On My Journey Through Darkness

I recently reread a short essay by Maureen Watson (2015) titled: Treasures in Darkness: Loving the Questions.  In the essay, Watson speaks about what it feels like to live in the darkness. A year ago I was in a dark place, and although I had good reason to be there, it was torture. Parker Palmer’s metaphor of winter also speaks to where I was at the time. It was cold and it felt like the wind was blowing hard as I stood on a flat plain all alone in the dark of night.  1488905_10102331116884928_919608754_n

My choice to phrase the above paragraph in the manner that I did was intentional, and does mean that I’m no longer solely in that place. I don’t want it to be heard that I’ve somehow done a 180, but I have made progress. And I can see the progress. All of this I share because recently I’ve been thinking about how I once had a counselor who asked me if it was okay to revisit experiences that I thought I had worked through.  I was in a very stubborn place and was sharing with her that I refused to consider the past…I just wanted to be fixed even though I knew that she wasn’t going to tell me how I could be fixed. She pointed out that despite working through something in the past, I had since had more experiences that might lead me to see my past experiences differently, and she asked me if I thought that was possible.  Her question stayed with me, and is often something I still consider.

All of these thoughts combined with a passage I was recently reminded of in my Introduction to College Student Personnel course:

“Personnel workers see the person–at whatever age–not as a single moment independent of the past and the future, but as a transition point in a stream of experience that goes back to infancy and will continue on into the future” (Lloyd-Jones, 1954).

And the combination of these thoughts with current events such as the shooting of Keith Scott, the homelessness of the Syrian Refugees, the Native American tribal land protest, and the weekly interactions I have with first generation students place my mind in a spot where I can’t imagine how we could ever feel settled in higher education.  Yet, feeling settled is often what I believe we desire.  I know that I’ve desperately wanted to feel the security of having settled over the past year and a half–the safety that I can count on at least one piece of knowledge and believe it to be true.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could feel comfort in spite of today’s current events instead of only frustration and darkness?

It is in these moments of desiring comfort and stability, however, that I can see that I’ve managed to get through the dark place I was in and find a bit more light by going one step at a time.  And this time, I deeply value the light rather than taking it for granted.  In other words, now that I am able to see how far I have come, I find that I want to make sure that I am always a bit uncomfortable, and in many ways I hope that we all are a bit uncomfortable. For it is in that spot, that I believe we discover the most about ourselves.

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Another School Year Started

I took a break from personally blogging this summer, and need to get back into the swing of doing it at least once a month. For these reasons, I thought I would post about my summer and the beginning of the school year.

For starters, the first week of the new school year is over.  Woo hoo, 🙂 I did it!  I will say that I notice my energy went up over the summer, which is exciting.  Still, I am quite exhausted in the evenings and have spent a good bit of time sleeping this weekend.

I am still going to physical therapy at the local hospital to work on my continued recovery.  Yes, this means that I’m continuing to also improve physically too.  I do still have foot drop, but I have become much stronger, the spasticity has decreased, and I can walk faster.  One of my goals is to be able to run, and I am happy to say that I got to a speed of 3.5 on the treadmill (which is the lowest speed for running), and I can do that for just over 3 minutes.  Yes, to do this I wear a harness that is attached to the ceiling in case I fall, but I can still do it!

This summer I worked again on the book I’m writing about my January 2015 life explosion (as I now call it). I finished another draft of it in early August, and am having someone edit it for me now. I actually think it isn’t too bad, and might possibly be something folks want to read. I’ve kept it focused on the patient perspective of everything I’ve been through. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that it is worthwhile.

Third, I did get to go to my favorite place, Lake Vermilion, MN, this summer for two weeks. This year I had a chance to spend time with family, and I swam in the lake. I tried out a pool later in the summer too. FYI, swimming is very hard, but also very enjoyable. A special moment was when my niece taught me to do all of the swimming moves she learned from her swim instructor when I told her that I was afraid to swim. Like a good student, I listened to her instructions.

I also taught a summer course, which was quite enjoyable, and I prepared for my fall semester courses.  Now that I have a better understanding of my disabilities, I was able to be more strategic in my planning.  All of this is to say that I feel as though I’m both improving and adjusting…hopefully the first year back was the hardest for this “new” body I inhabit.

