Thursday, January 26, 2012

Questions from a student to a (new) professor.

I received an email from a former student this week. She is in the process of trying to figure out what she wants to do (what degree and career path to pursue). It can be tough to figure out what path to take, and unfortunately the cost of tuition really doesn't allow one to shop around various disciplines any more so I totally understand what this student and many others are going through. That said I'm one of those odd folks that figured out pretty early what I wanted to do and then did it.

She had a number of questions that she asked me to answer to provide some insight into how I ended up teaching Anthropology. Her questions are so great I asked permission to post them along with my response; she agreed (my many thanks to her for this!). I hope that future students will find them useful as they consider their own path. You will notice though that many deal with what it is like to be a professor as she was seriously considering a teaching career.

1. How long have you been a professor?

I have been teaching courses as a primary instructor on and off since Fall 2008. My first experiences teaching were as a M.A. student way back in 2002, so I've been involved with teaching University courses since then.

2. How have things changed from how they were when you started and now? (based on education system, students...)
Obviously the thing that has changed the most is how I interact with my students. As a TA I saw students mostly when they would pop into my office hours to discuss their assignments or grades. Since I've become a primary instructor I tend to interact mostly with my students online. As you know I use twitter to be accessible to my students and to provide them one more way of getting in touch with me. There is also the added bonus that the students can also interact with each other in an informal but highly informative way. I've also really noticed in the last year the generational differences between myself and my students. When I first started teaching, again as a TA, I was the same age, a social peer. Now I am over a decade older than my students and constantly need to be aware of this difference because of the implications this has in making a connection and in making course content relevant outside of the classroom.

3. Do you still find teaching as rewarding as when you first began your career? What makes you want to teach and continue teaching?

I love teaching. It is so rewarding. What really keeps me going is watching the light-bulbs go on - by that I mean, when I can see that a student has not only understood what I am talking about but that it has made them reflect upon how they view the world. I see this usually when I talk about topics like race and racism. Positive feedback helps too. I love getting tweets thanking me for answering a question so quickly and clearly, or an email thanking me for an interesting lecture topic. The best emails are the ones that say stuff like "I came into anthropology thinking it would just be my arts credit, but it turned into a class I really looked forward coming to".  I also am inspired and motivated by emails from students that ask questions about things they've seen on TV and want  my opinion or thoughts on it as this means I've really connected with them and made course material relevant to them as well. It's nice to know they've taken something away from my course beyond the credit they needed for their degree.

4. Is teaching what you expected?
Teaching is what I've expected in some ways. I knew I would find lecturing enjoyable but I definitely underestimated the amount of time I would end up spending preparing lectures (this includes refining them and fixing them up after I've delivered them in a course) and the amount of time course administration takes (e.g., answering emails, dealing with student issues). I also spend a lot of time working on feedback for my students (remember those midterm review documents where I provided the answers and explanations of how I marked - they are hard work) including preparing documents explaining expectations. Lecturing and interacting with students is the best part, making sure the course runs smoothly and you do everything you need to do to make your department/university happy is hard work.

5. What are the differences between a professor and a teacher?
Hmm. I guess it is an important distinction and one I probably should have thought about a bit more. Essentially I think they should be the same thing but in practice they are not. To provide a very quick, from the hip distinction, I guess I would see a professor as someone who teaches in Post-Secondary but has other responsibilities above and beyond just instruction (including research, publication, and University and Community service). A good professor should also be a good teacher - someone who is dedicated to facilitating learning both inside and outside of the formal classroom setting - but some focus more on their other duties. Yikes, this isn't the best distinction but it's all I got for now without some further deep reflection :)

6. What do professors do outside of class time?
Profs do much outside of class time. Keep in mind that I do not have a full time permanent position, but those who do teach three courses per term, serve on departmental, faculty, and other university committees. They supervise graduate students (and senior undergraduate students in special courses and honours programs). They conduct research and often are running a whole research team that may include members from other Universities. Profs are expected to publish the results of their research and attend professional conferences and meeting to present on their work. They are members of professional associations and frequently serve on their committees as well. Not only are they expected to publish, they are also expected to serve as peer-reviewers and to read other people's papers and recommend if they should be published. Profs will also serve on examination committees of graduate students within and outside of their Universities and may eventually be involved in reviewing departments or even other University programs. We are also expected to be involved in the larger communities in which are Universities are located. Teaching is only one part of the duties of a prof. For some of us, it is the best or least stressful part. Plus we also try to have personal lives but it can be really difficult to find balance. Right now, for example, I'm writing to you from Vernon where I have a contract teaching while my husband is living back home in Edmonton because that is where his career is and where we want to live. 

