A clock with wings flying in the air, with another one in the background out of focus. The background is a blurry tan.

Reflecting on “suggested deadlines” for assignments

Over the Fall 2020 semester, I changed my assignment deadline policy, creating “suggested deadlines” instead of enforced ones. I altered the language to “suggested deadline” in my syllabus semester timeline (in which I provide due dates for all assignments), I left submission portals open in the online teaching software, and I did not manually penalize grades for lateness. I made the change out of practicality for the fall semester, and I was personally pleased by the results; however, I wanted to hear from students. After being able to formally obtain student feedback during course evaluations, I wanted to reflect on that change and how I will implement it in future courses.

Previously, when grading policies were up to me, I accepted late assignments with a possible -10% grade penalty reduction per day, although I would waive it for a variety of circumstances. It was easy to enforce using online teaching software which timestamped submissions. This policy seemed to motivate some students, but in retrospect, it made students feel like they had to share their reasons for lateness and justify why they needed an extension. Not only did this late assignment policy increase the number of emails I received and time spent replying that yes, I would still accept it, but it also meant that students were sharing more personal information with me. I suspect that students who did not ask for deadline extensions probably had a reason but didn’t want to share than information in asking for an extension, and really, it is none of my business what else is going on in their life.

However, I made the decision to allow any assignments to be turned in after the due date without a penalty, in part because the pandemic shifted the amount and type of work most students were doing. Many of them reported an increased workload, having to attend remote classes in their car, trouble with internet access with so many other users on their network, and of course, power and internet outages are common in Maine when trees topple utility lines. If I had enforced assignment deadlines, then a third to a half of my students were in danger of failing the course because of lack of work, but not because of poor quality of work. This was unreasonable to me, especially in my undergraduate research course where I would be effectively be penalizing students for delays caused by their research mentors or haled research on campus.

So, I made the decision to trust my students to manage their own motivations and time management. After all, they are legal adults, they are not first years, and they have chosen to continue their education despite the financial burden and other constraints. More than that, almost all of my graded assignments with significant weight in the class are essay based, which means I can get a feel for the students’ writing voice and it is really easy to identify plagiarism by the change in tone or maturity of the writing. If being able to turn in an assignment late meant students’ could copy each other’s assignments, I should be able to catch it even without the online plagiarism checking software.

I was concerned that I would receive all the assignments on the very last day, and was dreading the avalanche of grading that would unleash on me. Instead, assignments trickled in on a regular basis, several hours to several months late depending on the students’ circumstances, some of which were later disclosed to me. Instead of getting sloppy, thrown-together assignments, I think the quality of writing and the depth of student critical thinking were improved. Students later reported being able to spend more time on the assignment when they had control over when that time could be spent. And, despite having the most students in the most difficult semester to get through, I discovered no instances of plagiarism.

I think I will make the move to suggested deadlines semi-permanent (some deadlines will be enforced based on if it is time-sensitive). The online teaching software I use can be set to assign a 0 to missing assignments, to email me when submissions are received, and to add conditions to submission portals, such as having first submitted another assignment or having received feedback on a previous assignment (like a previous draft of a paper). I can schedule automatic email reminders about assignments, email only students who are missing assignments, and students can check their grades and assignment lists online at any time. Not only does this dramatically reduce the time I spend chasing after assignments, but it gives students more agency in being able to participate in the class on their own time.

Certainly not every class can be structured this way or allow for flexible deadlines. But, I think a lot of them could be, and I think in most cases it would improve student engagement and learning outcomes. Below, you can find the comments on my two fall course evaluations, and you can check out my previous posts on curricula development or my teaching statements.


For much of the fall semester, assignment deadlines were open ended. Do you think keeping open ended deadlines (as in, you turn in things when they are ready but [not] on a specific date) next year would make this class better? Do you think you would be able to keep up with assignments without deadlines? Or do you think the deadlines help keep you on track?

My question from the course evaluations for this fall

Comments

  • I think the soft deadlines kept me in check, however it’s nice to know that if things unexpectedly get crazy for me that I won’t be penalized for taking extra time to make sure that I submit quality work.
  • I very much appreciated the flexibility in deadlines for this class as many other classes ramp up at the end of the semester. I felt as though I could control my workload with the assignments set up like this, and would recommend keeping the deadlines as suggestions to where you should be up to date in the course, but the actual submission deadline remains later in the semester.
  • You could do once a month check ins or something to verify nobody is completely slacking off. Maybe have three major deadlines to force people to keep up – one at the end of October, end of November and then the final submission?
  • The deadlines really helped keep me on track. Dr. Sue Ishaq was more than lenient with due dates and the work load, so I do not think anyone would have an excuse to not do well in this course (although this was really helpful with the troubling times humanity is facing). I think being more strict would be more fair to her as a professor and would help students not take advantage of being able to put things off and not learn the material.
  • I think the open ended deadlines was really helpful. It allowed me to put the time in when I could rather than rushing to get it done and turned in for the due date.
  • I appreciated having the due dates so I could try to get stuff in at a reasonable time but also that the deadlines were flexible so if something came up I wouldn’t turn in something I wasn’t happy with. I had a different class with no deadlines and it was horrible, I need the structure to be there but to also have the leniency for when things aren’t going well.
  • In this new quarantined world, the open deadlines were essential to academic success. While I didn’t struggle in this class necessarily, I did struggle in chemistry, pre calculus and lab with out the aid of study groups, math labs, and lab partners. Having open dead lines in this course not only affected my academic success in this course, but it also snow balled in a positive way and helped my GPA overall.
  • I think open ended deadlines with a suggested deadline would be the most helpful, because it will reduce the stress of deadlines, and allow for leeway in the case of multiple courses having work do on the same day, but it also gives a time frame around when the work should be done
  • The lack of deadlines required self–discipline but also removed the daunting aspect of the due date, which I often find myself deterred by and ultimately more likely to put off the work. I felt that the assignments were more inviting this way.
  • I think that this semester it was very beneficial to have the open ended deadlines. For me personally, I prefer to have deadlines to keep me on track, but I appreciate the flexibility of the open–ended deadlines.
  • I think having the open ended, suggestive deadlines made for a much easier semester. It took off a lot of stress to know that I could have an extra day if needed. Sometimes we get peaks in the semester where we’re slammed with work and knowing that if I needed an extra day or two to complete an assignment was really reassuring.
  • Thank you for being understanding on deadlines as this semester has been crazy, although the soft deadlines kept me on track without penalizing me for taking extra time if needed.
  • I think ended open deadlines do help due to things become crazier as the whole covid thing continues
  • I feel that open ended deadlines next year would make this class better because due to recent events in the world it is sometimes difficult communicating with project mentors. By having open ended deadlines, I know when it is supposed to be due, but if I am missing some information from someone on the project I do not worry as much about getting in trouble for handing it in late.
  • yes this is hard to juggle long term projects with weekly class deadlines. So open ended is the best for this class.
  • I believe the structure of fall semester deadlines was great.
  • I feel like open ended deadlines are very helpful because you would be able create better quality work with your research. I feel like I would be about to keep up with work without deadlines or just create the deadline for the end of the semester and put reminders.
  • I think a more strict set of deadlines could’ve been helpful as far as tracking progress. Exceptions could still be made for those struggling on a topic, or who are unable to start for some reason out of their control.
  • This semester, while everyone has been adjusting to the new way of pandemic life, the open ended deadlines were extremely helpful and stress relieving.
  • yes I think there should be soft deadlines, there is a date that it should be done but we didn’t have to have it done by then
  • Having a general guideline about when things should be turned in has been helpful, but keeping the deadlines open ended has relieved a lot of stress and has enabled me to produce better work because I was not rushed.
  • The deadlines kept me on track and having no deadlines would have me just turn everything in at the end which is bad.
  • I liked the deadlines. I would have kept all the work till the last minute if we didn’t. However, the open ended deadlines meant that even if you were behind, you wouldn’t be penalized which really helped.
  • I think open ended deadlines are a great idea because it allowed me to not feel pressured to submit something that I did not feel was ready. Without that stress, I was able to submit all of my assignments on time with the open ended deadline and not during the later one, which was helpful!