It was great to see the students both in classes this week, as well as those in the Western 1st Generation Society (W1Gs) group.  I am very excited to say that all of the students in the group came back to WIU this fall, and are prepared for the Activities Fair next week.  I anticipate it will be a great year thanks to all of them too!

Finally, no great year would be complete without a new dog.  He is a 5 year old PomChi mix that we adopted from the McDonough County Animal Shelter.  I know that not everyone is a dog person, but it is pretty awesome to have something SO EXCITED to great me each time I come home.  Dogs are the best! 🙂

Optimus Prime our 5 year old ChiPom mix.

Optimus Prime our 5 year old ChiPom mix.

Are Our Inclusive Communities for Those with Disabilities?

Since the beginning of 2016, I’ve challenged myself to have new experiences, which have led me to increasingly realize how hard it is to function in a world that isn’t designed for people with foot drop.  I have a physical disability that can be seen, and although people can see it, I often think of disabilities that aren’t as visual.

Where are our student affairs conversations about any of those who comprise these groups when we talk about social justice? 

In our efforts to create more inclusive communities?

Unfortunately, I can find it only occurring among those like me (or those who are close to us), and I am new to the group.  So, please don’t take what I’m writing here as me speaking on behalf of everyone with a disability, and don’t dismiss it either, as it is insight into one person’s experiences.

Identifying as a person with a disability is not unlike many other identities, except that it is not always visible.  Nearly 1 in 5 people have a disability in the United States.  It is an identity that cuts across race, class, and gender, etc.

As someone who has more recently become disabled, I get it:

The world would be easier if people like me, people who looked abnormal when trying to function in a “normal” way (in my case walking) would just go away.  I feel that message from the systems that exist in the world almost every single day. I know that I am not alone in feeling this way, and I know that the feeling does not belong to just those with a disability.

I’ve spent time considering a few points this semester since attending and presenting at a conference, and participating in recruitment days

Western Illinois University representing at ACPA (I am on the far left)

Western IL University representing at ACPA (I’m the far left)

for the program in which I teach–neither of which were especially challenging for me physically prior to everything occurring.  I am not sharing these points because I want everyone to constantly think about what it must be like to have a physical disability.  In fact, I suspect that most people, even after reading this, will do what I used to do, which is go back to a comfortable, able-bodied routine.  However, I still think I have some points worth sharing, so here are three thoughts for the field of student affairs to consider:

  1. Please understand that I will not walk into a crowded room and work the room, as I don’t know who will be paying attention to where they are walking and/or what might suddenly change about the environment.  In fact, I would prefer to sit and, as I meet people, I will explain to them why I am not getting up.
  2. Just ask me if I need help and know that I am okay with saying that I have a disability.  Perhaps I haven’t had my disability long enough to insist on person first language, and I do understand (deeply) the negative stereotypes that come to mind when folks use the world disabled.  However, after all the work I’ve put into my recovery, the last thing I have energy for is serving as the “word police.”  I get it…if you are describing me, I’m okay if you say “the disabled person”.  I’m just happy that you saw me without me having to remind you that I exist.
  3. Finally, I know there is talk about gender inclusive restrooms within the field, which is great. For me, at the end of the day, it comes down to being able to use any restroom.  At.  All.  So, please stop going into what is often the only accessible stall simply because it has more room.  I know people do it…I used to. I’m six feet tall and used to weigh 36 pounds more than I do now (I’m still considered “big boned”), add to that a backpack, a winter coat, and I feel more comfortable using a larger stall.  Now, I need it. Please don’t hear that we should decide who gets which stall and when. However, for me, there is no getting off the toilet if there is no bar to use to pull myself up.

Microaggressions in Everyday Life

In November of 2013, I attended a Lilly Conference on Teaching and Learning in Oxford, OH. One of the conference speakers was Derald Wing Sue, and he presented on his recent book Microagressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation. His talk was quite powerful for several reasons:

1. I can vividly recall some folks rudely walking out.
2. Sue ran out of time, and I remember being quite disappointed because I wanted to hear more.
3. I recall feeling like I wasn’t alone and that I wasn’t crazy for how I felt and made sense about experiences I’ve had.

These thoughts and feelings led to me placing Sue’s book in my Amazon cart for future reading, which I just so happened to find time to do over the last week.

