Empathy is a major part of my personality. I often find myself trying to put myself in another’s shoes, and I work hard to try to understand why people do and say the things that they do and say. Admittedly, I’m not always good at it, but I do, in all sincerity, try. Yesterday, I read my teaching evaluations from my first semester as an assistant professor. I had anticipated that with teaching a new subject for the first time, I would likely get some negative feedback, and having taught for many years, I expected that most of the really negative stuff would come from students who, big surprise, did not do well in the course. I was pleasantly surprised to get generally positive and even some constructive feedback with the expected turds sprinkled among the comments.
When I go through the inevitably soul-sucking task of reading evaluations, I find myself channeling my inner Ze Frank and thinking of some of his words of wisdom from his video An Invocation for Beginnings.
“Let me remember that the impact of criticism is often not the intent of the critic, but when the intent is evil, that’s what the block button’s for. And when I eat my critique, let me be able to separate out the good advice from the bitter herbs.”
Bitter herbs, indeed. While I, unfortunately, do not have a block button for students, I, fortunately, do not have students with evil intents. Just bitterness, anger, and maybe even depression; all projections of their own perceptions regarding their performance in my class. Some recognize that they should have done things differently, but all too often they blame me for their inadequacy in the classroom. Their failure shifts to my failure, which is somehow easier for them to swallow than is self-reflection and ownership over one’s own learning. Nonetheless, I am left to do my own self-reflecting on my work last semester and the impacts that it had on my students.
So, there I was…sitting in my pajamas staring at this judgmental laptop screen telling me that I didn’t do enough. Malicious words attacking my ability to teach without actually providing feedback on ways to improve or even specific areas to work on refining. Beyond the sparingly dispersed useful critiques were the expected contradicting statements and whiny diatribes about how hard it was to be my student. Oh, never was there a story of more woe…
“The lab quizzes are really hard it is almost impossible to pass with a B.”
–Student who apparently did not get the “B” that they wanted
“There is no material to help us prepare for tests other than just studying.”
–Student who missed all supplemental resources posted in CSC Online
“Dr. Morrow posted lots of resources for us to use.”
–Student who saw and used supplemental resources posted in CSC Online
“We should be learning about major arteries and vessels but not the entire structure.”
–Student who knows how to be underprepared for a professional program, redundant with their language (arteries are vessels…), and unclear in their meaning all at the same time
Sort through the bitter herbs, I told myself as I became increasingly defensive and shot poignant counterpoints into the ether. Once the dust had settled, I was able to find a few things to do differently. To my surprise, the students’ suggestions were mostly things that I had already considered during my own reflections on what to do in 2018. I was a little taken aback by recurring “don’t read off of the PowerPoint” comments. I knew that I did this a little bit…after all, I was new to teaching the material and would refer to my slides to keep pace and make sure that all of the content was covered. However, I felt like I had spent enough time explaining things that were bulleted on the slides to be considered as having not simply read straight from them. I’ll try to be more aware of this in the future.
I have always thought it interesting that we ask the least qualified among those in academia to evaluate our effectiveness as educators. Sure, there is some value in deciphering student raging and rambling to dig out any constructive criticism there is to be had, but I put much more stock in the evaluations of my peers and empirical assessments of student learning rather than in student perceptions of learning. For me, and probably many other professors, the impacts of our courses will likely not be felt by students until many years from now, if they are ever truly recognized by our pupils.
Bearing all of these things in mind, I sought to get a better reflection of my first semester with a series of data collection techniques. First, I had my students all take a pre-test and an identical post-test to empirically show improvements. The results were exceptional. One of my classes improved by an average of two letter grades, while the other by an impressive three letter grades. Secondly, I asked my dean to observe one of my classes and offer feedback, which I put to good use during the semester. Finally, I had my student reflect on their learning throughout the course using little CATs (Classroom Assessment Techniques) that I picked up from NFO (New Faculty Orientation) meetings and conversations with my dean. Additionally, my final assignment in my courses was for students to write a 1-2 page reflection on their learning with specific points to address. Honestly, I learned more about how I was doing reading those essays than I did in going over my evaluations OR reading through the supplemental SurveyMonkey data that I collected in addition to the standard CSC evaluations.
