Category Archives: student wellbeing

Lest we forget: Teaching, Scholarship and the Travel Ban(s)

Whilst the US Travel Ban (and the new revised 2.0) was hot news for several weeks, it has nearly disappeared from our news screens already. Nonetheless, the ban(s) and current US politics continue to pose difficult questions for universities, scholarly communities, and students around the globe.  Of course, universities in the US are faced with some of the greatest problems and questions.  At ISA 2017  in Baltimore, I acted as discussant on a panel on ‘study abroad programs’ in which the QnA quickly turned to the issue of the travel ban and other immigration ‘moves’ in the US.  I saw how my American colleagues were facing issues that we in Canada do not face– for example, having to counsel and advise students who now fear participating in these valuable programs at the risk of not being able to return home.  There is of course the wider problem of campuses becoming so deeply divided (politically) that teaching (politics in particular, but many other topics) has at the same time become more difficult and ever more important.  Many “teaching in the Trump era” guides, news articles , and editorials have responded to this new challenge.

Here in Canada, the recent Travel Bans and immigration moves in the US have not had  as obvious an impact (though there are many colleagues and students who are directly impacted by recent events– I by no means wish to wash away the many people who are experiencing the real ramifications of recent policies).  However, the problem here is quantitatively and qualitatively different.  The topic has of course come up with students, and we’ve discussed things in class, but it has, in my experience, been very civil and though students are indeed interested in what’s going on south of the 49th, they are (for the most part) not as personally impacted and thus the issues arising are, again, different. Far fewer students have a fear of leaving the country, lest they not be able to return to their studies. Colleagues may need to re-route their flights but are much less at risk of not being able to return to their offices, labs, homes and families in Vancouver (though for some with family in the US there is of course a fear about when/if they will be able to visit loved ones again and their safety).

Still, the recent travel ban and shift towards populist or nationalist governments around the world have ramifications for all of us in the classroom, and for universities around the world.   These events have put the spotlight on issues affecting the academy that have always been there (academic freedom, scholars at risk, lack of equal opportunities for students etc), but have not been talked about widely or enough by administrators, departments or with our students.  In response to all of this, several of us drafted a letter to the UBC administration voicing our concern.  My colleague Prof. Christina Hendricks has written about our motivation for this, and provided a copy of our letter here.  We received a formal reply from the university which noted our concern and detailed a range of actions the university is undertaking.

I am re-posting all of this hear in the hopes that the specific issues raised for our students and colleagues around the world do not fall out of view as the news cycle turns.  The impacts and fears remain real and, as I note above, raise issues that have always existed with in the academy, though often in less publicized ways.  Recent events in both Turkey and Hungary are but two other examples. I also hope that some of my readers will have a look at some of the actions our university is trying to take in response to issues related to (and beyond) the travel bans and consider ways that we can make academic freedom as well as the safety and security of a range of marginalized groups on our campus and in our profession a regular and intentional part of our conversations.  On a more personal level– check in with your students. The ways that recent politics (in the US and abroad) are impacting your students may remain hidden to you.  Invite students to meet with you to discuss concerns they may have regarding their status at your university, their future their well being.  In the same way scholars around the world work to protect each other, so must we protect the most junior scholars among us.

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Providing advice to students on requests to ‘bump up my grade’: dealing with grade complaints and requests for extra credit (Part 2)

Following on from my last post, I want to be clear. Students absolutely have the right to discuss their grades with their professors. There are a variety of legitimate reasons for students to contact professors regarding their grades (the most central one being that students should talk to their profs about their grades and feedback with the aim of learning and improving for future assignments). One thing I think I can do better next year is make it much more clear to my students from day one what is and is not acceptable in terms of discussing grades with me (and other professors). This is particularly important in the intro classes.

Students: Below is a list of issues which I think are legitimate issues and questions to raise with your professors and advice on how to approach these issues.

Colleagues:  Perhaps this is a list you can adapt/share/discuss with your own students to save some of the stresses around requests for grade ‘bumps’ in the future and to try and encourage more fruitful and efficient discussions about grades more generally.

