Grad Student Leaders, Learning, & Life

sogs logo

Having been acclaimed as VP Student Services for the Society of Graduate Students back in May, 2015 (and then again in September), I’ve found myself wondering if I might not be better suited for a career in Student Affairs than as an English professor. I am hesitant to admit to how many hours I’ve devoted to my work with SOGS (as opposed to writing my dissertation), but I have to say that I take pride in all my efforts. Until recently, I wasn’t able to tangibly depict the work that I’ve done, but I can now thankfully categorize my accomplishments into three project areas: Graduate Student Orientation, Graduate Student Experience, and Graduate Student Mental Health and Wellness.

Graduate Student Orientation: Transitioning to #GradLife

Between May and September 2015, I spent the majority of my summer planning for Fall Graduate Orientation. In August, we began working with SGPS in order to run some informal programming on September 8, after the formal Fall Orientation. In late September, SOGS ran its usual 3-day Orientation, but thanks to the Orientation & Social Committee (one out of three I oversee), we had one of the most successful Orientations in years. For example, there were over 70 graduate students at Board Game Night, five teams for our first-time ever Grad Club Olympics, and the Grad Club made an extra $2000 on account of our BonFire Night.

                                     (https://www.facebook.com/Western.SOGS.Socials/)

Graduate Orientation Committee

Due to my involvement with a number of committees in the last few months, I have been encouraging administration to consider implementing a Graduate Orientation committee in order to better help navigate incoming students. After a number of carefully situated nudges, I am pleased to say that there will now be a Graduate Orientation Committee made up of a number of stakeholders including SGPS, IESC, TSC, as well as the Office of Student Experience and its subsequent portfolios (SSC, SDC, Wellness, etc). My particular reason for suggesting this committee was the result of learning that Western – on top of its overarching Strategic Plan “Achieving Excellence on the World Stage” – developed a Strategic Plan for its undergraduate Orientation. Although orienting graduate students is certainly different than orientating “Frosh”, it was disappointing to learn that Graduate administration (SGPS) and SOGS were not consulted, or even offered the opportunity to outline their own Strategic Plan. Moreover, in the introduction of Western’s Strategic Plan, it states that Western welcomes “approximately 5,000 first year undergraduate students each year to our extraordinarily beautiful campus” (2).

Based on numbers from SGPS, Western also welcomes roughly 1200 new graduate students every year. In fact, between 700 and 900 graduate students attend the SGPS Fall Orientation. Besides the Handbook/Dayplanner that SOGS printed every year, however, there is no standardized/official Graduate Orientation Handbook.

Graduate Orientation Handbook

It was actually through the SOGS Handbook/Dayplanner that I first became involved with SOGS back in 2013. After two years as the Handbook Editor, and one summer term as the VP Student Services overseeing the Handbook, I realized that SOGS could put the ~$18,0000 (allocated for the Handbook printing and Editor honorarium) to better use. A few months ago, SOGS Council voted to eradicate the Handbook, which allowed us to increase departmental grants and various other funding for graduate students.

Upon discovering Queen’s University’s Graduate Orientation Handbook, I recently set out to ensure that SOGS could replace the general Handbook with something even more targeted to graduate students. The Office of Student Experience has graciously offered to help SOGS design our Graduate Orientation Handbook, so along with planning for next September’s Orientation, I will be spending part of my summer making SOGS more visible and accessible to incoming graduate students.

Like me, SGPS is working towards this goal, though their aim is to more effectively help graduate students transition into graduate studies. One of the ways they have proposed to do this is by incorporating “transition” into the recently proposed Graduate Student Professional Development program.

Graduate Student Experience: Professional Development and Programming

Last week, SOGS and SGPS had a half day Retreat, and one of the items on the agenda was Graduate Student Professional Development. Since September, I have been conducting various research on graduate student programming, which began as a result of my involvement with Western’s Mental Health and Wellness Advisory Committee (which I will elaborate further on in the next section of this post). After becoming Chair of the Graduate Sub-Committee on Mental Health and Wellness, I began conducting my own audits of student programming under the Student Experience portfolio (for example, the Student Success Centre and the Student Development Centre). Thankfully I had help from the Acting Director of the Student Success Centre and Student Experience’s Director of Research, Innovation and Evaluation.

