Thursday, June 26, 2014

Going Halvsies

Next week is Independence Day, which marks our nation's birthday and the traditional "halfway" point of summer.  I could count out days and check out how accurate this tradition is, but let's face it, that would take time and brain cells (not much of either, but still more than I have to spare at the moment).  I know the trope about teachers and summers off, but I'm still waiting for when in my teaching career I'll have a summer off.  I had a decent portion of the month of May off while my son still had classes and I had some time after exams and final grades had been turned in for the spring semester.  Of course, that time was spent preparing a manuscript for publication and preparing my summer class materials.

Once the boy is out of school every summer, I start the fun of splitting time between parenting and teaching without any down time.  It's less effective this way, with the thousand and one questions, requests, and interruptions that come with a child, but as an adjunct it's not as if I have big bucks to spend on camps, day care, and babysitters so we make do.  On the positive side, he gets to be involved with my class preparations so we try out fun things for lab- making a model of a muscle filament, doing exercises and naming the actions, muscles, and joints involved, and testing reflexes for a few ideas.  He's also involved with my students and I on our summer research projects, which you can check out over here.  We're having a great time with that, chaotic and topsy-turvy as it is.

One thing that is for-sure at the halfway point is my summer classes.  I did manage to secure a handful of weeks of inexpensive but good day camp stuff for Kenny thanks to the Kent Parks and Recreation department and a gift from my mom, so that's helping to give me some time to deal with class prep, grading, and starting to think about autumn classes (not to mention the perpetual job hunt for a full time teaching job).

I'd love to be half way through my summer break.  Heck, I'd love to have half of a summer break.  But I guess I went into the wrong profession, or at least at the wrong time.

Whatever.  I love my job, I love my students, I love our research.  Maybe someday soon the US will again love education even a tiny bit.  Until then, us teachers will just keep toiling on over summer break to do the best that we can this and every day of the year.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Balancing Ethos, Pathos, and Logos

I have a second grader at home- almost a third grader, as the school year draws to a close- and a smart one at that.  Anyone reading this who also happens to have a second grader, or had one in the past, can probably attest to how humbling an experience this is.  The questions are endless, and they're starting to get pretty interesting.  No longer are we hearing the simple "Why is the sky blue?" type questions that can be answered with a fairly vague generalization like "It's because of the way light bounces off of molecules in our air."  Instead, he now wants to know what molecules, how are they "bouncing," what about rainbows, what if the molecules go away, what if there were even more molecules, what would we have to do for the sky to be green, and what about sunrise and sunset when the sky is a color other than blue? 

Then he stops listening about halfway through the answer, comes back with "But what if you're wrong?", and my head explodes.

I appreciate skepticism, and I am thrilled that he's willing to challenge authority, but it also gets old when all that skepticism and challenge are aimed at me incessantly. I'm not going to lie, I don't have the highest self-confidence in the world, but I'm working on it.  Being a woman in science and an adjunct in higher ed does not exactly help, although my experience has not been as bad as some of them described by Deirdre Redmond and commenters in The Chronicle of Higher Education's "A Black Female Professor Struggles with 'Going Mean.'" 

My own issues aside, this seems a recurring theme in our culture right now, unfortunately.  We take the word of a pastor as infallible, but the findings of the vast majority of climatologists can be dismissed without thought.  Discredited and falsified studies get more public attention and "buy-in" than the current data that is contradictory to the falsified findings.  Non-profit organizations with misogynist leanings can persuade people that crucial health and safety studies are "cruel and unusual" and ignore the numbers of people saved by those "cruel and unusual" studies every year, including some people very dear to me.  The idea that skepticism means one person's ignorance is weighted and valued the same as another person or group's research is not what skepticism is supposed to mean, but today we've gotten to point (thank you, Fox News) where this is exactly what people mean when they say "skeptical" or "balanced reporting." It's frustrating, it's anti-science and anti-education, and we need to stop acting like everything is subjective (not that everything is objective, either; the world's too complex for binaries).  Preferably before my head explodes.

So what I've been talking with Kenny on this matter is this- How about simply considering why you're challenging someone before doing so?  Think to yourself "Who am I challenging and why am I challenging them?"  If you wouldn't be challenging them if they looked differently, then maybe you need to re-evaluate your skepticism.  If you have problems believing them because of your history with them (lying, exaggeration, etc.) maybe you need to reconsider your association with them.  If you're challenging them because they're stating something that goes against your prior experience or knowledge, point that out to the person.  If none of these are true, maybe you're not being skeptical, but a contrary a-hole.

