Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Advising Files - Part I

So, I started going to these sessions on campus run by the student success center.  The course is a three-credit intro-to-college class given as an elective for freshman by one of the cheif advisors there.  My prof wanted to go and talk to the students about what it is to be a prof and invited me to come along with him to speak.  I obliged because I knew I could learn something.

You see, Prof D. is a great lecturer and the students really like him.  He's only in his second year of teaching and still relates to the grad students really well, too.  I like him a lot and have learned a TON this semester on how to lecture, how to put together a syllabus, and what to expect with grading papers.  He's always been helpful.  I figured I could learn something from his speech to the freshman.  Much to my surprise, he put me on the spot.  I didn't expect it, but I talked to them about reaching out to faculty members from the beginning.  It was the NUMBER ONE thing that helped me and it gave me three letter of rec writers just from classes my freshman year!  It also taught me a lot about academia, research, and being a woman in a male-dominated field.

So, anyhow, we talked to the students and then afterwards, Prof D. pulled me aside and said he could tell I was really interested in helping the students.  I told him that I loved doing this.  It's why I still tutor for athletics here and why I did it at my u-grad school.  I find it really rewarding - much more so than grading.  So, he told me to talk to the instructor of the class, R, and told me to ask her about how else I can get involved.

I did.  We met for coffee and I came to another session.  I was looking to get involved and she offered a job advising freshman.  This was a cause near and dear to me because I know just how crucial advising is for students.  My poli sci adviser was AMAZING.  She was the best.  But, I had a terrible Honors College adviser who screwed me over and a terribly bad gender studies minor adviser.  She was so bad that she almost made it impossible for me to graduate my senior year just because she couldn't sign off on my paperwork.  Nor could she understand why I couldn't meet with her when I was in the UK during my junior year!  She was a peach, let me tell you.

My baby sister as well (currently just finished her freshman year) was also screwed over by an adviser who did not tell her what she needed for education.  It is why she is now taking a ton of classes this summer.  So, for me, being a good adviser and helping students is really important to me.  I remember being terrified going into that session.  I was shaking even worse when my adviser didn't properly add up my credits and left me unable to register with 19 credit hours.  Thankfully, an adviser from the University Division was helpful and sorted things out for me.

I hope to learn a lot this summer.  While I knew everything there was to know about most majors in the College of Arts and Science at my old university, the COAS curriculum here is still mostly a mystery.  I feel as though grad students often have no clue what the students are facing with concern to the university often because our heart is somewhere else.  In my case, it's back with the cream and crimson.  By better knowing the curriculum,  I will also be better able to help y students by maybe suggesting a set of courses that would better help them in the future.  I really do care about teaching.

I mean, I know that I love research and this is why I am here, but when I have positive interactions with students and see them grow and develop, I get really happy.  Having one student come to me and ask about graduate school made me feel really proud - proud that he was considering this option.  It was also a huge honor that he was asking for *my* expertise.  When I was asked for a letter of rec this year, I wrote it gladly, despite my confusion with how to do so (it's all a learning experience, right?).  I really do care for my students and can't imagine a time without teaching.

So, we'll see if advising makes me feel warm and fuzzy (as I expect it will) in comparison to grading papers) and if I will continue to do it from this semester onwards.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Challenging Students Pays Off?

I recently watched Declining By Degrees, which is a documentary about the problems in academia today.  In fact, it generated a whole load of questions which I will be asking in blogs in the future.  It was a very thought-provoking look into many subjects and I highly recommend it - whether or not you come to the same conclusions as the documentary makers.  I didn't agree with every single statement made, but it highlighted a great deal of things that I find challenging in higher education today.

One such problem is that of challenging students.  I faced this early on this year when I first started TA'ing an Intro to American Government class for a world-renowned Americanist in the department.  I don't "do" American politics, so it was frustrating in that I really did not enjoy the subject as I would have public policy or comparative political institutions, but the prof was great.  And he expected A LOT out of Freshman.  At times, I even wondered if he expected TOO much.

You see, he taught the only essay section in the department.  While there were 5 TA's (three, I believe were 1/2 time), I was stuck with 90 students to grade for.  This mean I would grade 90 full blue books five times in the semester - with the final giving me only 4 days to grade a doubled-in-length exam.  I didn't sleep for two days.  But that aside, I got frustrated dealing with students who were clearly unprepared for what an essay exam required.  Every student in the state must take an American Politics or American History class, you see.  So, whether they like it or not, it is a requirement to graduate.

So, all sorts of students were in the class.  In the first exam, one of my students had a mental breakdown that brought on psychosis.  I am not making fun, but she went psychotic, tried to push the professor down (who is about 6'4'') and then the cops were called.  I was interrogated by a journalist on my way across campus with an undoubtely large stack of blue books.  I wondered if maybe the students were not capable.  However, slowly, students got better.  I tried to be very available to my students and saw them improve, which was rewarding.  I saw my opinion on the capability of the students change.

