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Spring 2017 & then…

Wednesday: May 10, 2017

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This semester just ended! I had two intro to physical anthropology classes that ran nary a hitch. I also had an upper level bioanthropology course with an accompanying bioanthropology and forensics lab. It was another new course for me, and the book I had to blindly select once again ran a little too close to the information in the intro book I use, though it did go more in depth.

For my intro book, I use Kilgore et al.’s Essentials of Physical Anthropology. For my upper level, I chose Larsen’s Our Origins. What I was able to do, though, is run through all the stuff I cover in intro quickly as a refresher (and included all the new more in-depth stuff) and then slow down with the brand new material. I did add material here and there as well. For the lab, I used Walker-Pacheco’s Exploring Physical Anthropology lab manual, though at times I made my own labs. And for the forensics component, I added Nafte’s Flesh and Bone. It made for a great little reader; since the focus of the course isn’t on forensic anthropology, it was just enough.

Other than a few hang-ups with how long each lab took (I never quite got them to fit within the preferred time frame), the class went well.

So overall, the semester was nice. In fact, one Friday afternoon I was in our lab organizing things and I decided to go all in for teaching. Why not? I am the only full-time anthropologist on campus, and the only physical anthropologist. We have one cultural adjunct who has been steady for years, and another that is hit and miss. Though my Visiting position was limited to a two-year term, my department expected me to be extended to three years, and they were pushing to have the Visiting part of my title dropped so that I would be sticking around much longer. I had been contemplating turning it all down, but with the realization that teaching doesn’t have to suck the life out of you if you are actually given time to prep and classes you are experienced in to teach, and the fact that I would be getting a new Chair who was able to stay on top of things, I decided I should in fact just suck it up and act like a more permanent feature of the department. I did in my actions, but it was time to do so in my head.

So off to the faculty organization meeting I went, thinking about the perspective shift I would need to do in my mind. Afterward I checked my email and lo, my Dean had sent me a note earlier that morning reminding me that my contract was ending. He asked if I would like to stay on as an adjunct in the fall.

I confirmed this news with my colleague (who would be Chair). A huge disappointment all around. I notified our students because quite frankly, I was personally pissed. Not that I was losing my job – in fact, it was amazing I even got the opportunity with only a Master’s (though this is part and parcel to some of the issues I discovered there: the path of least resistance and how I just happened to be there at the right time) and I was aware that it had a 2 year limit when I signed on. Instead, I was angry because as a former student, as a mentor to these students, and as a sane professional, how could the University offer a bachelor’s program without any full time staff? This is the type of stuff I found in the news on and off during my searches about how crappy adjuncting is. Here is an article at the AAA’s Ethics Blog that pretty much summarizes the issue: Fighting Academia’s Contingency Crisis Together. Of course I was professional when I discussed it with them – I asked them not to panic and simply explained how it may affect them (lack of mentorship, lack of letters of recommendation, lack of consistency in courses offered, possible lack of quality of courses because of the trials adjuncts experience to survive in our economy, etc). The students opted to write letters, as did my department. None of it was about me keeping my job – I made it very clear that my contract was over and it was completely fair on the University’s part (even if it didn’t make sense under the circumstances).

I have yet to hear what the University’s plans are (and may never), but it is difficult to remain positive for the program. I declined adjuncting – I would still be expected to carry the load of the physical courses (some outside of my area, and developing new courses) and I would not feel right asking our sociologists whom we share the department with to take over as advisor to the anthropology club or lab and whatnot, so I knew that if I stayed on, I would just enable the current situation further and be paid even less than pennies for a job well done. No thanks.

They notified me mid-semester and it did indeed take the wind out of my sails. Why was I making a brand new class? It was hard to convince myself to stay a good educator, but I think I succeeded overall. It wasn’t the fault of my students and they did not deserve what the University was doing (basically not supporting their major, yet taking their money).