  • Questions about how the grade was calculated and a possible mistake (mathematical or otherwise) in this calculation. Note: If you are a student, make sure you have your maths right too before you approach your professor. Be specific about where you think the flaw is.  Did they forget that they gave you an excused absence for a quiz? Did they accidentally input 67 instead of 76 for your midterm? Do not send general emails saying ‘Did you calculate my grade right?’.
  • Questions about an inputted grade for which you did not receive feedback. I have had a few students request to see their final exam or discuss the participation grade they received for their tutorial—grades that are traditionally given without feedback being provided to the student. I feel students have a right to understand why they were given a grade so that they can understand what went wrong and how to improve in the future: Note: If you are a student, ask to come discuss your grade with this reason in mind. Do not send an email asking ‘did I really get that grade? That can’t be right’.
  • To inform the instructor of any extenuating circumstances which may have impacted your grade. This does not mean that a professor will automatically change your grade—but they can put you in touch with services on campus to offer you further support and ensure that you receive accommodations available to students in your situation.
  • To discuss legitimate concerns or confusion about a grade you feel is substantially lower than you deserve. If you feel you have a legitimate complaint about the grade you received, come prepared to have a reasoned, academic, intellectual discussion with your professor. Be prepared to respond directly and specifically to the feedback/critiques you were given. A student coming to a professor and simply saying ‘I don’t agree with the feedback’ probably won’t get very far. A student who comes with a specific concern will be taken seriously. For example, this year I had a student come to me concerned about feedback she had received on an essay that said she had not provided adequate case study material.   She had taken the time to go through her essay and highlight the places she had done this AND she had taken the time to explain to me in further detail why she thought that case study material had effectively proven her conceptual arguments. Through our discussions the student realized that these ‘further details’ should have been included in the paper itself—a good learning moment for how to improve on future assignments.
  • If after speaking to your professor (if you feel comfortable doing so) you are still unhappy and feel your arguments hold still, most universities will have appeals processes that you can look into—wrongs are sometimes committed.  If you are going to take this track you will need to put in the work to justify your complaint.   Your students’ union, student advising office or ombudsperson can provide you further advice. Your TAs and professors should always be your first call, but these offices listed above can also be consulted if for some reason you are unable to approach teaching faculty directly.

Can you ‘bump up my grade’?: dealing with grade complaints and requests for extra credit (Part 1)

Weeks of intensive lecturing, writing, marking, examinations etc, whilst often rewarding is, well, just hard.  Even after a successful semester with few problems, one can’t help but take a few moments to do a wee dance (either in your head or in your office) after that last lecture is given.  There is often a huge sigh of relief, especially at the end of semester two, once those final grades are submitted, when one feels their summer work agenda can really begin.  I’m pretty sure my students feel the same. And whilst I too did a little jig at both of these moments, my transition into the summer term wasn’t without its own frustrations.  For a few days after the grades were submitted, I actually dreaded opening my email, which slowed the beat on my post-semester dance.

I’m not alone (I checked) in receiving emails from students who are upset by their final grade once these are posted. They often feel these are unfair (for a variety of reasons) or they are desperate (for another set of reasons) for their grade to be ‘bumped up’.  Sometimes I get a straight up, no holds barred ask for an increase in grades.  This is often the case if a student has just barely missed out on a pass, though I’ve also had this request from students who were sat just below an A-.   More common, however, are the requests from students to be allowed to do ‘extra credit’ in an effort to get the grade they really wanted.

In this first of two posts, I will explore this problem from the instructors point of view, with my next  post offering advice to students on how to deal with grade concerns professionally  (while the blog is primarily aimed at teaching staff, I know some of my students sometimes peruse the blog).

Prevention:  modelling and encouraging self-reflection and accountability

I’m not one for sporting analogies, but in this case I do think that the best offence is a good defence.  I think there are many simple things that we can do to reduce the amount of grade disputes and complaints we receive in a way that also improves student learning and accountability.  Yes, students earn the grades they are given; they are adults and need to take responsibility for their own learning.  However, most of are these are young adults and part of our role could (should?) be modelling/teaching what accountability for one’s actions looks like in a professional setting.  The term ‘life skills’ makes me squirm, but is apt here I suppose.

