Reflections on Listening

This week, I read Freire’s “Teaching Is A Human Act” document and found it quite poignant. The “Caring For Students” section resonated with me because I had recently discussed the semester with other GTAs in various courses. Although we serve in different capacities in different departments, we all concluded that instructional staff (GTAs included) are emanating a lack of empathy and care for the students, intentional or not. We placed instructors into 2 camps:

  1. Those who truly care about the students. These instructors have made considerable structural class changes to benefit the students, routinely check on the students, are genuinely trying to adjust to Zoom (regardless of how successful their transition is), and generally exude a more positive vibe. We thought the latter was a personality trait…but Freire disagrees. He argues teaching naturally brings joy, so in theory, every instructor should be at least somewhat amiable. But there’s the second camp:
  2. Those who truly do not care. We concluded that due to the extremely polarized nature of online classes, anyone who doesn’t fit into Camp 1 is automatically placed here. Pre-COVID, a professor could lie halfway between the camps, but the divide seems to have segregated professors distinctly into one camp or the other.

Even those who are firmly in Camp 1 may exude apathy or a lack of empathy due to the bland nature of online teaching. Many of us are scrambling to pump out as much material as possible as quickly as possible, leaving essentially no room for anything but content, content, and more content. It makes the rare dad joke seem infinitely funnier than it should be. The students have a valid argument — from their perspective, it’s hard to continuously watch videos which are both lengthy and dry. Because communication is limited to emails, it’s easy to misinterpret the tone. Freire correctly states that not being a therapist or social worker doesn’t excuse him from ignoring one student’s suffering. The sentiment certainly holds true today, but how would one put that into practice? Many of the concessions we’ve offered may actually be doing more harm than good (flexible deadlines and lengthy grace periods seem to be sending procrastination to a record high), and yet it still doesn’t feel like enough. As a future educator (hopefully), I can’t help but wonder where the line between being accommodating and not sacrificing the integrity of the course lies.

Feire certainly has some out-of-the-box ideas. I enjoyed these readings and will probably dig up another one of his writings.

Reflections on My Freshman Engineering Course and PBL

As we begin to study case, problem, and project-based learning (PBL), I can’t help but reminisce about my freshman year at VT. All Engineering freshmen enter under a generic major, “General Engineering,” and must pass a sequence of freshman-level courses to declare a specific major such as mechanical or electrical engineering. Two courses in the freshman-year sequence are the “Foundations of Engineering” classes. In each class, students learn elementary computer programming, computer-aided drawing, and a smidge of project management culminating in a semester-long project. I took the Foundations of Engineering sequence in 2015-2016, just a year (or two) after the courses were significantly overhauled. From my understanding, the redesign emphasized the semester-long project. In the first semester course, our team had to program a robot to track a short yet incredibly windy path. In the second semester, our team had to design a “drone” (aka a water rocket).

In retrospect, I wish those classes emphasized PBL more. It felt like we only scratched the surface of PBL and project management, which made me even more conflicted when picking a major; I didn’t know which major would cater to the environment fostered in those classes. That might’ve been by design. Because every enrolled student is a “General Engineering” major, the classes are intentionally broad to sample each major. This, coupled with the inherent dearth of material in a PBL-intensive class, might’ve proved problematic to the Foundations of Engineering instructors, and in my opinion, those issues definitely manifested themselves in the classroom.

One of this week’s readings was a paper published by Dr. Murzi Escobar on his implementation of a PBL class for civil engineering seniors. It was a fascinating to read and even more fascinating to extrapolate the results of the paper to the Foundations of Engineering courses. In the civil engineering PBL class, students worked in teams to solve a real infrastructure design project under the guidance of industry experts. Having an industry expert guide our design process would be an incredible resource to utilize as a freshman in the first-year courses. Obviously, that’s probably asking for the impossible, especially since industry titans are likely hesitant to partner with freshmen. If not industry contacts, how about faculty contacts?

Second, the paper’s results implied a lack of team organization early in the semester. Perhaps this could be addressed by stricter guidance by the instructors. I recall my Foundations of Engineering instructors set rigorous guidelines for us to follow and penalized us harshly when we deviated. While we complained at the time, I’ve come to realize our team never had any functional, organizational, or logistical problems once we overcame the initial (yet seemingly insurmountable) challenge of getting our act together. Perhaps that was the intent, or perhaps our team was just an outlier. Either way, I believe strict structure is a universally disliked but objectively important component to a highly functional team. I mean, who actually likes making Gantt Charts??

The most interesting takeaway from the paper was how communication strategies evolved over the semester. Teams were required to archive their communication logs. When reviewed, students realized they were too wrapped up in cross-platform communication. In today’s era of Zoom, Slack, Discord, GroupMe, and who knows what else, restricting communication to one dedicated channel seems to be of utmost importance. It truly is amazing how easy it is to cause undue panic by accidentally sending a message to the wrong channel/audience. Unlike my lofty “have industry partners work with freshmen engineering students” aspirations, this can be immediately implemented in lower-level classes because these communication channels are universal.

It’s interesting to see how PBL can influence a senior-level course. It’s also interesting to consider how those concepts can be extrapolated down to freshmen, who have a wildly different set of learning objectives. The one constant: every engineering student loves to see how their major applies in the real world. That’s the goal of PBL, so I’d like to study this field more to see how it can benefit students — especially in a virtual era where teamwork is heavily restricted.

How To Adopt Inclusive Pedagogy?

Inclusivity is vital more now than ever. A learning environment should be a safe space. My intent as an educator is to create a learning environment characterized by a positive outlook. I, too, am concerned about our world and our society, and am deeply disturbed by what I see. However, I have made the personal choice to have a positive outlook during these trying times.