I shifted my perspective – it was nice they told me so early so that I could begin a job search. What happened at the University was no longer my problem.

At the end of the semester, though, they asked if I wanted my contract extended throughout the summer. Curious they didn’t realize they needed me until the last moment, but I was not surprised if I am being honest. If it wasn’t for the fact that it was a science class online (I totally oppose that), and that I would have to develop it since I had never taught it online (besides I hate online classes – as a former student of them and as a teacher of them), and that it started in just a few weeks, I may have considered it more seriously. Instead I politely turned down the offer. I mean, I have been looking for opportunities since they notified me, and it is more important I pursue what I like than throw the towel in for another few months with a company that can’t get it together in my opinion.

It is a bittersweet ending because although teaching is a humongous cosmic joke for me, I excelled at it – I am not ashamed to say that (real funny, Fate!). It is disappointing that I finally came around to the idea to then have the rug pulled from under my feet. It is sad that I can no longer help our region’s students learn how to learn and build the confidence in themselves that they apparently weren’t given within their own support networks. It’s terrible I can’t share my love of anthropology daily with people who have no choice but to listen (ha!). It’s frustrating that the University doesn’t support a major that is more vital today than possibly ever under our new administration and the increasing globalization of our world.

But… though I am nervous about the unknown future, a smile keeps appearing on my face. I am free of the mess of academia (I am not searching for another teaching position). Since the very beginning, I have been confused by how it operates. “Ivory Tower”, indeed – the whole system doesn’t make sense to me, a person who has been “in the real world” as I like to say, at a corporation that mostly made sense in their doings. I am free of the particulars I discovered with this specific University (some which had not been changed since I was a student). I find it humorous that I have been assigned an office in the new building for the fall, by the way. I wonder if I have a name plaque?

So my future plans are this: I have not been job searching. Boy and I had some serious discussions about it and he needs help at his office more regularly than I was giving him while teaching. But it is only part time. My mother-in-law runs a candy store, so I can once again help her out here and there when needed. Again, part-time. The plan for now is to see how bored I get. There is a ton of things to do around the house that was post-poned when I began teaching and me doing it will be cheaper than hiring people. I joined an embroidery guild and will possibly delve deeper with the EGA, learning about the history of stitches and what-not through their education programs. I will focus on my arts & crafts side.

And then I will get bored. So in the back of my mind I have another list: I am free now to actually be a legit volunteer at the Field Museum; I found a community development center that focuses on adult education and English as a second language so I might work there; I can seriously look into archaeological CRM work, or perhaps join DNR at the Dunes (once the current administration realizes the importance of DNR anyway); I can get a second Master’s degree or jump in to a PhD (Boy’s least favorite, of course). Essentially, I’ll be looking casually for experiences until I become bored or money becomes an issue.

What I won’t be doing is looking back at my teaching experience and regretting anything (even the Year From Hell last year). In fact, I can now claim that I made the University pay me back all the money I spent on it and then some, ha!

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Fall 2016

Monday: April 24, 2017

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Phew! I had only intro courses (cultural and physical), and I rocked it. There were ups and downs as always, but I was able to finally get a sense of what teaching looks like down the road: when you aren’t swamped by preparing for new classes at every turn but instead free to hone the courses you’ve already taught.

I updated all my lectures, but also modified them a little to include some teaching philosophy changes. For instance, at the end of every lecture I had a slide with “Before moving forward, be able to:” and a list of items like “compare and contrast gracile vs. robust australopiths” or “summarize the development of anthropological thought” – basically, the main theme for that day’s work.

I incorporated two-minute quizzes for pretty much each class day. This was a single question drawn from the previous day’s reading that was not covered in lecture (and they knew that). It forced them to read, and overall the student evaluations (and scores!) suggested it was a good idea. Students always appreciate “easy points” and some admitted they needed that incentive to do the homework.

