The struggle is real

Thinking about global diversity, I think back to the situation at Duke where an email was sent out to students warning them that professors may not hire them for an internship if they spoke their native language in an academic building. I think we can all agree that this goes against every part of diversity and inclusion. While this particular individual did face consequences for her email, it’s important to keep in mind that her actions were indicative of a much larger problem in the system. Based on this email, at least 2 other faculty openly said they did not want to work with certain international students based off assumptions they made about these students willingness to work because the faculty heard them speaking another language in an academic building.

International students face innumerable challenges that resident students do not. First, there is the most obvious: a possible language barrier and culture shock. Transportation may also be a concern, as many students will not have a car, especially when they first arrive. Luckily, Blacksburg has a pretty decent bus system, but that is not the case in every college town. There is also the added expenses of being an international student, in terms of both the actual cost to attend a university, and also the costs of international flights and visas.

Once students are in the US and settled, they continue to face many challenges. A friend of mine was doing her Master’s degree out of a university in Poland, where she grew up, but she came to the US for a short period to do research in our facilities in Texas. She spoke English very fluently, but she still struggled to communicate with American colleagues sometimes because the English she learned in school didn’t cover the words for the various cuts of meat on a pig. I know this is a recurring issue where students may not know technical terms in multiple languages, and Google Translate isn’t the greatest tool for those words.

There can also be added stress for international students. As young people, we tend to make choices that in hindsight, were not particularly smart. As an international student, if those choices land you in legal trouble, you could face deportation. Another unnamed international friend of mine made poor decisions one night, and ended up with a DUI. Later, this friend found out that they could potentially lost their visa and be deported for it. While I do not condone drinking and driving, I do not think one should face being kicked out of the country and subsequently not being able to finish a degree because of one bad decision. Luckily, since it was this friend’s first offense, the charge was reduced and they were not deported. I can remember the stress and anxiety that this caused my friend on top of the stress of dealing with the normal things that happens when someone gets into legal trouble.

The stresses that international students face has gotten worse in recent years. While it was difficult enough for international students to travel home, the travel ban has made it nearly impossible for some. I met a woman at the International Soil Science Conference back in January. She was studying in America, but she was from Iran. She is unable to go home to visit family, because she fears she will not be able to get back into America. With federal policies and the rhetoric regarding immigrants, it’s no wonder international students may not feel welcome in the US.

While international students face implicit biases, assumptions, and prejudices that can make it difficult to feel welcome. Another friend of mine grew up in Dominica, but has studied in the US for years. He has no discernible accent, but he told me he intentionally hides it so people will not judge him for it. I have often noticed student’s hesitancy or unwillingness to work with international students on projects. Generally because of a fear that the students will have communication issues. On the other side, I have also seen students avoid taking a class taught by a non-native English speaker because the students think they will not be able to understand the lectures. I don’t support this line of thinking. If I can understand someone, with my imperfect hearing, most people should be able to as well. However, it seems the only way to change someone’s mind on that front is exposure listening and speaking to people that have an accent they are not used to hearing.

With all of these challenges, I wonder what the university can do to eliminate some of these struggles for international students to create an inclusive environment.

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Global Perspectives on Diversity

When I was researching diversity and inclusion issues in Poland, I focused mostly on the inclusion issues facing the Roma. This group of people has faced many kinds of oppression over the years that is not entirely dissimilar to the US oppression of Native Americans. I think it is important to be aware of the issues facing other countries, because often they reflect the issues we have facing our own country. In many cases the same issues we have are the same in other countries.

For example, Anti-Semitism has been on the rise in America in recent years, with a marked increase in the number of attacks, including the attack at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburg last year. Similar issues are facing Poland. See here for the story of a Jewish American who traveled to Poland and faced blatant anti-semitism. This is surprising to me, because of the history of Poland and World War II. Poland still bears markers of the war, and has museums dedicated to those who died fighting to defend the country from the Nazis (check it out, it’s a pretty impressive story). Yet, anti-Semitism seems to be having a resurgence and Poland is pretending not to notice. Both time I visited Poland, I was amazed by the culture, the history, and the food (Shout out to pierogies!), yet the issues of diversity and inclusion were never brought up.

