Grading vortex

No matter how well I plan and no matter how hard I work, there comes a point in every semester when I am overwhelmed with grading. All teachers experience that moment when they stare at The Pile of papers in front of them and start the dance that they’ve done before.

First, I count the number of papers in The Pile.

The Pile (truthfully this could be final exams but just to give you an image of what I stare down)

The Pile (truthfully this could be final exams but just to give you an image of what I stare down)

Then I make a rough calculation about the number of papers I can grade in an hour. After I set what seems like a reasonable hourly rate, I get up to get a snack.

I return to the couch and I start grading. Usually, in that first hour, I fail to meet my quota. The first pass at grading depends largely on that first paper on the top of The Pile. I grade blindly so I don’t know which student wrote the paper, but if the paper is off target, rambling or a frustrating read, I move even more slowly.

By this time, it is typically late and I give up for the night.

The next day (or the next night), I am eventually able to get into a grading groove. At this point in the semester, even grading blindly, often I see improvement in my students’ writing from their earlier work. I spend a fair amount of class time discussing their writing process, how to approach each assignment, and how to take skills they build in my course to their writing across the curriculum, so it is really satisfying to see when students start to make these strides.

When I have graded a few papers in a row, I reward myself with a quick glance at my email (or Facebook or Twitter). Okay, let’s be honest, I look at Facebook AND Twitter. Then before I pick up The Pile, I count the remaining papers. Counting the papers is a privilege, I tell myself.

The Pile sometimes shrinks

The Pile sometimes shrinks

At first, it feels like The Pile never gets smaller. Sometimes it even grows as late assignments roll in. But, because I believe deeply in “writing to learn”, I face the reading and commenting on student papers many times over the course of the semester. I should not complain. My classes are relatively small by many standards. And if I help improve their writing, they need to practice writing AND receive some feedback.

So the semester works in cycles where sometimes I am without papers to juggle and other times I am in a grading vortex. I front loaded a significant amount of work for my students in one class and then they had several weeks to recover. And I recovered with them, attending to other non-teaching related items like job searching (more on that this week) and finally kick-starting my new research project (research blog also to finally launch this week). And when their deadlines came due, everything else in my life felt like it came to a screeching halt, too.

No matter how tall or short the stack is, I’ll find myself here again. Surrounded by papers that I carry from place to place and that I stack up in every which way to make them look like there are fewer of them. And as I tackle the papers, as The Pile grows smaller, I feel a sense of relief, of satisfaction. Yet, I know that as soon as I come up for air, I’m staring down another student deadline in less than a week.

Sucked into that vortex, it’s rinse repeat all over again.

Posted in academia, higher education, procrastinating, productivity, students, teaching, Uncategorized, what professors do, work, writing | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Living with children….

March is a strange time-space continuum in my world. In March, I celebrate my daughter’s birthday. I also celebrate my mother’s birthday, even though my mother has been gone for eight years. I spend much of the month gearing up and then winding down and reflecting on how family is always changing. It is always celebratory and bittersweet.

In my family, living with children (and parenting them) has changed me immensely. When we learned that we were expecting a baby five years ago, we adjusted to the idea of becoming parents though we had very low expectations of parenthood. I could never have imagined how I would react when I became a mom. My own mother always told me that being our mother was one of the best things she had ever done in her life, and before I had children, this thought depressed me. I knew that my mother had some regrets in her life (like not finishing college), and I felt obligated to avenge those regrets in her honor. I always thought that I would be a mother and even more.

Then I became a mother. My own mother had already been gone for two years, and in my earliest days of motherhood, struggling to fall in love with my daughter, I felt like I did not understand my mom at all. How could this new role be the best thing she had ever done? Those first days felt raw, unfinished, frayed, and I felt like a curator, tending but not mothering. I actually didn’t fall in love for a full eight weeks, but when I did, I discovered the deep and unyielding connection I would have with my daughter. There was this moment when I knew my daughter–my mother’s namesake–really, truly saw me. She locked eyes and offered me a smile. And in that moment, I fell hard. I was breathless.