In my cultural course, I included discussions regularly. I was a wee bit nervous at first, but I intentionally paired them together with someone different from themselves. I started it with the discussion on race, so before we went into that whole bit, I had everyone self-identify. While they watched a short video, I made a list to pair different races and did my best to also pair opposite sexes (though that is difficult at my university since almost all my students are female) as well as separate people who clearly knew each other. They kept this pairing for the rest of the semester, and if time allowed, I had them group up into larger groups after a short time in just pairs. The student evals spoke volumes on this: it was by far their favorite activity because they learned so much, and it became a reason many listed my course as their favorite. I know from walking around and checking in with each pair that their eyes were definitely getting opened to other people’s experiences and perspectives. To think I was nervous about that, ha!

In my human origins course, I went back to teaching like I did when I was a supplemental instruction leader as an undergrad: I focused on helping them learn how to learn rather than what to learn (that was given in lecture and reading materials, so my performance is what got shifted). I told them personal stories about how I learned (or failed to learn) as an undergrad in the same course, and hounded them about confirmation bias. In almost every lecture, I was able to tie in how confirmation bias is a nasty and devious little thing, and how it is constantly working against them. I pointed out the mishaps students have made in my experience over the last few years. I gave them rhyming and acronym tips, I gave them drawings of charts, I gave them silly jokes – all the things that I had used when I was taking the class, or that other students have shared with me. Again, my evals rolled in and students loved it – in just doing that, I really feel that I was able to add aid to the growing issues of critical thinking and media literacy (as in #fake_news and #alternative_facts).

Overall, I was no longer overwhelmed, and I decided that I could probably pursue the teaching thing. Remember, I never wanted to be a teacher, and I do still find it to be a cosmic joke – especially since I appear to be quite good at it. I was not sold on the idea (administrative issues, as well as super lame things like people who clearly plagiarize and then are quite upset that I fail them, et cetera), but I was no longer fighting against it. [That said, there will be more about my future in teaching coming up.]

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Teaching Unprepared Students

Monday: April 7, 2014

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This post is a combination of my personal opinion from asking students questions during office visits, comparisons made between universities where I have taught the same class, and a book that may hold some answers. Part 1:

I am currently teaching at the university where I received my undergraduate degree. I have a good understanding of the students, which are quite different than the students I met at the university where I gained my graduate degree (and the ones I taught there my last year). These students live at home or have apartments and mortgages in the local area (there are no dorms). Therefore, most of them have part time jobs and many have full time jobs and almost all of them have long commute times (averaging probably 20 minutes to over 2 hours). Some have family members they must take care of, and a lot are parents themselves (even the freshman); there are many non-traditional students in the mix, too. Economic classes differ as well – a lot of low-middle to low income kids come through these doors. First generation college kids without a clue how these things work. And while some of the local high schools are perfectly normal or even rated high, some in the greater region from which these students are drawn from fall below the curve, so to speak. Overall, their mindset is probably different than the students found at most large campuses – if school was their single priority in life, they typically do not wind up at this university. Of course, some take it very seriously (like I did, toward the end), but many here look at school as a necessary requirement because their parents told them to, or they believe that “the piece of paper” will make their life better in some way. For several, school is not about the education one receives, but the hoops required to jump through to get a job.

I knew all this when I took the teaching job. However, I was blown away at just how much these characteristics play in each student’s attitude toward their time at university. So much so that during one pointedly low weekend, I decided I never wanted to teach again. (It’s been a rough winter, ok?) But the scientific side of me kept coming back to my Human Origins class – how could teaching the same material have such absurdly different results between two campuses? It couldn’t be that I just can’t teach – it was something about my interaction with the average type of student here. So, what was different?

I began really formulating some type of ephemeral pedagogy (gah, I have always hated that word!). I was brainstorming ideas, but unfortunately I found myself with too much on my plate to really implement them. I mean…would anything really work anyway? I had no idea how to teach – no one teaches college instructors on the hows of it! Yet, I got rated so highly at the other university – why weren’t my ideas working here?

