Have yourself an angsty little Christmas. . .

As a mother of three teenagers, I have the pleasure and the challenge of seeing many concepts in my field of developmental psychology emerge right before my eyes through the actions and language of my children.  Case in point: in our household, we are now deep into the period of what Piaget (one of the original authorities on the minds of children) called Idealism and Criticism (or some such phrasing-Piaget wrote in French, so it is likely that this description is even more poetic than in the translated English). 

The main idea of this period of development is that, as we head into our teen years, we become capable of abstract thinking and, as a result, can not only understand hypothetical concepts, but also develop opinions about them.  I should mention that Allison Gopnik at Berkeley has exciting new work suggesting that children can execute hypothesis-generation in their toddler years, rather than having to wait until puberty hits.  Nonetheless, under my own roof each day is another opportunity to see how Piaget was correct, in the opinion department at least. 

For example, over our holiday celebrations for Christmas we attended church, opened gifts, recalled the Nativity Story, and then verged into a heated debate as a family about the reception vs. giving of gifts.  One of our children adamantly insisted that a person shouldn’t care at all about receiving gifts, and that Christmas could not be truly experienced the way it was intended unless a person only gave gifts, rather than receiving some too. I should mention that she offered this perspective with adamant focus while clutching the Once Upon A Time calendar she’d received that very morning with a forceful grip, lest it be pried away by one of her siblings as demonstration of her argument. 

Did I mention that, at this point, we had more than a full week ahead of us with the children tumbling about the house, arguing over fine points of language and policy like they were talking heads on a cable news program.

A few examples over the ensuing days include: 

1) Our two daughters fighting over the definition of “now.” One argued that the phrase “I’m doing it now” implied a completion of a task (such as moving one’s books off the other’s desk) , whereas the other argued that ‘now’ offered a broader timeframe, somewhere between the hour of it being uttered and eventually. 

2) Our son stating that rinsing 5 pounds of rice rather than the 1 and 1/2 cups called for in the recipe he was cooking was really a blessing, as it created opportunities for future culinary endeavors (i.e., much rice pudding). 

3)A heated debate amongst all of us at the dinner table over whether they could ever serve in the military, which evolved into further arguments about whether soldiers were harmed by the act of killing enemies in combat, which then further descended into a chaotic discussion of whether killing anyone was every justified, to which our middle daughter stated matter-of-factly that it wasn’t, and our youngest and oldest offered that it could be, and neither were willing to provide support for their side except that they were right. Keep in mind, my husband and I were caught in the midst of this, trying to guide graduated perspectives on these complex topics through hypothetical examples, to which our children were entirely dismissive (Idealism and Criticism, indeed).

And the main message I receive as I see my children’s minds blossoming into dense forests of neural circuitry that both advance and limit their thinking (their brains won’t be ‘adult-like’ until 25 years or so!) is how wonderful and supportive my parents were of my own developing perspective on the world when I was younger, and how annoying I must have been in my insistence that I understood the way the world worked, and they didn’t. In other words, seeing my children take these gigantic leaps into the adult world of thought reminds me how empowering and yet scary it can be as a teen. How disruptive these new ways of examining the world can be to a child’s sense of comfort and stability. 

So, with this New Year roaring in soon, my resolution is to try and hold onto that empathy and try to remain compassionate when dealing with the unwavering opinions of my children, rather than exasperated. Because, as all of us who have grown into adults can attest, the time for seeing the world in infinite shades of gray will come sooner than we think, and the feeling of assurance that we can change the world through our ideas will never be stronger than when we first realized there was a world out there in need of change. 

Student Evals: The Good, the Bad, and the Incomprehensible

I’ve been a university lecturer for almost a decade now and, in those 20+ semesters of teaching, I have experienced the full spectrum of student evaluation responses.  At the end of each semester, students are asked to complete an online survey asking for their opinions about my quality as an instructor, the quality of the course, and a few other general questions answered using a scale of 1 – 7.

And does my mind focus on the 60%+ of students who loved the course? No, my mind instead burrows into questioning who that one student was who hated me. Er, I mean the course.

Then, they are given the freedom to answer two further questions in an open-ended forum:

What helped you learn in this course?

                   What changes would improve your learning?

Not surprisingly, this is where some students let the anonymity of the feedback venue remove their filter of humanity and thoughtfulness. Instead of writing about their learning experience they. . .well, they talk about my clothes. And my body.  And the way I say certain words. Oh, and my hair.

This isn’t going to be a blog about gender and student evaluations (you can read a great post about that on Slate here, one from The Guardian here,  and an interactive graph displaying Rate My Professors data here), although I can provide anecdotally that the male colleagues I’ve tried to commiserate with about students’ comments on our outward appearances seem to have no context for the experience.  One even said to me, “Why would they talk about my clothes?”

Why, exactly.

Instead, today I’m going to focus on three different types of student evals, just to give a review of what comes across any (female) instructor’s desk at the end of a semester.

Below are some examples of what I encountered in my student evals over the past three semesters.

The Good: What helped you learn? 

All of the examples and videos that we watched in class really helped me understand topics we were learning in class more. Also, the Q & A’s were really helpful with reviewing class material.

There wasn’t any out-of-date information. Most everything covered in class was up-to-date.

The instructor made all of the topics really clear by using clear and relevant examples, also the instructor does a great job at keeping students engaged.

My comments to all three: Yes! All of those hours spent searching through new research publications, combing for relevant clips, and racking my brain for examples to demonstrate concepts did not go to waste. I did my job.

The Bad: What would you change? 

Not much. I could see that the professor’s tone changed over the semester. It started off a little cold and distant but got better later.

My comment: Isn’t that the natural course of any relationship?

New professor.

My comment: Well then–I can see why you circled 1. Granted, this doesn’t give me much to go on for improvement.

I would hope next time around she would upload the power points online and have more detailed notes. If you miss one class you pretty much have no way of getting the notes unless a class mate gives them to you.

My comment: Yes, this is typically how classes work.

The Incomprehensible: What would you change?

You should stop highlighting your hair.  Go for a deep chestnut or, if you want to get a little crazy, even a red!

My comment: Do I even need to give my thoughts on this one?  I imagine you, dear reader, can feel them through your screen already.

She talks to us like she knows more than us.  I don’t like being talked down to.

My comment: Why would you take a class from someone if you knew more on the topic than they did?

The first day of class, she mentioned that she ‘bought’ her children.  I found that really rude and inappropriate to say. She ruined the class for me. 

My comment: In the adoptive family community, we refer to the experience of ‘getting’ our children, as in “When we got our children. . .” or the celebration of “Gotcha Day” (I did talk about this in class, you know.  Our family celebrates it every year. I showed you and your classmates pictures of our family festivities. Seriously, you don’t remember?) We do this because, unlike biological families, adoptive families did not give birth to their children and cannot say “When my child was born. . .” But thank you for basing your entire opinion of me on one misinterpreted syllable.

And one bonus:

You need to get off your pedal stool.

My comment: This was received from a colleague of mine–we’ll call her Jane. Her reply: Will do.