While it seems Poland as a society is dedicated to the remembrance of those who fought, it seems equally determined to forget the Holocaust and the areas in Poland that were most affected by it. While we can debate how much our current president’s attitudes, rhetoric, and refusal to condemn white supremacists is fueling the anti-Semitic sentiments on a global basis (and we should acknowledge that America does not exist in a bubble, and our actions or lack of actions can affect the rest of the world), it seems that this reluctance to acknowledge the past is playing a significant part in allowing prejudices to continue. It’s important for us to see these issues affecting other countries, because the same things could be happening in our country, and perhaps we can learn from another nation’s history.

Intersections of Soil Science

In agriculture and soil science, there is an enormous lack of diversity. The field is overwhelmingly white, male, and from rural areas. While the diversity of students in my field seems to be increasing, it’s still not representative, and the diversity of the faculty is even less so.  The challenges faced by students who do not identify with the majority groups can make students feel unwelcome. Embracing the intersectionality of students and faculty is an important part of creating an inclusive environment.

In terms of faculty, recruiting and hiring more diverse faculty is incredibly important, and recognizing implicit biases during the hiring process that affect the perception of how qualified a woman of color is compared to a white man candidate is the first step towards this goal. The next part is to make sure the environment supports all faculty. It can be difficult to foresee all the challenges faced by the intersections of race, gender, and any other identities that may not be externally visible to others. I think its important to listen to faculty about their experiences and take appropriate steps to address challenges.  The department functions better when all faculty have the support to do their best work.

In terms of student diversity, having representation in faculty can go a long ways to make students feel like they belong. As an instructor, I also need to keep in mind the intersectionality of students when I teach. A lot of students deal with a lot of issues, and as an instructor, most of these issues are not apparent to me. If I notice students struggling, missing class, or not turning in assignments, my instinct is to assume the student is lazy or doesn’t care, but I need to remember that students have lives outside of the classroom and there may be something else going on. What I can do is reach out to the student and try to work with them so they don’t end up dropping or failing the course. As a faculty member, mentoring students is also a way to use intersectionality. Supporting students who want to get involved in research can really get students involved, feeling like they belong, and set them up for success after graduation.

I think the main is to keep in mind that everyone has different experiences, and listening and supporting students and faculty goes a long way towards an inclusive environment.

Who am I?

Hello readers!

My name is Sarah, and I prefer she/her/hers pronouns. I grew up in a small town in Missouri, got my Bachelor’s degree at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, my Master’s at Tarleton State University in Texas, and I am now working towards my PhD at Virginia Tech. I’m in the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences. My research is focused on how soil microbial communities respond when exposed to antibiotics via manure. I’m happy to talk more about my research or background if y’all want to know more.

Open Pedagogy: Alternatives to paying for books

Let’s face it. Buying textbooks sucks. Especially when a professor claims they are required, but never requires any actual reading, because everything on the test is on the powerpoint slides. Then at the end of the semester, you try to sell the book, only to get maybe $20 for your very expensive paperweight. As professors we have the power to bring down this terrible system by incorporating open pedagogy to our courses (for more on open pedagogy, listen to this great podcast).

Textbooks are one example of a barrier to an open inclusive pedagogy. The added financial burden of purchasing books can prevent low-income students from attending college. If our ideal is to make education available to everyone, what can we do about this?

