Moving out of the quick sand

As I reflect on the past semester, I feel as if it’s been a blur. A rush of papers, projects, proposal writing assignments, tests, long drives to doctor appointments, endless traffic….like I’m on a treadmill that my legs can’t keep up with. Yet, amidst all of the stressors life seems to throw at us…amidst the “blurriness” of graduate school…the incredibly dedicated, passionate people I met this semester seem to stand out to me the most.

In this semester’s Contemporary Pedagogy course, I saw familiar faces from last year and encountered new friends. We are all very different, with different pasts and different goals, yet there is a common thread: passion for what we believe could change the future. We each cling to what inspires us, what drives us, what makes us graduate students to start with. Not only have I better learned what inspires me through the introspection this course calls for, but I have been further inspired by the people that surround me on Wednesday nights.

I realize that culture and traditional methods surrounding education can feel like quick sand, holding us down and pulling us deeper into the rut of knowledge isolated from humanity. I really do think, however, that we are moving out of this quick sand and onto a “firm ground”, as referenced by Parker Palmer.

Palmer identifies the new professional as someone coming back to our true mission on a “firm ground” of personal and professional identity and integrity, away from the powerful force of the value-free life around us (what I think of as “quick sand”).

I see- somewhere past the sleepless eye-bags and caffeine-immune yawns- this very passion that indicates a promising future for us as professionals. With our passion, we feel emotion; we feel attached to the reasons why we are where we are. If we can foster this emotion and use it for what Palmer identifies as institutional change, we can be what students need.

I want to take the passion I feel now about my work, specifically regarding its application to disabilities, and never let go of it. I believe that it’s my saving grace, preventing me from being swallowed by the daily pressures and “forces” I encounter; yet I can easily imagine that with these pressures growing proportionally with my involvement in institutions, my passion could take a backseat to my surroundings. I want to lead what Palmer describes as an “undivided life”, and I know by surrounding myself with his suggested “communities of discernment” like my aforementioned peers, I can allow my passion to keep driving me to seek social justice through education.

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Neglectful mom vs. concerned friend

In Is Google Making Us Stupid?Carr expresses concerns about the effect of technology on the mind. It draws the conclusion that automation means less intelligence of our own, as if we are being replaced by machines.

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I feel that the larger concern is not technology itself, it is how we use it and when we use it. As mentioned in Myth of the Disconnected Life by Jason Farmon, within technology use lies a greater concern. He mentions a commercial that played on this concern, showing people ignoring their children by staring at their phones. Yes, this type of technology use is a problem. I have seen the same thing; I can still picture a mom sitting in Dunkin Donuts with her two little daughters repetitiously saying “mom” to show her their drawing, and she was still on her phone texting, responding to them abruptly with “one second”.

Between class changes, I challenge you to observe students (and faculty) walking on campus. Most people are looking down at their phones. After noticing this phenomenon (when I actually looked up from my phone myself) I shared a brief moment of similar concern to Carr. We have efficiency at the expense of other forms of interaction- with people, with literature, etc.

But- what if that mom seemingly neglecting her daughters was texting a friend across the country (or even the world) to offer condolences during a difficult time? Or what if (most) students on their phones between classes are updating family members back at home, responding to important emails about assignments, or reaching out to new friends to make stronger connections? Or maybe one is searching for the location of a building on campus if she is a lost graduate student named Krissy Cantin on the first day of graduate school.

My conclusion regarding the effects of technology is “it depends.”

As stated by two seemingly contradictory popular quotes, “too much of a good thing can be bad”, or, “too much of a good thing can be wonderful”. What do you think?

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How will you use your platform?

“…He or she does commit himself or herself, within history, to fight at their side.” -Paulo Freire

Paulo Freire’s description of critical pedagogy emphasizes engagement in the real world, extending far beyond the classroom. This engagement is not unrealistic, but instead focuses on encouraging students and teachers to walk alongside all different types of people and to have a dialogue with them; this movement will invoke true understanding and social change. His theory further discusses dialogic versus static exchange between teachers and students, where both teacher and student learn and engage together.

As Freire suggests, students should see themselves as active agents ready to shape and interact with the world, and I believe they cannot see this without the teachers first acknowledging their role in this; what is our role in social justice, and how can we further help students see their role in such social change?

