What My Students Taught Me: Spring Semester Edition

It’s the end of another semester here at Penn State and, as my mother (who is a high school science educator herself) reminds me, nothing ever stays the same when you are an educator. Classes end, students graduate, and time marches on. It’s one of the blessings and drawbacks of this profession–you are ever continuously in motion.

As we head into our finals week on campus and my Human Development and Family Studies students (HDFS-ers for short) prep for exams, I’m struck looking back on the past 15 weeks by what my students have accomplished. Not just objectively, from exam packets completed or written projects handed in, but also more intangibly through their comments, actions, and affirmations. It’s been a good semester for growth, and I feel empowered and strengthened by the gift of having worked with my students this semester. Below are three highlights.

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  1. When discussing links between pornography consumption in men and viewing women as objects, I posed the question of what it means to be objectified, especially since that phrase has been overused to the point of becoming meaningless. My students responded to the question, with swift emphasis, that:
  • An object has no desires.
  • An object has no discomfort.
  • An object does not need to give consent.

After this discussion, I sat quietly at my desk after class, thankful these young people are heading out into the world soon. Change will come.

2. At the end of the semester, I asked my students for their final in-class assignment to write about which activity or topic I should definitely include next semester. Almost half of the course emphasized the importance of viewing The Hunting Ground and our discussion of sexual assault on campus, including the Bystander Training Prevention program we participated in as a class through Penn State’s Student Affairs.  It reminded me, once again, of the importance of giving our students access to a safe educational environment. Given that I’ve received 4 ‘timely warnings’ of reported sexual assaults on campus in the past week, we still have a long way to go, but I am confident that many of our students will continue to fight until we get there.  @endrapeoncampus

Timely Warning

3. My sophomore-level course is a survey of infancy and childhood, so we cover a variety of topics, much to my delight since I love learning and teaching about this period of development. Each semester, I try to squeeze in a presentation on the Children’s Village of Grasi, which is a children’s home/orphanage in Cesvaine, Latvia. I volunteered there many summers ago and my husband and I have since traveled back to Latvia several times as part of our adoption of our three children. I partly share the Children’s Village with my students because their program of caring for children whose families are unable to do it themselves, due to illness, maltreatment, or a variety of other causes, reflects what developmental research has shown again and again to promote resiliency, including family-style homes, family meals, longevity in their staff, and support for children even after they ready the ‘age of majority’. It’s an incredible program, to say the least.

Another a reason I talk about this with my students is to encourage them to consider how families form, and that families grow from a variety of circumstances. Grasi creates a family by linking the children who stay with them with the staff who have worked there for years. My husband and I created our family by adopting our children, who are all siblings, when they were school-age (our son was 11yrs, and our daughters 8 and 7yrs). This semester, luckily like so many others, my presentation on Grasi led to a flurry of e-mails from students wanting to know more about Grasi, about volunteering at children’s homes, about foster care here in the States, and also about adopting older children. Although I feel all of these topics are important for my students to explore, I am always especially gratified to hear students considering alternative ways to form their future families.

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With so many stories in the news focusing on adoption in a negative light, whether with exposés on reactive attachment disorder or discussions of the ills of children who are adopted later in their lives, it is even more important to communicate to my students that these stories are the exception, not the norm. When I hear students tell me they are now thinking about adopting as part of their future family plan, and even perhaps adopting older children, it makes my heart swell.

If you worry about Millenials and their impending impact on the world when they come of age, I’m here to tell you: Don’t sweat it! As my students have taught me again and again these last fifteen weeks:

The future is in good hands.

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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.

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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.