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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What to do with all you’ve learned?

During finals week on my University’s campus, it’s not uncommon to find 15 weeks worth of notes, studiously copied and interpreted down in neat handwriting, discarded in trash cans overflowing with similar academic rejections. The same can be said of paper recycling bins, frequented for disposal by the more earth-minded students, which, although more environmentally-friendly, still give me a shudder as I see so much effort and knowledge discarded without seemingly any pretense.

Index Cards 2
Why discard all of your hard work?

The sidewalks are also littered with the detritus of completed classes (see the above tableau of a flurry of index cards scattered in front of a frat house; can’t you just picture a student flinging her/his hands up in the air to release the cards, shouting ‘I’m free’? To which the educator in me must  reply, ‘From what?’).

I don’t want this post to be some sort of ‘When I was a student. . .’ reflection, partly because my world as an undergraduate was markedly different from those of today’s college students. No social media, we still wrote our e-mails using DOS prompts, and eBay seemed some sort of black market supply store. Nobody took laptops to class.

That said, up until 3 or 4 years ago, I still had all of my college notebooks stored away for safe-keeping.  Even my gen eds.  Even my yoga journal. Just in case, I seemed to be thinking. In case I might need that little parcel of information again.

So, it’s from that perspective that I have to question a student’s impulse in jettisoning a semester’s worth of work as soon as his/her final assignment is complete and grades are posted. Why not hang onto the material that you transcribed and examined for an entire semester?

Sure, information is much more accessible today than when I was a student.  Most research journals are fully electronic and any fact can be checked (from reputable online sources) in a matter of seconds with our smartphones.  But this online content hasn’t been condensed and filtered through a student’s own comprehension.  In a way, this online information is foreign and external, whereas a student’s notes from a semester-long class are intimately known and accessible. They’ve already been distilled through a student’s own thinking. And because of that, I feel that content to be more valuable in turn.

Admittedly, part of this problem lies with us faculty. A portion of our role as  instructors is to demonstrate the relevance of our course’s content, the real-world importance it bears on an individual’s life. We are in part, each day, trying to communicate to our students why this information is valuable to them and worthy of their time.

Perhaps seeing discarded papers and index cards strewn about campus, or witnessing study guides caught in a frenetic dance on the chilly breezes of mid-December, causes a reflexive feeling of dismay in me because it is a reminder that higher education might be failing our students.

And that is a much greater burden to carry.