The following is a small part the 2014-2015 data we retrieved:

  • Graduate students and postdoctoral scholars made up 21% of all career counselling (SSC) appointments (accessed more than undergraduates);
  • Graduate students made up 12.4% of all individual learning skills counselling appointments (SDC);
  • Graduate students made up 17% of counselling appointment hours (Psychological Services).

Note: Health Services does not track undergraduate/graduate student numbers.

According to the Office of Student Experience, “…graduate students tend to access many service areas at a level that is disproportionately hire than their representation on campus (relative to undergraduate students)” (2015). With this in mind, I began delving deeper into graduate student programming, trying to figure out what was available to them.

Thesis Retreat and Thesis Weekly Writing

Currently, SDC offers a handful of workshops entitled “How to Write Your Thesis/Dissertation”. A one hour session really isn’t going to cut it, especially when every student who attends the workshop is at different points in their degree. In the summer, I was part of the “Thesis Bootcamp” committee (myself, SGPS, and the Writing Support Centre), which eventually launched the Thesis Writing Retreat program. This three-day Retreat was extremely successful (I participated in it and got a great deal of writing done), and many students stated in their written feedback that they would like the opportunity to write on a regular basis, particularly in the Chu Centre (which possesses one of the best views on campus). I pushed this idea at our monthly SGPS meetings, and a few months later we launched the Thesis Writing Pilot Project. We offered five 3-hour writing blocks in the Chu Centre for graduate students to sign up for in order to work on their thesis. Having attended the majority of these blocks, I know first hand that students are extremely grateful for the program. I am now delighted to say that not only are we set to have another Writing Retreat (scheduled for the end of April) but that another set of 3-hour blocks have been scheduled for April as well. I feel that both of these programs are extremely valuable, and I hope that they continue after I am gone. That being said, there are a number of other programs that could potentially be relevant to graduate students, but they are currently not (explicitly) marketed as such.

Co-Curricular Record and “GradPath”

For months, SGPS and SSC kept going back and forth regarding the Co-Curricular Record wondering whether or not graduate students are eligible for the program. Until recently, we thought we had settled the matter (that they could, and roughly 108 are currently enrolled), but discovered that Senate never actually approved it. This week, we’ll be finalizing the matter, and most likely moving towards the discussion of Graduate Professional Development, which is what SGPS and other stakeholders have been working on since September.

In September, the 2014-2015 SOGS Executive were invited by SGPS and the “Re-dreaming Graduate Professional Development” Committee to attend a full day Retreat on the subject. Here we learned that Western, at one point, led the way in graduate professional development (with its initial launch of “360” which is now more commonly known as “GradPath“) and that graduate students are now accessing professional development services at 4.5 times (as of 2013-2014) the rate that they were in 2005. The committee has since requested a Graduate Professional Coordinator and a Graduate Career Counsellor in order to meet this demand. However, a great deal more work in terms of the programming itself needs to be done.

At the Retreat, I submitted my “Info-Posal” to both members from SGPS and Jana Luker, the AVP Student Experience. Having researched nine different versions of “GradPath” at different universities, I came up with six “pillars” that I felt embodied overall graduate professional development (visually depicted below):

gradpath

My “vision” includes “Wellness” as a core component in both “versions” of GradPath. Moreover, the “Wheel” is more in line with the initial idea of GradPath (“360”), and visually more in line with the current version of GradPath. It was also an attempt to visualize the idea of the “well-rounded” graduate student, since SGPS is now working towards a graduate-focused wellness “Hub” that is similar to the Queen’s Habitat. Essentially, the theme of “Thriving” in Graduate School.

Both Lorraine Davies (SGPS) and Jana Luker were impressed by my work, and I have now since been invited to be part of the Re-Dreaming Graduate Professional Development  Committee and have been asked to review their proposal. One striking aspect of the program is the proposed one week camp for “Grad School Training”. I was particularly pleased to see it being incorporated into the program’s core, especially after PSAC 610’s recent victory with the bargaining agreement and paid TA training. I was also pleased to see that the committee’s proposed “pillars” are quite similar to my own (and even more pleased to see that they appear to have removed the secondary “competencies” of the current GradPath model). My current plan is to combine my ideas with theirs and “pitch” the model (and suggested programming) to the committee. But one thing is for certain: the program will not be called “GradPath”. There was talk at the Retreat to have a name competition, which I am all for, truth be told. As long as “Mustangs” aren’t involved. The program, I am thrilled to say, is set to launch in August, 2017. I will (hopefully) be finished my degree by then, but I’m still disappointed I won’t be here to enjoy the new program.