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How to choose a graduate program in STEM

I frequently receive requests for advice on choosing graduate programs, or to work in my lab, and have conversations with graduates who are struggling with program, department, or university policies which they were not aware of when they began. I decided to put those thoughts and conversations in one place, to create a non-exhaustive list of advice and considerations for choosing a graduate program. This will mostly be applicable to STEM programs, but some aspects will be universal.

Some of this will be discouraging, because graduate school is not a thing to be entered into lightly. But, I also believe that anyone can participate in science, and that many times when people think they couldn’t succeed in science, it’s not because they aren’t good enough, it’s more of a problem with an environment that selects for just one type of researcher.

Define your goal.

What do you want to do with your career and why do you need to go to graduate school to accomplish this?

I spend more time talking people out of graduate school, or into a lesser commitment, than I spend convincing people to go to graduate school, because there is an inflated sense of the need and prestige of having a graduate degree. And, many people assume they need a degree, or the highest degree available, to get the job they want.

When I was in 6th grade, I decided I was going to be a veterinarian because I wanted to help animals, and I refused to consider other career paths which felt like a lesser calling. Three weeks into my undergraduate degree in animal science, I realized that the reality of being a veterinarian is very different from its portrayal, and it wasn’t what I wanted at all. I had only thought I wanted it because I had gotten a very limited exposure to career choices prior to going to college. I see the same mistake with people considering, or in, graduate school. I don’t mean to disparage having a veterinary or graduate degree, I just mean that the way they are portrayed to prospective students is not always accurate. Do your homework before committing to those career paths.

More than that, when you receive career advice or look into career paths, the advice tends to focus on the highlights or major types of jobs and ignore the nuance of interdisciplinary or support-level careers. Not only does this mean that everyone in animal science thinks they can only be a veterinarian or a professor to be in the field, but the way that careers are portrayed makes students think that the only suitable use of their time, and justification for massive financial burden of higher education they incur, is to go for the career with the highest prestige – whether they want that or not. Unfortunately, when students realize they don’t have the grades and the accolades to make it into the career with the most prestige, which also has the most strict entry requirements, it means students are more likely to give up entirely, consider leaving their degree unfinished, and feel guilt or shame for having failed. But here’s something no one tells you up front: choosing a different job doesn’t mean you failed to be the boss, it means you chose a different job. A veterinary technician isn’t a failed veterinarian, and a laboratory technician isn’t a failed researcher, they are performing different functions in a setting which requires collaboration from various job types.

So, I’ll ask you again, like I ask all prospective graduate students: what do you want do with your life, and do you need graduate school to get you there? This question helps you focus on creating stepwise objectives to meet your goals. Maybe you need a specific degree, or a degree in a specific field, or don’t actually need a degree at all, maybe you need an internship or professional training, and those might require a specific order to the events. Do you want to travel for work or not? Do you want to have clear definition of your job responsibilities, or the flexibility to determine your own to-do list? Do you want to be at the bench, in the field, or at the keyboard and to be doing the research, or do you want to be writing proposals and papers, and administrating the research and the lab personnel? And, do you actually want to work alone or are you alright in a social environment? Spoiler alert, most jobs in science actually require daily socialization, communication, and presentation.

All of these aspects will determine the particulars of what you need out of a graduate program and the type of degree you get. It’ll also help you in the future when you need to decide if you have met your grad school goal and are ready to move to the next phase of your life.

You can probably outline your personal goals and constraints, but defining your professional goals will take some homework. I’ve previously described the academic ladder, with descriptions of responsibilities of students, post-doctoral researchers, adjuncts and researchers, and tenure-track faculty. I have also compiled some “science journeys” into a video. Professional research blogs can be a good way to learn about life in academia, although keep in mind many labs only post about their successes and not about their failures. You can also connect with faculty on campus, and most labs will take on undergraduate (or even high school) students to participate in research. If you aren’t sure if you would be interested in research, you can ask to shadow researchers in the lab, attend a few lab meetings, or otherwise participate in a voluntary and commitment-free capacity. There are also plenty of research opportunities off campus, as well.

Volunteering for Adventurers and Conservationists for Science, collecting water samples to look for microplastics. Photo: Lee Warren.

Define your limits.

Graduate programs can be demanding, and you may need to relocate to find the topic, project, and mentor who is right for you. Before you start applying everywhere and racking up application fees, think about your constraints, your limits, and what would be a “deal-breaker” for you. Defining your limits (especially if you have a lot of them) will feel like you are writing yourself out of the possibility of finding a graduate program that works for you. In reality, it will help you find an institution that matches your life better and will help you focus on what is really important to you. You don’t have to erase all other aspects of your life in order to be a scientist.

Often, you feel pressured to give up everything to go to graduate school or other professional degree programs. The perception is that because there are fewer available positions than applicants that you need to underbid everyone else and give up everything, essentially that you need to recruit the graduate program. You assume you have to relocate and out of your own pocket, you need to put family on hold, you need give up job benefits, and you will have to work all the time.

I’ve moved over 7,000 miles for academic jobs.

Some of that may be true, and you should think about what you are able to manage and what you can’t live without. Some of that is just perception cast by work-a-holic culture and you will be able to reject or negotiate aspects. Think of your list of limits as conditions your employer might need to meet in order to convince you to take the position.

Narrow down your interests.

What do you want to do day after day, failure after failure?

If you start to make a list of things you are interested in science and you start writing down all the cool things you saw on social media – stop right there. Science is cool, but most of the time is cool in retrospect after the work has been completed and narrative added in. Science is arduous, iterative, and requires a lot of process improvement and reflection, and that takes time and focus. You need to be able to work on the same thing day after day and maintain interest even if everything you do seems to fail everyday. Especially when you are trying to develop technical skills and analytical skills, you need to be able to focus and dive deep into your topic, and you can’t be distracted by every little thing you think is cool, otherwise you will never get anything done.