I found myself going back in time to put myself in the shoes of an upperclassman during my undergraduate experience. What did I know? I remember always trying to be honest and helpful on my evaluation forms, which lacked some anonymity given that the professors spent a semester growing accustomed to our handwriting only to receive hand-written evaluations in the end. In classes that I loathed, I recall trying to point out to my professors what made it difficult for me. Still, the question remains: What did I know? I had never taken the course before, nor was I an expert in the subject matter, so who was I to say that it could or should be taught differently? How did I know that while some things didn’t work for me that it didn’t work for others in the class? What if I just didn’t spend enough time studying? It would have been entirely possible given that I did not become diligent at studying early and often until later in my college career. I rarely visited with my professors, so was I sure that I hadn’t missed something that they had said, perhaps even repeatedly? What did I know about pedagogy, a word I didn’t hear until I was working on my Ph.D.? What did I know about content retention, learning outcomes, or backwards design? Nothing. I knew nothing. And yet, there I was, surrounded by peers in the same position as we gave our novice assessments on instructor effectiveness. Maybe our feedback was positive, maybe it was negative, maybe it was thoughtful and constructive…or maybe we were just putting words onto paper that were utterly meaningless even if it made us feel like we were in some way authorities on the subject of teaching college-level courses.
This air of authority pervades student evaluations and is, quite frankly, a bit insulting to those of us who have spent years developing our abilities to be effective instructors. One of my students commented that I should not have been hired. Another was upset that I couldn’t answer all of their questions all of the time, which made me unqualified to teach my courses last semester. Others made it seem that they would have done a better job if only they had had a different instructor. Though I may have wanted to, I never, ever, ever would have told my professor that I thought they were incompetent or that they were the reason for my inability to earn the grade that I wanted. I get the temptation. I really do. It’s much easier to blame others for your mistakes than it is to own your mistakes, but smooth seas never made for much of a sailor. We can’t get better without constructive feedback, and I have some for my students: You decide your own level of involvement. (Okay, so I stole that line from Tyler Durden, but it applies in this case.) If you aren’t reading before coming to class…if you aren’t coming to class and paying attention….if you aren’t studying outside of class…then you are not involved, and I cannot help you to achieve your full potential.
As I sat there on my bed, emotionally exasperated, I decided to do a little counting, and you know what? The positive comments outnumbered the negative ones. I’ve heard it said that it takes nine positive comments to outweigh just a single, tiny negative comment. I tried to keep that in mind so that I could consciously devalue those negative comments and give myself some credit for the things that I did do well last semester.
The comments were clear. I was kind, fair, and approachable (according to the vast majority of students anyway). I was knowledgeable, but recognized my limited understanding of the content and would not pretend to know the answer to a question that I didn’t know. I was genuinely concerned about my students’ success and I set the standards high. Some students appreciated these things. Others didn’t, but the point here is that some of them did…they actually did appreciate the course and my role in it. Nothing exemplifies this more than the following comment, which, yes, gave me all the warm and fuzzy feelings after reading through the others.
“Dr. Morrow is learning with us. This is her first time teaching anatomy and I think she’s doing fantastic. A lot of people are complaining, but I think she’s holding us to a really high standard. I’ve talked to others in professional school and I think she is taking a lot from what she learned during this summer and putting it to good use. Honestly, she’s probably going to get a lot of bad reviews, but they’re from people who want an easy A. I don’t think I’ll get an A in this course, but I’m going to work towards one. I really appreciate Dr. Morrow.”
–Hardworking student who, I’m hoping, got that A
As I sit in my office now, writing this, reflecting on my performance, my students, and where to go from here, I can’t help but think about the professors that got me to where I am today. Did I ever tell them how important they were in shaping me? In preparing me for my next, big adventure? Do they know that I still remember nomenclature and understand major concepts because of things that I learned from their classes? Did I give them enough good feedback to help them get through the swamp of student evaluations and find something meaningful and useful to their own personal growth and development? Did I actually impact my professors in small ways? Was I giving anything back for all that I was getting from them? I don’t know, but I sure do hope so….and I also hope that I am giving my students what they need for their next, big adventures as well.
There’s this phrase that you seem to hear popping up an awful lot during your first year at CSC (and probably many other places as well).
