Dear “John”

Ms. Scholar at work.

Ms. Scholar at work.

Dear Ms. Scholar, I have a student who self-identified as the opposite sex to her assigned gender and who asked to be called “John” rather than “Jane.” What should I do?

Dear Confused about John, If you call your other students by their preferred names, call this student John. If you don’t, inform your student of your policy so he can change classes.

Yes, it’s that simple. – Ms. Scholar

If you have questions regarding teaching, student/faculty issues, or other comments/suggestions, please write to: Ms. Scholar c/o

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Study Guides and Guiding Study

– Jeanne M. Slattery

JMS 0814

Jeanne Slattery

Last month I gave my students their first exam of the semester. One class did very well for a first exam (an average of a mid-C), while the other class, erm, did not.

I want my students to learn, even from their mistakes. As a result, I asked my students to reflect on their exam using several things that we’ve discussed here in earlier blogs – a video by Stephen Chew, Mark Mitchell’s (2016) article on identifying problems contributing to poor test performance, and a chapter of Carol Dweck’s (2006) work on mindset.

Surprisingly, most students attributed their problems to failing to read their text carefully enough or not studying sufficiently. I was surprised both because I expected them to attribute the problem to me (very few did), but also because they took responsibility for their poor grades, thus challenging my stereotypes about college students. Many talked about this as a first-test problem: they often have difficulties with a first exam until they know how their professor tests (and whether they need to study???).

When I run into problems, I also attempt to identify and learn from such mistakes. Two things that I’ve considered about this first exam: (a) I attempted to do too much in the first unit of the course and will pare back a bit next time, and (b) as some of my students complained, my study guide wasn’t as useful as they’d like and wasn’t available as early as they wished.

I’ve used similar study guides for a long time and have been successful in the past with them, but that doesn’t mean that I couldn’t handle them better. I hand them out a week before the exam, although some students thought I should hand them out sooner.

Should I?

I want my students to learn and to learn how to learn, to become curious about abnormal psychology, to adopt new ways of thinking about people and mental health problems. When they prepare for an exam, they often focus on memorizing definitions, the very bottom of Bloom’s taxonomy. I want them, at the very least, to also understand and apply the ideas we discuss. Those are skills that are difficult to build in a single week – but are unlikely to be built by reviewing definitions (although look at this way of using flashcards, written by Mark Mitchell).

I posted my concerns about study guides on Facebook and received many very thoughtful comments, more than I think I’ve received to anything else I’ve posted (thank you, all!).

Some comments that struck me:

On one hand, if you tell students everything you want them to learn, it might be the ONLY THINGS they learn. On the other side, they know what to look for and are less stressed which allows them to absorb more information. Maria Alfred ’10

From my aging perspective, I’m beginning to think that study guides serve only to reinforce that the purpose of the class is the transfer of information. John Ernissee (Geology, retired)

The syllabus is their study guide… Pam Stover (Music, University of Toledo)

They are simply used to being given the questions and answers in the form of a study guide in HS. We need to aid them in making the transition to thinking for themselves and not being supplied with the questions and answers. Rich Lane (English)

I have learned more by being challenged than by being spoon-fed…. Continue to do what you believe best prepares your students for graduate school or immediate transition to work in the field. In my experience, I was much more prepared for graduate school having earned my BS in Psychology at Clarion than most of my classmates at [xxx], and I still struggled with the sometimes rigorous demands of the program. I was expected to think for myself. Sandy Potter ’96

I am resistant to giving a study guide too early, as I also want students to begin to own their learning process. When they leave here, they will need to learn and identify what’s most important without me. As Ellen Foster (English) said, “That’s the point: ownership, self-starting, discipline, synthesis, etc.

Nic Rawson ’13, now in medical school, said,

The thing that they do [in my program] that I greatly appreciate is objectives. The beginning of every lecture (which are all powerpoints, so you’d have to get creative otherwise), they have a list of things we should know by the test. Sometimes these are “Know the pathogenesis, presentation, morphology, diagnostics, and treatment of all diseases presented in this lecture,” but most of the time they are a tad more specific. It helps guide my studying and focus on what is must know information.

Nic’s comments struck me. I know that there is a lot that I want my students to learn; Abnormal Psychology could easily be a two semester course. I do a fair amount already to guide my students’ studying. I post PowerPoints, give them a short study guide, and link to many good resources on studying effectively. In addition, though, I start each class with things that could easily be considered “study guides” for that class period. I open every class with a thought question, then follow that with a short series of questions that I’ve thought of as giving them a map of the class period (Figure 1).


Figure 1. The first two slides – or “study guides” – from my discussion of the relationship between stress and health in Abnormal Psychology.

