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Thoughts from Teaching

Thursday: October 12, 2017

This post is about what I learned through my short 5-year career teaching anthropology at the university level. Take it or leave it. I regret none of the hard work and built relationships, though for now, in no way am I upset to be out of it, either! These are in no particular order:

Distraction

Students have such a disadvantage today than they did even when I was a non-traditional student only about a decade ago. The Chronicle of Higher Education wrote this nice summary about it, and if you don’t have access, you can google the title and find it published elsewhere. Essentially, not only does one bad apple ruin the bunch (a student using an electronic device distracts those around him/her), but students today are so enveloped in a digital world that their brain is chemically addicted to the pleasure responses it gives when a new message pops up. That excitement, which becomes literally addictive, becomes intrusive thoughts. Remember when people laughed at the idea one could be addicted to video games like World of Warcraft (W.o.W.aholics)? Fast forward to today, and it’s not so funny. Even when students are “good” and keep their phones out of sight, the brain will sometimes spontaneously wonder if anything new is happening in the world outside the classroom. This is true for many people, of course, not just students. I know sometimes the news gets me. Woe the day news broadcasts became 24/7 with minute by minute updates. Research shows people can’t help it. In fact, I had a girl during an exam decide to text someone mid-test. Who does that?! I gave her a zero. She was sincerely flabbergasted – “it was just a text! it had nothing to do with the test!” I think she may have even gotten sick about it all. I felt evil, but explained that I had no idea if she asked for help on the exam or not and she understood. My rules were very clear!

So what to do? Until I had found that article, I alternated between being apathetic (it’s their loss, not mine!) and being a technology police officer (if they are caught, they are considered absent for that day – and attendance was weighted enough to where that mattered). I couldn’t decide which was best – I know it pissed me off to see students messing around on phones or laptops, but at the same time, this is our society and I wanted to find a way to make it all groove together.

But then I read the article, and it was able to put into words what was niggling at my brain. Henceforth, I maintained the Absolutely No Technology rule. I was happier. Students were less likely to embarrass themselves by having a video play sound loudly from one of those surprise obnoxious commercials, or giggle out loud at something their friend said. I do feel that all students benefitted from it – “good” students were not distracted, and those who would have been playing around on the internet were actually forced to focus more often in class. Yet, I hated calling people out, and felt really persnickety about using the attendance rule. That said, if I kept teaching, I would definitely maintain it. Shrug.

Entitlement

At first, I did not want to weigh in on the “millennial” discussions because every new generation looks poor in the eyes of the previous ones, is it not true? But there is a stark reality between me and my kindred and those I was teaching. In some circles, I am considered by birth year to be a millennial, and I don’t doubt that I do share some traits with them, but what I’ve decided is that sorry, but no. I align with the concept of a between generation – I am also like Gen Xers in important ways. Thus, a goofy term Xennial probably fits me personally best – and I believe “generations” in a meaningful sense will become shorter and shorter because of how quickly our culture is changing with globalization and technology. But that’s not what this is about – this is about the annoying side of my students which I blame largely on their generational culture. Could it be parenting? Could it be changes in the larger society? Could it be different kinds of war? Could it be 24/7 access to information and entertainment in your pocket? The everyone-gets-a-blue-ribbon mentality? Sure, yes, all combined, and more.

I don’t know the why, I just know the reality: too many of my students were entitled. They would sit through class sleeping or texting (if they came at all), participate none, do subpar work on assignments, barely pass tests, and then have the nerve to make an office appointment and not even ask for but to demand an A. I even had a mother write a note about it! How I never looked them squarely in the eyes and simply said WTF, I don’t know. I asked my older colleagues (who had me as a student!) if I am only now seeing the dark side of teaching or if they feel like things have changed. Resoundingly, student attitudes have changed. I saw very little respect for professors coming from these students. Professors were treated as discourteously as I’ve seen some gas station attendants.

Disconnect

Sort of tied to that last thought, how are students suppose to respect professors when the academic system does not? I adjuncted for 3 years, getting paid less than minimum wage when all things were calculated, and making well below the poverty line year after year for my efforts. One semester, my entire course load was cancelled the day before classes started. This is not a sustainable living. As a visiting lecturer for two years, I felt compensated. I felt finally welcomed into the academic setting, welcomed to meetings and committees, a part of the whole rather than the used and abused echelon. I felt like my ideas for the program in general would be heard and that I was being paid to implement them finally instead of just dream about them. And then quick as a whistle, the institute dropped a tenure-track anthropologist, and then dropped the visiting line, leaving only one stable adjunct (with a PhD!) and another adjunct that many took issue with. They replaced the tenure line and the visiting line with two contingent fellowship lines. My predecessor, who retired just before I was hired, built a “four field” program that was really mostly physical, with almost equal cultural, and a tiny bit archaeological, with a single linguistic course tossed in. When I came into the mix, we had several students interested in archaeology so I planned to bump that up a bit once I got the basic courses under way. Today, the institution offers a four year bachelor degree in anthropology with zero full-time faculty strictly devoted to the students’ wellfare, with zero archaeological instructors and zero physical instructors. But you’ve heard this before in a previous post.