Kinchloe’s Critical Pedagogy in School refers to the social justice we as teachers can bring. What will be my method to bring forth such justice? I believe that we as teachers will have the chance to promote social change in two ways: by entering a dialogue with students of diverse backgrounds and by inspiring students to seek social justice themselves beyond the classroom. Entering a dialogue with students requires acceptance and encouragement of uniting unique stories. As stated by Kinchloe, education must move to a critical complexity that acknowledges “meaning-making” is not purely a rational process. Both teacher and student must be mindful of implied meanings, and take care when engaging in dialogue with students. I believe incorporating topics typically excluded in education- like disability studies- can assist in breaking down boundaries that may occur during such dialogue.

As Kinchloe suggests, critical teachers should challenge and question; this may take form through implementing studies of previously excluded areas, such as disability studies. Disabilities are commonly studied in fields such as psychology or medicine, and they are typically studied by a “nondisabled majority” as a form of deviance. Taylor in Disability Studies in Higher education (2011) discusses and promotes a new direction for the field of disability studies: one that includes people with disabilities as the researchers and views disabilities as diverse in existence in the social, cultural, and political spheres. As exemplified by Syracuse University, the implementation of such Disability Studies that parallel other minority studies (like Women and Gender Studies) could benefit from more diverse student recruitment. This field of study would encourage understanding of the complexities entailed in the vast array of diagnoses and characteristics defined as “disabilities.” Furthermore, this field would provide a platform for disability research and awareness, as well as unite people passionate about disability rights.

Through subjects taught within the classroom or the inclusion of dialogue of such topics, connecting material with social problems can help students easily see the application of classroom studies to global issues. The importance of learning becomes clearer and more directly related to broader interests and movements.

How will you use your teaching platform to seek social justice?

She is not disabled. She has a disability.

I am conflicted. I do not know how to begin recording my many thoughts about inclusion and the underpinnings of our judgments. I have two personal ties to these topics, through experiences as a female pursuing science and through another (often unmentioned) stigmatized characteristic: disabilities.

Claude Steele’s “Identity and Intellectual Performance” showed just a small sample of the negative effects of stereotypes on the stereotyped person’s life. After his explanation of experimental findings- that women underperformed men when given a difficult math test unless they were told women typically out perform men on that specific test- I began to wonder about the number of women who turned away from certain areas of study because of this inherent discouragement. Then I thought about the number of people who are stigmatized in general, and how widespread this epidemic is. How do we stop this?

In an excerpt of the Hidden Brain, the author explained automated responses and how most of our thoughts are not under our own conscious control. Instead, we rely on heuristics and the “shortcuts” in our brain, most likely ingrained since birth from our environments. We associate certain people with certain feelings, and when these automatic responses takeover our actions, we can stigmatize others without recognizing their individuality.

While reflecting on this passage, I immediately thought about disabilities. As a daughter of a mother born with a progressive physical disability (paralysis that causes significant difficulty walking) and a granddaughter of a grandfather born with one arm, I have witnessed how they are stigmatized. I have witnessed the stares, the assumptions, the inappropriate questions. I have witnessed the lack of environmental access (by the way, something “adhering to regulations” may not actually be accessible for all- for example, double doors that do not fit large wheelchairs in between, present in a common fast food place). I have heard insensitive words describing physical disabilities that pain me to type right now- like cripple, gimpy, etc.- and even words that once were used medically for mental disabilities used in a derogatory manner to describe those with any disability at all- like retarded. People also associate mental disabilities with physical disabilities, which frustrates me; every single person is different, every disability is different, and neither should be “lumped” together and confined in a compartment for quick judgments.

And to every stare when I’m out with my mom or grandpa, I return a smile. This may be the only encounter that passerby ever had or will have with someone with this disability. I realize, this may be their “automatic response”. They are making “automatic judgments”, which we have all been primed to automatically make regarding groups of people. So what protects me from these automatic judgments about people with disabilities specifically?

First, I attribute my lack of (or at least, less present) automatic judgments on people with disabilities to how I was raised. My mom always said to include “disability” at the end of a description; she is a mother “with a disability” or “who has a physical disability” instead of “a disabled mother”. That makes me cringe to even write! I never once viewed her as disabled; I still don’t. She is my mother, first and foremost. Yes, her disability has contributed to the incredible human being she is today, and caused many struggles for her to overcome, but she is not her disability.