  • Do ‘progress’ check-ins with students throughout the semester. This need not be laborious.  Encourage students to calculate their grade for the class at pivotal moments during the semester.  Take these times as opportunities to invite students to your office hours to discuss any grade concerns.  Of course students should be doing this anyway, but I’m often shocked by the number of students who don’t seem to have a clue where they actually stand in the course going into the final and then come to me at the 11th hour shocked that they might possibly fail the course!
  • Have students set learning goals at the beginning of the semester via a self-assessment form*.  Collect these and return to students mid-term, after they have an assignment or two in.   At this stage ask them to reflect on whether they are meeting their goal, if they need to set new goals, why they have achieved what they have, and what they can do to set a new course at the mid-term.
  • Identify students at risk and reach out to them personally. This takes more effort than the above to options of course.  It may be something that a senior TA could do.  Students with poor attendance or a failed assignment could be emailed directly and asked to discuss their progress with you or the TA.  If this seems too ‘hand-holding’ for some, another more feasible option is to have whoever is marking simply write ‘please come see me’  at the end of any assignment that is below a certain grade.   I will say that this tactic has both worked (and slightly backfired) for me this year.  After taking this track following one the intro writing assignments I ended up having weeks where I was holding upwards of 12 ‘office hours’ as students took me up on my offer!  Whilst time intensive (and something my TAs will help more with next year) it did lead to improved performance (and thus less frustrating marking) on subsequent assignments.  It also helped me identify a few student wellness/mental well-being issues that may have gone undetected otherwise.

Responding to requests for increased grades and extra credit:

Many of the requests I have received for increased grades come with a back story that often pulls at the heart strings.  I’m not going to write here about perceptions of if these are legitimate or not—I’m rarely in a position to judge the veracity of these.  The point is, even at my  most crankiest of ‘cranky-professor’ moments (which I like to think are actually pretty rare, but maybe ask my students) I’m also human being, and saying ‘no’ to a student who seems to be writing from a place of total desperation can still be tough.

The pressures students face from family and society may be very real or FEEL very real to them. We don’t know their mental state, their financial situation, the list goes on.   Plus, whilst we know that failing Intro to XYZ  is not going to dramatically change their life course,  to some students a failure or not getting that A is the end of the world to them, in that moment.  I’ll never forget the student who upon getting a respectable B+ in a challenging course said to me ‘getting that grade made me feel like a horrible person’.  Dramatic?  Yes, from my perspective.  But it is easy for me to say that from the position of secure tenure track job in which I get to spend most of my time doing interesting things I want to be doing.  For a young person, uncertain about their future, unsure of what their skills actually are and what they even want to do with their lives,  a ‘bad grade’ (particularly on an assignment they were excited about) can be a blow.

Again, whilst we are not trained counsellors, there is much we can do to support students in taking ownership of the grades they have earned, and reflecting on their own behaviour.  Hopefully if we teach this to them at early in their undergraduate degrees, they will carry it forward with them.  Here is are some of my strategies for dealing with requests for extra credit or grade ‘bumps’.

