember that, in those situations, my classmates would only be cheating themselves out of furthering their education. I personally like the accountability and responsibility I have in grad school. I don't want to be assigned points for little assignments like this; I want to earn my grade based on the quality of my contributions to the class, my individual research, and my analysis, not my ability to answer questions from readings I have right in front of me.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Mindful learning - two words with a lot to consider

In her book The Power of Mindful Learning, Ellen Langer defines a mindful approach as having three characteristics:

  • 1. the continuous creation of new categories
  • 2. openness to new information
  • 3. an implicit awareness of more than one perspective

She provides this information to lay the groundwork for her discussions and thoughts on mindfulness, detailing how questions of mindful learning led her to further investigate education and how we learn. I'd like to focus here on one specific question she asks - "Can a text teach mindfully?" She details an experiment in which a "mindful" version of a textbook was compared to more a traditional version and students were then tested in two groups, both of which performed similarly when tested directly on the material. However, the "mindful" group excelled when tested on creative use of the material.

Textbooks have been synonymous with education since the beginning of time; ancient philosophers wrote books, and today's newest scholars and academics aspire to one day do the same. However, just because the need for textbooks persists and there is still great value in reading them does not mean we shouldn't revise them for the changing times. Adapting to more mindful textbooks, more interactive textbooks, more problem-based learning textbooks, etc. could be invaluable in a day and age where asking students to read 100 pages and retain all the information is simply naive. Studies have shown that people today have shorter attention spans, and, as a result, we cannot expect students to fully process, or even remember, all of the information they read from a traditional textbook, if they read it all in the first place. To answer Langer's question, yes, I believe a textbook can teach mindfully, but it must be designed to do so. 

As a graduate student, I encounter a mountain of readings each week, especially in a liberal arts and humanities discipline of communication. When I'm asked to read textbook chapters defining terms or explaining concepts, even when I take notes and review the material in the days after I do the reading before going back to class, I can't always remember it, nor would I feel comfortable applying it to my research without further instruction. After I leave the next class period, I often feel much better about the material, but this is as a result of the conversations and dialogue we have about it. I find myself better able to retain information from articles, as these often detail research conducted with practical implications and strongly developed research questions, methodologies, and conclusions. These articles are real-world applications of the terms and concepts covered in textbooks. One of the first things I learned in grad school was that textbooks and readings were meant to prepare me for class, not replace the instruction I would then receive during class. And now I also see that different forms of readings can educate me in different ways. We should give more thought to this as we work to design textbooks in an age of immediacy, where people often skip reading the directions (i.e., a textbook) and often jump straight into whatever they're trying to do.

To be mindful when it comes to learning, we must accept the idea that people learn in different ways, some of which are interrelated (i.e., I start to learn by reading, I learn more through subsequent discussions, and then I feel like I begin to truly understand a concept when I apply it to my own research or work to put it in writing). This ties back in with Langer's third characteristic of having a mindful approach, which is having an implicit awareness of more than one perspective. This is fostered through discussion, which opens us up to our classmates' ideas and opinions, which we then can consider in comparison with our own. But, drawing on the second characteristic, we must also have an open mind. If I were to read something in a textbook I disagree with, I must still keep an open mind; after all, someone could explain it in another way or apply it in a different context that I may then agree with more.

Mindfulness is a tricky thing. We don't want to overanalyze, but we want to care and pay enough attention to what we're doing to find out what works for us and what doesn't. Throughout my first year of graduate school, I was very cognizant of what worked for me as a learner and what didn't. Throughout this course, I hope to learn more about learning. How can we encourage students to be mindful? How can we encourage them to spend a few more minutes with the material they are reading, rather than quickly skimming it in an effort to cross that assignment off their to-do lists? I mentioned in my first blog post how we have to be aware of the fact that there are different types of learners in academia and different types of students; it's becoming clear to me now that this may be a common theme throughout my blogging. We might not be able to turn an apathetic student into a future scholar, but if we can help them care a little more, be a little more mindful, or enjoy learning a little more, isn't that the real goal?