You probably feel like you are drinking from the fire hose…
Now, I know we have you drinking from the fire hose…
You all have so much going on right now and it’s like drinking from the firehose…
Yes. Yes it is.
As a career academic, this isn’t really all that new of a concept for me. Traveling way back in time, I can recall my first year as an undergraduate. New city, new school, new job, new teachers, new friends…it was all pretty overwhelming and, despite my excitement, balancing work and school with some semblance of a personal life was a big challenge. I was a chronic over-achiever throughout high school, so I had developed some skills to help with this, but I was not yet very good at the time management piece. That blur of a freshman year hit me unexpectedly as the fire hose was opened for the first time. There was so much to read…so much to write…so much to study…and not nearly enough hours in the day or enough caffeine to keep me going even though I worked for Starbucks throughout the time that I was pursuing my undergraduate degree.
Four years later and I am able to say that I successfully survived the B.S. I then decided to keep learning about biology and became a graduate student. I worked on my M.S. at the same institution, so I didn’t have to start all over on the finding friends or building up my professional reputation bit. However, this was still a pretty transitional time for me. I was being hit with more information and starting to realize just how little I understood about this field that I had just earned a degree in. The pressure from that fire hose increased as all of these new data came pouring into my consciousness, and I struggled to hold on to every drop that I could (often failing miserably and eventually redefining success as my ability to fill a bucket here and a bucket there rather than trying to get it all). By the time I started my master’s program, I had already been teaching for a year (as a senior undergraduate lab instructor), and I was beginning to develop confidence, competence, and comfort in the classroom. I somehow also balanced my thesis research, an independent research project, and writing an in-house lab manual while taking classes and teaching over the next three years.
Then came the Ph.D. years. There I was, a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed graduate with two shiny new letters to tack on to the end of my new last name, Johnica J. Morrow, M.S. Being able to call myself a “master of science” had a nice ring to it. My new husband and I moved from the state we had both called home our whole lives so that I could further master my trade. There we were, newly married, moving to a new city in a new state so that I could start a new program. Cue fire hose. Not only was I teaching and conducting research for my dissertation, now I found myself also having to write grant proposals, attend training workshops, work on a number of side projects and contract jobs, deal with a whole new level of financial uncertainty from one semester to the next (I was not brought in on a grant or permanent contract for my program), build a professional reputation by attending seminars and conferences, and find time to also serve my discipline and my department. I picked up more and more responsibilities, side projects, and other obligations with each passing year. While it was certainly a fire hose situation for the next four years, the amount coming out of the hydrant was steadily increased rather than opened full-blast from day one. I eventually made it through my program, spent a year chasing a tenure-track position, and eventually wound up on the other side of the state, right here in Chadron, Nebraska.
Which brings us to where we are now. That fire hose is full-blast, high-pressure, you-had-better-get-all-that-you-can-while-you-can at this point. Oddly enough, it seems to be more of an off-and-on situation. I have had weeks of barely managing not to drown in my own feeble attempts to stay ahead of the material that I will be using in my classrooms. These weeks have been punctuated by a few days of sweet relief in which I could go home before 10 pm, actually make a decent dinner, and even shower before falling asleep so that I could start the next day that would end with me already being behind again. The fire hose is back on, but at least now I’m wearing a swimsuit.
I think one of the reasons that this semester has seemed to be so simultaneously daunting and manageable has been that I don’t feel unsupported or abandoned. I don’t feel like there is nowhere to go and no one to turn to when I inevitably need help. I don’t feel alone. I’m part of a new faculty cohort that meets every other week to encourage one another to keep drinking from this fire hose we are all dealing with. My dean has been wonderful in meeting with me to address concerns and map out a plan for me to be able to reach my goals by the end of this first semester. The good people down at UNMC who met with me this summer have continued to provide support for my efforts to build my courses here at CSC. My colleagues in my department are frequently checking in with me to see if I need help and offering words of encouragement when they see that fire hose bulging from the increased fluid rushing my direction.
This work atmosphere is so unlike what I have been exposed to at other institutions. It is so unlike what I have heard colleagues outside of CSC talk about with their home institutions. It’s so unlike all of the horror stories that I’ve read about the notoriously dysfunctional departments found in some institutions…and it all comes down to people. CSC has great people. Great faculty. Great support staff. Great administrators. Even great students, despite the few whiny moments that hit some of them from time to time.