That moment could have been yesterday or last week as far as I am concerned. Every day since then, even in the toughest moments I have experienced, I see my daughters and I just revel. Every day they teach me something new, and as each day passes, I channel my own mother a little more. I feel myself saying things I know she said in both joy and frustration. I can see how my mother must have delighted in my sister and me when I see my daughters discovering and exploring, piecing together their own understanding of their lives and their world.

A few weeks ago, my older daughter turned five. In five years, there are so many days when I feel like an expert parent and even more days when I still feel like a novice. The sense of confidence has little to do with my own skills and more to do with time of day, the phase of the moon, and the barometric pressure. Children are predictably unpredictable.

This predictably unpredictable life is exhilarating and terrifying. And as we muddle through each day, I have made a few discoveries about parenthood and motherhood through the eyes of my children:

Surprises add to life. All kids, including my own, surprise you, and not always in the ways you expect. The other day my little daughter drew a picture–her very first real picture. My older daughter is delighted with her own “grown up” writing, surprising me with new words she has learned to spell. They create expansive games of pretend family complete with airplane trips and costumes. And sometimes, I find traces of their world in my coat pockets or in my work bag. Bead necklaces “made for you mommy” and tucked away for safe keeping or “pictures of whole family” mixed in with my students’ essays.

There is something touching and lovely about these discoveries. Not all of their surprises are as endearing, though. Like the evening where big sister had fallen hard on the wood floor having slipped in a puddle of liquid that I later discovered to be someone’s potty accident. Hysterical, I could not decide which to attend to first, my crying child or the puddle of urine. Or last week one morning, little sister comes downstairs after an overnight nosebleed, face smeared with blood. She was a sight but my ability to stay composed and figure out what had happened is a testament to my calmer moments when I show my expert parenting chops. Not every surprise is perfect or adorable, and that’s just how life goes.

No discovery is too small. From an early age, my daughters were talkers. Early talkers carry on lots of conversation about our world, including their discoveries. Every. little. discovery. It has been an endless game of twenty questions since they each learned to talk. They see everything, hear everything, notice everything. And as they get older, every discovery is massive in their world. Though an incessant inquisition feels infuriating, often we get to see the world through their eyes, and understanding what makes sense to them is a treat. I learn when they learn, and I slow down to see the new things they see. And slowing down means being in the moment with them.

It is worth it to live big. I often wonder how my children sustain the energy to be so dramatic because their emotions are expansive. Every achievement is a grand celebration and every frustration is a calamity. Their emotions are enormous, and their hearts are open wide. When they pitch the ultimate tantrum, I am dazzled at the fireworks. So many times, I have peeled them off the floor and carried them screaming in frustration to their rooms. And in those moments of pure anger at the world, I am struck with how committed they can be to their convictions. I hope they can harness their anger in the future, and use their fiery tempers for a good cause. Weathering their stormy tantrums is worth it, though, when the pendulum swings in the opposite direction. Because as easily as they express sadness and frustration, they dole out affection by the bucketload. Their hyperbolic expressions of love, telling me that I am “their favoritest mommy in the whole world” or “the best mommy ever” make me weak in the knees.

Recently I realized that in addition to being a mother, I have sort of become my mother. I understand her now better than I ever have because I live with children.

And in quiet moments with my exuberant little girls, I regret ever thinking that becoming a mother was not enough.

Summer girls

Posted in everyday life, family, kids, lessons learned, motherhood, parenthood, personal, real talk | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Professor goes to Washington

Okay, so I did not exactly go to Washington. I did take some students to the capital building to watch a public hearing last week and returned yesterday to listen to testimony on other education committee bills. Before last week, the closest I ever came to actual government was a Parks and Recreation marathon.

No matter which side of the aisle you choose and no matter how you feel about public education (my area of interest) or gun laws or affordable housing or the minimum wage or healthcare, until you actually sit in an aisle to watch and listen to legislators at work, it is tough to understand how our government gets anything done. I am not surprised that our current Congress is deadlocked over so many issues. I am teaching a course on education policy semester and wanted to bring students observe our state’s education committee. With our state house just up the street, it felt like a no-brainer to connect with what’s happening in real-time for state-level education policy.

All I have to say is after a day at a public hearing, I felt like I needed to go back to my high school civics class.

