Laura Tropp's blog

The Importance of Being Bored In Class


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


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?


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


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


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


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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When Daughters Judge


Last week was Fashion Week in NYC. Other than the fashion intern students who were absent from my classes, the week did not impact me in any significant way. I did notice some people who were even more glamorously dressed than usual, a difficult feat on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. This led me to think about how my daughters are growing up in a different era than I did. With awareness on the importance of good body image, the connection between weight disorders and media representations, and the focus on promoting a positive self-esteem in women, my daughters are supposedly in an environment where being yourself is in.

Because I am raising two daughters and I study media and gender, I have tried to be very careful about exposing my children to media representations of women and the body. I work to teach my daughters not to focus on looks but on inner beauty. And in case I ever forget, there are plenty of reminders across media. The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty reminds me that you can be beautiful, no matter what type of body you have (though I should buy all the Dove products to be even more beautiful). The Spark Organization organizes activism against the mediated sexualization of girls, and Adios, Barbie builds awareness of and a defense against disempowering negative body image. Even the National Organization of Women (NOW) sponsors a Love Your Body Day.

A while back, I remember seeing news coverage of 14-year old Julia Bluhm, who petitioned Seventeen magazine to include more truthful portrayals of girls. So, I’m well informed here, and I’ve been careful. I do not obsess over food choices or body image, I never make unflattering body comments about anyone’s body, and I’ve discussed inner beauty with my children. I limit their media consumption. I let them pick out their own clothes while discouraging sexualized clothing. Aside from my middle daughter’s obsession with shoes, I have avoided preoccupations with fashion.

Something has gone horrible wrong, though. I think my daughters are making me self-conscious about my body.

I was getting dressed for work the other day when my eight-year old told me that she didn’t find my skirt flattering. A few days later, my six-year old said I shouldn’t really wear jean skirts; they don’t look all that good on me, she confided. Each morning as I get dressed, I feel like I’m heading down a catwalk: get rid of the stripes, that shirt is too tight, those shoes don’t go, you fit into that outfit better last month.

Of course, I’ve reiterated how looks aren’t important, how it’s what is inside that counts. However, I must admit that now when I look in the mirror (something I didn’t do often before), I’m suddenly faced with a level of discomfort (maybe these polka dots weren’t a good idea, after all).

My friend is having the same issue with her four-year old, who told her she might be getting a little chubby.  Clearly, the girls are still getting these ideas from somewhere, and our efforts to inoculate them are not going well. Does peer pressure overcome all else? Does fashionista ideology just ooze out? Are there any support groups for moms with critical daughters?


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Prof. Laura


In the past I have complained when I see students (and their parents) treating college attendance as a consumer commodity. It sometimes seems that what they want out of the experience compares to ordering fast food from a restaurant drive-through window. My colleagues have put forward to students alternative models to frame their experience. One of the most interesting I’ve heard compares the collegiate professor/student relationship to a professional doctor/patient interaction. In this example, a patient can choose a doctor and expect a certain level of customer service from the office staff, but no one would presume to tell the doctor how to treat a patient. Of course, I’m not sure this analogy still holds true today, as I know of many friends who walk into their doctor’s office already self-diagnosed with the help of websites like WebMD and a proposed prescription as suggested by televised big pharma ads.

I’ve always felt that the line between faculty and students must be made clear. At the end of the day, the faculty member must assess each student’s work and assign a grade. These days, though, it seems a new age of collegiate customer service is obfuscating this line. Private liberal arts colleges increasingly struggle to stay solvent (though this concern may be misguided). Colleges seek ever more creative ways to recruit new students, and retention has become a mantra for just about every school. In other words, the implicit message is that students need to be happy in order to come to your college and stay.

Nate Kreuter has persuasively argued that the customer service model leads to confusion over whether a student’s education or the college itself is the product, yet faculty are increasingly called upon to offer students a more “customer friendly” atmosphere. We are increasing our advising load, making ourselves available for more events, answering parents’ email messages (with proper FERPA waivers in place), and listening to students tell us about their work/life challenges.

On the one hand, a more customer-friendly approach can lead to positive outcomes. I think students who are spending a significant amount of money to attend schools should have a right to not be closed out of classes, experience a smooth registration process, and have access to excellent teaching. Yet, I am not interested in catering to a millennial generation used to clicking a button to get what they want. What happens when their every request cannot be accommodated? The reality is that, while all students should have access to the classes they need, everyone cannot enroll into the most coveted time slots. While students should be able to discuss with faculty their concerns about a class, they shouldn’t feel entitled to demand that a faculty member change their teaching method or syllabus. While faculty should be in touch with students, they should not feel pressured to answer emails at all times of the day and night (as I’ve explored in my previous post).