So additionally, now that I had access to faculty meetings, I can say the institution of academia perplexes me. They often sounded self-congratulatory about how amazing the teachers are with their unique students (the students, like me when I was one, often have major real-life requirements that I don’t think many professors who went from highschool to bachelor to master to PhD without needing a real job or having real family issues to deal with could ever possibly hope to understand; Ivory Tower, indeed!). It would be like a doctor taking all the credit for delivering a baby when the mother is the one who did all the work! The zenith of my disappointment with a large majority of the faculty was at a meeting when they discovered, lo, that graduates six years later were still making less than 40k a year. The majority in the room sounded dumbstruck! And here I was, in a contingent position after just adjuncting for them for two years barely making a dime, with more than a bachelor’s degree. What did they expect? How clueless and far removed are they from the real world? Plus, 35k a year (I think that was the number given) is not a death sentence. That’s a pretty good gig for most people in my part of the world who don’t have major problems medically or likewise.

There was also big noise about convincing (coercing, I call it) students to graduate in four years (they made 4 classes cost the same as 5, a flat rate). The school gets money from the larger institution based on this four-year rate. Nevermind that being a non-traditional student (like many there were), and/or having real life responsibilities (like paying medical bills for themselves or their close loved ones, yes even at the ripe old age of 17) makes it near impossible to take 5 classes a semester. I mean, heck, a lot of these students could never do five classes simply because they can’t afford a car so they are stuck on someone else’s time and their homelife is not conducive to studying. If the university actually cared about the students instead of pretending they did at every meeting, then I think there would be a better discussion to the bigger budget system than trying to spin it like it is in the students’ best interest to develop panic disorders or drop out if they can’t handle the school load.

Input = Output

Most of my teachers in college and in my master’s program complimented me about how “good” of a student I was. Surely, I was no better than the majority. I barely studied, though I did do my homework (usually). I wrote all papers the night before (or morning of, as the case may be). I did pay attention, and attend, class. Took notes, even – but never looked at them again. I’d call this all midlevel participation, wouldn’t you?

But then I became a teacher and that very first semester, when I was a fish out of water at all the wild things I was experiencing, I knew I really was a “good” student. And it wasn’t my actions that made me one, it was my values. A) I wanted to do well and B) I did not want to disappoint my teacher, even if I disliked them. But this, too, was not enough to be a “good” student.

After reading Teaching Unprepared Students, I realized the other key factor: learning styles. My learning style was being freely given to me in the class format itself. According to VARK, I am multi-modal, which means I learn from all kinds of styles, but my best chance is with auditory and reading. Well, hello! Attend a lecture and read the homework! But for some students, these methods are almost meaningless. In all my classes, I made them take the VARK questionnaire on day one, and then reminded them of their responses and suggestions if they were struggling later in class. They began to see they aren’t objectively “bad” students – they just learn differently than “naturally good” ones. Their self-esteemed improved, and they were able to be successful in classes beyond our anthropology ones. Bingo!

Mentoring

Boy calls me an “empath” because I feel deeply the emotions of others (even if it is a bug, and I am making it up in my head). This was harmful in the beginning of my career because it overwhelmed me. No one told me students would cry in my office – and not about bad grades but about dying family members, utter depression, facing homelessness, or the like. I was a teacher, not a psychiatrist! As empathic as I am, all their issues weighed heavily on me. I doubt students realized it, and for many I was one of the few who “got” it. These were real people, regardless of our teacher-student relationship. I couldn’t be cold and cut them off. I couldn’t push them out of my office because I was too busy. I couldn’t end office hours because I had “more important” things to do. That’s what some faculty did, but I did the opposite. I encouraged students to meet with me – one semester I had over 50 meetings! (That was when I was an adjunct not even being paid for my time!!)

It did get in the way a lot, but I know for certain, some students were better off by having my ear. Or, by the “wisdom” I could impart about how to do school or whatever. I don’t think a teacher is suppose to be so single-minded to only deliver information. I think a teacher is meant to mentor a person into a better person; the education part is the given, while the other values and skills are part and parcel. You cannot teach someone the specifics of a field without their first having a foundation to stand on. And if their parents or highschool or other college professors have let them down, then, yes, I think teachers should pick up the slack. Remember those faculty meetings that rubbed me the wrong way? There is a big divide with that thought. Most professors appeared to feel that if a student couldn’t cut it because they had a poor educational background, then the student should drop out. I’m sorry, but where will that student get the foundation then to get educated? You want them to stay ignorant, with low self-esteem, making bad decisions their whole life because they weren’t born with privilege? Uhm, no. What’s that phrase? It’s misquoted terribly these days, but “be the change you want to see in the world.” Teachers, in my humble opinion, are mentors first. Get rid of the ego.

I think that is why, semester after semester, I would have more than one praise for being the “favorite” or “best” or “most compassionate” teacher on campus. And I never made my classes easy. Some parts were easy, some classes were by default easier than others, but I always attempted to challenge even the brightest in the class. So when I read “best” next to “hardest” from the same anonymous individuals, year after year, I knew I succeeded.

And that mentoring part of teaching is what I miss most. The students lost a great teacher when my contract was not extended, and universities are losing great teachers left and right as they choose to hire contingent faculty rather than open lines with benefits. Contingent faculty cannot sustainably remain awesome. They do not get paid or respected enough to warrant their hard work year after year. Contingency in academia is a big mistake. Hopefully, the pendulum will swing the other way soon and students will actually get what they pay for: an education that makes them better people in society guided by their mentors. This is not all on the universities; this is a societal problem. We need to value education so much more than as “a piece of paper”. Good luck to you all.

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