On the first day of the public hearings I attended, I saw staffer and lobbyist friends as well as colleague who is also a state representative sitting on the education committee. At every opportunity, I asked question after question, trying to follow the process. Textbooks might teach you about what goes on in our government, but showing up is the real education.

As a professor, I often find myself hearing colleagues lament the state of secondary education–the very subject of the education committee’s work. Professors often complain about the intellectual acuity of their students, students’ work ethic, and about the watering down of secondary school curricula preparing our post-secondary students. After two days spent listening to testimony in our state public hearings on education, I am agog at the struggles of every possible stakeholder in trying to make our system better. Listening to the testimony of parents, students, educators, administrators, and legislators on issues of equity, opportunity, and achievement, I could not help but wonder how we got here, what are we doing, and how can we make our public education better for all kids when there is so much bureaucracy involved in incremental change.

Having studied the sociology of education for almost ten years and having taught in the college classroom for the last four years, even my eyes were wide open. We (professors) have so much to learn from this process because we teach public school students at the post-secondary level.

I have come away with a few stunning conclusions:

1. Making laws is tough and dirty work. More than one person referred to the inner workings of politics as “making sausage.” Half of it is a show, and I can hardly decide it if it is tragedy or comedy. It is really nothing like this:

2. There is rampant misinformation in our elected leadership. In a discussion of the Common Core State Standards, I watched state legislators confuse the words “curriculum” and “standards” as worried parents, teachers, and children listened. I know many legislators do not have direct experience with education other than as parents or advocates, but the Common Core State Standards are creating some of the greatest controversy in public education. Seeing our elected officials struggle over clarity is not exactly comforting.

3. Scholars studying issues that impact real people should be taking an active role in the conversation in state houses across the country. In several hours of public hearings on education, I must have heard dozens of people ask “has a study been done?” or “are you aware of any research that has been done?” I cringed in my seat thinking about the person toiling away somewhere in the lab or in the data room or collecting observations/interviews who packages their findings for a scholarly journal. There are real people who will benefit from your research now. Laws are happening now. Recently in the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof pleaded with professors to contribute to public discussions. Some scholars responded negatively to his claims that our contributions are missing from the broader discourse, and it is true that our system of tenure does not reward public contributions or popular press exposure, but I have seen first hand how necessary these contributions are for making real people’s lives better.

I should never have gone behind the curtain. I would have been fine thinking that all government activity worked like this:

But, I went behind the curtain, and now I hope I can convince you that you should, too.

Posted in academia, ed policy, everyday life, higher education, lessons learned, media, personal, politics, sociology, work | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Tackling “Should I Go to Graduate School?” (Part deux)

Last week I drafted a conversation between you and me if you asked me “Should I go to graduate school?” Thanks for reading (or for finding this post). I have to assume that I piqued your interest in graduate school and that you still want to go.

Here are several more questions to consider before postmarking those applications.

Have you spoken with current students or alumni of your intended graduate program?

The best way to know if the program will be right for you is to talk to someone directly. You will never know what it is like to be on the inside of graduate education unless you speak with actual graduate students. Don’t be shy. Get in touch with graduate program directors and see if they can recommend folks to contact. And when you contact current graduate students, ask respectful questions about their experiences and about their future plans. You could discover information about the program or about the institution that you would never know as an applicant blindly submitting their application.

Do you know what you will study?

This might seem like a no-brainer, but knowing what you will ultimately study is really important for understanding where you should apply. Even though you have chosen your field of specialty and you may have trolled departmental websites and faculty profiles to ascertain your fit in that department, know now that your interests could change, faculty members could leave or change the direction of their work, and in general things happen. Leave space for the possibility of love lost between you and your current dream dissertation topic.

Additionally, many prospective graduate students think that being in graduate school is like being an undergraduate student except NOW you get to study what you REALLY love. That’s only partially true. As a graduate student, you need to specialize in one area of your discipline or field but you also have a fair amount of hoop-jumping in your training. There will still be classes that you feel like are a waste of your time. If you have already built practical knowledge in your field and are returning to graduate school after many years of relevant work experience, there will be many moments when you feel frustrated or bored with your instruction and with your peers. As you think through what you PLAN to study, be sure to know whether you have time to discover your passion or whether you should enter your program with a clear direction. 