You don’t need to commit to your research interest for life, and you don’t need to have an incredibly narrow scope to your interests, but you should be able to identify a common theme or the aspect that draws you in. Which topic makes you ask “yes, and?” over and over. What cool science story made you look for a second similar story, and then a third?

Search for a program.

There are a few different types of graduate degrees available, and each have nuances about the requirements to get in, requirements to graduate, cost to you, salary and benefits to you, and approach for application and acceptance into the program. I recommend looking into programs first, to find a location and institution that best meets your personal and professional goals and limits, and then trying to find a mentor. Don’t underestimate the importance of geographic location, and the environmental and social climate you will find there. You might need to be close to family, or find a location with a job or program for a partner. And if you are used to sun, several years of overcast winters might lose their novelty.

Most people apply to multiple programs and it can take time to find the right match. If you end up applying to multiple programs at a single institution, you can ask them to waive additional application fees, something that is commonly done but not commonly advertised.

Masters of Professional Studies are designed to give you familiarity with research and build skills. MPS is not thesis-based and requires research participation but not your own research project, so it is often used for people who will be in research-adjacent jobs. Students are admitted to programs based on their GPA, exam, or other numeric qualifications, and during their first semester have to identify a research mentor and two other committee members to guide their curricula and career development. MPS students pay for their own tuition, and most program/university policies stipulate that they are not allowed salary for their research, although they usually can be paid summer research salary. MPS students are eligible for teaching assistantships, but few, if any research assistantships. Because you are categorized as students and not employees, you do not receive health insurance or other fringe benefits, but you are eligible for student health insurance plans. MPS are completed in 2 years, but can be completed over longer periods of time to accommodate working professionals.

Master of Science programs are thesis-based, and require research study in a project you co-lead. Applications may be accepted year-round or according to deadlines, depending on the program. Master’s programs are designed to last 2 -3 years (credit hour requirements make it almost impossible to accomplish in fewer than two years), and beware mentors or projects which assign you a PhD-level amount of work to accomplish in just two years. Finding funding for master’s programs can be tricky, as many universities prioritize PhD students in order to boost their Carnegie research rating, but master’s programs are needed for training the majoring of the research workforce. Typically, you are paid a salary for your master’s, including partial coverage of your health insurance, and full coverage of your tuition. Most programs do not cover full health insurance, or semester fees, both of which can cost a thousand dollars of more in each of the spring and fall semesters, but you might be able to negotiate these to be paid by your advisor. You are considered both a student and an employee, but most university policies make graduate students ineligible for university-based or even individual-based pre-tax retirement savings programs for employees, although you can configure a post-tax retirement savings plan on your own.

Doctorate of Science programs are dissertation-based and requires that you (more or less) lead a research study and have contributed significantly to the theory behind its design, or theory behind its analysis and interpretation. PhD programs are designed to take about 5 years in the US (3 years in many other countries which don’t require coursework). Credit hour requirements make it almost impossible to accomplish in fewer than 4 years in the US, and PhD time can vary between 4 – 9 years, depending on the research and other circumstances. Applications are accepted year-round for direct-to-lab admissions (see below), and once or twice a year to be considered for lab-rotation-based fellowships.

Thesis-based science programs have two paths to admission, which is not always common knowledge. You will always have to apply to the graduate college of a university and meet the qualifications set by the university, as well as the program/department. After passing initial qualification checks, the graduate school will forward applications to the department to review, and it is this step that offers two paths.

If graduate programs have a collective fund to support students (teaching or research assistantships), they might accept a certain number of students as a cohort based on their qualifications. The top number of applicants will have some sort of recruitment event in which you are shown the facilities, have a chance to talk to students and faculty, and are interviewed by the program admission committee. Applicants who are admitted as a cohort have salary provided for the first 1 – 2 years as they take classes and rotate through different research labs. At the end of rotations, you match with a lab that has money to continue funding your salary and your research. Most programs will not accept so many students to the cohort that they will be unable to find them funding to continue their graduate work.

However, because thesis-based study is a funded position, you might apply to a department as a “direct admission”. This means that you have already matched with an advisor during prior conversations, the advisor has already looked through your application, and that the advisor and the department have informally agreed to offer you a position. But, this method is entirely dependent on that advisor having funding to pay your salary, tuition, and your research costs. You need to start the conversation with a possible mentor 6 months or more before you want to begin, unless you are applying to an advertised position in their lab. Finding research funding takes 6 – 18 months because of the slow pace of federal funding review and allocation, so if your advisor needs to find funding it will take planing ahead of time. Direct admission can happen on a rolling basis, but you will still need to apply to, and meet the qualifications of, the graduate college. Because of the unpredictable nature of the funding, you can defer a direct admission offer for a year, as needed.

Interviewing and searching for a mentor.

Whether you are applying as part of a cohort or a direct admission, you will have some sort of interview. It might be a series of informal conversations with potential advisors, or a formal interview with a program admission committee. When you are going into a graduate program interview, it feels daunting, and it’s not until you advance your career enough to be on the interviewer side that you realize it is supposed to be a conversation and not a test.

The graduate interview is not really about proving your qualifications because you have already met that hurdle with your application. The interview is to match students to mentors, and to confirm your interest in research. By having conversations and interacting in real time (whether in person or via electronic chat), interviewers can assess your communication skills, and get a better idea of your goals and interests.

The graduate advising relationship is quite different from what you might have experienced with previous instructors or undergraduate advisors, so it’s important that your personal and professional goals line up with those of your advisor. It really helps if you actually get along. You’ll be working together for several years during your degree, and will maintain a mentoring relationship for a good portion of your early career after you graduate. As a member of their lab, you’ll be performing a lot of their research and representing them at conferences and other venues during presentations, collaborations, or future work. It’s important to your career and theirs that you are able to work well together.

Therefore, during your grad school interviews you should remember that you are interviewing them, as well. The interview is an opportunity for your future advisor and institution to impress you and convince you to take a position with them. This is your chance to ask them about the projects you might be doing, where former lab members are now, their expectations of you, and more. Many federal funding proposals require a detailed mentoring plan, so advisors already have an idea what your professional development might look like. Importantly, get an idea about the lab culture. Some advisors feel you should work nights and weekends and during all breaks, others feel that your contributions belong to the lab and you might not have as much access to your own intellectual property than you think. And, not every lab has made a commitment to equity and inclusion. Here’s the policy for the Ishaq Lab.