On the first day of class, I tell my students that they may call me Dr. Tropp, Professor Tropp, or Laura. I explain that I prefer not to be referred to as Mrs., Miss, or Ms. Tropp, because if they insist on using a title within our context, they should use my academic title. Plus, I do not like the marital status question defined by the first two. Now, though, I’m wondering if the use of Laura implies a familiar relationship that we do not have. After all, I’m not their friend, but their professor or chairperson.

Do you find that the boundaries between faculty and students have burred too much? How do you serve students’ needs while preserving a professional relationship? What is unique about this generation of students, and what are perennial conflicts?

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Status Update: Always Available


I had an interesting conversation with another academic over the weekend about the challenges of being available all the time for our students/administrators/fellow faculty while trying to not let it take over our lives. Although I often think about work-life technology balance, I do not think I have attained the right balance. A few years ago, at a Labor Day picnic, I checked my email on my phone and then spent the rest of the party obsessed about my overdue assessment reports.

Later, I realized that that was a tipping point: why was I checking my email during a picnic, on a national holiday no less?  I had to admit that the reason was not because I was afraid of being unavailable (no one would expect me to answer questions at this time) but because I was afraid of missing something. Email had become my addiction.

Jennifer Senior’s book All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood explores the addictive nature of email and other social media and how it negatively influences our ability to live the moment when it comes to parenting. That very day I removed the email app from my phone, and I survived. Though I do not remember any negative fall-out from that period, one day, at an out-of-town conference, I put the email back on the phone, and my addiction had started right up again. 

My friend and I talked about email boundaries. She pointed out that some of her colleagues do not like when others send emails on the weekend because they think it implies that they should reply to those emails over the weekend. And what about texting? Another colleague said that texting someone about work related issues, unless something urgent has come up that needs an immediate answer, is simply rude. I admit that I am guilty of sending weekend emails, though I try to keep texting colleagues at all to a minimum. 

Students are another concern. As a policy, I tell those I hire that they should simply indicate to students their availability during the first days of the semester. If they do not check email on evenings and weekends, then they should just give students a heads-up. The challenge is that my students keep very different hours from me. They tend to start working just as I’m heading to bed, and they always consider themselves in urgent need of a response. They sometimes even check off those red “urgent” flags, which I always find funny because I never prioritize flagged messages. In fact, those little red flags annoy me so much that, if I read your red-flagged message and I didn’t think it was an actual emergency, I might passive aggressively punish you by putting you in the bottom of my email priority. Of course, with my present constantly checking email addiction, that only delays my response by about 15 minutes.

However, pulling the plug on my email addiction scares me. What are the consequences of losing my “always available” status? I like those student evaluation responses that say, “She was always available for me.” I enjoy knowing that I can be counted on for a quick response as an administrator. In fact, I think that’s an expectation for a department chairperson. Yet, there must be a happy medium, no? What limitations do you put on your availability?

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I am always thinking about my work-life balance. Typically, I frame it in terms of how to manage my busy academic life with my family life. Recently, however, I have been wondering more often about how to manage friendships.

I was talking with one of my closest friends the other day and realized that, though we do not live that far from each other, I hadn’t seen her in person for months. It occurred to me that she was not the only friend for which this is true. The friends I have unintentionally prioritized are other moms who live nearby and have children that are similar ages as mine. The boredom of a long summer day with lots of kids to entertain unites us in a different kind of friendship. While they may not have the depth and closeness of my long-time friends, these friends can share with me the everyday experiences related to the daily challenges of parenthood. We debate camps and tantrums. We trade discipline and bicycle training tricks (tip: take off the petals of the bike to train them to balance).

Yet, I miss my other friends: friends from childhood who know me inside and out, friends from my first jobs who know the more youthful version of me. I realize that with Facebook, you can still drop in on your friends, but it’s not quite the same. Someone described it to me as knowing what your friends are doing but rarely knowing how they really are feeling. It’s no substitute for physically laughing with them in person.

The problem is, when I think about my daily schedule, I can’t seem to squeeze friendship back in my life any more than I have already. I confided this to another friend, who made the wise observation that I should see friends as coming into, and out of, and back into my life during different periods of time. I like this way of thinking about it. I’m hoping that, when my kids are teenagers and no longer want to hang out with me, my friends might be willing to take me back.

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