Do you have a potential advisor in mind and is that person actively training students? 

Choosing your advisor is an important decision. It is almost like choosing a life partner because your advisor will be intimately involved in your training and professionalization in graduate school. This is because American graduate education still operates largely as an apprenticeship model. As you find potential advisors who share your research interests, make sure that they have the ability and capacity to train you.  Trolling the internet for potential advisors is not enough to know if you have faculty support.

How will your graduate program prepare you for professional life in your field or choice? What kinds of special opportunities does grad school offer you that you would not be able to come by on your own? 

Figure out early on how your program will prepare you for doing the professional work in your field. Will you spend your time mostly in seminars or are there practical experiences like teaching and research assistantships available for financially and professional development?  If you feel unprepared for your future work, can you pursue moonlighting opportunities to get other training? Teaching and research experience are some of the best job training outside of the graduate seminar room because they are the work you will do as a professional.

Serving as a research assistant can be enlightening or depressing. Research assistantships are typically coveted positions because they involve less face time and no tedious grading. But, that also means you’ll be self-directed and not everyone enjoys that autonomy. You might feel like a cog in someone else’s machine (because you are) or part of a never-ending project. To the extent that you can, understand how your research assistantship will be geared toward the publication process so you learn about academic publishing on the way to earning your degree. There are norms and expectations around academic publishing that still elude even seasoned professionals with minimal exposure to the process of “getting published.”

Your first foray into teaching is typically a teaching assistantship or eventually a lectureship. Make sure that teaching experiences come with oversight, evaluation and support–if your department cannot or will not offer this kind of support, seek it out from a center for teaching and learning or from trusted colleagues at your institution. Teaching is an art and good teaching is the product of preparation and practice. Make sure someone besides your students observes your teaching for your own improvement as a teacher and so that someone can comment on your skills. Consider asking your advisor to observe your teaching so that they can speak to your skills in a letter of reference.

The PhD offers lots of training opportunities but you don’t need to pursue a PhD to get exposure to all of them. You may feel like you don’t have much agency in how your training goes, and it is your job to pursue any and all opportunities for which you would be eligible. In graduate school, there are people who want to get students involved in research, work and activism at your institution. Sometimes those opportunities are harder to come by outside of the classroom. Some graduate programs, especially terminal degree programs, are too short to ignore the future possibility of employment.   

How do you prove your worth in your field? What are the hidden costs?

Do you have to publish like crazy? Yes, yes you do. Are all scholarly publishing venues created equal? Nope. What does the scholarly product look like? What counts? Every institution values the product of scholarly work in a different way. Many graduate programs will say that scholarly work is the only way to establish your worth in your field, however, for those who plan to pursue an alternative academic path, the answer may vary.

What are the realities of professional life for a person with your kind of degree? 

There is tracking in high school, leading you to post-secondary education and you can sure as hell bet that there is tracking in the world of grad school. Except in grad school, there is only one real path: the academy. Any other path will always feel at odds with the academic one. In the sciences, you often have to choose the academy or industry. On the humanities and social sciences side, you have to choose whether you teach as a research institution or a teaching college. One path is less venerable than the other. BUT, that does not mean that everyone is following the venerated path. Just know in advance what you’re up against.

The realities of professional life are going to look vastly different depending on your professional path. Just as you asked yourself questions before you applied to graduate school, constantly reconsider what you value and the kind of work you could see yourself doing. Make sure to consider how you value work/life balance, collegiality in your job, and proving your worth in your chosen grad after grad school.

Where should you go from here?

I wrote last year about things I wish I knew in my first year graduate school. I hope you will read it, share it and let me know if these two posts have been helpful.

Posted in academia, dissertation, grad school, higher education, lessons learned, research, sociology, teaching, tenure, writing | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The one where I tackle: “Should I Go to Graduate School?” (Part one)

Several former students have contacted me seeking letters of recommendation as they consider applying to graduate school, so I have been thinking about what I would say to them when we discuss their future plans.