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Microaggressions, according to Sue, “are constant and continuing experiences of marginalized groups in our society; they assail the self-esteem of recipients, produce anger and frustration, deplete psychic energy, lower feelings of subjective well-being and worthiness, produce physical health problems, shorten life expectancy, and deny minority populations equal access and opportunity in education, employment, and health care” (p. 6). Sue goes on to discussed the negative impact of built up microagressions throughout one’s life. Although I read the book due to my own personal interests, I couldn’t help but consider if there is a way to include at least exerts from it into my classes (I’m still considering this).

Most powerful to me were the narrative examples that Sue shared from his research. I also found the book powerful because it caused me several times to consider counterarguments and then to question where such arguments came from, as well as why they came so easily. For example, when Sue discussed health impacts of microaggressions to various marginalized groups, I found myself wondering how he knew that the negative health issues were connected to microagressions. I could think quickly of numerous explanations for such negative health concerns that aren’t about microagressions–or so I thought until I continued thinking about it. I had to work to spend time considering the connections to microaggressions that Sue was discussing…at least a bit harder than it took to think of all the numerous explanations. I had to work harder despite connecting personally to several of the types of microagressions he discussed. For example, when I thought “oh, no that could be due to not eating healthy”, I then thought about all of the systems and structures that don’t make choosing to eat healthy as simple as choosing to eat healthy. I felt stretched through this process, and appreciated the book for providing such an opportunity. This isn’t to say that I necessarily agreed with all that Sue asserted (I’m “sitting with” much of it still), but I did find it worthwhile to consider.

One of the biggest overall takeaways for me was when Sue stated, “the most disempowered groups have a more accurate assessment of reality, especially related to whether discriminatory behavior is bias-motivated” (p. 47). This statement caused me to pause, and although it was provided early in the book (and repeated several times thereafter in a variety of ways), I’ve continued to spend time reflecting on it and what it means for my practice. I can’t help but wonder what the world would be like if such a statement was deeply believed by all.

Learning is Messy

Learning is messy.

I was sent this image a few years ago from a former student, and I think it perfectly portrays the learning process….at least for me.

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Recently I’ve been revisiting the blurriness that the learning process is for various reasons (let’s be real…I’m probably do this more often than not since my research is on the learning process, so I probably don’t need to use the word recently or revisiting 🙂 ). One of the reasons I’ve been spending time reflecting on the learning process is because of what it means as a faculty member, which like other positions (e.g., student affairs professional), is no easy feat. Parker Palmer wrote a book titled: The Courage to Teach, and the title couldn’t be more true.

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Learning takes courage no matter who you are, and spending time each week trying to facilitate learning for and in front of others requires that one learns themselves, so it is at least just as challenging. I could draw connections at this point to the concept of vulnerability that Brene Brown talks about:

or remaining unfinished that Paulo Freire wrote about:

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I’m not interested in doing that, however, because all that would I would be doing, or at least how it would feel to me, is that I would be intellectualizing the complicated process of learning. That don’t fully get at the messiness of learning. So, instead, I thought I would put together my own visual description of the learning process in relation to how I experience it.

Enjoy! 🙂

At the beginning of the process, I’m usually pretty content. Feeling like things are going good.:
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And then something new enters my world and I can’t see where it is going to take me fully, but I’m curious enough to give it a try.:
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I admit that usually in the beginning I try to reject it.:
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And/or worse, I think I already know all about it.:
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Until I start to realize that what was once familiar I now don’t know what to think about?!?:
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And I start to question all sorts of things and how I’m making sense of them???:
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Through that process, I start to see things, but I’m not fully confident in them.:
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And in trying to incorporate what I’ve learned, I stumble, make loads of mistakes,:
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and experiences lots of failures.:
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Until I reach a point where I start to understand it more clearly, which usually results in me feeling so excited and thinking about it all of the time!:
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at which point, somewhere in the process it starts to become habit, or a part of how I see the world around me.:
habits

Now, while I wrote this whole process as though it happens in a linear fastion, it is in no ways linear (please see the first visual image I included in this post). It is messy, but it is also interconnected.:
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And eventually brings me back to feeling pretty good, but with a slightly different way of viewing the world.:
happiness-1

stenen-gestapeld

What Kind of Learner Are You?

Two years ago, I read Ken Bain’s book What the Best College Teachers Do after it was recommended to me by a colleague at a Lilly Conference, and last summer I re-read the book as a part of a book club on campus. I should clarify…I read the book in one day.