Rather than thinking about these as only strategies to engage and orient students, perhaps I should also, like Nic Rawson suggested, be thinking of and talking about them as the best possible kind of study guides. Perhaps I should also help my students understand why I don’t only give them the test questions or a more developed study guide. As Sandy Potter observed, I want them to learn to think for themselves.

My students are focused on the grade and may not know that there are other things to consider. If all they earn is a good grade on an exam, I’ve failed them. I want my students to learn to think as a psychologist, to learn to learn, to become curious, to recognize and identify the important (and unimportant) things as they read. My study guide is only one part of that process.


Dweck, D. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.

Jeanne M. Slattery is a professor of psychology at Clarion University. She loves teaching and learning and describes herself as a learner-centered teacher. She has published three books: Trauma, meaning, and spirituality: Translating research into clinical practice; Counseling diverse clients: Bringing context into therapy; and Empathic counseling: Meaning, context, ethics, and skill She can be contacted at

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Everything is Hard – Until It Is Easy

– Paul Woodburne


Paul Woodburne

I had a conversation with my son the other day.  He is changing majors at his university, from one that is not mathematical to one that is.  He is in his sophomore year, so he may have an additional two years of school if things do not fall into place easily.  He has strong math skills, but before they would let him into the major, they wanted him to take a refresher course to see how much math he’d have to take before he could take his new major classes.  Essentially, they don’t want him to waste his time if he needs to start at a very basic math level.

The refresher course is online.  It consists of several topics and questions, 95% of which he needs to complete.  Even when he has completed a given section, a ‘knowledge quiz’ pops up.  He has to complete this, too, which may then require him to redo some of the topic he has just finished.  This often lowers his acquired percentage completed, which annoys him.  What I found interesting for the purposes of this article was that he told me that these ‘knowledge quizzes’ at first asked him easy questions, but were now asking him hard questions.  This makes sense.  He first completed the more familiar sections, and only later completed what he considered the more difficult sections (trigonometry and logarithms, etc.).  It makes sense that the questions are “harder,” as he has had less experience with these topics.  In addition, sometimes online teaching tools have mechanisms to increase difficulty as the student masters the topic.  This may have been the case, as well

I am perhaps not the most understanding dad.  I told him that, of course, things are only difficult until they are understood, at which point they become easy.  Mysteries are only mysterious until they are solved . . . then they become obvious.  If students already know the answer, they would not need the course.

It seems to me that our purpose in the teaching profession is to make the difficult easy, to make the mysterious obvious.  This is difficult to do—perhaps until it becomes easy and obvious.  I imagine that how we transform the difficult to easy differs in every field.  I also imagine that how we transform the difficult to easy differs for every student.  Many Clarion students find mathematical fields (e.g., mathematics, physics, economics, finance, and chemistry) inherently difficult.  This is, in part, because many of our students come to us with relatively weak mathematical backgrounds.

However, many students with good quantitative backgrounds find non-mathematical fields (e.g., political theory, history, comparative literature, and philosophy and many of the other humanities) inherently difficult, perhaps because often there are no definitive answers.  The process in every field is often as much about the process, the questions, and the argumentation as about the ‘correct’ answer.  I can imagine the engineering student who is trying to contribute to a discussion on the meaning and interpretation of a piece of literature saying, “but what is the answer?”  I can also imagine the humanities student asking the math professor “how do we know when to use that technique?”

As a general rule, students believe that economics is hard.  This is largely because economics is very abstract. We make unrealistic and heroic assumptions about human behavior.  Many of these assumptions were made to facilitate the mathematization of the field some decades ago.  This furthers the abstractions that students object to.  Instead of talking to people, as one might in Psychology, Sociology, or Anthropology, we use abstract supply and demand models to discuss behavior.  This method requires significant use of mathematics and graphs.

I see it as my job to make the hard science of economics easy, to make its mysteries obvious.  Here are some examples of problems I present in order to make this difficult science easier:

Example 1: Why wear “biomechanically and orthopedically unsound” shoes?

We can ask why, for example, some women spend $550 or more for a pair of Manolo Blahnik (or similar) high heels (see Kelly & Branch, 2003).  These shoes are “biomechanically and orthopedically unsound,” according to the American Podiatric Medical Association.  The shoes can shorten the Achilles tendon and cause damage to ankles, knees, and hips.  They are made so narrow that many women have to have foot surgery or toes removed or collagen injections into the balls of their feet to wear them.  Sometimes women need surgery to remove bunions, either before or after wearing these shoes.

Yet, despite these difficulties, many women wear them willingly.  They feel powerful, sexy, confident, professional, etc.  A question arises: “Why put up with the pain and surgeries?”  Are these women foolish?  Can fashion really be so important?  Is there a cabal of men making women feel that they need to objectify themselves to gain power (like ancient Chinese foot binding and the like)?