If you ask most grad students or folks on the academic job market whether you should go to graduate school, many will likely tell you, “no.” Some people will tell you no in frighteningly strong terms. If you ignore their pleas and proceed with your application, they may beg you to reconsider your decision.

I may have ignored many of these messages, but I can’t really go back on what has already happened now. Recognizing that the answer to the “should I go to graduate school” question is complicated, I offer this imaginary conversation between you and me if you asked me whether you should go at all.

Here is part one.

[Fade in on the interior of a coffee shop. You and I are seated, sipping on hot java and catching up.]

You: Should I go to graduate school?

Me: Let me ask a few questions first. WHY are you thinking about graduate school? I ask because people go to grad school for lots of reasons. Often, their chosen field of work requires a credential higher than a bachelor’s or an associate’s degree. Sometimes, grad school offers students new training or skill-building that they either never had or that has changed since they originally earned their degree. If you need the degree for advancement in your field, consider asking your current employer to split the bill with you.

You: (looking silent and pensive). Okay. But what if I don’t need the degree for career advancement?

Me: Okay, so as you consider WHY you are considering graduate school, you should simultaneously consider another similar (and perhaps more important) question: what do you want to do AFTER graduate school?

You: Wow. I hadn’t really thought about that.

Me: Lots of prospective and current graduate students view graduate training as a pit stop en route to a new career or as respite from a brutal labor market. Folks who have no orientation towards what they think they’ll do after graduate school tend to treat their graduate training as separate from their real professional life. I have written before that graduate training IS your professional life. Your responsibility to seek out professional networks, cross-train, and work in your field is not the territory you traverse after you finish. You should be considering this territory WHILE you are in school.

You: Okay. (Big pause) What else should I be thinking about?

Me: Have you thought about your personal life at all? 

You: What do you mean?

Me: Will you have to move to attend graduate school? Are you dating someone? Do you live on your own? Are you thinking about living close to family or far away? How financially secure are you? Will you have to support other people? Can you move away from where you are currently living?

You: Whoa, that’s a lot of questions.

Me: Well, yeah. It is. Your personal life matters and it’s important to consider the kinds of sacrifices you are willing (and unwilling) to make. Everyone has a different set of life priorities and graduate school, especially a PhD program, is a long process. And your answer to some of these questions might be different two years into your grad program.

You: What do you mean it could differ in two years?

Me: Life does not stop while you’re in grad school. Before you commit yourself to a short or lengthy graduate program, have a long talk with yourself (and your partner or family) about what this kind of commitment means. Graduate school and the work associated with it drives a wedge between you and many other pursuits (and people) in your life. You will need emotional support from loved ones and you will need to find ways to take care of your (physical and mental) health. Maintaining friendships and partnerships, parenting, tending to family members, traveling, leisure, personal time–these are things that get back-burnered while you’re in grad school. The decision to go to graduate school is kind of like the decision to take a new job.

You: Is it REALLY like starting a new job?

Me: It is actually like starting several new jobs at the same time. You’ll be balancing new roles as a student and maybe as a teaching or research assistant, so you have to negotiate being your own boss and working for someone else. If you’re returning to school after a long hiatus or already work for yourself, giving up some of this autonomy is hard. Maybe you’ll be balancing your current job AND going to school at the same time. It could mean that your attention is divided constantly and you may feel like you’re not successful at anything you’re doing.

You: <inaudible sigh>

Me: Graduate school offers all kinds of opportunities but not without other sacrifices. Before deciding to apply, think about the kinds of sacrifices you may have to make and the future career you envision. Don’t go to graduate school to figure out your life. Go when you’ve figured something out about your life.


In our next installment, I’ll be thinking out loud about the realities of graduate training and professional life. If you think I missed the mark or hope I’ll address something specific, please leave me a comment.

Posted in academia, grad school, higher education, lessons learned, personal, real talk, teaching, work | Tagged , | 6 Comments

Why being a modern American Jew is so hard

Our local, family-owned Kosher supermarket was on the verge of closing this week when some angel investors rescued the business. Our Jewish community was temporarily devastated at the prospect of losing this local institution. For many, the Crown is more than just a supermarket. While they cater and butcher and provide the local community with Kosher delicacies, it’s not just about the food. Food is an important part of every ethnic community and the institution that provides the food–and thus the source of comfort–is beloved to so many people that the (potential) loss of a place feels a little like the loss of a person.