One day.

Not only was it an easy read, but it felt like Bain was speaking to me…telling me that I am not alone. Please don’t read that to mean that I think I’m one of the best college teachers. Rather, it was more confirmation that the types of learning experiences I try to provide within the classroom are congruent with what the best college teachers do…I just need to keep working at it.

The book was so powerful that last fall I decided to read his next book, What the Best College Students Do, with a student who was exploring the process of learning in the classroom. I completed this book feeling a bit disappointed. It felt as if the book was put together quickly, and that the effort to “discover” the best teachers was not the same effort to “discover” the best students (Bain claims otherwise). Instead, it felt more like he asked his friends/people he knew who he thought were good students to share their story about how they became good students. Let’s just say that I kept thinking that Bain and most of his friends/acquaintances have quite a few more resources for their own personal learning than most of the rest of us (certainly more than I have available).

Still, though, there was “good stuff” that could be found, and I’ve been spending time considering some of it at the beginning of this new school year and thought that it might be helpful for other to consider too. Bain discusses how he wasn’t equating being a “good student” with getting straight A’s. Most of the people he discusses in his book did get good grades, but not always. He spoke a bit about a test called the Force Concept Inventory, which demonstrated that those who received A grades were,

“simply better at memorizing formulas, plugging the right number into the equation, and calculating the correct answer on the exam” (p. 4463–kindle).

The A grade the students received had little to do with how well they understood course concepts. I agree with Ken’s critique of the grading system, and wish there was a way that I could avoid assigning grades. Unfortunately, my experience with various students leads me to believe that if grades were not offered not all students would do the work, and in order to help them discover a greater purpose for the course than simply getting an A, I find that I need them to do the work.

Bain also encourages readers to consider what kind of learner they are, and indicates that a person’s approach to learning is often connected to how they approach their work post graduation. Learning for the sake of learning or to become better by gaining new knowledge/understanding/skills/abilities is not how most students have been socialized to be students. Rather, I’ve experienced students who’ve been socialized to receive an A because they completed the homework and repeated back to me whatever it is that the reading assigned for the day said. My sassy response to these students is that I already know what the authors of the readings said because I assigned the readings. My non-sassy response is more…”okay, that’s a place to start. What do you think about the authors claims?” Psychologists at Goteborg University labeled these students as “surface” learners.

Bain discusses another kind of student that I’ve encountered. These students believe they can tell,

“right away if they are going to be good at something. If they don’t get it immediately, they throw up their hands and say, ‘I can’t do it'” (p. 4463–kindle).

Yet, most of us know that to lastingly learn something it requires time and commitment…progress is slow, and often involves continual struggle. In order to hang in there as one learns to become good at something, it requires internal motivation and knowing how one learns best. Thus, whatever you think right away about your ability to learn something might not be the best indicator of your abilities. Psychologists at Goteborg University label these students as “strategic” learners. These students, “focus almost exclusively on how to find out what the professor wants and how to ace the exam. If they learn something along the way that changes the way they think, act, or feel, that’s largely an accident. They never set out to do that” (p. 4463-kindle).

Bain also discusses characteristics of what he considers to be the “best” students. To Bain these students engage in deeper understanding through reflective questioning of their own mind. They are able to provide empathy to themselves as they acknowledge areas of growth and weakness. They often take it upon themselves to discover connections between their own interests and the assignments they received. “These students tried to comprehend what difference an idea, line of reasoning, or fact made, and how it related to something they had already learned” (p. 4463-kindle). Psychologists at Goteborg University labeled these students as “deep” learners.

Perhaps, like me, you were thinking about what category of student you fit in, and you might find that it has changed over time and due to context. I know that is the case for me. Bain discusses how you are not stuck in only being one type of learner for life, but that become a deep learner is often not what students have learned to become. Just spending time now considering how you approach learning has potential to assist you in becoming a deep learner. The choice is yours to make.

“To take a deep approach means to take control of your own education, to decide that you want to understand, to create something new, to search for the meaning that lies behind the text, to realize that words on a page are mere symbols, and that behind those symbols lies a meaning that has a connection with a thousand other aspects of your life and with your own personal development” (p. 4463-kindle).

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Considering Social Class in my Classroom Learning Environment

This morning I finished reading Social Class on Campus: Theories and Manifestations by Will Barrett. I purchased the book for several reasons.

