Laura Tropp's blog

The Mysteries Under the Hood

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We moved a couple of weeks ago and had to change the children to a new school mid-year. My son said to me that it’s fine, as long as I can find him a bunch of nerds to hang out with. 

I realized, though it didn’t exactly surprise me, that my son self-identifies as a nerd. This is such a change from when I was growing up. Then, nerds were someone to feel sorry for. They were mocked in popular culture: the entire plot of movie Revenge of the Nerds centered on nerds as social outcasts and underdogs. At the time, no one could imagine that anyone would ever want to be like them. 

I began to think about the causes for the re-evaluation of the place of nerds in our society. Certainly, programs like The Big Bang Theory hype the value of the nerd. Sure, the four protagonists are still socially inept in that series, but their intelligence often is rewarded. In fact, the show seems to imply that they need to be nerds in order to have genius qualities. They also still end up paired up and able to have a love life. Yet, I wonder whether popular culture is creating new representations or reflecting them?

The technologies we use today change how we see ourselves. While the nerds used to be the ones so devoted to data and being labeled “techies,” all of us now are attached to screens and are able to recite reams of data available at our fingertips, one Google search away. Duff McDonald used the revenge of the nerds narrative to explain how IT nerds won control of business away from the MBA jocks. “Science — specifically, computer science — is cool again,” McDonald observed. “It’s Mark Zuckerberg’s world now.”

We even consume our entertainment with the ravenous appetites of nerds. We are a society of binge viewers, consuming entire series runs over a single sleep-deprived weekend. Social media and websites promote lists of shows that are binge-worthy. The ability to recite verbatim lines from a favorite program is no longer the mark of a nerd, but a share-worthy fan.

We are working at my college to build up an Innovation Lab, where our students can learn how create new technologies through play. I can’t help but think that we are becoming more and more dependent upon the people who are able to dissect otherwise opaque technologies. It used to be that drivers could fix their own cars by looking under the hood. Now, though, underneath the hood is a mystery to so many of us. We need a mechanic to plug our car into a computer to determine whether that “check engine” light is really something to worry about.

I remember when my son was a three-year old who had taken the lid off of the toilet tank because he wanted to find out where the water comes from and goes. It’s great that as a ten-year old, he still wants to uncover how hidden technologies work, and that there may be classes, games, and other outlets that may give him the chance to find out. How can we uncover more opportunities for students to be able to look under the hood? How do we persuade them to want to do just that?

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Move over Soccer Mom ...

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Hillary Clinton is receiving attention again for weighing in on the current vaccine debate. She tweeted, “The earth is round, the sky is blue, and #vaccineswork. Let’s protect all our kids.” However, the attention she is getting is not for her vaccine views but her hashtag: “#GrandmothersKnowBest.” Political blogs are discussing her use of the grandma role as a political maneuver for the upcoming Presidential election.   

Apparently, Clinton has taken to referring to her granddaughter Charlotte regularly during political appearances. After the birth, she even claimed a “grandmother glow.” While Bill Kristol of the Weekly Standard finds her grandmother comments “creepy” and others joke about a “Granny State” (though I wonder whether they would say the same about a man in the role of an elder statesman), her use of her role as grandmother doesn’t surprise or disturb me. Sure, you can describe it as a political maneuver to try to make her appear more warm and human. She may also just enjoy talking about her granddaughter (my own mom rarely makes an appearance without referring to her own grandchildren), but I think she recognizes the power of a potentially new political force: Move over soccer mom, make way for grandma.

I’ve talked about grandparenting before in my previous posts and, as I myself embark upon the adventure of intergenerational living, the subject is certainly on my mind in a most personal way. However, I’ve also begun research in this area. Contemporary cultural notions of grandparents are changing. Cultural, economic, technological, and social factors are giving rise to a new generation of grandparents as baby boomers age. Thanks to rising percentages of longevity, grandparents have more time to develop relationships with their grandchildren. Apps like FaceTime and Skype allow my parents to spend time with my sister’s children, even though they are across the country. Language itself is shifting, as children have adopted new words to refer to their great grandparents on a regular basis (“gigi” is becoming a popular endearment for the great grandmother). Children more often have opportunities to establish relationships with grandparents that last long past their adolescent years.

Clinton and others should recognize this emerging group, which comes with not just voting power but also wisdom and the ability to connect with and influence two generations of their living descendents. If politicians are known to pander to political constituencies, it should be no surprise that grandparents can become a political force. Do Clinton’s critics harbor an innate bias that the elderly are more vulnerable? Are grandmas supposed to be all nurturing, with no political motive to act publically? I’m glad Clinton is acknowledging her inner grandma. I hope I get the chance one day, too. Maybe “grandmapPhD” will be my future?  