She also told me that really, it is a difference, not a “dis”ability. I refrained from writing “dis”ability this whole post so the reader would not get agitated, but truthfully the word in and of itself is hindering people with differing abilities. We all have differing abilities; why cast out one group because their differences may be apparent to the eye?

Lastly, I am thankful for my exposure to people with disabilities. I believe this exposure has allowed me to see people who may walk differently, sound differently, or act differently as individuals, versus as an “outcast” to “my group”.

How does this tie in with the deep discussion on other minorities? I believe the principles I have learned from my experience with a different and often unspoken minority group can extend throughout all stigmatized groups. As addressed specifically to disabilities above, it is crucial for the individual to be viewed as an individual, while still not ignoring or avoiding a part of that person and her or his journey. Small nuances signify the respect for the person as a whole- such as referring to “a person with a disability” instead of “the disabled person”- but perhaps more importantly, getting exposure early on to as many differences as possible is vital in combatting any “isms” (and discrimination in general). It becomes much more difficult to quickly categorize people at first glance when you have personal relationships from an early age that strengthen other associations with that characteristic. Children should be exposed and build relationships with people across abilities, backgrounds, races, genders, and any other characteristic that could potentially stigmatize a group of people. I believe  there is hope through this exposure- we just need to establish avenues for enactment.

A QWERTY Life

One of the best pieces of advice I received during college was from my physics professor. This professor was my introductory physics professor as well as my biophysics professor; he taught me during my first semester of college and my very last semester, so he saw me grow from a wide-eyed freshman to an overwhelmed senior trying to keep straight A’s. He recognized my motivation, but also recognized that it was being channeled in the wrong direction. Instead of focusing on learning as I initially did in college, I started to fixate on grades upon gradation. He said to me that I should not allow fear to intercede between my eagerness to learn and seeking to challenge myself. He said I should take risks, even if those risks could jeopardize getting an A. I was reminded of this advice in Alfie Kohn’s “The Case Against Grades” when Kohn discussed students’ hesitation toward intellectual risks due to grading policies. Without these intellectual risks, however, we will never venture outside of a comfortable zone surrounded by what is known and we will never escape the fear drifting too far from our current understanding.

Imagination First by Eric Liu and Scott Noppe-Brandon challenges the reader to brainstorm “imagination killing moments.” After reflecting on these moments in my life, I realized that- as stated in the chapter- there were many moments, not just one. I look back to my list of research ideas when I was in college compared to my research ideas now, and I see how they have been greatly narrowed by what is deemed feasible. Although I understand the necessity in feasibility, I also believe that “big ideas” are the world-changing ones. The first chapter in Imagination First discusses “path dependence”, and uses the example of the QWERTY keyboard. This keyboard was established without consideration for user needs, but the QWERTY norm will likely not be replaced due to its extensive use over many years. “It’s this way because that’s the way it’s always been.” But we do not need to continue to promote this QWERTY life through how we conduct our research nor how we teach the next generation of learners.

I do believe that path dependence is difficult to avoid given our education system and constant exposure to the “accepted” ideas. This exposure, however, can then be used to expand our ideas versus limit them. Rather than fully depending on another path, paths can intersect and interact to spark even greater ideas. At the end of the first chapter in Imagination First, the authors list key capacities of imagination. These capacities emphasize interacting with the object of study in new and innovative ways. With use of imagination, QWERTY keyboards have been replaced altogether for people with disabilities. The innovation shown in these keyboard creations is an example of path interaction; the concept of a keyboard is used, but manipulated and interacted with in unique and beneficial ways. I believe that we can escape path dependence by interacting differently with commonly accepted objects. Daniel Pink discusses studies that show creative thinking is not motivated by money, nor any “if-then” relationships (such as grades). Instead, he concludes that autonomy as well as purpose motive will allow our creativity to flow. In other words, we can escape this QWERTY trap through free-flowing creativity that is purpose-driven. How can we help others find the motivation to escape this QWERTY life? How might we find new angles to explore and new innovations that depart from our norm?