It’s also a great time to ask grad program coordinators about university policy, departmental expectations, and financial support opportunities which might affect you. Does the program provide some or all financial support for health insurance, tuition, salary, and student fees? If not, what opportunities are in place to secure these? Are you able to switch mentors if there is a professional or personal mismatch? Is childcare available for graduate students? What about time off for maternity leave, and is this paid or unpaid? Family or medical leave? What if you need to take a semester or a year off, can you get back into the program and would you lose your funding? How many papers will you need to publish, or scientific presentations to give, and will there be financial support for those costly endeavors? While no one would ask you to pay publication fees out of pocket, I have heard of researchers refusing to financially support grad student travel to conferences, despite many departments requiring students to present in order to obtain their graduate degree. Travel to scientific conferences can run to several thousand in travel and participation costs per trip, and one trip to a national-level conference could cost an entire month’s graduate student salary.

Adopt healthy habits.

If everything comes together and you’ve been accepted into a graduate program that works for you, congratulations!! I wish you the best on the next step of your journey. If you are looking for more advice for once you get there, check out my previous posts, including preparing yourself before you start by adopting good habits for organization and work-life balance.

Reblog: “Animal and veterinary sciences seniors: Capstone stories”

Starting this fall, I have been teaching the UMaine Capstone Experience courses for Animal and Veterinary Sciences students (AVS 401 and 402). To complete the University of Maine requirements for graduation, students must participate in a Capstone Experience to knit together the work of their undergraduate degree into a cohesive project. AVS students are required to part pate in research under researcher mentorship. Some of those students felt comfortable sharing short descriptions of their project. The slightly edited summaries and my intro were posted to the University of Maine news page for teaching experience updates.

Teaching Statement development series: evaluating my approach

This is the final installment of the selected portions of my Teaching Statement as part of a development series, drafted as I refine my philosophies for the submission of my second-year review this fall. I welcome feedback! Feel free to comment on the post (note, all comments require my approval before appearing publicly on the site), or contact me directly if you have more substantial edits.

*Please note, these are selected portions of my Statement which have been edited to remove sensitive information. These are early drafts, and may not reflect my final version. Tenure materials that I generate are mine to share, but my department chair, committee, and union representative were consulted prior to posting these. Each tenure-granting institution is unique, and departments weigh criteria differently, thus Statements can’t really be directly compared between faculty.*


Evaluating my approach to teaching (modified to remove sensitive information)

I regularly solicit student feedback in my courses, either in class, or via anonymous surveys using online teaching platforms (Brightspace), to improve the quality and content of my teaching materials.  For example, a voluntary, anonymous survey of AVS 401 Senior Paper in Animal Science I students in fall 2020 on lecture content and order revealed that the material presented (see Developing curricula) was all or partly new to them, that they would have preferred to learn about Project Management and Experimental Design earlier in the lecture series, and that they found all lectures to contain useful information. Survey report available upon request. Student comments included

  •  [ Student comments redacted for the blog post]

Similarly, I solicit feedback from my peers, including an ad hoc Pedagogy in STEMM working group on campus.  The working group meets semi-weekly to discuss curriculum development, and in particular, including social issues into science courses. I led a one-hour meeting on re-thinking tense classroom conversations, as well as making student contribution equitable and productive. My re-devised strategy, a result of that working-group meeting, for discussion topics which do not elicit student engagement is to ignore the topic discussion and jump to resolution planning in the short and long-term using starting scenarios which include cost/benefit analyses, if applicable. 

Finally, the use of online teaching software (Brightspace) allows me to evaluate student engagement in real-time, from tracking assignment submission times, to identifying patterns in grading that point to poorly-worded or confusing assignments, to participation in online discussion forums by topic.  The software facilitates tracking progress by individual students or the class over time, allowing me to parse when I need to reach out to offer additional help, or when I need to change an assignment deadline because it conflicts with large assignments (such as mid-term exams) from other courses which divert student attention. 


Previous installments:

Teaching Statement development series: science and society.

Teaching Statement development series: research mentorship.

Teaching Statement development series: research and education.

Teaching Statement development series: scientific literacy.

Teaching Statement development series: developing curricula.

Teaching Statement development series: accessibility.

Teaching Statement development series: science and society

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing selected portions of my Teaching Statement here as part of a development series, as I refine my philosophies for the submission of my second-year review this fall. I welcome feedback! Feel free to comment on the post (note, all comments require my approval before appearing publicly on the site), or contact me directly if you have more substantial edits.

*Please note, these are selected portions of my Statement which have been edited to remove sensitive information. These are early drafts, and may not reflect my final version. Tenure materials that I generate are mine to share, but my department chair, committee, and union representative were consulted prior to posting these. Each tenure-granting institution is unique, and departments weigh criteria differently, thus Statements can’t really be directly compared between faculty.*


Tying science course content to other aspects of society

I have two goals in my attempt to connect my science curricula to other aspects of society: to provide a broader educational perspective on science, and to stimulate imagination regarding the application of scientific knowledge to community building and civic engagement. Students need to understand that science is ongoing, and that there are yet many questions in the field for them to answer.

One technique to connect science and society in my coursework is to encourage students to self-identify as scientists, and to understand that they are able to participate in it. For example, on the first day of AVS 401 (Capstone), the students made a word-cloud of adjectives to describe their idea of a scientist, shown below.  At the end of the academic year, after participating in research and learning about the process, students will make another collaborative world-cloud.  As a class, students will reflect on whether their understanding of science and scientists has changed, and whether they are more (or less) likely to perceive science as a field that they are able to engage with.  Hopefully, this participation in research and reflective exercise will accentuate their use of effort-based descriptors, such as “patient” or “methodical”, rather than ability-based descriptors, such as “gifted”, when thinking about scientists, and thereby when thinking about themselves.  It is important for students to learn that science is a process to participate in, not a gift that you are born with.  In fact, a large-scale research study found that student achievement gaps were more dramatically narrowed when the instructor held the personal view that ability could be taught, rather than ability was fixed, i.e. you are born with it  (Canning et al. 2019, DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aau4734).

Word-cloud of adjectives to describe a scientist, AVS 401, Sept 1, 2020.

Another technique is to highlight the importance of the principles of research (i.e. finding and testing information for accuracy) and how those principles can be integrated into daily life or future careers, regardless of what those are. This includes teaching the AVS 401 students about why we need research, for example, in order to be more objective and remove our personal biases.  I explain how search engines work, and how the design of algorithms can contribute to the popularity of search results outweighing the quality and correctness of the information.  I talk about the importance of unbiased data in training sets, highlighting examples of artificial intelligence programs which were trained on social media interactions espousing violent rhetoric because human users thought it was fun to tell the AI that all humans held such views. 

In addition to providing information about the process of research and how to design an experiment, I give AVS 401 students information on the administrative aspects of research, including personnel and project management.  For example, I teach students about how researchers find funding and the goals of writing research proposals, and highlight the importance of including descriptions of project management in research proposals to prove you have the capacity to perform the experiment  I also give examples of demonstrated implicit bias in proposal reviewing that creates inequality in funding availability to different demographics of scientists, and how this artificially makes them look less competent when it comes time for internal review.  While this may seem immaterial to the class, reminding students that science cannot be divorced from the views of society, and that in order to overcome our bias as scientists we need to overcome our bias as people, too.