What is currently missing from their proposal, however, is the “Wellness” aspect in my own model. Given Western’s recent push towards Wellness, I consider it an integral part of any kind of academic programming. After all, Western’s Human Resources currently offers Mental Health/Wellness training. It only makes sense to incorporate it into graduate professional development.

Graduate Student Mental Health and Wellness: Thriving in Graduate School

The start of my term as VP Student Services hit a bit of a snag when I learned in September that Western was to open the Wellness Education Centre and Western’s Mental Health and Wellness Advisory Committee hadn’t consulted with either SGPS or SOGS. I was particularly concerned because the WEC is housed in the basement of the UCC – a building that is primarily owned and run by undergraduate students. At first, most of the Committee didn’t understand my concern until I explained that graduate students, who teach undergraduate students, might be averse to entering the WEC looking for help when they might potentially run into their own undergraduate students there (since the majority of volunteers there are also undergraduates). After all, there is a reason Faculty members have their own separate entrance to Health Services, as many of them would not want to run into their own students.

Graduate Sub-Committee on Mental Health and Wellness

At the September meeting (the first meeting SOGS had been invited to), I made my sentiments known, and struck – with the help of Lorraine Davies (SGPS) – the Graduate Sub-Committee on Mental Health and Wellness. With Lorraine, I chair the committee. We first met in October, when we discussed the possibility of a graduate student mental health survey, and looking into graduate student programming. This resulted in my own additional research, along with Student Experience’s attempt to pull Western graduate-specific data from the 2013 National College Health Assessment survey. Currently, we’ve launched the 2016 survey, and my hope is to have additional, and more extensive data on graduate students for the Working Group on Graduate Mental Health and Wellness (that has now been recently re-launched by Lorraine Davies) to use in future years.

From the 2013 data, I visualized some important aspects (and included the graphic in the SOGS March Council package):

grad-wellness-snapshot (1)

Many people are probably already aware of the fact that graduate students are continuously stressed and anxious, and experience severe sleep difficulties, but perhaps most people (especially those who are not graduate students) don’t realize how much it affects us. It certainly is interesting to note that graduate students reported “tremendous stress” at a higher rate than undergraduate students–especially when graduate students only made up 20% of the overall demographics of the survey.

Due to my position on the Graduate Sub-Committee, Lorraine Davies forwarded me the SGPS graduate student Focus Group data conducted this past year. Graduate students were asked the following questions:

  • What does health mean to you?
  • What helps you make/prevents you from making healthy lifestyle choices?
  • What does Western do well to support health and well-being?
  • What could Western improve to support health and well-being?
  • What does a healthy campus look like?

A formal report has yet to be written on the Focus Group data, but overall, the 32 graduate students reported that there was a particular need for graduate-specific mental health resources, and that they wanted Western to do more for recognizing its student diversity (particularly, that graduate students are distinct within their own demographic on top of being distinct from undergraduate students).

Graduate Peer Support (GPS)

One initiative that clearly addresses the above desires is Graduate Peer Support (GPS), an initiative proposed by a current graduate student and SOGS Equity Committee member. My involvement with this project has been mostly as a mediator, as I have been working more on the administrative aspect (funding, organization, facilitation) rather than the program’s content. I have played a fairly integral role in two main respects: firstly, by suggesting that GPS eventually become a standing committee under SOGS so that it is a sustainable and consistently funded project; and secondly (particularly in response to my fellow Executive’s concern that SOGS might end up taking on the full burden of dealing with graduate mental health) by proposing the creation of the GPS Joint Fund. In the GPS Proposal to SGPS and Student Experience, I stressed the need for a joint “promise” from SOGS, SGPS, and Student Experience to sustain, support, and promote overall Graduate student mental health and wellness at Western. I asserted that the Joint Fund would function like the SOGS Student Research and Scholarship Joint Fund, though for now would be solely for the financing of the GPS Summer Pilot Project, which will focus on themes including the Imposter Syndrome, living well on a tight budget, and the unrealistic expectations of Graduate school.