Example 2: When will we run out of oil?

Let’s say that we know that there are 1,696.6 billion barrels of oil in known reserves in the world (US Energy Information Administration, n.d.). Let’s say we consume 34.68 billion barrels per year (BP, 2016).  These data are accurate and real.  We can ask, “when do we run out of oil?”  This is a standard question raised in countless documentaries and news programs.  Our students, like most Americans, believe we will run out of oil in the near future.

It is very difficult to  respond to these questions.  Where do students start?

Is there a consistent method to answer these questions, or must all questions be answered on an ad hoc basis?  To me, the process for getting to an answer is sometimes more important than the answer itself.  Economics is famous for there never being a ONE correct answer.  The nice thing about economic theory is that it gives a set of tools/assumptions that, we believe, apply to a wide range of topics and questions.  It is my job to clarify the method and show students how to apply it.


Table 1. Basic Restrictive Assumptions

To do this, I have formalized the “Basic Restrictive Assumptions” for use in my principles of economics classes.  See Table 1. This is my version of the standard set of assumptions that most economics texts refer to only obliquely. This list is ‘restrictive’ because it limits how we analyze questions and the sorts of questions we can analyze.  I use this to guide discussions along the right path. A nice thing about this list is that we can alter (violate) some assumptions, and receive very different answers.  All our answers are conditional, based upon the acceptance (or not) of assumptions/preconditions such as these.

Virtually all questions considered as ‘economics’ by my field can be answered with appropriate application of the above assumptions.  Questions that these assumptions cannot usefully answer are, almost by definition, not ‘economics.’  These assumptions, if taken as valid, justify the supremacy of the perfectly competitive market, over a government-run economy; however, we know that these assumptions are NOT REAL in the absolute sense.  Rather, they show what must occur for a perfectly competitive economy to exist.  Violations of these assumptions lead to monopolies, crises, roles for government, financial collapse, etc.  Specific violations lead to specific implications and policy prescriptions.

I use the examples described above in the first few days of my macroeconomics and microeconomics classes. I lead a discussion getting my students to apply assumptions in Table 1 to identify a solution using the numerical data available.

Example 1:  Why wear “biomechanically and orthopedically unsound” shoes?

Economics rarely if ever delves into the world of name calling.  Our assumption #5 means that we do not begin our analysis by thinking that people are simply mistaken or stupid.  To answer the question posed by the article, we first start by applying our assumptions (see Kelly & Branch, 2003).  These women are rational.  They are weighing the known costs and benefits of their actions.  So what can we conclude?  The shoes cost $400 or more.  In addition, real costs also include surgeries, the collagen injections, the powders and pads for toes, etc.  Let’s say that the collagen injections cost $500 every 6 months, and the other things add up to about $500 per year.  The bunion surgery may run to $10,000, but may be covered by insurance.  These are the marginal costs of the shoes.

For women to be rational (as we assume they are) and for them to want to purchase the shoes, their calculation of the marginal benefits MUST be greater than these marginal costs.  The perceived value these women place on sexiness, power, confidence, and professionalism in the workplace MUST be more than the marginal costs of the shoes.

This does not have to be the end of the argument.  We can argue that some of the assumptions are violated. What if agents do not have perfect information?  It seems reasonable that women may not really know the full cost, 20 years hence, on tendons, ankles, knees, and hips, from wearing these shoes now.  If this is the case, then we can argue that women are underestimating the marginal costs, and that – if these costs were correctly accounted for – then perhaps some women would opt not to wear these shoes.

Example 2: When will we run out of oil?

The answer, from applying economic theory, is that we will never run out of oil.  Why?  For the sake of argument, let’s say that no more oil exists or will be found.  This is simply an extreme version of Assumption 3.

At first blush, it appears that we’ll run out of oil in about 48.9 years.  This is scary.  We arrive at this amount by dividing 1,696.6 by 34.68 (BP, 2016; US Energy Information Administration, n.d.).  This conclusion, though, is flawed.  This assumes we divide the whole into equal parts and that we will consume the same amount of oil every year.  However, it is unlikely that we will consume oil at the same pace every year.  As we consume the easiest oil first (closest to the surface), the cost of additional oil rises.  Assumptions 4 and 5 suggest that we will reduce consumption of oil and increase consumption of other forms of energy, which used to be more expensive.  More research and development will go into solar, biomass, wind, nuclear, etc., as the price of oil rises.  People will move to hybrid cars, electric cars, and mass transit, and firms will move toward powering buildings and factories with alternative fuels.  Those cars, trains, and factories will be powered by electricity derived from non-oil sources.