It is certainly easier to keep drinking when you have a crowd cheering you on. It’s starting to feel like that water pressure is decreasing ever so slightly. For now, it remains….long days, late nights, a million meetings, and enough paperwork to build an igloo that could keep me warm on days when the college doesn’t think it’s cold enough to turn on the heater (these natives are much better adapted for this climate than I am, even after spending the past six years this far north).
Of course there are things that can, and hopefully will, change for the better at CSC in the coming years, but for the moment I am loving the chaos that has been my first semester. I’m exhausted, but not burnt out or prematurely jaded by the system. I’m looking forward to finishing out the year and enjoying the holidays, but I’m also looking forward to the spring semester. The good news is that even with all of this water rushing out of the fire hose and drenching me, I’m still thirsty.
For all the years of training and preparations that we professors go through to get to where we are, it’s kind of crazy to think that we can, and often do, have first years that are so overwhelming and present with so many new challenges. I have been instructing undergraduates since I was one myself way back in 2008. I’ve run a wide range of labs…even created my own in-house manual for one class. I’ve guest lectured and served as a teaching assistant in both traditional classrooms and field settings. I’ve mentored students working on numerous research projects, many of which culminated in peer-reviewed scientific publications. I’ve chatted with students about career goals, personal and professional stresses that interfere with their educations, time management, and navigating the maze that is institutional bureaucracy. I’ve seen tears and angry outbursts and been called names and given scathing teaching evaluations, including reviews that attack my appearance or character rather than my actual teaching abilities. You develop a thick skin over time and learn how to sort the useful critiques from the bitter ones that often correlate with students who demonstrate the poorest performances in your classes.
Coming to CSC with these experiences made me feel prepared for the job even though the role and subject that I would be teaching was all shiny and new to me. Week one as an assistant professor went well. Week two and beyond has seen a barrage of disappointed faces, students trying not to cry as they ask for help, and some outright crying out of exasperation. Anatomy is hard. It’s a hard subject to learn and a hard subject to teach. To adapt an analogy from Dr. John Janovy who once gave a lecture titled, “Islands of Understanding in a Sea of Ignorance”, I would liken the content of an anatomy course to a sea of information. A vast, horizon of knowledge that seems stable but is really dynamic beneath the typically calm surface. You learn about your own anatomy throughout your life as small waves, gently break onto your little islands of understanding. I have a heart. It pumps blood throughout my body. I should make decisions that benefit this important organ….and so these islands of understanding are constructed one sand grain at a time.
Some students then are fortunate enough to take anatomy courses in high school, where they continue to build their islands popping up here and there and sprinkling the seascape with palm trees arising from solid foundations of what it means to be human. Fast forward to college where I am standing in a room full of students, many of whom have only a few sandbars on which to build. I’m talking to them about the intricacies of how our heart is constructed of chambers and valves and vessels going in all different directions before branching and branching and branching again into tiny streams feeding our muscles and internal organs.
This tsunami of anatomical data hits them unlike anything they’ve ever experienced. They stand in my carefully constructed ring of fire taking notes, asking questions, and spending hours studying to build their islands. These disjointed factoids poking out of the vastness with few connections to the greater land mass that we try to help our students build are small consolations given the tremendous efforts that students feel they are putting into the process.
So how do I help these students lay more of that earthen foundation? How do I help them form mountains on the open landscapes created from their prerequisites? How do we as educators build land bridges across those islands so that students can see the broader relevance of synthesizing their knowledge? How do we motivate students to explore new regions and build their own continents of knowledge autonomously? How do we help them use the sea to their advantage rather than drowning in it?
I don’t have the answers yet, but I think the important piece is for us to continue to ask questions…to continue to provide the raw materials necessary for students to make sense of and properly utilize the resources at their disposal. I can’t make the subject of anatomy easier. I won’t insult the intelligence of my students by dumbing the content down and leaving them under-prepared for professional programs beyond their time here at CSC. However, through all the tears, breakdowns, existential crises, and defensive reactions to their grades and to my expectations for them, I hope that they see that I am doing my best to throw out life preservers attached to ropes secured to my own island. From here, they must make the choice whether or not to grab on and pull themselves to safety.