One professor in this documentary said that students get "better" when you challenge them.  If you don't, the will not apply themselves.  After a year of TA'ing and with two classes under my belt - one an intro and one an upper-division course - I feel that this is true.  At the start of the semester in my upper-division course, I was pulling my hair out.  Students did not know how to quote.  They could not capitalize.  The same students who were apparently "A students", many who had been accepted into good law schools or were in the top journalism program in the country as a double major had no idea how to make an argument or what one even looked like.

Out of about 85 students, I gave out a few A's, based on the criteria set by the prof.  He backed me up on the grades.  I wrote extensive comments and held office hours.  I had one girl have a panic attack in my office.  Another student pounded her hand on my desk and threatened me over her grade.  Another one said she doubted whether I was really capable of doing my job.  I once again began to doubt whether we were expecting too much.  This was the first time this young prof had taught this class and the first round of essays I had graded, so I had no clue.

But, as the semester crept on, the essays got progressively better.  One student even came back to my office to thank me - the one who doubted my capability.  She thanked me for being so constructively critical of her essay because she now realized she was capable of more and did not know it until she was pushed to really make an argument.

The problem that I face at this large state school (LSS) is that it has 90 students in classes that would easily be seminars at smaller schools.  Whereas I should have time to work with students one-on-one over an assignment and review all of their drafts, there is just no time.  I have to grade 3 essays and 2 essay exams a semester.  I don't have time.  I try to help them as best I can, but even then, they don't come to office hours. If I could give them that help in class, it would probably be more effective, but neither I or the professor have the time or resources to really challenge them.

Sure, a few students like the girl above will be challenged and will learn, but a great number will either drop the class (as about 20 did) or will barely skate by.  I believe challenging them should be a prerequisite and am glad this department encourages it.  However, I think that with challenges come responsibilities of the professors and TA's to help them more.  Maybe not in this class, but in general education classes.  Students in an upper-division course should not have trouble arguing.  Intensive writing courses do help with this and are not required at LSS, but they are often not taken until Jr or Sr year.  It would be best if a very intensive comp class was required to challenge students early.  I took one my freshman year and while the GA was a nutcase, I learned a lot about writing and argument.  However, even that wasn't required!  I could have taken a basic gen ed class to fulfill my requirement.

So, I agree, students aren't challenged enough.  However, they do need some baseline knowledge to fully benefit from such endeavors.  I'm just still not sure what that requires, I guess.  Any ideas?

Impostor Syndrome Dies Again

For those of you who are new to thinking about grad school and those who are in grad school, you may or may not have heard of impostor syndrome.  Impostor Syndrome (IS) is something that likes to rear its ugly head in the back of your mind and makes you doubt yourself.  All year I have been facing it.  What if I don't pass my classes?  What if this is the end of the line for me?  What if I really just suck at research?  What if my students always hate me and I am a lousy lecturer?

This year it led me to not want to make any big plans until the year was over.  Something could always happen.  And if it could happen this year, it did.  The year started off with an epic battle with the financial aid office over money they owed me.  While they held my stipend, I barely had money to EAT.  It came to a head when I was sitting in the DGS's office in tears because it was supposed to get below 30 and I needed to buy a coat because the postal service lost the one my mother had sent me from my hometown.  I had no money to buy a freaking coat.

Then, I was diagnosed with BiPolar Depression II.  It runs in my family, but it is not something I ever wanted to deal with.  I'd had OCD and depression for at least 4 years, but new symptoms appeared.  On top of everything else that was happening in my life, now I could not sleep thanks to hypomania.  I kept saying that I would just have to go home.  I would fail out.  Many of my cohort members jumped ship and it led to low morale.  I was just really depressed and happy to see the light of Christmas break.  I made it that far, I told myself it couldn't get worse.

My meds were figuring themselves out by the time that I managed to get to a place where I felt good again.  I was doing well in my classes, I was happy.  Then, one Sunday I woke up in an INCREDIBLE amount of pain.  My good friend and college N drove me to the ER and I had emergency surgery to remove what was supposed to be an infected appendix.  It was something else that also could have killed me, so I was thankful that it happened, but hello $3000.00 emergency bill.

Despite all of that, I did well.  Even this week, I was awfully concerned about my progress.  Submitting a Plan of Study and organizing a committee meeting made it real.  It was frightening, but I did it.  I survived.  Imposter no more, I am okay.  I don't suck at research and may even have a dissertation topic already.  I may be going back to Europe to do research.  I thrived, despite all the terrible stuff that shafted me this year.  I thrived.