 

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Multigenerational Living

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My grandmother passed away this week. She was 95 and had led a long life and her death was not unexpected. During the funeral, we were all sharing our memories and I was struck by how my stories lessened over time. My grandparents moved from New York to Florida in their retirement years and while I had weekly visits during my childhood, I saw them significantly less in their later years. 

My children, though, will likely have a different experience with their grandparents. This week we embarked on our move toward intergenerational living. We are selling/just sold our separate homes and moved together to a large almost 200-year old house where we will all live together. I am sure we are not the first multi-generational family this house has witnessed. In earlier historical periods, families often lived inter-generationally (that term wouldn’t have even been needed).

This was not a quick decision for us but one that all the adults deliberated on for three years. We were watching friends and family take care of elder relatives, sometimes in distant locations, and saw that future as worrisome. We also recognize how much help and assistance my parents offer to our children while my husband and I balance work and home. We all get along well but would that change in close quarters? We made the decision to try it and fell in love with this new house. Suddenly, within a few months, we were all living together. Surprisingly, the adjustment has been easier than we expected.  The hardest challenges are over the small things (whose knife sets should we give priority counter space too).  However, we recognize that sorting out these new relationships will take time. The first time I heard my father talk sharply to my son, my “mother hen” came out, though my son needed the “talking to”. We like having each other around to consult with, hang out, be an extra pair of hands. We are learning when to step into each other’s businesses and when to stay out.  Sometimes “factions” appear among surprising members of the household (my husband and my father; my son and my mother) and they change constantly.

The children, though, have had the easiest adjustment. A key moment happened a few weeks ago when we were departing for a vacation and my daughter asked why her grandparents were not going?  “You said the WHOLE family was going,” my shocked daughter told me.

My daughter’s latest drawing below has Papa and Nana as a clear part of her family but on a separately line below her immediate family.  I wonder how much longer until the order and hierarchy of her picture image of her family shifts and changes to react to our new living arrangement. In the meantime, here’s to our try at intergenerational living.

 

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Building a Bear

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It’s now my “break,” when I do not need to be in the office every day and can use this relaxing time to focus on writing all the reports I never have time to do (oh, yes, and working on my research). Of course, it’s also an opportunity for focused time with the children as well, so when my daughters suggested an afternoon at “Build a Bear,” I was agreeable.

What an experience.

For those who never have had the pleasure, you go in, pick an unstuffed animal from a bin, then proceed down a series of paths where you get to “stuff” your bear (or, in our case, a Frozen Olaf snowman and an Anna Bear), wash your bear, select expensive clothing to accessorize your bear (sunglasses and black patent leather shoes for us), and partake in an elaborate ritual of putting a heart in your bear to endow it with love. A sign hangs in the store that tells us “You are not born a bear, you become one” (I have visions of de Beauvoir rolling over in her grave).

Going through this made me think about the shift in the production and consumption of toys. In earlier periods, one would not purchase a stuffed doll or bear; one would sew it. Children probably saw their dolls made by their mothers and grandmothers. They learned how to make a doll. Most children were lucky to have one or two dolls in a lifetime, instead of yet another bear to add to their overflowing toy boxes. The ritual of love that the store emulates draws on the love of a person making this gift for a child.

In contrast, my girls experienced the commoditized production experience. This is not to say that they didn’t have a good time. They loved helping to “make” their bear. However, a few days later, as I read to them the Ramona series by Beverly Clearly, my daughters had no idea what the characters meant when they talked about sewing. They’ve never seen anyone sew before (not even a button). In trying to explain sewing to them, I tried to connect it to making their bears, but that made no sense to them. Their bears were sewn long before they saw them. In fact, the Build-A-Bear experience more resembles the assembly line of the modern factory than craft production.

I can see the appeal of stores like these. As purchasing moves online and malls decline, these types of places give you a reason to go to the store and provide an experience that connects you to the product you are buying. Yet, what is lost in mimicking the “maker” experience, as opposed to actually creating something? Perhaps I’d be better off teaching them to sew. Of course, we’d have to learn together.