Thus, I provide background information of science and society to my classes, where pertinent.  For AVS 254, Introduction to Animal Microbiomes, the first section of the course (8 lectures) are devoted to the development of microbial ecology theory and technology over time, from the discovery of “wee animalcules” to the use of metagenomics. During these lectures, I provide annotations on historic scientists who have been lauded for their work, but who used that science for discrimination.  For example, James Watson, one of the researchers credited with determining the structure of DNA and the process of replication, was famously racist, sexist, and anti-Semitic, to the point where some of his awards were later revoked by institutions.  In one of his biographies, he devoted an entire paragraph to denigrating the appearance of Rosalind Franklin, whose originally-uncredited work was integral to Watson’s own success (https://www.vox.com/2019/1/15/18182530/james-watson-racist).  By telling this story in lecture, and following up with a discussion on “Elitism and Credit for Intellectual Contribution”, I place what is clearly a monumental scientific discovery in the context of society and human interactions.  It is critically important for students to understand that the journal articles they read about animal microbes in the rest of the class is the result of hundreds of years of effort and thousands of contributors, because it starts a discussion about power dynamics in science and in workplaces, in general.  It is important for them to understand how implicit bias, stereotypes, elitism, or even poor interpersonal relationships can affect science, as well as for them to learn that they have rights to their intellectual property and that they can actively make their future workplaces more equitable such that we do not continue to make the mistakes of the past.

Another technique is getting students to appreciate the hundreds of years-and-counting worth of history which led us to our current understanding of the microbes that interact with us. Without that history, and a discussion of how that technological journey shaped our current scientific understanding, I cannot do justice to the majority of the coursework. By and large, DNA sequencing is the technology behind much of the subject material in my AVS 254, Intro to Animal Microbiomes class. Sequencing is often portrayed as a panacea for all scientific questions, yet I teach students that as this technology improved we realized our experimental procedures were biased.  Being able to see this change over time requires perspective and time spent in a field, something that most undergraduates do not yet possess for microbial ecology.  And without the historical perspective, how can we understand that the most prevalent DNA sequencing technology today owes its success, in partm to the acquisition of a patent the company bought in a ‘fire sale’ because no one wanted to buy the patent outright from an African American with no higher education degree. In science courses, we only have so much time to disseminate information, and for that reason we often skip to the results, the end point, the cutting edge. Yet in telling only one story, or only the ending of the story, we rob students of the opportunity to see that science is a living process over time.  To see that scientists may be fallible, or that technology has both limited and informed our understanding of the natural world, or to understand why “some scientists” may disagree about the effects or scope of climate change.  Students need to understand that science is ongoing, and that just because knowledge is not fixed does not mean that is unreliable.

Towards the second goal, I use assignments and in-class discussions to stimulate imagination towards applying scientific knowledge to life outside of the classroom for the purpose of community building and active citizenship. In fact, the AVS 254 discussion on “Elitism and Credit for Intellectual Contribution” is a great example. Students engage with this topic because it is a situation that they can identify with. An in-class discussion on “Are your microbes really yours?” similarly stimulates student engagement. I think this topic succeeds because it is a novel concept and it sparks curiosity, and because it is a neutral topic in that there is no wrong stance, and asking questions about the topic is not associated with a moral judgement.

However, not all topic discussions are successful with all student groups.  For example, “Do we have a right to tell people how to conduct agricultural practices?”, after a lecture about agricultural practices which affect gut microbes and may trigger disease in livestock  This topic is one that I had devised at the University of Oregon for non-science-majors, who were interested in human connection to animal-microbe interactions.  Asking them questions which deliberately set up a pro/con side appealed to them because they were used to being asked to debate stances they did not espouse and they found it an interesting thought experiment.  However, at UMaine, teaching to animal- and life science students, the same question failed to engage them because the topics were not hypothetical as they had direct experience in it and they had already formed conclusions about the topic.  UMaine students also felt that the phrasing of this question was insensitive, which had been my point – I wanted them to practice arguing a stance for agricultural sustainability in the face of opposition.  Because UMaine students had already come to the same conclusion about this topic – that agricultural sustainability was important and could be used to improve economic security of food systems, they felt there was no question for them to answer.  

As my first semester teaching AVS 254 has been fall 2020, in a remote format during a pandemic, the conversational interaction that I typically have with my students is lacking, which is usually the basis for how I develop the topic and phrasing of discussions. Instead, to improve my curricula and my strategy for using discussions to improve student critical thinking skills over the course of the semester, I workshopped my approach to discussions in an ad hoc Pedagogy in STEM working group on campus.  The working group meets semi-weekly to discuss curriculum development, and in particular, weaving social issues into science courses. I led a one-hour meeting on re-thinking tense classroom conversations, as well as making student contributions equitable and productive during discussions. My re-devised strategy (a direct result of that working-group meeting) for discussion topics which do not elicit student engagement is to ignore the topic discussion and jump to resolution planning in the short and long-term using starting scenarios which include cost/benefit analyses, if applicable.  Instead of “Do we have a right to tell people how to conduct agricultural practices?”, the set-up will be “How do we plan for more sustainable ruminant agriculture?”  Students will be given a scenario of a farmer in Florida that wants to switch their cattle herd to a heat tolerate breed.  A brief economic analysis will be provided, such as cost to buy new cattle, as well as management concerns such as availability of markets to sell off current stock or sourcing new animals from less-common breeds.  Students will then have to decide how they will “get there from here”: what will they do today? Tomorrow? In one year? In ten years?  Changing industries and human societies is a slow path, and many people get discouraged by their lack of progress and move away from active citizenship.  Having students plan out short and long-term goals for change will ideally help them to learn to apply knowledge to planning actions today, and in the future.


Previous installments:

Teaching Statement development series: research mentorship.

Teaching Statement development series: research and education.

Teaching Statement development series: scientific literacy.

Teaching Statement development series: developing curricula.

Teaching Statement development series: accessibility.

Teaching Statement development series: research mentorship

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing selected portions of my Teaching Statement here as part of a development series, as I refine my philosophies for the submission of my second-year review this fall. I welcome feedback! Feel free to comment on the post (note, all comments require my approval before appearing publicly on the site), or contact me directly if you have more substantial edits.