One way to overcome this barrier is through text rental. I was fortunate in my undergrad at UW-Stevens Point to have this system. It was a university-wide system where students were charged a small fee, (something like $12/credit while I was there) and then they borrowed books from the bookstore and returned them at the end of the semester. This system had a lot of benefits. It was much cheaper than buying books out right, and since it was a fee, financial aid could cover it (thanks Student Loans, I can never repay you). Students were not stuck with textbooks from general education courses that they will never use again, but if they wanted to, they could pay for the book to keep it. Also, since it was across the entire university, it did not rely on individual professors’ willingness to adopt open pedagogy practices. This of course, is not the perfect solution to all pedagogical troubles. There are definitely some downsides. For one, there is still the issue of being able to remix content to fit an individual course. Students were still responsible for buying their own supplementary texts, which could really hurt students taking a lot of literature courses or courses with lab manuals. In about 99.9% of cases, students do not retain the textbooks, because it still cost about $200 to keep a heavily used, pre-highlighted textbook at the end of the semester. I’m sure there were also some restrictions on professors to prevent them from switching textbooks every other semester. Although it’s not perfect, it is still a cool system that you should consider advocating for at your institution.

Another solution is to use open textbooks which can be altered to fit a specific course, and students can keep access to them. For me, open textbooks seemed like the perfect solution to open pedagogy at first. There are some issues here to consider. First, taking open sources and revising and remixing them to suit a course takes a lot of effort on the part of the professor. It could be pretty overwhelming for a professor just beginning to build a new course, and even a veteran professor making the switch to open sources may take several semesters to get everything together. Additionally, for some disciplines like Soil Science, open textbooks are virtually non-existent (If any of you can find an open text for soil science or environmental microbiology, please let me know in the comments). This is particularly frustrating as there is only 1 decent intro Soil Science book that is used and every new edition gets more expensive. Another thing brought up in the podcast is that creating open resource material is a privilege not every professor can afford. We should be mindful of the human cost of “free” material.

A third alternative is to abandon textbooks altogether. Instead, using other open source materials, or sources that are freely available through the university to impart knowledge to students. These can be very effective by using various media to explain concepts. These can easily be customized to fit a specific course. In sciences, we can chose to make lab manuals we’ve designed available online and allow students to print them out, or pull them up online in class to avoid forcing them to pay exorbitant prices through the book store. The downsides are again that finding these sources can be time-consuming for professors, and in some cases, finding readings that are not too dense or involved can be tricky. Although, if part of the course is for students to develop various ways of explaining topics, either by videos, animations, slides, written descriptions, etc. that can be shared (with permission) to students in future semesters, this obstacle can be slowly overcome.

The best method to embrace open pedagogy depends on the professor and the course, and may change with time. However, if we truly desire education for all, we have to find ways to incorporate accessibility and inclusivity in the courses we design, and the materials we require.

Mindful learning in the Sciences

Reading Ellen Langer’s works on mindful learning got me thinking about how science is taught, and specifically how soil science and microbiology are taught. For context, both soil science and microbiology are relatively new fields, and microbiology especially is a rapidly changing field. The work that I do now would have been entirely inconceivable 15 years ago, and possible but prohibitively expensive even 10 years ago. Even the software that I use to process my data is constantly in flux. Every year a new database with updated taxonomy for microbial organisms is released, and the changes between database versions are significant. “The basics” aren’t even a guaranteed thing as the development of technology allows for better analyses of the microscopic organisms.

How do you teach microbiology when what we think we know can change from one semester to the next? This is where mindful learning comes in. Prefacing every lesson with “This is what we currently think we know, but we may be completely wrong” seems like a good place to start. Is it enough though? Are there other ways to encourage mindful learning in the sciences? I occasionally feel disappointed that when I took Environmental Microbiology only 4 years ago, the lab portion of the class is completely outdated. We mostly worked by culturing organisms, which is relatively cheap and more fun, because students can see things under a microscope. However, to date, none of my research has come close to doing anything similar. We simply don’t work with cultures, because we now know (believe) that only about 10% of organisms can be grown in lab cultures. I still believe that lab classes are very important in the sciences to give hands-on learning and provide another way to teach information that is difficult to convey in a lecture. Is there a way that we can teach labs with mindful learning when we know the skills we are teaching will most likely be soon outdated?