Everyone wants to know why this could have happened and the economic realities are pretty clear. The Crown Market is in spitting distance of three large, big-box markets: Big Y (a family owned company out of Massachusetts), Whole Foods (the national organic brand of market) and the Neighborhood Market (owned and operated by Walmart–I have never been there on principle). Though serious competition likely led to their demise, the potential closing of the store has spurned another, and I argue, more important conversation: who are we as American Jews without the institutions that bind us together? Is the fabric of our religious and cultural community fraying?

To be honest, we should have started asking ourselves these questions a long time ago as a people. How do we transition our religious and spiritual life into a modern age? Locals want to point fingers, lay blame, apologize and even pray, but I would argue that as modern Americans Jews, we’re largely lost. The fact that we’re lost is really the problem, and these mea culpas won’t help us find our way. The virtual loss of this place is an indication of the confusion and contradiction of being a member of a cultural group that struggles with issues of identity, economy and spirituality. As a people, we have not come to terms with the relevance and antiquation of our religious and cultural norms and mores. 

I am certainly one of the lost members of the tribe and I am not the only modern American Jew who feels conflicted about my own religious and cultural identity. I consider myself a feminist, yet I can’t bring myself to wear pants to shul on Saturday mornings. I eat some treyf (non-Kosher food), but squirm at the idea of a cheeseburger (not Kosher) and prefer Kosher pullets (special soup chickens from the Crown Market) to make my mother’s chicken soup. I’m progressive but I still don’t embrace the idea of wearing a kippah (head covering) or a tallit (prayer shawl) even though many other women in our congregation do. When you feel like a walking contradiction, how do you find your place or establish your voice in a sometimes stodgy and often rigid Jewish community?

Finding your path or establishing your voice, getting “found” instead of lost, seems to be a matter of our priorities. Many modern Jewish families have a different relationship with Judaism than their parents’ or grandparents’ generations did. Our parents’ and grandparents’ generation faced great anti-Semitism and they clung to temple life and temple ways because they had few other options. Keeping a Kosher home, focusing on religious education, joining and engaging in synagogue life were their only choices, but now these choices are in competition with a host of other more convenient choices our generation has in front of them. The Pew Report on Jews and Judaism may have stunned many spiritual leaders, but we should not be surprised that a secularization of our religion is on the rise. And marrying a Jewish spouse is not a simple answer–both my sister and I have Jewish husbands raised with varying spiritual experiences and integrating religion into our homes is still a struggle because as modern Jewish folks we don’t have to only choose Judaism.

Choosing Judaism means actually having an opinion about your culture or your religion. We cannot simply create meaning for people. We cannot will people to simply change their beliefs over night–or, worse, to have any beliefs at all. But we can begin to ask ourselves to tough questions rather than clinging to old ways simply because that’s what we have always done. We are also innovators–we would not have survived centuries of persecution if we weren’t creative.

There is worry that other Jewish institutions are also at risk, places like Jewish day schools or synagogues. Economic decisions surely impact the choices people make around sending their children to day school or joining a temple. BUT, making these decisions means you have operating beliefs about the community you envision. If I had more money, I would not immediately enroll my children in the local Jewish day school because I believe in and support local public schooling. Paying our temple dues is hardship enough when you factor in other expenses. Many members of our local Jewish community may be ambivalent about Judaism and the Crown potentially closing may not be that big of a deal to them. For these people, joining a synagogue or sending children to Jewish day school are also not priorities. Now is the time to inspire creativity and ask ourselves, what are we doing here? Without thinking creatively about future generations, we’re screaming and lamenting in a giant vortex. No one hears us.