For those of you interested (and around this summer), GPS will be (temporarily) housed in the Wellness Education Centre (due to the lack of alternative space) every Wednesday from 10:30-12:30 beginning in May. After formal assessment at the end of September, all stakeholders will then discuss GPS’ future and potential re-location should alternative space be found.

My hope for the GPS Joint Fund would be for it to one day function exactly like the Academic Joint Fund, which would enable graduate student associations/councils to apply for funding in order to run their own wellness initiatives within their individual departments.

Currently, I am trying to launch a kind of Wellness “Habitat” within my own department (English), as I am particularly invested in the well-being of English graduate students. I have pitched this to SGPS as a kind of “micro” project in the hope that one day all graduate student associations/councils will be able to do similar wellness projects themselves.

Conclusion

The SOGS Executive actually met with Provost Janice Deakin and President Chakma (along with Linda Miller and Jana Luker) at the end of February in order to present the above (and other information relevant to each Executive’s portfolio) as a means of getting graduate students on Western’s “agenda”, so to speak.

Below is my part of the slideshow that we presented:

grad life

My “ask” to Dr. Chakma was simply this:

“Recognize the diversity of graduate students and their needs, and acknowledge their distinction from undergraduate students.”

Thankfully, nothing that was said was met with a flat “no”. In fact, on the whole, they were all extremely impressed with the information we presented, and recognized that they have a long way to go before they are ready to take Western’s Graduate Student Experience “to the next level”.

As I wait for Western to catch up to me in terms of proposed programming for Orientation, Student Experience, and Wellness, I will entertain the possibility of re-positioning myself as a “Student Affairs” expert in the English academic classroom.

MB

 

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NAVSA 2015: The Power of Social Media – Once More with Feeling!

On November 15, 2014, I blogged about my experience with NAVSA 2014 and how social media played such a vital role (externally and internally) in making the conference such a success.

Recently I returned from NAVSA 2015 which took place in Hawaii. What a conference!

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(Right Photo: Myself, Dr. Keep, Christine Penhale, and Dr. Fred King).

Yes, the landscape certainly made it memorable, but the talks actually kept many of us away from the beach. If that doesn’t demonstrate how compelling the conference was, I don’t know what would.

While all panels were fascinating and informative, I found the panel entitled (surprise, surprise) “Victorians in the World of Modern Technology” to be the most inspiring (and right up my alley).

@karenbourrier, @annieswafford, and @cmderose_wisc made a splash with their talks!

Dr. Karen Bourrier discussed Victorian memes (“short, pithy, moral statements”) and described her use of Twitter in tracking how contemporary readers engage with Victorian novels. Thanks to Twitter, we can easily see how much Charles Dickens has influenced our “Christmas” cultural imaginary. No surprise there—my family watches “A Christmas Carol” (and we’re Jewish!) every year on Christmas Eve!

Dr. Annie Swafford shared her research on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and the use of GIS Mapping in order to help students visualize the streets that they read about. One of the most mind-blowing insights was that Doyle never used a “real” place when talking about Irene Adler. Dr. Swafford hilariously suggested that Doyle most likely wanted to avoid being sued for libel.

The Digital Humanities: shedding light on authorial intention one novel at a time.

PhD candidate Catherine DeRose used visuals in order to document the rather liberal mention of body parts in Victorian fiction. Eyes and hands, hands and eyes—no wonder the Victorians are known for their fixation with physiognomy. I’m looking at you, Charlotte Brontë!

But the biggest “wow” factor, for me, was the use of analytics in order to “predict” the ending of The Mystery of Edwin Drood—an unfinished (on account of his death) Charles Dickens’ novel. According to DeRose’s analytics, Drood had an 83% chance of living. Of course, I took to Twitter immediately (which resulted in a network connection!):

tweet interaction

I wonder if DeRose would allow me to borrow her software so I can plug in Jane Austen’s novels and discover how Sanditon ends. Oh, the possibilities.

What really tied the talks together was a question posed by Lorenzo Servitje: “What is the Victorian equivalent of the “hashtag”?

Dr. Bourrier proposed the Author Byline, but I think the question opens a world of possibilities for further research into the subject of Victorians and the Digital Humanities–something I myself am now interested in exploring.

As I waited for my flight back to Toronto, I was speaking to Dr. Bradley Deane in the airport about The Lizzie Bennet Diaries and how I would love to make Joseph Conrad accessible to the next generation of students and up-and-coming Victorianist scholars.