  • Request, when possible, that the student come to office hours to discuss the issue face to face (perhaps with the exception of them pointing out a minor typo/grade calculation via email). This generally means that I am only discussing grade issues with students who have a legitimate concern—who are prepared to have a reasoned discussion with me.  I still get students coming in who don’t really have a reasoned argument,  but these students are generally highly stressed or very desperate so they are willing to make the trek to my office, which allows me to then direct them to other support mechanisms if needed.   Sometimes this can be assessed via email of course—I do send some students straight to student services depending on the content of their original email.
  • Help the student make a plan on how they will deal with the wider problem. Sometimes this is a simple academic issues that I can provide advice on (study habits, writing structure, time management etc).  However,  grade requests are often coming from place of panic or because a student has not made use of services that support mental/physical health issues faced by students.  I remind the student that problems that have impacted their grades in my course are probably affecting their grades in other courses, so the best course of action is to get professional advice on how to deal with their academic/health/financial problem holistically.  I’m not in a position to do that, the best place they can get help from these other student services.   Whatever the problem, make sure the student leaves the office knowing what they should be doing to rectify the problem.
  • Remind the student that there were multiple opportunities and supports in place to help them improve their grade over the semester. Talk to them about this—did they make use of the resources available to them? If not, why not?  What lessons can they take from this moving forward?
  • Remind the student that it would be unfair on their peers if their grades were simply ‘bumped up’ or only they were given extra credit opportunities. Ask them what they would think if it was the other way around—if they were in a class where only a small number of students were allowed to improve their grades, or the Prof simply raised the grades without extra effort. A simple ‘logic/fairness’ check usually works on students—and this technique can also sometimes lead to students opening up about issues they hadn’t raised before.  I had one student say to me ‘Yes, that would seem unfair to me, unless I knew that they had been looking after a sick parent all semester’.  Again, this allows me to move into a conversation directing students to the appropriate support services.
  • When in doubt, ask a senior colleague. Sometimes you just need a reality check.  I had a request this year to which I repeatedly said no.  The student kept protesting and emailing.  I started doubting myself.  ‘Am I just being totally heartless, unreasonable jerk here?’ I asked myself.  A two minute chat with a respected senior colleague saved me hours of self-doubt and stress.
  • Related to the above (note: I did not on the above occasion feel threatened by the student), don’t be afraid to tell you department head/line-manager if you are being harassed or threatened by a student. I don’t think this happens very often, but it did happen to me once to me early on in my career and I have heard some pretty upsetting stories from other colleagues. Sometimes we suffer from a ‘I should be able to handle this and if I say anything I will look weak’ mentality—especially as untenured faculty.  Frankly, that is garbage.  If you at all feel threatened or bullied report it immediately and be insistent on support and action from your institution.

* I have a form that I use with my first year students for this—please email me if you would like to see a copy.  It is by no means perfect, but I’ve found it useful.

The Great Outdoors: Part 2 (From Well Being to Ethics)

As classes are now in full swing, my future posts will necessarily focus on what I’m doing inside from here on in, but as a final good bye to summer I will spend a bit more time exploring the outdoor spaces here at UBC.

Following on from last week’s post which focused on using spaces to motivate and inspire students, this week I will look at how outdoor spaces on campus can also be designed to promote student and staff well being, remind readers on how spaces can be used as ‘tangible texts’ to support learning outcomes and discuss the ethics of knowing and learning about our campus spaces.

Recognizing that nature and/or spaces that facilitate calmness are important to students and staff

There is an increasing awareness on the importance of student and staff well-being at universities.  This is a great development given increases in mental health conditions in society more generally and among university staff and students specifically[1].    Of course there are essential services that must be our priority in terms of well-being— resources must be spent on ensuring student and staff health services are properly resourced and that faculty receive support in helping students with both acute and chronic well-being issues.  One’s physical environment, however, can also affect one’s mental health and general well being.[2]

choi BuchananCourtyard

View of my office from the forested area behind it and the internal courtyard of the Buchanan courtyard.

Now here I could just be a total braggart and plaster this blog with the amazing natural spaces which are within and arms reach of me at UBC—I won’t mention the beach here (oops). I work on one of the most beautiful campuses in the world in terms of the nature that surrounds me (the first picture above being taken just outside my office window).  Not every office can look out into a beautiful northern forest,  where an eagle may land on a branch in front of you and engage you in a staring contest (this really did happen to me one day!).  But all campuses could do more to consider the importance of nature or the built environment on the culture and well being of its student/staff body.  This might be especially difficult for city centre campuses with little room to grow or dedicate space to ‘nature’—however the second picture above of the courtyard in our Buchanan complex is an example of a small design feature that incorporates both nature and the built environment in order to transform a fairly bland and industrial place into a beautiful and potentially calming space for students and staff to socialize or study.