As the next most expensive oil is used up, we’ll move to even more expensive oil.  The process described above will continue.  Eventually, the remaining oil will be too expensive to extract, and will be allowed to sit.  We use the same logic to explain our reduced use of coal. The environmental costs are too high, and the cost of alternatives, particularly natural gas from fracking, has fallen dramatically.  There is no ‘war on coal.’  New technologies and lax regulation have allowed the supply of natural gas to rise dramatically, lowering its price (both absolutely and in comparison to oil).

Easy does not mean obvious, though my students often conflate the two.  Easy means solvable in a way that students can feel comfortable that they are getting the right answer and will continue to get right answers if they follow the rules and the logic.

My approach in my courses is to consistently go back to the model, to our list of assumptions, and to our first principles.  The essential models, assumptions, or first principles vary across disciplines, but I see it as my job to help students find the essentials in my field and apply them in a way that eliminates the mystery and reduces the difficulty.

Most of our students are very naïve when they enter our classes or are exposed to our disciplines for the first time.  They seldom have a structure on which to hang the concepts we want them to learn.  Early on, all ideas seem equally important, and most cannot distinguish the important from the secondary.  As I see it, my job is to provide the structure that helps students think like economists.  As students develop the correct structure, the topic ceases to be mysterious, and becomes easy.

I will ask my son at the end of the next term if those mathematical topics are still hard, or whether they have become easy. My guess is that, as he has developed the structures and strategies used by mathematicians, he will conclude that they have become easy (or at least easier).


Kelly, K., & Branch, S. (2003). Agony of the feet: Fashion says if the shoe fits, what’s the point? Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from

US Energy Information Administration. (n.d.). International. EIA. Retrieved from

Paul Woodburne is an associate professor of Economics at Clarion University. He challenges his students to think critically and deeply about economic issues. He has written an intermediate money and banking text that he uses in his classes. About six years ago two freshmen in the dorms heard horror stories about how difficult his classes were and got together for mutual support and study. They found they liked each other and, having graduated and gotten good jobs, are now happily married.

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Dear Fingernails on Chalkboard

Dear Ms. Scholar, Have you ever known someone whose presence in a room makes you feel the same way as when you hear nails scraping on a chalkboard? I have one in class this semester and am having a rough time. This student is frequently rude and lacks normally-expected tact and social skills. What have you done to handle this sort of problem well?


Ms. Scholar at work.

Dear Fingernails on Chalkboard, Unfortunately, we’ve all been there, but there are more effective and less effective responses in such situations.

More and more, I look at addressing these kinds of problem behaviors – absences, tardiness, rudeness in class, poor interpersonal skills – as central to my overall class goals and my students’ personal success. In my field – yours, too, I suspect – it matters if one has a phone out for personal reasons during work, if one is repeatedly late or absent, or if one cannot work effectively with others. We may give our students a “by” on these behaviors, but they won’t receive one on the job.

We could pass these problems downstream to employers or graduate programs, but is that fair? It is easier to intervene with problems early rather than after students have created a pattern of poor relationships with others, developed problems for themselves, and built a negative reputation for their home department or university with an employer or graduate program who may only see a small number of our graduates. I treasure those graduate programs and employers that tell me whenever they see me that they love accepting/hiring our graduates.

Our students’ “bad behavior” reflects back on us.

In Ms. Scholar’s field, it is easy to identify Fingernails’ rude behavior and poor social skills as an ethical problem in competence – Fingernails needs to be able to handle stress well and work effectively with others. However, when Ms. Scholar discussed a similar problem with colleagues, they convincingly argued that the professor/supervisor was also behaving unethically by allowing an atmosphere to develop that had the potential to harm the student, that student’s classmates and, by extension, the program.

Ms. Scholar’s colleagues argued that professors at their best would identify problems early and intervene with them rapidly rather than allow such problems to build. Such a professor would help a student recognize problems and consider other ways of responding. While we can’t always be at our best, this should still be our goal.

However, professors are human, too.

Many of us find intervening with students like Fingernails difficult. One of the first things Ms. Scholar needs to do is stop and consider whether the problem is with the student or with herself. Is she more stressed and irritable? Are there interpersonal or cultural biases affecting her reactions? Are these reactions reasonable and appropriate (or not)? It takes significant confidence to consider whether the problem is primarily with the other person or something about you.

In this last contentious political election,  Ms. Scholar has been irritated by students who she perceives as behaving in racist or anti-intellectual manners. In some cases, on reflection, she has concluded that her reactions have been justified, but in others, her reactions have come from her own stress and discomfort with other political viewpoints.

Most professors Ms. Scholar knows want their classrooms to be safe places – for students they agree with and those they don’t. We also want our students to listen to and respect students with other viewpoints, support their assertions with evidence, and evaluate that evidence. When students – holding whatever viewpoint – fail to meet these ideals, it is our responsibility to challenge them (respectfully).