Having recently re-watched the Diaries, I happily discovered a “Bonus” episode about Lizzie’s life post-Diaries. The star character, along with living out the plot of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in the 21st century, is a graduate student in Media Studies and has finished her last year by “shadowing” four different media companies before (rather impressively) starting her own.

In an address to the students in Dr. Gardiner’s (ha!) “Hypermediation in New Media Seminar”, Lizzie Bennet offers advice to those about to go on the job market:

“The most important thing we look for in content is that it has a point of view. That it has passion. If you’re just looking to be online to get vaguely famous then you’re not going to go too far.”

Given my growing interest in turning my passion for Victorian literature into something “accessible” to the new generation, this is probably the best “advice” I’ve heard yet. Now I just need to put it into practice.

After reading Donald L. Luskin’s book I Am John Galt on the plane to Hawaii (something I’ve been putting off reading for a while), I now have a clearer understanding of what’s been holding me back all this time. The knowledge that I’ll never be as successful as Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, or John Allison (or any of Rand’s heroes for that matter) has always left me with a sense of worthlessness.

Our fixation with social media, despite opening the doors to many new and exciting ventures, has perpetuated a Cult of Celebrity that I’ve always found debilitating. While I have no interest in achieving the financial (and sometimes empty) success of any Hollywood celebrity, I still have every intention of being the hero of my own life.  While social media has given rise to many a celebrity, it also appears to have cut people down to size more often than not. I certainly don’t want to go online to become “vaguely famous”—I want to go online to find my voice. An interesting place to go looking for it, since the internet is home to close to three billion people.

That being said, it’s refreshing to see the academic world (and other social activist endeavors) taking social media back to its literal and figurative roots by making a serious effort to learn more about the world and doing a bit of good in the process.

I don’t exactly know how to channel my love of Victorian literature, social media, and Randian heroism into a rewarding career, but perhaps NAVSA 2016—The “Social Victorians”—will help me find my way. More to come on that.

Until then:

hero of own life

MB

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Madison’s Reflection on the Year – A Fond Farewell!

My end-of-year parting thoughts for my students…

20th Century Drama at Western University: the official blog for English 3556E, main campus

Hello everyone!

I’d just like to start by thanking Dr. Solga for all her guidance and advice in the past year. Her unwavering enthusiasm and encouragement about my participation in the course kept me going. I found myself falling in love with teaching all over again. A big shout out to Dr. Solga for making this the best TAship I’ve ever had!

Secondly, my warmest gratitude to all of you for making this experience so enjoyable for me. It was an absolute privilege and pleasure to have an overwhelming number of excellent writers and critical thinkers in a single class. Your essays and contributions to classroom discussion definitely made my last TAship the very best it could possibly be. I still feel overwhelmed by all the incredible performance workshops; I have no doubt I will remember them for years to come. I learned a great deal from all of you…

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On reaching out

On the importance of reaching out.

The Activist Classroom

Canadians know that February is, most years, the cruelest month. The snow that was pretty is now pretty dirty, road-salted and ice-encrusted; the groundhog never emerges, let alone sees shadows; and March only brings more wintry blasts. So it has been this year, here in Southern Ontario; and so it has been for me.

Regular readers will have noticed that it’s been a month since my last post (which, incidentally, I also began by harping on winter). The accidental hiatus has been the result of some significant shifts in my personal life. My mother, who is suffering from dementia as well as very serious problems with mobility, has been in hospital for the past 15 days: first recovering from surgery, and now awaiting a permanent bed in a long-term care facility. My father and I have been working together to ensure she is not too lonely, while also attending to our…

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Teaching the Hard Stuff

Last week, we discussed Caryl Churchill’s Far Away and her intriguing writing style. Today, we showed a version of Churchill’s “Seven Jewish Children” to our students (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oWKGbjJ7LxE) in order to discuss (among other things) the idea of structure and how things are said/framed.

Although not on the syllabus, Dr. Solga wanted a way to segue into a discussion about Suzan-Lori Parks’ Venus.

Like many students in the class, this was my first time viewing the 9-minute performance. This version, unlike others, involves only one woman speaking to an unseen person about a “her” that is most likely the woman’s granddaughter.