As one of my colleagues once said (looking at the day to day schedule of our incoming students)—‘We need to make sure that they have time to just sit under a tree and think’.  Whilst this is perhaps a romantic notion of student life, there was a serious point being made. We must all recognize that students need  time (and space) to to reflect on, internalize and thus learn at a deeper level the materials which are presented to them.  The addition of outdoor study and reflection spaces need not be big or costly.  Again, UBC campus has done well (I think!) to provide spaces for rest and contemplation which are both essential to learning and well being.  Below are examples of just two of these spaces—the giant bean bag chairs outside of our main library and two-person swings which have recently popped up around campus.

swing beanbags

Recognizing the history of place and space as both an intellectual and ethical endeavor

Guests

Picture of one sign that forms part of the ‘Native Hosts’ series by Hachivi Edgar Heap of Birds

My last picture relates to one of the most important issues related to UBC’s learning spaces.  UBC’s main campus is built on ancestral, unceded territory of the Musqueam people (for more information see http://aboriginal.ubc.ca/community-youth/musqueam-and-ubc/).   This sign, and others like it, are but one reminder of the history of our places of learning.  What needs to be said about this important fact can not be said in a short blog piece—I would do a great disservice to try and summarize the history of this First Nation, Canada’s colonial history, contemporary injustices,  and ongoing attempts to resolve these in the political, legal and cultural spheres.

What I do want to use this blog piece to do is to remind staff and students of the importance of engaging with the history of spaces in which we have the privilege to spend our days.  The justification for this is twofold.  First, exploring the history of our buildings and campuses provide another set of tangible texts and easily accessible case studies through which we can make our often abstract lessons ‘come alive’.  Whether your campus is has been built on a site with a rich and contested social  history, next to or on key industrial sites, or at the epicenter of a relatively new urban environment, the birth and growth of your own institutions can themselves be treated as  unique and fascinating ‘texts’   that can be linked to your class’s learning outcomes.   For example, the above signs became a subject of inquiry for UBC art history students, resulting in an excellent paper written and published by an undergraduate on their history and significance.[3]

The second justification for this is of course an ethical one.   Many campuses (particularly in North America, Australia and New Zealand) have been built on Aboriginal lands.  In other places, campuses might exist on land that certain groups consider to be unjustly ‘occupied’, and still others will see university campuses as sites of elitism, symbolic of wider societal stratification.   Being aware of these histories,  being honest about the ways in which are campuses may historically or presently  exclude some groups in our societies (and indeed trying to rectify this) is an ethical imperative both in terms of being a ‘good’ in and of itself, but also in terms of being able to seek truth, knowledge in the widest sense of those words.  Universities must be more inclusive if they are to survive and be relevant in the future.  Confronting the histories and ongoing structural inequalities that exist in our spaces of learning is first step in this process.

[1] Many  blogs aimed at university faculty discuss issues of well being and it increasingly being covered in the popular press.  See for example the ‘Dark thoughts: why mental illness is on the rise in academia’ http://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/2014/mar/06/mental-health-academics-growing-problem-pressure-university.  There is a growing body of literature exploring these issues in the student body as well.  I have found the following quite interesting Lu, SH et. al. (2014) ‘An internet survey of emotional health, treatment seeking and barriers to accessing mental health treatment among Chinese- speaking international students in Australia’ Counselling Psychology Quarterly, 27(1): 96-108. El Ansari, W and Stock C (2010) ‘Is the Health and Wellbeing of University Students Associated with their Academic Performance?’  International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 7: 509-527.

[2] http://ontario.cmha.ca/news/the-nurture-of-nature-the-health-benefits-of-nature/#.U_YsJ_ldVqU

[3] Halls, Catherine (2010) ‘Today your host is speaking out:  Ideology, Identity, and the Land in Hachivi Edgar Heap of Birds’s Native Hosts.’ UBC Undergraduate Journal of Art History, Issue 1.

The Great Outdoors: Part One

The inspiration for my first blog post comes from an ongoing research interest of mine as well as some of my other ‘duties’ at the university.  At the moment, I am working on a project with a colleague related to answering the question ‘Where is Peace?’.   I have also been part of the Jump Start programme here at UBC—a two week induction programme aimed primarily but not exclusively at international students.  Here I am working with colleagues to help students adjust to being in a new ‘place’ (Vancouver) and what for them will also be a very new  ‘space’  (a university setting).[1]

On top of this, I have set myself a challenge of getting outside for at least 20 minutes during my work day as both a mental and physical break whilst I juggle (like we all do) a range of tasks.  OK, if I’m honest, having a legitimate reason to wander around campus and enjoy the last few days of summer has been central to the choice of my introductory post (‘I’m working on my blog about innovative teaching, not just skiving off for a pleasant walk– honest’).