*Please note, these are selected portions of my Statement which have been edited to remove sensitive information. These are early drafts, and may not reflect my final version. Tenure materials that I generate are mine to share, but my department chair, committee, and union representative were consulted prior to posting these. Each tenure-granting institution is unique, and departments weigh criteria differently, thus Statements can’t really be directly compared between faculty.*


Research mentorship (modified to remove sensitive information)

For students in my lab, who are listed in the Student Research Mentoring section, I approach mentorship the same way I do my in-class pedagogy, which is to say that I stress the importance of both technical skills and communication skills.  A large portion of their time is spent developing laboratory skills, many of which are translatable to other fields and types of research.  These skills include sample collection, DNA extraction, polymerase chain reaction (PCR), qualitative PCR (qPCR), DNA purification and quantification, gel electrophoresis, DNA sequencing library preparation, DNA sequence data analysis, microbial isolation from mixed communities, microbial culture under aerobic and anaerobic conditions, microbial biochemical testing and microbiology, microscopy, as well as some mammalian cell culture.  In addition to learning these skills, students are responsible for performing related data analysis, developing or refining protocols, and learning to care for the equipment they are using. As for communication skills, students must read and translate information found in scientific articles, perform literature reviews, present their updates or results in lab meetings, write scientific protocols, generate and give scientific presentations, and write scientific manuscripts or other documents for dissemination.

However, I feel that learning to manage scientific research is also a critical skill for students, and all participate to some degree, including my undergraduate students. Students are asked to take the lead on contacting other faculty with questions, calling manufacturers for information on supplies and reagents, generating shopping lists for materials and comparing products, updating inventory, and sharing and curating information or data. Once students feel proficient in a particular skill, they are encouraged to teach it to another student.  Likewise, multiple students are grouped together on projects, giving them a cohort of peers to trouble-shoot and discuss their research with.  For projects involving culturing work, this also requires them to learn division of labor, time management, and coordination of research efforts in order to maintain the experiment and share equipment.  For graduate students, these project management skills also include a small amount of personnel management, as they are designated as project team leaders and participate in coordinating undergraduate students in the lab.

I have been mentoring student researchers at the University of Maine since January 2020, beginning with undergraduates and a non-thesis graduate student, and adding two thesis-based graduate advisees as of fall 2020.  I am currently a documented committee member for three graduate students, including two in the School of Food and Agriculture, and one at Montana State University in Land Resources and Environmental Sciences.  For each of these students, I provide mentoring, training, and high-level perspective on microbiology lab work, including DNA extraction, PCR, qPCR, and sequencing library preparation, as well as DNA sequence data analysis. All three projects relate to my work on microbial communities in agriculture, or which would impact the gut. Several of these students are working on collaborative projects between myself and other researchers, including those on and off campus.  In particular, students from other majors and departments bring their scientific skills to my microbiology and microbial genetics work, and increase the overall competency and skill set of my lab. These students support interdisciplinary work, and have contributed or will contribute to scientific publications and presentations as authors. 

I strongly believe that students who contribute to research should have the option to contribute at an author level, if they choose, but many are unaware of their intellectual property and publication rights that the University supports.  In my varied experiences in academia, I have been witness to research disputes on authorship which inevitably ended in the student researcher being negatively affected by the resolution of the dispute.  In nearly all of these cases, guidelines on publication rights and expectations in the lab were not clearly outlined between the student and the advisor.  Nor were there guidelines in place for resolving disputes via mediation from a true third party. In one of the labs I trained in, a Memorandum of Understanding was developed by the researcher to outline rights and responsibilities for new lab members, and over the years I adopted this document to be pertinent for my research situations.  At the University of Maine, I heard a similar need for this type of document from students, and have been working with students, faculty, and administrative staff to revise an MOU for use on campus.  At present, we are in the process of finalizing a clear first draft, after which we will invite campus members, such as those in the Graduate College, unions, tech-transfer office, and Student Life, to a focus group to discuss the document. It is my goal to have the Graduate College adopt a modifiable version of the MOU and encourage faculty to discuss it with new lab members.

[The rest has been removed for this post as it contains student information.]


Previous installments:

Teaching Statement development series: research and education.

Teaching Statement development series: scientific literacy.

Teaching Statement development series: developing curricula.

Teaching Statement development series: accessibility

Teaching Statement development series: research and education

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing selected portions of my Teaching Statement here as part of a development series, as I refine my philosophies for the submission of my second-year review this fall. I welcome feedback! Feel free to comment on the post (note, all comments require my approval before appearing publicly on the site), or contact me directly if you have more substantial edits.

*Please note, these are selected portions of my Statement which have been edited to remove sensitive information. These are early drafts, and may not reflect my final version. Tenure materials that I generate are mine to share, but my department chair, committee, and union representative were consulted prior to posting these. Each tenure-granting institution is unique, and departments weigh criteria differently, thus Statements can’t really be directly compared between faculty.*


Integrating research and teaching

AVS 454/554 DNA Sequencing Analysis Lab encourages students to bring their own microbial community data, or allows them to work on unpublished data donated by my research collaborators.  By working with unpublished data, and connecting to active research projects,  students have the opportunity to develop real-world skills in a lifelike research context.  While I teach them how to perform statistics or create figures, as well as when they are contextually appropriate, the development of their research narrative and results presentation is somewhat-student led.  They learn to explain their data, not only to me or to other students during peer-review, but to researchers who typically have expertise in fields other than microbial ecology.  And, the use of unpublished data creates the possibility to pursue submission of their manuscripts, generated for class assignments, for scientific publication along with cooperating researchers, which engages students in research beyond the scope of the class.  

There is a critical need in the research community for analysis of small projects like the ones used in this class; often these data are from low-priority small projects, or researchers simply do not have the time or expertise to train students in data analysis and interpretation.  The special topics version (AVS 590) in spring 2020 was composed of 7 students, with 2 additional graduate students informally attending the class as they were graduating that semester.  The work in class resulted in 3 scientific manuscripts submitted for review in fall 2020, all with student authors and some with student first-authors. In particular, the extended interactions of students through internal and external review offers them an opportunity for guidance through what can be a challenging process for new researchers. For the spring 2020 class, I was presented with two unpublished datasets from collaborators at UMaine and across the US, and I view this class as an opportunity to assist UMaine students in networking to improve their career trajectory. I anticipate more enrolled students, and more collaborative projects, in future offerings of this course.

 Beginning in the 2020/2021 academic year, I began teaching AVS 401 (fall) and 402 ( spring), Senior Paper in Animal Science I and II, respectively.  Together, they form the Capstone Experience for AVS seniors.  The scope of this class was and remains student involvement in a research project, for which students develop a research proposal in written and oral presentation formats, and then develop a research report in written and oral presentation formats. Animal and Veterinary Science is heavily focused on professional development for animal science, production, and veterinary careers, which most accurately serves the interest of the majority of our students.  The final component of their education with us is to learn to apply that knowledge in an informational-seeking capacity, i.e. research.  Most students in the department and on campus, in general, have no prior experience participating in research. Or, their participation extends to sample collection and processing, and data analysis.  It is difficult to incorporate the aspects of experimental design conceptualization and project management, despite being critical aspects of scientific research and development.  Thus, in fall 2020 I began with an academic approach to applying these aspects of research in education, through the use of lectures.  Feedback from students early on in the fall semester indicated that many of the concepts I included in my lectures (see Developing curricula section) were almost or completely new to them. 