It takes a certain level of assertiveness to intervene well with such problems in the moment, particularly for those of us who are somewhat conflict-avoidant.The fact that we are uncomfortable with conflict does not excuse us from such conversations, however.

So what can we do? Early in the semester, we can outline rules describing our expectations about our classroom. This is Ms. Scholar’s statement in one syllabus:

We’re a community: your presence matters to the success of this course and to the experience of your fellow students. Your active involvement enriches your learning and that of your classmates. As a result, your fellow students and I expect you will come to class regularly, read the material carefully before class, actively help your classmates learn, and listen to their views of their world. I’ll do the same. If you are having difficulties in class, please come talk to me!

Better yet, we can develop these rules with our students. Rather than only being a statement in a syllabus, however, this should be part of an ongoing conversation throughout the semester. What does it mean to listen well to someone else? What does it mean to challenge someone respectfully?

When we notice students violating our classroom rules – or handling them especially well – we should talk about it: “Malia, I know you have something you want to say. Can you wait for D’Ja to finish her argument?” “Malcolm, you did a great job summarizing Alicia’s argument and challenging her assumptions respectfully.”

Your question is an important one, but it sets up a false dichotomy. In every course we need to focus on creating a climate promoting open discussion. In every class period, we need to recognize both positive communication and problems and address them.

Addressing the nature of classroom discussions, behaviors, and skills on an ongoing basis requires a fair amount of vigilance and assertiveness. It is easier to be vigilant and assertive, however, when one starts from the semester’s very beginning.

If you have questions regarding teaching, student/faculty issues, or other comments/suggestions, please write to: Ms. Scholar c/o


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The Dress

– Jeanne M. Slattery and Melissa K. Downes

The Dress

The Dress

Do you remember The Dress?

During the time of The Dress, we were at Michelle’s Cafe, talking with the baristas about the white/gold, black/blue dress phenomenon and how it could be discussed in different classes, in different disciplines. During the course of our discussion we talked about the eye’s physiology (biology, psychology), individual differences in perception (psychology), and the ways that light influences our perception of a stimulus (psychophysics, art). We considered at length the broader implications for our understanding of the world when two people can see the same stimulus under the same conditions and perceive that situation differently (philosophy, psychology, literature, and rhetoric). One woman commented that a friend had initially seen The Dress as white and gold, but later could only see it as blue and black — and repeatedly returned to the photo to check his perception.

This picture posted by Brain Games (National Geographic TV) probably works in much the same way as The Dress. The background cues our perception of each box.

This picture posted by Brain Games (National Geographic TV) probably works in much the same way as The Dress. The background cues our perception of each box.

Our colleagues also talked about The Dress. Mark Mitchell (Psychology) wondered whether we could present The Dress under the same sort of conditions seen in the Asch experiment and whether we would see the same pattern of responses (i.e., conformity with the lying confederates of the experimenter) with this sort of stimulus. If not, why not?

Emily Sprague Parnee (Mathematics) was stuck in her Finite Math class. She interrupted her discussion of how to compute monthly deposits to meet retirement goals in order to reflect on The Dress and “the unfortunate tendency to view all questions, especially those in Finite Math, as having Only One Right Answer, with the honor of being right frequently awarded to the answer that is most popular — except in Finite Math, of course, where truth is still understood to be subject to the dictatorship of  The Teacher.”

We wonder how our friends and colleagues in Communications and other disciplines  talked about The Dress. When The Dress happened, did you talk about it in class? If so, what did you discover? Have you used other things found on social media or in the news? With what results?

In the current cultural and political climate, people can perceive the same data, yet interpret them in different ways. For example, Trump voters were more likely than Clinton voters or nonvoters to see the Trump inauguration as having more people in attendance than the Obama inauguration, despite clear differences (Schaffner & Luks, 2017). Why? Phenomena like The Dress offer us opportunities to engage students in critical thinking about their world.

And we’ve got to engage people in thinking critically. Can we use social media’s frequent obsession with image and perception as an opportunity to build these skills in observation, analysis, and evaluation? There are many opportunities for such conversations.

For example, we both use The Invisible Gorilla in our disparate disciplines – psychology and English – to talk about the ways that perception is selective and screened through our expectations and focus. Students are surprised by what they miss and thoughtfully consider this short video in ways that they probably wouldn’t engage with a lecture about the same content.

What happens when we open our discussions to include things from Facebook, Tumblr, politics, and the news? One possibility is that you’ll find what we found at Michelle’s: a spirited discussion. (On the other hand, one of these thoughtful and engaged baristas also noted that she hadn’t been on Facebook for two days in order to avoid The Dress.)