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One, social class is an area I want to personally continue learning more about as I find myself noticing it more. I’m also considering incorporating a focus on it in the Internship 2 course that I teach, which currently contains a focus on chaos theory and disruptive innovation theory. I’ve been considering social class a disruptive “innovation” to higher education in my mind for the past few years, but am still wrapping my head around it so have not yet incorporated it into that course.

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Second, the book contains personal narratives in the last chapter, and I’m always looking for such narratives to add to the courses I teach. I am of the belief that learning occurs best when it connects to lived experiences, and providing the lived experiences of others can sometimes help to build those connections. Perhaps not at all surprising is the challenge in actually finding such personal accounts in print. One of the points that the books contains is that valuing narratives of lived experiences is not often something valued by those in a higher social class–hence, a potential reason as to why I am always on the hunt. A final reason I selected the book was due to the structure in which it was written. Each chapter contains suggestions for activities, as well as discussion questions at the end. I value both of these as an educator for myself and others.

I gained a lot to “sit with” from the book, and would recommend it to others working within higher education. Social class isn’t necessarily one of those areas that gets a lot of attention directly, yet as I reflect on all of my experiences and conversations on college campuses (starting with the college search in high school) it is an ever present guiding force. This I’ve known, but continuing to learn more about it allows me to “see” it even more. As an undergraduate student, I recall being told by an administrator that it was refreshing to work with a student wearing flip flops and a ponytail, and similar, yet different, messages continue to be sent to me as a faculty member.

At one point in the book, Barrett discusses how students who are the co-creators of knowledge are more likely to reach self-authorship. Self-authorship in a very reduced definition is a way of making meaning in which an individual determines their own values and beliefs while seeing others’ views as important, separate, and worth considering (Important to note: Separate does not mean disconnected). This internal value and belief system enables individuals to consider experiences from multiple perspectives and make responsible, ethical decisions for the common good. Arguably, this is the goal of higher education.

Barrett draws the connection between types of pedagogy found in courses hosted at various institutions (discussion based, lecture style, etc.) and class. For example, a student who was able to attend a high school where discussion was valued in the classroom might seek out a college experience where the classroom experience is discussion based. He then draws the connection to those students being more likely to be self-authored. This was one point in the book where I found myself thinking two thoughts:

One, simply because something is discussion based does not mean that students are developing toward self-authorship. Baxter Magolda provides several examples of various ways, including lecture style learning environments, that promote self-authorship, and the key, according to her, is the incorporation of all principles and assumptions within in the learning partnerships model (a model designed specifically to promote the development of self-authorship). My own experience in higher education demonstrates that discussion based learning environments to do not inherently promote self-authorship, as it was not until my graduate education that I was asked to “situate learning in my own experience”, as well as experience being “validated as a knower”–the two principles missing from Barrett’s discussion about what is necessary to develop toward self-authorship. I engaged in discussion based classes at my own undergraduate institution, yet, I was rewarded for being able to argue/defend/repeat claims made by others about the field of study–not consider those claims in terms of my own lived experiences, which would have validated that I brought knowledge with me to the classroom.

The second thought I had was not to dismiss quickly the point Barrett was making. This got me thinking about the classroom experience I seek to provide, and the messages that are being sent about class. It is extra complicated when considering that,

“We all have a social class of origin, a current felt social class, and an attributed social class” (p. 7).

I’m still working on exactly where I land with the classroom environment I try to create (I just finished the book this morning!). I do know of at least three ways that I can be more inclusive, so that even if students are being taught cultural capital in a variety of ways throughout all of their experiences (this is a whole other blog post, and is really just one type of capital..it sure is complex stuff), they aren’t being asked to completely reject whatever cultural capital they do bring. So, here are my list of three:

1. Provide on my syllabus information about purchasing any books electronically. Often publishers allow for purchasing of hard copy and electronic copy with the electronic copy being less expensive. I’ve also already done this one, but want to keep doing it…work with the library to make sure that the assigned books for class can be checked out of the library.

2. Discuss class attire on the first day of class. Learning does not require business clothes. I look forward to seeing how this conversation goes this fall.

3. Continue to have library orientation and technology orientation involved in the Intro. class I teach. Continue also assisting students in learning APA style through a continual learning process, rather than provide a workshop and expect that they “get it” after the workshop.