While watching the video, I found myself growing more unsettled by the minute. I was warned prior to the viewing that many critics, especially in the Jewish world, took issue with this play, declaring it to have an explicitly “Anti-Israel” (and anti-Semitic) message.

While I have much to say on my own reaction to the piece  (which I have here), this post focuses primarily on navigating one’s way through particularly difficult, and potentially problematic, mediums of art (which includes literature, film, theatre, paintings, etc). That is to say, how to approach and debate difficult texts without walking headlong (or causing) an explosion.

While attempting to keep my own calm (my own invested interest in the issue took its toll, so I made sure I kept quiet), I took notes of what the students had to say when they were asked to respond to the film.

The first student to raise his hand provided a number of useful responses.

He referred to the piece as both polemic and incendiary. He acknowledged that Churchill was clearly a talented writer, and that the first few monologues effectively discussed particularly convoluted historical events (such as the Holocaust) and then went on to say that the piece seemed to begin with the idea that the Jews were once the oppressed, but transitioned into saying how they are now the oppressors.

He emphasized that the film made him angry, but I could clearly see how carefully he chose his words (and raised his hand again later on in the discussion in order to clarify something he had previously said).

In fact, this one student set the tone for the entire conversation. Roughly five other students raised their hand, all responding to each other in a constructive and respectful manner. Some students discussed the idea of manipulation, others cognitive dissonance, their feelings of sadness, and even the concept of dehumanization.

One student even made a pop culture reference to Lord of the Rings and how the scene reminded her of the unsettling sequence in The Two Towers depicting Gollum/Smeagol at war with himself over what to do.

Of course, subjects such as the Israel/Gaza conflict may not always play out in such a civilized and calm manner. I have no doubt that in some political science tutorials, students may go after each other and accuse each other of every “ism” under the sun.

“Hot topic” discussions call for delicate navigation since everyone has their own opinion on any given situation. The conflict in the Middle East, in this situation, is certainly a very immediate example of how a spectrum of opinions may present themselves.

I have to wonder if there were other students who felt entirely different from the reactions voiced in the classroom. A few expressed anger, outright disagreement, sadness, along with feeling uncomfortable, but none came out and said anything in line with what might be construed, to some, as the opposing side of the spectrum.

Can the classroom ever be a place to express what some may deem as racist or Anti-Semitic views?

As an academic who happens to be Jewish, I tried to imagine what might occur if a student said something along the lines of “Well, Jews have killed a lot of people.”

How might I, as a teacher, respond to this?

To be quite frank, I have no idea at this point in time, and I am glad that I wasn’t responsible for leading today’s discussion. Instead, I watched Dr. Solga skillfully navigate her way through what otherwise could have been a minefield of a discussion.

In the past, I have seen professors assert their own political opinions onto class readings which either resulted in much amusement or, on the opposite end of things, extreme anger or noticeably unsettled body language.

But Dr. Solga, on the whole, took herself out of the discussion altogether. Although she led off her closing thoughts with an anecdote about her parents, she carefully maneuvered her way into a critical discussion of shame as well as Judith Butler’s critical work on Bodies that Matter which circled back to the initial idea of framing.

I think no matter your true opinion on any politically-charged subject, there are a multitude of ways of ensuring that no student feels uncomfortable and that all aspects of a subject are explored, no matter how difficult. Certainly if any student raised their hand and said “Israel/Gaza is right and the other is wrong” this post would have turned out a lot differently.

Yet from watching Dr. Solga approach such a difficult subject, I feel more confident that there are a critically/scholarly ways to avoid emotionally-charged language which result in incredibly productive and instructive class discussions.

That all being said, your experience teaching the “hard stuff” is entirely dependent on the students in your class, so it is best to tread carefully and “feel out” your students before diving head-long into the more politically-charged discussions.

As for myself, I was pointedly reminded that a good teacher, with effective teaching strategies, makes all the difference in the classroom.

MB

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Taking a Gamble on Academia and Ourselves

Recently, I saw “The Gambler” (a remake of the 1974 film and adapted from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novella). I assumed, in typical Hollywood fashion, they would take out anything meaningful and replace it with an overload of casino scenes, alcohol, and naked women. Although the movie (of course) had all three, the movie’s writers positioned the protagonist, portrayed by Mark Wahlberg, in a career that surprised me: an English professor.