Also, I am really interested in anthropology but I'm not sure if I want to make a profession out of it (I've only taken one class after all - anth101). Out of curiosity though...

1. What made you want to become an Anthropologist? (inspiration)
 I first became interested as a small child thanks to my grandfather. I used to watch old specials about ancient Egypt and other cultures on TV. He also made sure I had National Geographic as I was fascinated by other cultures. When I got into high school I had a teacher who encouraged me to learn more about anthropology and when I realised I could study it at the UofA (I grew up in Edmonton) I applied to be an anthro major. I basically decided then that I wanted to be an anthropologist and get my PhD. 

2. Why did you choose anthropology rather than the more common professions like engineering, nursing, etc.?
I wanted to do something that lit a fire in me. I knew very quickly (a couple of classes into anth101 in my first year) that I wanted to be an anthropologist. Other careers weren't really an option because nothing seemed to fit quite like anth. I wasn't really thinking about getting a job. I just wanted my PhD. And once I went on my first dig, I knew I had to be an archaeologist. After I taught for the first time, as a TA, I knew I wanted to keep teaching Anth in a university so it was further incentive to get my PhD.

3. Was anthropology your first choice of profession? If not, what made you change your mind?
When I was a kid I talked about being a mad scientist and then a medical doctor (cardiologist). By the time I hit high school I realized that my marks were good (I could get away with my smarts and some studying) but that I'd never be top of my class. I also wasn't that great in chem (which I really liked but just couldn't perform on exams) so I ruled med school out thinking I'd never get in. Now I know I could have got in and it probably would have been a faster route than my PhD ended up being :)  As I said above, once I figured out what anthro was, it was anthro all the way.

4. If you were to start over, would you still choose to become an anthropologist?

5. What do you like the most and least about being an anthropologist? (rewards and challenges)
Rewards: working with my hands outside, finding things that have been buried for thousands of years (the process of discovery), working with local communities, doing outreach projects with communities, schools, and kids, going to other places, experiencing different cultures, the anthro community is pretty rad (I have great colleagues who do such interesting stuff). Challenges: spending long, extended periods of time away from family and friends to do fieldwork.

6. What do anthropologists do outside of giving lectures at universities? (Is it all research? What are your personal opinions about your experiences?)
What anthropologists do outside of lectures in a university varies depending on what type of anthropologist (and person) you are! I could work as a consultant for development (oil, gas, forestry, mining) companies protecting cultural heritage. I could consult with multinational companies to provide advice on culturally sensitive/relevant business practices. I could work in a museum. I could be hired by a local community to work on education initiatives. Essentially as an anthropologist you gain a lot of skills that are applicable for a number of different careers or positions - you just need to find a good fit.

7. How does being an anthropologist affect your lifestyle or outlook? (do you have to travel a lot? family life...)
Being an anthropologist definitely impacts your outlook. You had a different perspective of the world and its cultures, and become a great critical thinker. Personally, it has meant making a number of sacrifices but these have been personal. Not everyone has had the same path. For example, I chose to put off having kids. I have colleagues who decided to have kids during their PhD. Now I'm trying to decide if I should wait until I find a permanent job to have a kid or to try to have one now before I get busy trying to ramp up my career. I've missed more birthdays, weddings, showers, family events then I can count because of being away for months at a time to do fieldwork or even just because I couldn't get away from my computer because I had a paper due, or I was traveling for a conference. In the six years I've been married I missed four anniversaries (including the very first!). But again I made the sacrifices because I felt I needed to. Other people might not have made the same decisions. 

8. Do you have any advice for students planning to major in anthropology? What should a student majoring in anthropology expect in the long run?
Advice for majors...well talk to your profs as much as possible especially once you start to get an idea of what you want to focus on. The more advice you can get on what courses to take and what kinds of volunteer/work experiences you can get while you study, the better off you will be. Talk to graduate students and find out what path they took, what mistakes they made, and what advice they have. So my advice is to do what you've done - get advice and never hesitate to ask for more. In the long run, anthro majors need to be prepared to NOT get a job in academia. They need to figure out how their skills are applicable to non-prof careers. It's brutal now and we are being told, as educators, to try to prepare our students for non-academic jobs. 

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