I realized that all of these tasks involved thinking about space—how we define it, how we use it and how it influences us.  It struck me how we, in our busy lives as academics and students, running from class to class, meeting to meeting, take for granted the spaces in which we spend a not unsubstantial part of our adult lives.  The aim is to get us talking about how spaces at our universities do or do not facilitate student learning. I hope to challenge universities and the people who populate them to think about how spaces can be improved to both motivate students and facilitate learning outcomes.

So, my first two blog posts will explore the characteristics of outdoor spaces that can help facilitate learning.   Next week I will carry on with this theme and discuss the importance of exploring nature and the built environment in this regard as well as coming to terms with the history of our campuses.

Using spaces to remind students of the purpose of academic endeavors

There are many reasons why students come to university and why academics have chosen to focus on their particular areas of research.  These are often highly personal and range from the economic to the altruistic, to simply an often inexplicable fascination with a particular topic.  Unfortunately, staff and students often find their motivation for being here  waning (particularly at the end of term when we are all fatigued  and/or stressed and/or disappointed with our progress). Feeling disillusioned with various aspects of higher education, it is easy for us to loose site of our original motivation and our essential task.   I also find that students  often lose sight of the purpose of learning itself as they (necessarily at times) focus on the material they need to know for a specific test or paper, losing sight of the original motivation for their studies as they strive for excellence on individual pieces of work.

Wisdom

‘Wisdom’ rock outside C.K. Choi building—part of installment displaying 5 Confucius characters

flag

‘Start an Evolution’ flag—found all around campus (note: personal urge to add an ‘r’ to these flags)

For me, as I enter my office I am provided with a very tangible reminder of what I am here to do.  A small rock garden just outside my building presents five Chinese characters  based on the basic principles of Confucius.  The one I encounter first each morning represents wisdom and knowledge.  A gentle reminder of this several times a day as I head out to classes and meetings is a useful motivator.  A similar reminder comes from flags scattered around the campus, which encourage students to ‘Start an Evolution’ (I myself always imagine an ‘r’ in front of this, but I digress).

If we think about the breadth, depth and quantity of material we throw at our students every week,  taking a few moments or finding ways to bring the conversations back to the ‘wider prize’ may be useful.

Using spaces to inspire students on the importance  of their academic endeavors and as a tangible set of ‘tangible texts’ to study

Linked to the above, I have noticed how several spaces on campus have been used and designed to inspire students to achieve excellence in specific subject areas as well.  The random allotment of my teaching space for my Critical Peace Studies seminar last semester was particularly inspiring.  Teaching in the law school, as no rooms were available in the buildings where most Political Science courses are taught, required my students and I to walk over and past a range of sayings related to peace and justice—just two of which can be seen below.

peacebench1 peacebench2Benches on my way into the law school where I taught critical peace studies, engraved with various sayings, including ‘the most advanced justice system in the world is a failure if it does not provide justice to the people it is meant to serve’ and ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere’

I imagine this is where some readers might scoff at the ‘warm fuzzy’ sentiment behind this reflection (yes you, the Realist in the corner!). However, it was more than a simple reminder for me and my students about the importance of achieving success in our studies—it also provided concrete learning opportunities that contributed to my learning outcomes.  These quotes were discussed and debated on the first day of class as we explored (as per the course syllabus) competing definitions of peace (physical vs structural violence,  ‘just peace’ vs stability).  In fact, my students also identified over a dozen further ‘tangible texts’ on campus that signified different definitions and intellectual understandings of peace and security.

The potential of spaces to be used to remind students of the key intellectual debates and developments in their field, not only as inspiration but as another set of ‘tangible texts’ that teach students something discipline specific is another area of consideration for those able to influence campus planning.  Challenging students to not only to identify these texts themselves but to also debate and discuss these texts that are present in campus spaces is a great learning activity that exposes students’ creative and intellectual capabilities.

….Join me next week for more on outdoor spaces at UBC and how they contribute to positive learning environments and help us meet our learning objectives……

[1] My colleague in geography, Dr Siobhan McPhee does a fantastic 30 second lecture on the difference between place and space should anyone want to discuss the finer points of this conceptual distinction