We want to emphasize the potential found in using phenomena like The Dress – the buzz of what’s happening right now – to  connect with students and help them connect to the ideas and skills they need. We also believe that such events might be a gateway to some of the difficult (often politically-charged) issues that can be challenging to discuss in the classroom.


Brain Games. (n.d.). Watch this! National Geographic TV. Retrieved from

Schaffner, B., & Luks, S. (2017). This is what Trump voters said when asked to compare his inauguration crowd with Obama’s. Washington Post. Retrieved from

Jeanne M. Slattery is a professor of psychology at Clarion University. She loves teaching and learning and describes herself as a learner-centered teacher. She has published three books: Trauma, meaning, and spirituality: Translating research into clinical practice; Counseling diverse clients: Bringing context into therapy; and Empathic counseling: Meaning, context, ethics, and skill She can be contacted at

Melissa K. Downes is an associate professor of English at Clarion University. She loves teaching.  She is interested in talking about how people teach and enjoys sharing how she teaches. She is an 18th century specialist, an Anglophile, a cat lover, and a poet. She can be contacted at

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Meeting in the Real World

– Kathleen A. Welsch


Kathleen Welsch, with artifacts from her own father’s work.

Students like to say that college prepares them for the “real world.” Many students believe that means developing specific skill sets, learning to handle responsibilities, and earning a degree that grants entry to a profession. Institutional mission statements and objectives offer lofty language about real-world higher order abilities and global citizenship. For me, though, the real world is, well, more real than that: it is the complex, ever-shifting, layered intersections among daily life, family, work, politics, economics, gender, class, race, and religion.

No matter what field of study students choose to pursue, they’ll have to navigate their way through these complexities. The problem is that students tend to approach courses as discrete blocks of information, rarely associating lessons from one class with those of another or with their lives beyond the classroom. They don’t see their readings as real. But it doesn’t have to be like this if we – with our students – are willing to transgress these boundaries.

As defined by bell hooks (1994), a “progressive, holistic, engaged pedagogy” is one in which professors and students see each other as “whole human beings striving not just for knowledge in books, but knowledge about how to live in the world” (p. 69). In her November 2016 Hand-in-Hand article “Conflict: It’s an Opportunity,” Jane Walsh illustrates how real life events can be occasions for students to witness theory in action and to employ discipline-specific terminology in their analysis of events and participants. But one need not rely on fate to present real-life learning events: with a bit of imagination, we can create them ourselves through an “engaged pedagogy.”

Knowledge about how to live in the world can be derived from the types of projects we assign students. Rather than have students demonstrate isolated knowledge of course material, could we challenge them to explore the reverberations of it in their own lives? In a values-flagged course, for example, students are expected “to become more tolerant and respectful of diversity and to develop those attitudes necessary for them to be successful participants in a global society.” Such noble goals cannot be achieved in the abstract; we need to ground them in the daily realities of our students’ lives.

My course, Images of Working-Class Life, is cross listed as an English class and a Sociology class, and fulfills the requirements of the Women and Gender Studies minor. It is a values course framed in numerous ways on hooks’ concept of engaged pedagogy and transgressing boundaries. To begin, the literature is not the work of vaunted Shakespeares or Dickinsons, but those of worker writers. Additionally, the course challenges the American Dream and the boot strap myth, that the U.S. is a classless society and upward mobility can be attained by anyone dedicated to hard work. We read this literature through the lenses of social Darwinism, economic determinism, and a variety of definitions of class. Rather than reading the literature primarily for pleasure or appreciation, we read it for what it reveals about the human experience of workers and their lives. And rather than standing outside of it and examining it at arm’s length, we – teacher and students alike – wade into the stories, poems, and songs, testing how well they reflect realities we and our families have experienced.

A high percentage of Clarion University students come from working-class backgrounds. They must work to pay for their education; parents make stressful economic sacrifices; many are trailblazers for younger siblings to follow; all have hopes of a brighter future through hard work and education. As students read the literature, they begin to see their world and its particular challenges unfolding in voices that ring true to them.

In the academic world we tend to avoid the personal because we want students to develop scholarly habits and to broaden their horizons beyond the self. Yet turning to the personal – a student’s real world – can be a means of engaging them in course material and investing in learning the skills valued by academics. Projects/assignments with a personal angle can still require the application of course concepts and terminology, research skills, and appropriate documentation.