It won't save the world, but maybe thinking and talking about these things will get us a step in the right direction.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Joining the Crowd

It's no secret that I love a good pedagogy discussion or idea, something new to try in my classroom, so it should be no surprise that when there was some discussion on SciFund Challenge and other spaces about crowd-funding as a novel source for filling the gap that's so often left between what we have in the class and what we need in the class that I would jump on board.  The possibility of challenging my students to engage in original research and integrate their own learning alongside science communication?

Hot d*mn, that sounds like fun!

And more importantly, that sounds like a recipe for an extraordinarily awesome experience for this semester's class, and a chance to improve the available materials for classes to come.

So I took the chance.

I'm still taking that chance, really.  I have a crowd-funding proposal going on for the next few days (until 26th March), to raise some funds for my students' project.  And when I say "I," I mean my students.  They wrote it.  They made the budget.  They've been working on the protocols.  With my help, sure, but they're the primary content drivers in this project, I just gave them the assignment and the support to do what they're doing.

And what they're doing, quite frankly, is pretty freaking cool.  We're surveying the biological diversity (or how many and what type of organisms) on KSU Trumbull campus.  This has been done at the KSU Stark campus by Matthew Lehnert and some of his students, and I might be expanding this work to the main campus with an Upward Bound class this summer (depends on whether or not I get that job). 

Some other stuff my students are working on can be seen on our Digital Research Symposium website.  Right now, it's last semester's work that is up, but I'll be adding this semester's batch this weekend.  If you appreciate quality education, if you believe in students as capable and creative thinkers able to take agency in their own research endeavors, if you think that research can act as a catalyst to solid learning, then go check out what we're doing, and maybe make a contribution. 

Monday, September 16, 2013

Classrooom Changes

The school year is in full swing now in Kent, and we're heartily enjoying life with a second grader.  Specifically, we're enjoying this second grader and his second grade class.  This year, our school is trying out a mixed 1st and 2nd grade classroom.  Two teachers, two student teachers, and two grades in an extra large room (really two rooms with a collapsible wall between them that's not used very often now).  Kenny's been thrilled about it so far, and seems to be doing well with this new set-up, in part because the first grade teacher was his teacher last year, and he really enjoyed working with her.  We're glad that he has another year in a safe place where he enjoys learning, and his official teacher for this year has a similar pedagogy and manner to his first grade teacher.  His daily pattern is familiar, he's making progress on school work, and meeting new friends.

I may not work with young kids, but I do teach, and I take my profession seriously.  So much in education is bad news- rising tuition, rising student loan amounts, another assessment added to the schedule, and test prep taking more and more time away from teaching.  With all of that, it's great seeing innovation and child-centered learning still making its way into some areas.  Classrooms being treated like research, following evidenced-based practices and contributing to that evidence, trusting teachers to take leadership of their own classrooms, those are the things that I like to hear happening. 

In my own classrooms, I'm trying some new things, as well, like virtual presentations and some new lab activities.  It's surprising how different things feel with just a little bit of a difference; those little changes make such a big deal in overall outlook.  For me, seeing changes in my syllabus come together, and seeing how other people shape their classrooms for the students (with supportive administrators, even!) brings a renewed feeling of excitement about my profession. 

Over the weekend, Dwight and I saw Dark Side of the Moon, a Pink Floyd tribute band in our area, and went with two of our friends who also work in education.  We reflected a bit on the irony of four teachers enjoying "The Wall," but honestly, the world has changed so much since then that it's not a fair comparison.  Pink Floyd rails against the almost demonic image of a stern class headmaster, who was the final say in his classroom.  He was an authority figure, and Pink Floyd tends to have a very anti-authoritarian bent.  Today, most teachers are not authoritarian, but instead nearly as powerless as students in the classroom.  Legislation about standards, exams, meetings, IEPs; administrators with their list of demands; helicopter parents who will question any decision about their child from the teacher, and in some cases complain to the principal about every decision concerning their child. 

I can't sympathize with the teacher in "The Wall," and I don't think the current situation strikes the correct balance in the classroom, either.  And it is a balance between a teacher's autonomy in the classroom and meeting the need to ensure that children are getting a high quality education.  We haven't found that balance yet, but I'm hopeful that the pendulum will swing back towards teacher autonomy soon.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Down Time

I've been crazy busy with my current class lately (to the point where my hourly pay- yes, this teaching job is hourly- may actually be lower than minimum wage).  It's an interesting set-up, accelerating an entire semester into one month.  I'm not a stranger to long work hours and abbreviated time tables, but this one takes the cake.  A four credit hour general education class for non-majors, and it's possibly the most exhausting class I've taught.  Each day of class is the equivalent of more than the typical week in a standard semester, so there's very little time to relax and evaluate a lesson before jumping straight into the next one.  Not for the faint of heart, that's for sure.