I know that there are students for whom it is harder to adopt a positive outlook. News that is upsetting to many can be deeply traumatizing for some. In many ways, it is a privilege to state that I’ve made a choice to have a positive outlook. But if I can create an environment devoted to learning and positive ideas which can be experienced inclusively with everyone in the class, then I think I will have achieved something meaningful for everyone.

Unfortunately, some students struggle to adopt a positive outlook for a multitude of reasons. Understanding why is proving to be an arduous challenge. I mainly attribute this to my lack of exposure to other worldviews. I grew up in a middle-class family, was never plagued by any major health or familial issues, and came to VT for college (like many others in my school district). During undergrad, I majored in one of VT’s flagship programs, primarily befriended classmates. It wasn’t until after graduation when I realized I unintentionally never sought out extremely diverse perspectives, opinions, and/or schools of thought. One of the resources on this week’s page was Harvard’s Implicit Association Test (IAT). I decided to take the “Gender-Science” IAT; my responses unsurprisingly “…suggested a moderate automatic association for Male with Science and Female with Liberal Arts.” Although my teenage and early college years were perfectly stereotypical, I lacked diversity, which is now proving to be problematic when trying to relate to students.

Thankfully, we live in an era where accessing information takes milliseconds. Being at home gives us more time to pursue our interests. I’ve taken this time to culturally and globally educate myself. It’s been fun and enlightening, and I can definitely sense the payout of being aware of new perspectives. I hope to carry this mentality with me when I leave graduate school, as workplace cultures are a totally different beast.

What’s My Teaching Voice?

Sarah Deel’s article was profound. She detailed some of the minutia many GTAs tend to overlook when first starting their assignment. The article was relatable; it was reassuring to know we posted similar questions. However, I still don’t feel confident enough to fully define my teaching voice. I’ve been a GTA for a few semesters now, but my style evolves each semester. Perhaps I’ll be able to solidify my core teaching tenets by mid-semester, but for now, I’ll list two of what I think are my most prevalent strengths:

  1. Adjusting my teaching style. I like to administer frequent surveys to assess my strengths and weaknesses. Currently, I send an optional weekly survey to my students and have already received valuable feedback 4 weeks into the semester. Thankfully, students have been very specific about changes they’d like me to implement (such as speaking slower), so I haven’t had any real difficulty tweaking my style. I also plan to give a survey after the midterm.

I’ve found that students appreciate the surveys because they’re never required. The weekly surveys are optional, so students are free to give feedback whenever they feel is necessary. We clearly emphasize that we don’t use surveys as a participation grade or even to decide if we bump borderline grades at the end of the semester, so there’s no pressure for students not to participate. As one would expect, survey participation is high at the beginning of the semester and drops exponentially. I don’t find this problematic, as adjusting to the class in the beginning of the semester will set the tone for the rest of the semester.

2. Drawing the line between “friend” and “teacher.” I served as a Resident Advisor in my undergrad, so that gave me a wealth of experience toeing the fine line between being a friend and being a mentor. It’s certainly not easy and it’s not always fun, but it’s a necessary part of the job. Deel struggled with forcing humor, nonchalance, etc., and I definitely think that’s at the forefront of new teachers’ minds. Being young certainly helps, especially in the COVID era. As a fellow young adult, I follow more than my fair share of meme pages, watch too much Netflix/Hulu/Disney+, play an alarming amount of video games, and share the general sentiment felt by American teens in these times. Pop culture, therefore, is an afterthought to me, while an older GTA (or even full-time instructional staff) will lack the relatability crucial to forming a strong rapport with students. In addition, I’m from Northern Virginia, which is clearly an advantage at this university. I stayed in the same department for graduate school (Mechanical Engineering), so I’ve also found it incredibly worthwhile to discuss my experiences in the undergraduate program.

This segues nicely into discussing how the class I assist contextualizes this point. I’m a GTA for a 400-person introductory coding class for Mechanical Engineering sophomores. It’s the gateway class for the major, so there’s an abnormal pressure to this class since failing can tack on an extra semester or year. Obviously, a 400-person class presents nightmarish logistical challenges which everyone on the staff avoids like the current pandemic. We’ve implemented an incredibly strict “no late work, no extensions, no nothing” policy. Essentially, we release assignments at least 1.5 weeks before the deadline and put the onus of submission on them. The students who excel at time management/organization/coping with online learning breeze through and submit it within days, but that sadly only represents ~20% of the class. The remaining ~80% wait until 15 minutes before the deadline. When over 300 students all attempt to submit their HW, Canvas inevitably crashes. It’s essentially a toss-up to see whose HWs successfully submit and whose HWs are lost to the deep, dark rift of the intra-Canvas interwebs. For the first HW, ~10% of the class got a 0 by default from not submitting their HW by the deadline, and our emails were absolutely inundated with extension requests, pleas, and narratives lengthier than some dissertations I’ve read. We committed to a “no nothing” policy at the start and that was clearly communicated, so we put our foot down and braced ourselves for the onslaught of scathing diatribes. Much to our surprise, we only received a few.

Am I sympathetic? Absolutely. “Zoom fatigue” has hit me hard, too. However, I don’t feel that bad because I connected with my students early in the semester. Now, when I tell them I have to give them a zero, it’s not coming from some soulless keyboard warrior hiding behind the screen; it’s coming from someone who happens to hold a semi-authoritative-but-mainly-focused-on-learning-because-I-was-once-in-your-shoes-and-genuinely-want-to-help role. And that dampens the sting quite significantly.

There are lots of tangents here (not unlike the current draft of my thesis), but I think this is a good starting point. I’m excited to read others’ blogs and discuss the plethora of perspectives we carry!