While the novella’s protagonist was a tutor in the household for formerly wealthy Russian family, the film adaptations, both the 1974 and 2014 versions, chose to make Axel Freed/Jim Bennett an English professor. In the 1974 adaptation, the professor draws on Dostoyevsky to inspire his students. Not to spoil this version, but the protagonist does not meet with a happy ending.

However, the most recent version really spins the “Dead Poet’s Society” professor concept on its head. Bennett is an extremely intelligent professor, with a published book or two, who comes from an extremely wealthy family who has dabbled extensively in the gambling world. Despite his secured position in the academic world, Bennett is unhappy. He has a severe gambling addiction and does not have a single healthy relationship with anyone.

When one of his students, a rising college basketball star, asks Bennett in the middle of their English class, “But you have a Mercedes. Aren’t you happy?”

He responds: “Look at my face. Do I look happy?”

In the film, Bennett makes a passionate speech to his entire class of about 150 students about the idea of “genius”. Essentially, you are either born with it or you’re not.

One of his students, who he of course develops a romantic attachment with, is the only one in his class who Bennett considers to possess this “genius”.

Although I don’t know any English professors with a gambling addiction, or Bennett’s philosophical view, I couldn’t help but feel like the movie was a lot more about what it felt like to be an academic than anything else it might have been about.

As academics, we gamble quite a bit. The biggest gamble we make is going into the profession to begin with when there are almost no tenure-track jobs waiting for us when we finally finish our PhDs. And of course, we have to finish those before we can even think about being a professor.

We gamble on whether we’ll be able to keep up with the demand for publishing, if we’ll have enough money, if we’ll be able to stay close to family or friends, and if we’ll be able to make our romantic relationship work if we have to go where the job takes us.

But more than anything, we gamble on ourselves.

I think Bennett’s largest problem was that he wasn’t willing to take a real chance on himself. Yes, he made it to a position that some of us may never reach. He was born into a family that had everything so he never wanted for nothing. Smart, good looking, successful. But he was afraid to reach for genius because of the potential failure that he might be faced with.

The movie only reaffirmed something that I’ve always known about myself. If I don’t take that gamble on myself, if I don’t try, then I can blame it on everything else but myself when things that I want to happen don’t come to pass.

I freely admit it: writing my dissertation is terrifying. I know if I just sat down and did it, I will eventually finish, defend, and move on with my life with a PhD in hand.

But it’s what waiting for me on the other side that I’m afraid to face. I suppose I’ll always be afraid of it, even if the tenure-track position miraculously happens. Although I don’t know what the future will bring, I do know this for sure: if I don’t at least try, it will never, ever happen.

On that sobering note: Happy New Year!

MB

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“Breathing New Life” into Learning: Peer Teaching and How it Works

On Tuesday, I had the pleasure of attending a Colloquium hosted by our English Department. Dr. Jo Devereux and Anne Young, a PhD candidate in our department, presented their separate talks on “Teaching Across Class and Disciplinary Divides” (which could have easily been a panel at NAVSA 2014). While the talks touched on various aspects of class (classification, social status, and issues of poverty), it was interesting that both talks ended by gesturing towards the matter of teaching in the classroom.

Dr. Devereux’s talk on Princess Louise (Queen Victoria’s second youngest daughter) as a successful sculptor referenced a new exciting techno-feature in London, England. Merely by waving your smartphone over a barcode on a statue, your phone will ring and say, for example, “Sherlock Holmes is on the phone for you” and you will then hear the ‘voice’ (by an actor) of the famous literary detective himself.

As the article states, the project is partially to “breathe new life into weary landmarks”, which Dr. Devereux used to effectively close her talk by asking how we might effectively teach history to our students without “ventriloquising” its important players.

As someone who specializes in the Victorian period, I feel that this is a particularly important question. I want to find a way to get my students interested in the time period but certainly not at the expense of the period’s integrity or the potential eliding of the period’s political, cultural, and/or social issues.

Context, of course, is everything. So how can we still have “fun” without taking away from what’s important?

If you’re a fellow teacher, you may have experienced some difficulty in competing with technology for your students’ attention. I am a great lover of technology and certainly intend to explore how it can be more effectively incorporated into the classroom (for example, see Dr. Karen Bourrier’s use of “Storify” with her students), but my current “project” is more about distracting students from their technology. Shocking, I know. As if we could ever ply students away from their laptops.