What classrooms can learn from games

After reading Setting Students Minds on Fire and A New Culture of Learning, I reflected on my own experiences with gaming and how those principles could be translated into classroom learning. As a gamer, I tend to play either simulation games (The Sims) or peaceful-ish quest games (Pokemon, Mario,etc.). Several principles of game-learning from these games can apply easily to classrooms and improve learning and retention.

First is the way a game begins. Most games start with a little background, often in the form of a cut-scene, on why you are about to start the quest/mission. I like to be immersed in a good story, and an interesting introduction is important for setting up that story. Meanwhile, back in the classroom, if you ask any student why they are taking that class, most will just say “Because it is required for my major”. As far as motivation to finish the game, that’s pretty weak. Often, majors come with a list of required courses, but no explanation as to why those courses are necessary. I’m still not sure why I had to take an Economics course as a Soil Science major. Instructors can always see the majors of their students on the class roster, and can use the gaming strategy to start the course with a little background on what the goal is, and how accomplishing that goal can be beneficial to all players. If students can see how the objectives of the course can help them in their own long term goals, they will have a better motivation than a GPA or a piece of paper to work hard and learn the material.

Once a game has established the quest, the players have to figure out how to accomplish it. Many games have the major quest broken down into manageable pieces, and often use an expanding world system. For example, with Pokemon games, you start of in one small town, then the quest takes you to another town. After you accomplish the mini-quests there, you go on to another city, increasing your skills and the available resources as you go. Sometimes the quest takes you back to towns you’ve already visited, and sometimes you go back on your own to try to collect different types of pokemon that you may have missed. In classroom settings, some of this is already employed. A lot of lectures build on previous knowledge, and often a topic will get brought up multiples times in order to give context. However, many classrooms don’t do well with the manageable mini-quests. How many courses have you taken where most of your grade came from 1 or 2 midterms and a final? This model gives rise to the binge and purge for knowledge and very low retention. Very few games have only 1 or 2 boss battles. That would be stressful and not nearly as much fun. It would not allow players to build up their skills in an engaging manner, and most players would not stick with the game for very long.

I think the principle that most desperately needs to be brought into classrooms is the outcome of failure in games. For most classrooms, when students do poorly on a test, or don’t understand a concept, they just get a bad grade and move on to the next concept. This model does not facilitate good learning, and can be extremely detrimental to students who struggle with an early concept that later parts of the course are based on.  Whereas in a game like Pokemon, if you lose a battle, you don’t get to fail and move on. You are transported to the last town you were in, and your pokemon are healed. The worst consequence is that you lose a little in-game currency. But then you try again. Sometimes you spend a little time trying to level your pokemon up, or switch out your pokemon to try a new strategy, but then you face the gym leader again, and again, until you win. You don’t get thrown onto the next, harder quest, until your are strong enough to finish the current quest. The ability to try again and again without major consequences makes players more willing to take on a challenging game. This could easily be translated into the classroom. With writing assignments, an instructor could allow for multiple drafts. On other assessments (quizzes, tests, homework), an instructor could allow students to redo the assignment in some way that allows the student to grasp the concepts they had struggled with.

I argue that this last principle needs to so desperately come into classrooms based off my own experiences as an instructor. I have seen students, used to getting high grades, become so terrified of ruining their GPA, that the focus becomes entirely on the grade than the material. I’ve had students on writing assignments hound me with questions so relentlessly about so many minute things, it felt as though I may as well have written the assignment for them. These students were so worried about getting docked points for messing up that they were totally unwilling to take any initiative for themselves. I recognize that the more opportunities for re-doing assignments there are, the more work there is for instructors. However, I think a balance can be found that enables student learning with out paralyzing fear of failure and allows instructors to get the work done. The inordinately high level of grade stress is probably responsible for a lot of burn out and perhaps one of the reasons so many students who start college degrees do not finish them.