As a religious group, we compete for and are in competition with each for time and money. Rather than lament the potential loss of this local institution, perhaps now is the time to combine efforts and resources (read: money AND time) to determine our modern needs as a modern Jewish community. Rather than point fingers or apologize for our real economic choices, perhaps now is the time to mobilize around the challenge of bringing people back to Judaism, around making meaning and reconnecting with lost members of the flock. At the same time, perhaps we should re-think and re-conceptualize our spiritual life for a modern era. Before this group of investors announced Monday evening that they would keep the Crown from closing, many local folks had already started to re-think and re-conceptualize what the Crown Market could be in an evolving modern Jewish community–maybe it would be a deli or a butcher shop or even a co-op.

I don’t want to lose our major Kosher butcher even I don’t keep a Kosher home. I want a place to foster connections with people around the food that binds us together. And though I have made choices to shop across the street and not at the Crown, that does not mean I cannot contribute thoughtfully and actively to a new Jewish institution that could serve the needs of other spiritually and culturally minded members of our community. The economic and spiritual realities of a modern Jewish community are complicated. Hopefully, we will join together to begin this very crucial conversation about moving American Judaism into the 21st century.

Posted in being jewish, blogging, community, culture, everyday life, food, holidays, religion | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Students are people, too: When you’re the professor and the therapist and the career counselor…

Towards the end of last semester, a blog that I follow featured an essay entitled “I’m Your Professor Not Your Therapist.” In it, the author described feeling helpless and unprepared for dealing with students in crisis. The only advice offered by her advisor was to take the distressed student to the counseling center at their institution.  The ensuing comments were really helpful as different folks offered strategies, support, and ideas if (when) the situation presented itself again.

I have faced many students in various crises over the last decade in higher education. And I developed my style of working with students long before I entered the classroom.  When I started graduate school, I also worked in retail sales at a gourmet kitchen store for some extra cash. One of the tenets of their customer service policy has always stayed with me: go home with the customer. Ask them about their habits in the kitchen or their cooking successes and failures and then help them find the “thing” they’re looking for.  I towed that company line to a certain degree.  Much to my employer’s chagrin, I often doled out advice or suggested a workaround rather than a product (a little anti-capitalist I admit), but I took the time to make the personal connection with each customer.

I employ the same style of working with my students. With professional experience as a college administrator and as a peer educator, I feel particularly well-suited to work with students who break down in my office. I am not surprised when it happens and I am not frustrated that it takes time away from my research. I think about how my students might be balancing things or struggling outside of the classroom. It’s often harder for students to see the broader picture because they’re so closely involved with what happens on a day-to-day basis on their campus.

The work of a college educator is unlike elementary, middle or secondary education because there are no parents around.  Some students are not equipped to handle their newfound autonomy, the flexibility of their schedule, or unexpected stress or trauma. And we are the caring adult (and sometimes the only adult) they have in their lives. We are on the hook for helping students who find themselves struggling on campus, and we should not act surprised by that expectation.

Many new faculty members are advised by their senior colleagues to avoid this informal, ad-hoc mentoring and advising. It’s the most invisible kind of work because no one knows you’re doing it, no one knows how competent you are at it and no one recognizes you for it.  This invisible labor–counseling, advising and mentoring–is never mentioned in a faculty job posting.

The bigger issue is that institutions of higher education typically don’t recognize that the current generation of students is facing greater stress or more complex mental health issues than the generation before.  We think students are “college ready” if they demonstrate academic ability or enthusiasm for the extra-curriculum, but it’s the noncognitive skills like time management, coping, stress relief, and self-care that we fail to teach students before they come to campus. And as the corps of college educators is further adjunctified, there will be fewer trusting adults with any allegiance to the campus to provide support for these overextended, overworked, stressed out students.

The expectation that professors harbor around preservation of their office time for research only, seems outmoded.  Graduate programs must also be preparing the next corps of college educators to manage these multiple demands of the professor role.  If your graduate program offers you any teaching experience, that’s a plus. But beyond teaching, there is the small-scale advising and interpersonal work that happens. Teaching involves interfacing with actual people. I recognize that I am not a clinical therapist, but I am an empathic person, and I know the resources my campus has to offer our students.

It’s week four of the semester, and students are slowly trickling in with questions about their academics and about what they’ll do after graduation. Just got a message from a student thanking me for support over the last few months. I wear lots of hats besides professor, and I keep my door is open.

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