Then one day in my email box, a book club was announced from the other university. “Teaching Unprepared Students: Strategies for Promoting Success and Retention in Higher Education” by Kathleen F. Gabriel. A book club, how dorky was that? Yes, that was my first reaction. But then came the “well, I’ve never done a book club before…I am not even sure what it entails and all that” so I was to avoid addressing it for all of a day. Because finally, I said, “this is a long shot, but it sounds exactly like what I need. I will go out on a limb and join it.” In fact, there was trouble with shipping me the book and I kept pressing them for a copy because I finally realized that I had to learn something about teaching if I was to make it through the semester.

The book came and I learned that my ideas, which had been cobbled together from my own experience with a vast amount of teachers and relations with other students, were exactly on point. That was a fire lit for my self-confidence, for one thing. But the trouble was that I didn’t go deep enough with my ideas. And, as mentioned, I had made some key mistakes which set the path for this clunky journey I’ve been on ever since.

This post will continue in part two, explaining what I learned. But it has given me the gumption to stick at it, to enjoy it again like I had my first year (which was a true surprise). I like my students, and I may not teach forever, or be given the opportunities to teach every semester, but that one low weekend of ill thoughts is behind me. What lies ahead are a lot of minor tweaks which will hopefully solve major problems.

It’s just exhausting being a new teacher, you know?

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Spring opportunity

Tuesday: October 29, 2013

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My alma mater contacted me today and offered me two classes this spring, which means I have a full load from them in both the spring and summer sessions. I will teach three sections of Human Origins and Prehistory (which, as mentioned before, is like the Monkeys, Apes, and Humans course I taught at UIndy), and an Introduction to Archaeology class. When I took that class as an undergrad, I found it completely boring. I’ll do my best to jazz it up, but I am not sure how many material goods I will have at hand in the lab for hands-on experience. I’ve conferred with Dr. M to choose a book and I can use the public archaeology event he hosts at Lew Wallace in my course too. At least that is something!

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One down…

Friday: October 25, 2013

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I have contacted several local schools (less than 45 minute drive) and unfortunately no one is hiring an anthropology adjunct at this time, though they have added me to their files for future reference. Some conversations were discouraging – for instance, only having a single anthropology class, so of course that is filled every semester; only having online classes (can you imagine taking cultural or archaeology online, without any hands-on components? How utterly boring! I would have certainly been turned off from anthropology!); not having offered an anthropology class in years…But other conversations were great. One university said they would hire me immediately but just didn’t have the funding for it, and the others seemed excited but couldn’t hire me for the same reason.

I have thus just expanded my search to include schools within an hour and a half drive. I do not like this concept as it means I may get a job on the north side of Chicago – not a bad place, but the fact I would be driving *through* the city to get there is not a selling point. So far, I have just contacted my two favorite universities. We will see if they bite, and if not, there are still plenty within that distance to contact.

My alma mater did get back to me, however, and though they do not have an opening in the spring, I have been given a class each summer session. The department is going through a lot of changes (a new chair, a possible retirement, posting for a full time professor, and so on) so I am not sure what lies ahead, but this is a start. I am a little nervous teaching over the summer, having barely any teaching experience as is, because the classes are longer and the weeks are shorter, but I am still very excited! I am somewhat bummed that I probably will be unable to go to Georgia, though, but perhaps they will schedule that so I could pop in for the week between semesters.

The class I will teach is Human Origins and Prehistory (almost identical to the Monkeys, Apes, and Humans class I taught this spring). When I took it, there was no lab component, but I believe that is important – it really makes science accessible to students who do not realize they can do science. And, of course, it makes learning about the species and objects so much more interesting being able to lay your hands on them. I will need to get into the lab and see how it has grown since my time there.

On a side note, I am probably going to be able to attend BARFAA, in Ohio, this November. It will be a cool experience, to attend without the stress of presenting!!

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