It’s time to say “I Do”

As I transition from some of my last years as a student to a hopeful professor, I have come to realize the commitment issue that I may face from my future students. Michael Wesch discusses this commitment issue; for example, he mentions in his anti-teaching article that students are more likely to ask administrative questions versus exploratory questions. If students are to be engaged to learning, educators must foster the desire for students to delve deeper into academic topics and to ask creative questions. Many educators are teaching, yet many students are not learning; unlike the title of the act, many students are being left behind (as Ken Robinson discusses in his TED talk). Robinson concludes that this discrepancy could be due to a diagnostic focus, instead of one that elicits passion for gathering a greater understanding of a certain field of interest. He further suggests individualizing teaching and learning to awaken this curiosity and creativity in students; if teaching is reformed as such, students may be more prone to moving beyond administrative concerns and into worldly inquisitions. If students start to ask imaginative questions, the teacher may have successfully cultivated a more global vision that sees beyond the next exam.

Just as engagement precedes marriage in a relationship, the aforementioned curiosity must precede true commitment to learning and therefore to education. Drop-out rates will continue to increase in this country until true commitment is established in more students. The trend of modern education systems seems to neglect this first step of engagement; often as soon as students enter school, they are being greeted with stressful assessment situations before their attention is sparked with thought-provoking questions. In college and even in high school courses, the first week is called “syllabus” week because of the importance of such administrative tasks. The student is told test dates and grading criteria before entering any discussion about any course material. After syllabus week, lecture-style classes begin. As Wesch alluded to, when students cannot fit this narrow mold of lecture teaching styles paired with emphasized high scores on assessments, they will not only feel unfit for the mold of school but they will also lose any desire to find a fit. Students must say “I Do” to learning; and the material must be proposed in a way that makes denial near impossible.

So, in what way should material be proposed? I believe if we each examine our past educational experiences, we can arrive at an answer of the most effective method to evoke passion about learning. Personally, I refer to my second semester, senior year computer science course. This course was an introductory course, and I attended class “just for fun,” given my prior completion of undergraduate credits. My professor began the class with applications. I vividly recall the first lecture. He introduced his research before launching into how we can find this material in our everyday lives. We began learning by addressing its relevance, and he asked us to brainstorm how we could find personal relevance in this course. He offered us opportunities to engage from the first day of the course, and in turn, even those auditing the class attended every session. I believe such willing attendance exhibits the results of a successful material proposal method.

How do you think material should be proposed?

Where is my voice?

As a child, I loved writing stories. I used to take notepads with me on car trips (even five minute drives to the store) and jot down narratives and day dreams. Although these scribbles paved the way for embarrassing discoveries in recent years, such as forgotten stories of my childhood spiciness recorded by yours truly, they serve as gentle reminders of my long lost friend: my voice. My written elementary school memories and my fictional short stories- written “just because”- were put through somewhat of a “refining” process. But has my voice really been “refined,” or has it been so edited that it is nearly lost in the rules and regulations of the academic classroom, weaving in and out of the maze of grammar and guidelines?

After years of essays in specific formats, projects about a restrictive list of approved topics, and teacher instructions to write with minimal description, I find that my only written expression is flowing from my hand to reach a grade or a grant. I have very little time for myself. In other words, I have very little time to allow my deepest thoughts to escape my engineering-focused mind. I am so accustomed to double (and triple) checking every piece of my writing; I must ensure that my knowledge is relayed in the most direct and concise manner. I very much value the importance of rules and regulations in scientific writing; yet I have forgotten to find the time to value other forms of expression. I am at risk for losing connection with evolving methods of communication, and connection with my very own voice.

In Scott Rosenburg’s “How Blogs Changed Everything,” he refers to the ability of bloggers to control their voices. I previously feared that blogs could lead to an undesired, uncontrollable discussion over my personal thoughts, and thus public embarrassment. I realized as I read this post from Rosenburg, however, that I am in control of this content and my role in a general discussion.

I understand that blogging has become a popular method for remaining connected in academic institutions. As a hopeful future professor, I know I must become familiar with blogging in a way that could help me better connect with others (especially future students). Rosenburg reflects on the technological growth of the telephone, and how something that once caused such paranoia among people desiring privacy now serves as a comfort we take for granted. This comparison eased my anxiety of public sharing, and sparked the question of what will be “new” when communication through blogging becomes second-nature.

Seth Godin and Tom Peters’ discussion on blogging mentions the humility involved with creating and sharing a post. The importance of blogging is not only placed in the audience’s reception of a blogger’s thoughts, but rather in the process of creative thought formulation. It is this very process of creativity that I feel I have stifled over the course of my educational pursuits, and I am convinced blogging can help me rediscover this creative voice.