To provide a more comprehensive experience in conceptualizing research questions and developing plans to test them, I required students to include other components in their research proposals in addition to the background information, hypothesis, objectives/aims, and experimental design or project description.  These additional components include a project timeline, a list of project personnel and their responsibilities or contributions, a statement on data management and sharing, and a statement on information dissemination and sharing, with specific outcomes or outputs listed (if applicable). The infection-preventative measures enacted to contain the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has shifted the amount and type of research on campus, and the way that students are able to engage in active research.  Thus, for fall 2020 I did not require students to consider some aspects while writing their research proposal in the fall for AVS 401, such as budgets and justification, whether they had available equipment, and a description of their available facilities, but these will likely become small written components in future years.  For the research proposal, I do not consider any of the materials that students generate to be binding, as projects evolve during their course and many student projects are redirected by advisors, and I clarified this point to students.  As long as a research proposal was well-thought out, it could be materially different from the research report they generate by the end of the spring semester.


Previous installments:

Teaching Statement development series: scientific literacy.

Teaching Statement development series: developing curricula.

Teaching Statement development series: accessibility

Teaching Statement development series: scientific literacy

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing selected portions of my Teaching Statement here as part of a development series, as I refine my philosophies for the submission of my second-year review this fall. I welcome feedback! Feel free to comment on the post (note, all comments require my approval before appearing publicly on the site), or contact me directly if you have more substantial edits.

*Please note, these are selected portions of my Statement which have been edited to remove sensitive information. These are early drafts, and may not reflect my final version. Tenure materials that I generate are mine to share, but my department chair, committee, and union representative were consulted prior to posting these. Each tenure-granting institution is unique, and departments weigh criteria differently, thus Statements can’t really be directly compared between faculty.*


Improving scientific literacy and communication skills

In all of my curricula development, I put particular emphasis on designing assignments which build technical and communication skills. The technical skills are developed through walkthroughs for learning to use online databases such as NCBI’s Nucleotide (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/nucleotide/) and MG-RAST (https://www.mg-rast.org/), learning to read scientific articles, and learning to analyze data as needed.  AVS 454/554 is primarily skills-based, and specific skills are listed in the Developing curricula section.

The communication skills are primarily practiced through written assignments. Scientific writing is particularly important in microbial ecology and host-microbe interactions, fields in which strict memorization might not prove useful, as the body of knowledge changes rapidly. Rather, the material lends itself to critical thinking and debating theory, to presenting a scientific argument, to problem solving, or to composing technical/scientific writing, which is different than much of the written assignments students have accomplished in other coursework. In allowing students the word count to work through their thoughts, instead of providing short answers, they are able to find the words to express their opinion on, for example, the Hygiene Hypothesis when only weeks before they didn’t know that some microbes can turn the immune system on or off. 

Written assignments allow me to provide students with more substantial feedback, including suggestions on grammatical corrections, sentence structure or placement, or leaps-of-logic where they left readers behind, and of course, on the strength of the scientific argument. This is particularly helpful when learning to write technical science.  These written assignments are narrowed to a specific topic but are otherwise open-scope, and while I provide a recommended reading list, multiple options are available for most of the lectures, which allows students to select the journal articles and scientific information used as the reference material for their assignments. In giving students the agency to choose a topic to write about from the curricula tasting menu I’ve provided in my lectures, I receive back more diverse topics than just what I provided, which keeps things interesting for me. Students are more engaged when they can connect to material of their own choosing and select something relevant to their life. And, in giving them assignments which practice their writing voice, I witness their progression towards mature scientific writing.  

For most of the students I have taught, my class is their first formal introduction to the subject, whether it be research, host-microbe interactions, or DNA data analysis. To give students more time to practice the material, and to improve retention, I give topic-related readings, have a guided discussion at the end of lectures, and ‘stack’ assignments. For example, in AVS 254, Introduction to Animal Microbiomes, students write a non-technical summary of a scientific article: 1-2 paragraph summary in which they have to introduce the paper and its purpose, the methods used, and a major result or two. Trying to explain a complex experiment in simple terms is more challenging than it seems, because students need to understand the material in order to recreate it into their own words. By restricting the length in these assignments, it forces students to be more direct in their explanation. When it comes time to write an essay for a take-home exam, I allow the students to build off those summaries, if they choose, having received my feedback.

I also promote more creative information presentation in assignments, including “concept maps”. The assignment is to create a visual outline (diagram) around the specified topic. Starting with a main idea or topic in the center, branches are created out to secondary ideas, and so on, like a spider web, to create a concept map/diagram of important related topics and information. The goal of this is to create a study guide based on what students felt are the important concepts, centered around the material we have covered in that section of the course material.  Creating a visual map in this way helps students create order out of the information, by setting up a hierarchy of importance to better understand the relationships between ideas. An example is provided below, with permission from the student.

Concept Map on ‘Microbes and Technology’, by Kiera O., student in AVS254 Fall 2020.  Used with permission.

Previous installments:

Teaching Statement development series: developing curricula.

Teaching Statement development series: accessibility

Teaching Statement development series: developing curricula

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing selected portions of my Teaching Statement here as part of a development series, as I refine my philosophies for the submission of my second-year review this fall. I welcome feedback! Feel free to comment on the post (note, all comments require my approval before appearing publicly on the site), or contact me directly if you have more substantial edits.

*Please note, these are selected portions of my Statement which have been edited to remove sensitive information. These are early drafts, and may not reflect my final version. Tenure materials that I generate are mine to share, but my department chair, committee, and union representative were consulted prior to posting these. Each tenure-granting institution is unique, and departments weigh criteria differently, thus Statements can’t really be directly compared between faculty.*


Developing curricula

The first course I proposed which was accepted by the University undergraduate curriculum committee is AVS 254, Introduction to Animal Microbiomes, which I have begun teaching annually starting fall 2020.  This lecture and discussion-based course introduces students to host-associated microbiomes; the genomic collection of bacteria, archaea, fungi, protozoa, and viruses present in a host ecosystem. In each lecture, we focus on an anatomical location, theory, or a mode of microbial transfer.  We discuss the host and environmental pressures which select for the resident microbial community there, and the dynamics involved in community recruitment, function, transmission, and interactions with the host.  The material is primarily in animals, including mammals, birds, fish, amphibians, and humans, with occasional material on insects. This course is anticipated to have broad appeal to students in the School of Food and Agriculture, as well as Microbiology and Molecular Biology.  It is my hope that students are introduced to the field of host-associated microbiology through this course, and go on to participate in relevant research, during which they would generate microbial community DNA sequence datasets.  Students could then take AVS 454 in the spring of their senior year to learn to analyze this data and generate a scientific manuscript. In this way, AVS 254 sets the academic track for undergraduates to follow to learn about microbiomes from theory to application.  The course assignments feature a variety of written assignments, including ones to introduce them to online databases of microbial studies, to communicate science to the general public, and to synthesize information from various sources. The full syllabus and information about the class is relayed on my professional blog, https://sueishaqlab.org/teaching/avs-254-intro-to-animal-microbiomes/