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The Importance of Being Bored In Class

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It is time to declare my experiment of a more relaxed technology policy officially over and a probable failure. I had been tired of students endlessly texting while in class, checking their Facebook timelines, and doing who knows what else on their laptops. The final straw was the time when someone was observing my class and later told me that at least six people had been online when I thought I had finally convinced them to be technology free. Instead of trying to fight it anymore, I decided to try the opposite. I declared technology welcome in my classroom. Students could work on their laptop, text, check Facebook, etc., as long as they followed three rules: 1) They couldn’t make any noise with the technology that would disrupt class; 2) They couldn’t text each other during class, and 3) They couldn’t hide their technology use.

My new reasoning was that students already were using technology surreptitiously, and if freed of the need to hide their technology use, they could at least focus the rest of the time on the class. I also decided to not think of the technology in a resentful way but simply as a new information environment. Technology was an inherent part of their minute-by-minute existence. Just like their yawning during class was not a sign of boredom, but an involuntary reaction to a late night, technology use was not them being rude but a part of their need to always be connected. I decided that if I continued to make my class interesting, relevant, and full of information that would later be assessed, they would be drawn in. I also hoped that, given that the technology wasn’t a forbidden fruit, they wouldn’t feel the need to unnecessarily use it.

I had some fond moments with my new policy. I remember teaching a class on the politics of breastfeeding, and several students independently texted their moms to find out if they were breastfed, leading to an interesting discussion (though I wonder what their moms were thinking about those texts). I also had to learn not to be threatened by the constant use by students of Wikipedia to either test or enhance (depending on my self esteem that day) my ideas.

Sarah Wike Loyola, a high school Spanish teacher, talks about how new technology changes the focal point of the classroom. My college holds regular seminars on using new technology to enhance teaching. I was now on the cutting edge of using my classroom as new teaching tool. Except, I wasn’t. Sure, there were times when students used the technology to enhance their learning, but most of the time they were just talking to their friends and updating their social media while in the classroom (#MyProfJustTrippedOverAPowerCord). 

So, next semester, I’m going to reverse again. The classroom can be one of the few places left in society where we aren’t distracted by technology. As Neil Postman asserted, education shouldn’t always be entertaining. Perhaps learning how to be still and even bored at times is the best skill I can pass on.

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The Importance <br>of Being Bored In Class

Professor vs. Parent in a Contested Space

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I have confessed in many of my blog posts how I often feel it is easier to be a professor than a mom. When I’m a professor, I don’t have to get overly emotionally involved with a student’s concerns. I’m able to focus on teaching and let the burden of learning fall on someone else.

When I’m a mom, though, I agonize over missed learning opportunities and feel the acute pain when one of my children experiences a setback. My son brought home a poor grade the other day (a 65!). I blamed myself, not so much because he hadn’t mastered the concepts, but because I saw it as a missed opportunity to teach him effective study skills.

If students come to my office, I can spend a lot of time teaching them course concepts, but if, at the end of the day, they have not learned, I don’t feel like a failure. When I can’t explain a math concept to my daughter, however, I do worry, and I never give up (that’s why I was surrounded by 80 M&Ms, sorted by color, the other night). However, I’ve now reached a moment where I think it is easier to be a parent than a professor.

As I head into class today thinking about how to lead a discussion on the Ferguson grand jury decision and the media coverage of subsequent protests, I have to be on “all alert.” I feel a responsibility to lead a carefully orchestrated discussion, where people feel comfortable to express their opinions, but also where ideas embedded with stereotypes are challenged. Just the other day, my class experienced a tense moment while discussing a much less charged issue: should sports reporters be forced to wear security jackets emblazoned with logos of the event’s sponsors? After the class fractured into parallel debates, I quickly brought the students back together as a cohesive whole to allow for a more reasoned dialogue, but I could tell that at least one student was still upset. Of course, students should expect to be challenged and be prepared to defend their arguments, but I don’t ever want a student to be scared away from making an argument in the first place. The classroom should be safe place to test ideas.

On the other hand, when my children want information about charged issues (just the other day they asked me about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Ferguson in a 24 hour period), I don’t have to be an objective (a problematic concept, to be sure) professor focused on exploring debate in a healthy way. I can be a mom. I can spread my values. Of course, I do wonder when I should give my opinion and when to allow them come to their own conclusions, but it’s not so much a struggle to agonize over; rather, it’s a decision I get to make.

My mother has said that she always found it more of a challenge to babysit other people’s kids than to watch her own. There’s a burden that comes with being an educator; I appreciate the power I have to teach people how to think critically, but I also feel a responsibility to not teach them how to think just like me. With my own children, I get to decide when to give my opinion, when to teach them to question, and when to shield them from the scary world. It’s a responsibility, to be sure, but it’s also a gift.  Do you find it easier to discuss a charged issue with your students or your children?