I'm not usually one to enjoy relaxing or vacation.  I tend to be the one that takes their laptop on a night out to keep working.  On the bright side, I'm learning from this experience how important it is to let the mind process material during breaks.  Switching gears and letting the brain just soak in what it's been working on makes the learning process more efficient, and effective. 

I know it's not a new observation.  I know there's plenty of research documenting this same effect.  But you know what?  Having a reminder of what you already know is a great lesson.  And slowing down and enjoying the moment is a lesson I need reminders of from time to time. 

No matter how bad a situation is, there's also something to be learned from it.  Or so I keep telling myself. 

Monday, August 12, 2013

The Passing of a Folk Hero

It's no secret that I'm a die-hard music fan; it soothes my savage soul, so to speak.  Since before we moved to Kent, I've enjoyed the musical contributions made to Ohio airwaves by WKSU, the National Public Radio station run by Kent State University.  For over 30 years, the station has brought folk, classical, and news to Northeast Ohio and farther if you had a good antenna.  They've also helped to host the annual Kent State Folk Festival, and more recently spawned Folk Alley- a 24/7 streaming online all-folk station.  Folk Alley has since made the switch to not just internet, but having an HD channel of its own as well.  While at this point in time classical music is a bit easier to find on the dial, stations that play both older and current folk hits are few and far between, and classical is slipping away slowly but steadily.  It's within this atmosphere of radio-wave homogenization and declining cultural arts investment, that I reflect with a heavy heart on the station changes at WKSU. 

New management to any organization invariably brings some changes.  That's no surprise, and everyone expected that having a new station manager would bring some new ways of doing things and maybe some differences to the old line-up.  I don't know that anyone was expecting quite the wholesale re-ordering that we've experienced.  And I definitely didn't expect the dismissive tone to any opposition to the new format.  Obviously, there are great places like Ear to the Ground Music (from the Shameless Self Promotion department) to find new folk tunes, but typically speaking surfing on the radio is where we are first introduced to new music.  Searching the internet to find something requires that a certain level of interest is already there, and that takes away a particular serendipity. 

There's a certain irony in all this.  Folk music- by its very name, music for the masses- moving off of the standard radio format, currently analog, onto the newer less common radio format which requires additional equipment for most people.  This move is taking folk away from us regular folks, and the same with classical music.  Sure, there are a couple of hours on the weekend, but not like what Kent and the other WKSU listeners are used to.  This, alongside the recent downtown redevelopment with expensive high end shops, and the loss of community green space, has me very much disliking gentrification in my neck of the woods.  You can hear the inequality growing.  But that's what our city council has decided needs to happen, so that's what's going to happen.  Maybe November's off-year elections will be more interesting than I had expected.

On the bright side, us little folks are working together and getting some cool stuff done on our own terms, like the new Edible Kent endeavor and pARTy and Snack-nic outdoor art extravaganza to help replace our community green space.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Corporate Conundrum

It's Moral Dilemma Time, kids!  All right, so the answer is already decided (us teachers gotta eat, you know), but I've been thinking a lot lately on corporate colleges and their impact on the higher education landscape.  This is mainly because I've been hired by one, so I feel the need to at least cogitate on the matter.

On the plus side, they can seem to have some innovative structures (one month-one class systems; social support systems like child care connections; flexible class delivery modes).  On the negative side (and it's a big negative side), they rely heavily on part-time adjuncts and may not have any tenure.  Where I'm working currently has about half of the pay of a typical class that I teach, and is hourly not salary (and only pays for contact hours, not prep or grading time).  Frankly, what bugs me even more than the pay is the bureaucracy.  There are a million and a half "Thou shalts" and "Thou shalt nots."  Oddly, with all the rigamarole, there's no time-sheet.

All of the metrics for this private, for-profit school are horrendous as is typical for PFPS, whether you look at graduation rate, retention rate, employment after graduation, etc.  The classes are a joke.  The instructors are a mixed bag, but without any time to plan or grade lessons, even the best instructor is going to face challenges.  The resources offered are there to help keep students coming back, not moving forward; help with getting financial aid and government assistance, not help with actually getting an education.

It's despicable, the way these companies profit off of failing students.  It's worse than I had ever thought these places could possibly be.  But you know what?  I have a family to take care of, so I'm doing it.  Now if you don't mind, I need to go bleach my eyeballs and scrub half of my skin off for taking part in this fleecing.

Thank goodness for neo-liberal education de-formers, at all levels of education.