The second, which I taught as an AVS special topics course in spring 2020, and which has been approved for spring 2021 as a formal course,  is AVS 454/554 DNA Sequencing Analysis Lab, with undergraduate and graduate sections, respectively.  This course takes students from raw DNA sequencing data through quality assurance, data interpretation, statistical analysis, and presentation of the results as a draft scientific manuscript.  Multiple drafts of the manuscript are submitted, and in addition to my reviews, students provide single-blind peer review, collectively allowing for students to refine and improve their presentation of results over time. Students are encouraged to bring their own microbial community data, or I provide unpublished data from my research collaborators, thus students have the opportunity to pursue submission of their assignment manuscripts for scientific publication along with cooperating researchers.  There is a critical need in the research community for analysis of small projects like the ones used in this class; often these data are from low-priority small projects, or researchers simply do not have the time or expertise to train students in data analysis and interpretation.  The special topics version had 7 students, with 2 additional students informally attending the class, and resulted in 3 scientific manuscripts submitted for review in fall 2020, all with student authors. The full syllabus and information about the class is relayed on my professional blog, https://sueishaqlab.org/teaching/avs-454-554-dna-sequencing-analysis-lab/

Beginning in fall 2020, I began teaching AVS 401 and 402, Senior Paper in Animal Science I and II, respectively.  Together, they form the Capstone Experience for AVS seniors.  The scope of this class was and remains: student involvement in a research project, for which students develop a research proposal in written and oral presentation formats, and then develop a research report in written and oral presentation formats. However, I developed new lectures for the class to introduce students to the proposal writing process, and research in general, as many AVS students have focused on professional applications and not on research.  These include, “What is research”, “Conducting ethical research” which also features a guest lecture from the Paula Portalain at the Office for Research Compliance, “How to read a scientific article”, “Conducting a literature review” which also features a guest lecture by Anne Marie Engelsen a Science Librarian at Fogler Library, “The proposal writing process: experimental design”, “The proposal writing process: project management.”, and “Giving a scientific presentation”. To develop their presentation skills, students first give a 3-min, non-technical “elevator speech”, then a professional presentation at the end of the semester.  To develop their written skills, students write a project summary/abstract, an outline of their proposal, and two more substantial drafts of the proposal.  For the outline and second draft, students will continue single-blind peer review of other proposals, to provide feedback and to improve their skills in science review and critique. The full syllabus and information about the class is relayed on my professional blog, https://sueishaqlab.org/teaching/avs-401-senior-paper-in-avs-i/.

The following sections detail how these curricula are developed and the intent behind assignments. 


Previous installments:

Teaching Statement development series: accessibility

Teaching Statement development series: accessibility

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing selected portions of my Teaching Statement here as part of a development series, as I refine my philosophies for the submission of my second-year review this fall. I welcome feedback! Feel free to comment on the post (note, all comments require my approval before appearing publicly on the site), or contact me directly if you have more substantial edits.

*Please note, these are selected portions of my Statement which have been edited to remove sensitive information. These are early drafts, and may not reflect my final version. Tenure materials that I generate are mine to share, but my department chair, committee, and union representative were consulted prior to posting these. Each tenure-granting institution is unique, and departments weigh criteria differently, thus Statements can’t really be directly compared between faculty.*


Improving the accessibility of course materials

While course content might seem like a more pertinent place to begin this Statement, the intellectual content of a course is predicated on the ability of students to access and connect with those materials. The pandemic and social turmoil of 2020 has made this a year like no other for our students, and in conversations with them, I have gathered that it has created new challenges for them and exacerbated existing ones. The primary obstacle for students to attend live lectures and provide effort on assignments is the general increased workload related to online classes, the necessity of employment, and the inflexibility of employers who schedule student employees in a way that precludes them from attending live lectures.  Further, students are under an overwhelming amount of stress, and this has exacerbated learning disorders and created its own obstacles to engaging with course material. To that end, I have made a number of improvements in my course presentation to make materials more approachable and inclusive to learning style and student life outside of the classroom, which have been adopted in 2020 but will persist.

All the course materials for these classes are made available in Brightspace at the beginning of the semester, so students may download readings and lectures when they have access to internet services.  This also allows them to a priori assess the coursework and gauge the expectations on their time, to better plan their effort over the semester in relation to other engagements.  Assignments may be submitted early, and are accepted late with grade penalties applying in some cases.  In 2020-2021, grade penalties are waved to facilitate student scheduling during the pandemic.  For presentations, students may schedule time blocks well in advance, or may opt to record their presentation and submit videos.  Live lectures are recorded and videos are made available to students immediately after class, and previous to the pandemic I gave students the option to attend via remote video conferencing when they were home sick but did not want to miss class.

The availability of coursework in advance and the flexibility of format allows for students to engage with the work at their own pace and in a way that feels more comfortable to them.  In particular, the use of online discussion forums in Brightspace has given a voice to even the quietest of students and allowed for more diverse perspectives to contribute to the topic.

The use of online teaching platforms also allows for more accessibility in the materials for students with additional challenges. For example, after conferring with a student about understanding course materials, I added audio instructions to assignments (a recording of me reading the directions), which allows students with language dysmorphia or visual impairment to more easily understand what is being asked of them.

The use of online teaching software helps me curate assignments to more accurately test student learning and not just how clearly I asked the quiz questions.  For example, it is much easier to track student performance over time and per assignment, and assess which portions of the assignment should be revised to improve their clarity.

Finally, one barrier to student engagement in coursework appears to be a lack of student confidence stemming from an underestimation of their own agency in asking for help, accommodation, or more visibility in the class. Students appear resigned to accept a zero instead of asking for deadline extensions, or for asking for more effort from their instructor. Students appear to internalize poor performance as a personal failure, rather than a discrepancy between how the information is communicated and how it is received.  To that end, I solicit feedback using anonymous polls, and in lectures or assignments which do not generate student engagement I ask students how they would have rephrased the questions I pose to them.  

Something which I have not yet tried, but intend to implement in the future, is a self-reflection assignment at the beginning of the semester for each class. The goal is for students to feel welcome, to feel that they have agency in their education in this class, and to feel that they can let go of control in order to try something new. First, students will be asked to watch a reading of the children’s story, If You Give A Mouse a Cookie (https://youtu.be/QCDPkGjMBro), about a mouse that keeps asking for things.  Next, students will watch a TEDTalk, “Asking for Help is a Strength, Not A Weakness” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=akiQuyhXR8o&feature=youtu.be&ab_channel=TED). Then, students will watch the TEDTalk “The Art of Letting Go… Of The Floor” (https://www.ted.com/talks/siawn_ou_the_art_of_letting_go_of_the_floor/details). Finally, students will reflect and write down their goals for the class; 1 thing they want (the cookie), 1 thing they need (the help), and 1 thing they want to let go of (their floor).