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Professor vs. Parent <br>in a Contested Space

Has Parenthood Used Up My Patience Reserves?

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It is advising time again. This is the type of year when too many advisees show up to my office. While I help them register for classes, I try to squeeze in a little advice and guidance along the way.

Parenthood has changed me as an advisor. I used to be able to sit for hours while a student told me his/her troubles. They would come to our meeting with no idea of what classes to take the next semester; forget about them possessing a coherent life plan. Now, it’s almost like I have to keep a certain amount of patience and sympathy for my own children (when I eventually return home after the long advising hours), so I feel myself trying to mask my patience at their lack of preparedness.

In classes, too, I’ve noticed a shift.  I still have a lower level of patience. One time, after a particularly rough week of trying to balance my children’s various illnesses and activities, teaching, and a publishing deadline, I was aghast when a student was trying to tell me she couldn’t hand in a paper on time because of some internship she was working at (for free). I finally said, “Don’t trouble me with your problems, just like I don’t trouble you with mine. You make choices. I make choices. Just live with them, but know the consequences.” Interestingly, the student LOVED me for this spontaneous tough-love approach. She said she liked that I applied a work ethic to the class. 

Dawn Werner, a colleague of mine who specializes in building communication and professional skills among students, offers that I may have a broader “life view” approach. It’s true that I have less patience in the moment, but I also do empathize more with students’ personal struggles. In some ways, I’m more relaxed than my 14-year-younger former teaching self (a newbie), who once failed a brilliant student just on attendance alone. I think that, if that student were before me now, I’d see her larger life picture.

Some might say it isn’t parenting that has changed me, it’s simply life experience, but I do think parenting has shaped the way that I approach life. When I’m being curt to a student, I sometimes picture my own child’s face superimposed over that undergraduate. At other times, I just can’t take on students’ problems, because they are too close to the ones I need to deal with on my own. Has parenthood used up your reserves, or has it given you even more patience?

 

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Has Parenthood Used Up <br>My Patience Reserves?

Crying on the Job

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Around this time of year (midterms, advising) students often come to me crying about being overwhelmed or some perceived unfairness. I haven’t quite figured out a technique for how to respond to the “criers.” I’ve tried different responses, including telling the student that it’s okay to cry and offering tissues, pretending that I don’t notice the tears streaming down their face, or, if they are particularly embarrassed, reassuring them that it’s okay to express their emotions in that way. I wonder, though, how others would handle episodes like these years later? Workplace crying oftentimes is treated as excessively emotional and completely inappropriate in professional settings.

In Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg recounted her experience crying in front of a supervisor and offers that it ended up being an important opportunity for connection. However, in a patriarchal culture, many see this as a “female” problem. In my own interactions, it does seem that more young women end up crying in my office than young men. Having said that, female students greatly outnumber their male counterparts in my school, so my impression may be skewed. Given that my school serves a population that largely does not conform to traditional gender roles, it’s surprising to see the crying divide across sexes so clearly.

In my own observations beyond my students, I have seen many female colleagues cry in my office over a workplace or personal issue, but I can think of only one instance witnessing a male colleague cry. I myself have cried on several occasions. Most of the time I was met with empathy, but during one encounter, a colleague responded to my display with disgust. Later, I found out through conversations with others that I was perceived as weak and my crying was inappropriate.

After finding this out, I was embarrassed but also angry. Why should I be expected to project a masculine stance in the workplace? My crying was perceived as vulnerable because my colleague assumed I was sad, when in fact my crying (welling tears, not wailing) was an expression of my anger and frustration. If I instead had raised my voice or taken on a threatening posture, I would have been met with a different reaction (“bitchy,” perhaps; another way to dismiss women who refuse to conform to patriarchal gender roles).

An article in the Huffington Post features women in positions of power who talk about crying at work. Some of the women say they think crying distracts from their power and presence at work, while others acknowledge that, at times, crying can be appropriate. However, is this all socially constructed? Do we see crying simply as weak while other emotions (like anger) are considered more acceptable in a “competitive” environment?  When my own children cry, I never tell them to stop. I think they should be allowed to express their emotions and learn how to work through them, but how long will they have until they are judged for crying? How do you treat your crying students, colleagues, or your own tears at work?