In their first major project, students in Images of Working-Class Life investigate the stories of workers in their own families. They interview family members about their lives as workers, gathering information regarding working conditions, economic challenges, and the impact on family and life choices. They also gather artifacts in the form of work items, photos, certificates of various sorts, and other mementos. It’s a project which their extended families become invested in, as well. After all, when has anyone from higher education come calling to learn the details of their work lives or afforded them any significance? Evidence of their interest appears in lines like the following frequently found in concluding paragraphs:

I hope to continue to explore my family work history by widening the search, continuing the story, and sharing it with my family who are eagerly awaiting a copy of this project. (Sue Groves)

Once students have completed their research, they analyze family work experience applying the same terms and concepts used to analyze the literature. It is their task to write a narrative of their family’s class status as revealed by their work and to create a family tree illustrating the type of workers they come from. The final stage of the project is what we call “Artifact Day” where they present their family tree and any significant work artifacts to the class: a coal miner’s lantern, a carpenter’s T-square, a cigar box from a cigar factory, a mill worker’s lunch box, a photo of a grandmother outside her business. I am not a by-stander in this process as I, too, share my family tree and allow them to feel the weight of my dad’s climbing hooks and belt (sans tools) that he wore as a telephone lineman.

Most students know relatively little about what it means to family members to “go to work” or what its ramifications are/have been. This project, however, requires they have meaningful conversations with family members and view their findings through various definitions of class. Both in the writing of their narratives and class presentations, students exhibit immense pride in and deep appreciation of their family’s work ethic and efforts. One student wrote:

Based on the example of Grandpa’s life, I know through hard work and commitment to education, I can make the best of my life. I understand that this is one of the myths we’ve been deconstructing in class, and I’m not saying I’ll be a billionaire just because I work hard. But if I work hard and do my best, I will receive some satisfaction in my life, even if the only satisfaction is that I have lived like Grandpa. (Erin Kelley)

In their second major project, students test how well literature acts as a mirror to human experience by selecting two pieces of literature that shed new light and understanding on their own family work history. Their task is to write an extended essay, once again using terms and concepts from class to explain the range of connections they see.

  • Physical labor’s wear-and-tear on the body: “Though [Dad] will always do his job to the best of his ability and take pride in the quality of the work . . . it is hard to take true ownership of a task when there is really nothing to show for it except a tired body.” (Chelsea Keith)
  • Parents’ sacrifices: “My mother, father, and the rest of the older generations of my family know . . . [j]ust like Johnny’s mother . . . what it’s like to feel guilty about not being able to give their kids what they want.” (Morgan Ramsey)
  • Commitment to work: “This particular stanza stood out to me because this is what I’ve seen from my uncle and cousins. They could easily be defeated by the news of their buyer not wanting their milk anymore and easily give up farming like many have, but they are too committed to their work to do so.” (Joel Smith)
  • Work’s influence on identity: “While my father is proud of his work, he still feels like [the character that] he let his family down . . . . He focuses on his economic short-comings, which in turn influences the way in which he views himself as a father and a husband.” (Kaylyn Brown)
  • Worker as tool: “This line describes how my boyfriend is seen by others and how he often feels about himself. Since his career is as a pipefitter and he is seen as muscle, he is often seen as unintelligent or as less than others.” (Amber Klein)

Both major assignments and the course in general aim to engage students in thinking about the “real” world beyond the classroom: making direct connections to it by applying what they are learning, building a bridge between their home world and the academic one they inhabit while in college, developing respect for all forms of work, understanding the pervasive force of work in shaping identities and lives, and realizing that class is very much a feature of American society. As one student observed,”Poor people aren’t poor because they want to be” (Renee Ei).

Rather than present the course as a discrete block of information, which can be learned then abandoned at the end of the term, it is my hope that they take away important lessons about living in the world – because we made real connections with their world.


hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. New York, NY: Routledge.

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Dear Hopeless About Evaluations

Dear Ms. Scholar, I’ve just gotten my student evaluations – which were not as kind as I would like. How much should I trust my student evaluations? I’m feeling hopeless about my student evaluations.

Ms. Scholar at work.

Ms. Scholar at work.

Dear Hopeless About Evaluations, Student evaluations – and peer evaluations for that matter – can be difficult. Most of us don’t like receiving feedback that is less than positive. Some of us have difficulty reading either positive or negative feedback, fearing that it may be less positive than we’d wish.

At my university, our student evaluations are a series of questions rated on a Likert scale, as well as several open-ended questions (e.g., What did the student like? What didn’t the student like?). Evaluation, tenure, and promotion committees receive responses to the Likert questions, but not to the open-ended questions. These questions and peer observations play significant – and often unpleasant – roles in the tenure and promotion process.

As student evaluations at our university don’t have norms, it’s not clear what are “good enough” responses. Within a department, senior faculty may see student evaluations from similar courses to their own and obtain a gut level feeling for whether they’ve done well or not. Most new faculty, however, don’t have such information. In fact, Ms. Scholar has a colleague who seems to have very respectable evaluations, yet thought they were weak. Regardless, it seems very likely that teaching some kinds of courses will be followed by much lower evaluations than others: required lower level Mathematics courses, for example, as opposed to upper level electives within the major.