It’s another hot, humid day in the convent. A refreshing breeze whips its way into the convent, disappearing almost as rapidly as it had appeared. The day is young as I sit in the hallway near an outlet tapping away this story for you, dear readers. The students are busy preparing their final presentations and I am mentally preparing to wrap up the 2017 Mummy Studies Field School (MSFS), here on the island of Sicily. It’s been another exciting and inspiring year as an instructor for the MSFS. We had a great group of students again this year with a diversity of backgrounds. Their insights have made for fun and interesting class discussions on topics related to the intricacies of mummy studies. These student talked about science, religion, societies, architecture, language, art, and history, all while learning about this interdisciplinary field and having the unique cultural experience of living and working and learning alongside mummies, the physical remains of stories untold about the lives of people who once lived in this region of Italy.
My hope is that today’s student presentations and reflections will be filled not only with good observations and a synthesis of their learning this summer, but also with some of their new stories that they will be taking with them back to the U.S. Those stories will be what they tell to their parents and grandparents when they get home. If I’ve done my job right, maybe some of those stories will carry on and be passed down to their own children someday. Maybe they will inspire yet another generation of curious minds to go on an adventure and to study something abroad. Or maybe I’m just getting a little carried away…I do that from time to time. Either way, the memories made and lessons learned this summer will not be soon forgotten by any of us hopping on flights back to the states over the next few days.
There’s nothing quite like your first time studying abroad and the same is true for teaching. I had a few opportunities to travel while I was still a student…to Panama for a class….to Brazil for research…to Mexico for my honeymoon…and each of those opportunities was unique and transformative both professionally and personally. I find myself sometimes falling back into my own stories from those experiences when I’m here watching students overcome language barriers and become fascinated by things that are mundane to the locals. The experience of being abroad as a student was overwhelming and exhilarating all at once. For me, it ignited a desire to learn more, to do more, to see more. The wanderlust die had been cast and it would stay with me as I moved through my education and on into life as a faculty member. That feeling of perpetual wonder made it sometimes hard to sleep while I was studying abroad. Staying up late and waking up early became the routine out of excitement and curiosity. I was more willing to try new and different foods than back at home and every moment came with an eagerness to see what else was waiting just around the bend to be discovered.
I find that teaching abroad is a little bit different. There’s certainly much more to worry about when you are responsible for more than just yourself and your experiences as an individual, but there is also an odd flavor of satisfaction that is hard to describe unless you yourself are a teacher. In any traditional classroom teachers can and often do find a sense of pride in their students when they are able to answer questions, contribute to group discussions in meaningful ways, and otherwise demonstrate competencies in the subject we are attempting to teach them. Study abroad trips and other non-traditional venues are particularly gratifying because you naturally become even more invested in the success of your students. You eat meals with them, endure travel woes with them, and to some degree you live with them throughout these often brief but intense short courses. You really get a chance to get to know your students…their strengths and weaknesses, their career aspirations and life goals…things that may take you years to learn about students in more typical settings. You also get to see their day-by-day progress and how they handle changes to the schedule, which gives you an indication of their resiliency and adaptability. Knowing these things provides you with all of the data that you need to be able to write recommendations for these same students later on. You are able to have these amazing interactions with students that allow you to make a real difference in their professional lives.
I have been fortunate to spend the last two years here in Sicily getting to be an integral part of teaching students about the mummies here in Santa Lucia as well in the nearby communities of Piraino, Savoca, and Palermo. It has been a challenge to catch all of those coveted “ah-ha! moments” while teaching because they come so frequently from so many of the students while we are here. We have the students keep a journal while they are here and I am always fascinated by the things that stick out to them the most and form the highlights of their daily entries. Last year, I started a blog for the school and documented our activities during the school. This year, I asked students to do blog entries for each day, which provided another little window into their takeaways from their time here. You may read their reflections on the UNL Mummy Studies Field School – Sicily Study Abroad blog. I’m still amazed at the kinds of progress that can be seen in just a few, short weeks. I can imagine that as a student, coming to the MSFS would be a truly horizon-broadening experience. As an instructor, it has been some of the most rewarding time that I have ever spent engaging in professional activities. I am looking forward to many more years of salty breezes, seafood, and student stories.