As preposterous as it sounds, Dr. Solga and I managed to get students “distracted” enough so that they tried their hands at a number of “Peer Teach” exercises over the last few weeks. As I plan to submit my idea to the Teaching Support Centre for “Best Teaching Idea”, I won’t put up the entire thing (because of course it’s just SO awesome you’d want to steal it), but I’ll give you an overall sense of what’s involved.

The idea in a nutshell: get students to explore an idea/concept/theme/question they themselves don’t quite grasp, research it independently outside the class, and then teach said findings to the rest of the class. In summation: learning by teaching.

Objectives:

  • Push students out of their comfort zone;
  • Work through any questions or confusion students have about any concept/theme/idea regarding class material;
  • “Teach” findings to the rest of the class in a creative, dynamic, and productive way;
  • Produce and generate continuous and organic class discussion.

One great thing about this idea is that you can do it in so many different formats. There’s the usual “Think, Pair, Share” (students work in pairs, fine-tune their thinking, and ‘share’ the idea with the class) and the up-and-coming “Long Table Discussion” which involves students sitting down together, as they would at a dinner party, and begin a discussion about the week’s readings.

As a practice run, we tried a “Group Think” exercise (something Dr. Solga and I came up with it) which involved individuals going home and picking a source to use to teach an idea from the text, becoming an expert on their resource and teaching it to their group members, then paired groups  (two different groups that were assigned the same topic, in this case, a “character” from the play we were studying) present their ideas to each other in order to ‘fine-tune’ their argument, and then combined groups present potential working theses to the entire class which opens up an entire discussion about the material.

The actual “Peer Teach” exercise involved assigning each group a “prompt” (a quotation from that week’s reading) and the group had to pick a resource (an article, a youtube video, a play review, etc) in order to “teach” (explain) the prompt to the rest of the class. It was fascinating to see all the different ways students came to understand the readings, without any input whatsoever from us, the instructors.

After the exercise (the remainder of which was completed in today’s class), I asked the students to complete a survey in response to the Peer Teach workshop.

We asked:

1) What did you enjoy most?

2) What was the least effective?

3) What would you want if we did it again?

4) What will stay with you/What will you take away from this workshop?

Thus far, we’ve received a lot of positive feedback. Some of the “remember for next time” feedback includes more time (we did the exercise during a one hour class – I definitely suggest trying it in two hours) and wanting more input from the instructors before doing the exercise. Depending on the way you go about it, providing students nothing to go on before they do the exercise is actually the entire point. We want students to figure out what the reading means on their own – something that they don’t often get to do.

The reading we were working with was, I admit, quite advanced (I wouldn’t suggest trying out this exercise with a theory reading without providing some sort of foundational knowledge first). However, if you’re curious to see what your students are capable of without your guidance, it’s definitely an effective “sink or swim” exercise which Dr. Solga feels that students should be forced to do at some point or another (and I wholeheartedly agree).

Out of all the positive feedback, what warms my heart is seeing the most common response: “Finding real life examples on my own helped me better understand the reading.” Given that this was the entire point of the exercise, I am quite pleased with the end results.

One student even remarked to Dr. Solga and I that the Peer Teach presentations helped her think about the reading in ways she never would have before if we had just given a lecture on it. I received similar emails from students along pretty much the same lines.

I care so much about students developing critical thinking skills that I am constantly thinking about ways to make them practice independent critical thinking. After all, I remember, painfully, what it was like to listen to a 2 hour lecture with next to no class participation. I don’t want to put my students through that. I want them to be engaged, critically, and not even feel the need to check Facebook, their email, their texts, etc for a single moment. Yes, I am a dreamer.

I want them to care. I can’t imagine a better way for them to care than by showing them that they can, in fact, come to (quite brilliant) conclusions about the course material all on their own. That their education is, in fact, paying off.

Although it’s still very much a work in progress, I feel that this idea has, in a way, ‘breathed new life’ into the learning process. Moreover, I sincerely hope that my students do more than simply take away various scraps of information about 20C Drama (though that definitely is a plus too)–I want them thinking about how to learn. And how to learn well.

Technology certainly has its uses in the classroom (and I intend to fully explore those options in future blog entries) but part of me still (naively) longs for that moment when my students stand up on their desks at the end of term and say “Oh Captain my Captain”.

As I said, I’m a dreamer, but some dreams are worth pursuing.

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