There’s a lot of debate and discussion about student evaluations, some supported, some not. There’s also a lot of anxiety among faculty. When Ms. Scholar was new to the faculty, one belief was that males earned higher evaluations than females, and that men wearing ties performed better, as did women wearing dresses. Basow and Martin (2012) support those suspicions, suggesting that people using evaluations for decisions of promotion and tenure should be aware of their inherent bias (see also Boring, Ottoboni, & Stark, 2016). Ambady and Rosenthal’s (1993) classic research on using “thin slices” of nonverbal behavior from early in the semester to predict student evaluations has been interpreted to mean that student evaluations carry little more information than momentary first-impressions – and the prejudices and stereotypes that drive those. Performing optional mid-term evaluations probably yield better evaluations at semester’s end – and better teaching (Wilson & Ryan, 2012), as they seem to indicate to students that faculty care about their learning. Finally, there is that age-old fear that faculty will be dinged if they are perceived as tough (Greenwald & Gillmore, 1997), thus probably contributing to the well-documented grade inflation occurring nationally over the last 70 years. Unfortunately, Greenwald and Gillmore concluded that tough faculty, on average, earn somewhat poorer student evaluations.

When she was here in January 2016, Barbara Walvoord argued that faculty could be hard and also receive very positive student evaluations. How? Walvoord suggested that we should be clear, prepared and well-organized, enthusiastic, and ready to help our students learn. Other research suggests that faculty warmth is also helpful (Best & Addison, 2000).

Ms. Scholar was talking with a colleague who had taught elsewhere before coming here. That colleague described a very different process of using student evaluations. That university had departmental and university norms for their instrument. His department looked at changes in an instructor’s average student evaluations across time as an indicator of improving effectiveness in teaching. Both the individual faculty member and the mentor considered that faculty member’s teaching and how teaching could become stronger. While our student evaluations are summative in nature, that department adopted a formative emphasis that Ms. Scholar finds both anxiety-provoking and exciting. Consistent with the literature, they used student evaluations as only one tool from among many to assess teaching effectiveness (McCarthy, 2012).

Just because we are excited about something, doesn’t mean that we are effective in how we are approaching it. On the other hand, that students don’t like an assignment or an approach is not a sufficient reason for removing it. Instead, after reading evaluations, faculty might well decide to retain objectionable aspects of a course, but change how they discuss them, perhaps emphasizing to a larger degree why they are important. For example:

Analyzing one’s writing and making multiple revisions, while often perceived as onerous tasks, are skills that my students and alumni report to have been one of the most important skills learned in this course. Remember that you’re not alone: we are working together to help you become a stronger writer.

What does all this research suggest? Don’t assume that what you perceive as poor evaluations means you did a poor job in teaching a particular course, but do use them as one of the tools you use to strengthen your teaching. Use student evaluations as an opportunity to grow in your teaching effectiveness: consider what you are doing well and where you could be more effective. As you look at them, adopt a growth mindset (Dweck, 2006): learn from this set of evaluations and the other data you obtain over the course of the term.

Use your evaluations to help you reflect, but don’t let them discourage you. Become a stronger teacher next semester. Ms. Scholar knows you can. – Ms. Scholar


Ambady, N., & Rosenthal, R.  (1993). Half a minute: Predicting teacher evaluations from thin slices of nonverbal behavior and physical attractiveness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64, 431-441.

Basow, S. A., & Martin, J. L. (2012). Bias in student evaluations. Effective evaluation of teaching: A guide for faculty and administrators. Retrieved from Society for the Teaching of Psychology:

Best, J. B., & Addison, W. E. (2000). A preliminary study of perceived warmth of professor and student evaluations. Teaching of Psychology, 27, 60-62.

Boring, A., Ottoboni, K., & Stark, P. B. (2016). Student evaluations of teaching (mostly) do not measure teaching effectiveness. ScienceOpen Research. Retrieved from

Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Ballantine.

Greenwald, A. G., & Gillmore, G. M. (1997). Grading leniency is a removable contaminant of student ratings. American Psychologist, 52, 1209-1217.

McCarthy, M. E. (2012). Using student feedback as one measure of faculty teaching effectiveness. Effective evaluation of teaching: A guide for faculty and administrators. Retrieved from Society for the Teaching of Psychology: ebooks/evals2012/index.php

Wilson, J. H., & Ryan, R. G. (2012). Formative teaching evaluations: Is student input useful? Effective evaluation of teaching: A guide for faculty and administrators. Retrieved from Society for the Teaching of Psychology:

If you have questions regarding teaching, student/faculty issues, or other comments/suggestions, please write to: Ms. Scholar c/o

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