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Peer Observation of Prof. Mom

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On October 9th, between the hours of 6:15-6:45am, I observed Prof. Mom teaching a lesson to her son. Prior to discussing content, I must first point out that, though Prof. Mom obviously has little control over scheduling, this may not be the ideal time to embark on teaching. The child probably was not fully awake, and Prof. Mom had not even had a cup of coffee yet (which most definitely impacted the lesson).

The content of the lesson focused on how to create a Venn Writing Diagram based on a fiction and non-fiction reading passage. Prof. Mom has the background to teach this lesson. She herself has published many non-fiction pieces. However, she approached the lesson as “everything not to do in creating a Venn Writing Diagram.” I would recommend that Prof. Mom reframe her focus to be more positive.

Clearly, Prof. Mom has previously taught a similar lesson to her student as evidenced by frequent attempts to refer to past lessons and review material. However, the student did not seem to have retained much from prior lessons, which seemed to frustrate Prof. Mom throughout this lesson. Perhaps Prof. Mom would like to consider flashcards, extraneous group assignments, or other techniques designed to encourage comprehension. In addition, the faculty member continuously placed blame on the student: throughout the lesson at various points, she implied that said student was lazy, not listening, too vested in video games, and potentially destined for failure if he did not change his ways. Prof. Mom should be reminded that harshly criticizing students does not place them in a proper frame of mind. In addition, though we all value the importance of lessons, they also should be put in proper life perspective.

Throughout the lesson, Prof. Mom seemed overly distracted. At various points, she stepped away from the student to make lunches, break up a (loud) fight between two students not participating in the lesson over a whistle, attempted to locate specific denominations of cash to attach to a class trip form, and was constantly cleaning. These distractions were unhelpful to both professor and student and probably contributed to student’s lack of focus.

Regarding the content of the lesson, Prof. Mom started off with a proper focus on the difference between fiction and non-fiction genres and the need for specificity in writing. However, as the lesson went on, the professor seemed increasingly rushed and, by the end of the lesson, seemed to be offering answers versus soliciting participation from the student.

All in all, it seems that Prof. Mom had good intentions with the class. Clearly she was trying to impart important information. She also had a clearly stated learning goal with an observable outcome. However, she had a strong tendency to be overly critical, distracted, and seemed to “give up” by the end of the lesson. The outcome (the student creating a Venn Writing Diagram) was not clearly achieved. I strongly recommend that the professor seek additional support if she insists on continuing with these types of lessons.

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Introverts in an Extroverted World

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I have been rethinking my policy towards participation in class. My policy has always stated that students need to find some way to add to the class discussion. I tell them that they should plan to speak at least once during class. When I observe other faculty teaching, I look for the level and quality of participation in their classes. However, as in many other cases, my own experience as a parent has led me to question my long-held beliefs about my approach to participation.

Last year during parent-teacher conferences, my daughter’s teacher told me that I had a bright child who has a lot to offer the other students in the class, but she rarely raises her hand and, when called on, talks only in a soft, barely audible voice. At home, I would never describe my middle daughter as shy, but I know her public persona is reserved. Later, I asked her about why she does not like to raise her hand in class. She responded with, “I just don’t.”

I began to seek ways to encourage her to participate more. I took the teacher’s wonderful suggestion to bring her to art museums so she could see imperfections in the paintings. I explained that it is okay to be wrong sometimes, and that in many instances there isn’t even a “correct” answer. The artists took a chance, tried something new, and the risk of participating paid off.

That was my project for last year. It’s now fall again, and her new teacher already has taken me aside to tell me that my daughter should really make an effort to participate more. I have begun to read Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. In this book, Susan Cain discusses the outsized value we place on extroverts. I am not finished with the book, but she’s already has introduced me to powerful introverts and promises techniques to teach children to act as “pretend extroverts” in order to function better within an extroverted culture.

Am I part of the problem in helping our society devalue the qualities of introverts? This semester, I introduced a new line to my syllabus. I indicated that, if students do not feel comfortable participating in class, they should speak to me about other ways they can contribute. I’ve already had some students send me links before class on related topics that I can use in class. I have also noticed that, though some students will not raise their hands, they are more willing to talk when I call on them. I have started calling on students more often, though I was a bit uncomfortable doing this before my policy change. In small groups, I now encourage some of the quieter students to lead.

I think my acknowledgement that not everyone is eager to speak up has allowed me to connect with students that previously may have been overlooked. I’ve also stopped pushing my daughter to participate in class. Her writing, it turns out, allows her voice to come through. Maybe, at this point in her life, it is a more meaningful way for her to communicate. How should we, as educators, define meaningful participation in our classes?

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