TEDx: Stevenson University–My Experience

This post about my TEDx experience originally appeared on my guest blog for the British Naval History website.

A few months ago a call came across our university Portal asking for TEDx speakers. For those unfamiliar, TEDx is a way for local, independent organizers to host TED style events. The students, faculty, and staff who organized the TEDx: Stevenson University event chose “Embracing Change” as the theme. Initially, I was hesitant to submit a talk proposal. Sure, I’d given countless conference talks over the last decade. But this was different. The only guidance was the theme. We could talk about ANYTHING that could be construed as “embracing change.” What could I possibly say that would be of any relevance? But I also couldn’t pass up the opportunity. So I decided to throw my proverbial hat into the ring. What follows is a mix of information from my talk and a reflection of my experiences.

My Background

When people learn what I do, they assume that I’ve always wanted to be an educator. But the reality is a little more complicated and, I think, important to the development of my own pedagogical methods. The idea of “embracing change” seems to be something like a mantra for my entire life. I grew up in an extremely lower “middle class” blue-collar family. Neither of my parents had the opportunity to attend college. In fact, my father had to drop out of high school before graduating in order to help care for his mother and later went back for a GED while in the Navy. We settled in the piedmont region of North Carolina when I was about 8 years old and from that point forward I attended relatively small public schools for K-12.

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My “Bubble” for 15 Years

Although many in my high school had plans for college, it was in no-way a foregone conclusion that all of us would go to college. Knowing my parents’ dire financial situation, college seemed impossible. But my mom managed to squirrel away $50 for me to send in one college application. So it was all or nothing for me. Just a few short months later I was accepted to Appalachian State University in the mountains of North Carolina: requiring a $300 deposit to secure my spot to be paid within 2 weeks.

Would I make it to College?

I sat in my AP English class during the lunch break and cried. My mom had barely been able to scrape together the $50 to apply. How could we possibly come up with $300 in just 2 weeks? My AP English teacher happened to find me mid-tears and asked me to fill him in on the details. Three days later, I received confirmation that my deposit had been paid. It came with information on summer orientation sessions and dorm assignments. I asked my mom how she did it and she simply said “I didn’t.”

Now, I don’t know if I’ve altered this memory in some way. But in my mind, I am confident my AP English teacher found a way to cover my deposit. Or my mom lied so I wouldn’t feel bad. Either way, it was to be the first time in my now-adult life that I would be forced to embrace change: I would soon become a first generation college student.

Me: The College Years

Now, if you’re thinking that I immediately decided to be a teacher in that moment due the actions of my AP English teacher, I’m sorry to disappoint. I had no idea what I wanted to do. My dreams of becoming a medical doctor had been thwarted by an unkind counselor and I didn’t know what my passion was. College was a new experience. I was no longer necessarily the “smartest” kid in class. I had to learn how to study and manage my time. And I had to do it all myself. There didn’t seem to be many obvious & readily available resources for someone like me. Someone who didn’t come from a background of family members who went to college.

First, I earned my B.A. in Archaeology. But 3 herniated discs in my back during the required dig made it clear I had no future in the laborious field of Archaeology.

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Check out my back brace!

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My next step was to earn an M.A. in Public History, which I thought would marry my love of archaeology and history with a field that was less physically demanding. But after a snoozefest of an 8 week internship, I realized that, too, wasn’t my calling. So as I talked out my frustrations with one of my professors, she asked me what my favorite thing about working on my M.A. was.

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My little brother is going to kill me for this.
On to the PhD!

It was in this moment, nearly 5 years after that fateful day in high school that it clicked: my favorite part had been working as a T.A., developing assignments, and helping the undergraduate students. So with the advice of several other professors and roughly 8 rejections later, I found myself on my way to The Ohio State University. This would be another major chance for embracing change. I’d never lived anywhere but the East Coast before. And no one I knew (aside from my professors) had ever earned a PhD. Somehow I had managed to navigate the difficult world of the B.A. and the M.A. But the PhD was filled with acronyms and phrases and language I had never heard before.

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Changes in Academia

It was during my time at OSU that I learned a lot about the changing field of higher education. This was most often in the form of laments about what was wrong with those changes. So I began to develop an evolving pedagogy that, in my mind, would embrace those changes. All through the PhD process I heard about how I’d never land an academic job because there simply weren’t any. I was told that online education was bunk. Many told me that technology was ruining the classroom and that students just didn’t care about education anymore. And for a long time I bought into those grievances because they came from scholars and mentors whose opinions I respected.

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And who was I, a lowly PhD student, to question them? Their lamentations and fears seemed supported by the latest musings. Stuart Butler of the Brookings Institute, a highly respected thinktank, argued in 2013 that traditional college models should give way to “contractor models,” in which the “core business function of the contractor-college would be assembly and quality control rather than running an institution and hiring faculty or holding classes.” Basically, the college would customize a package of courses and educational experiences from many suppliers.

The “Future?”

Similarly, Dr. Alex Hope suggested that “the ‘academic’ of the future will not be tied to an institution, but be a thought leader, communicator, and teacher undertaking a range of activities on a freelance/contract basis-and that the world would be a better place for it…” Many colleges have taken advantage of the model Dr. Hope recommended, leading to our current adjunct crisis. And as far as pedagogy, several colleges, like George Washington University and the College of William & Mary, and countless professors took to banning technology from their classrooms arguing that laptops and phones have become powerful distractions, calling students “tech addicts.”

My Current Pedagogy: Digitally-based Assignments

Rather than focus on what is or isn’t changing, I used the TEDx talk to offer just one example of a way that we can “embrace change” in the classroom pedagogically: digital assignments & literacy. This is not to say embracing change for the sake of change. Rather I tried to demonstrate how we might marry traditional modes—like exams and lectures—with innovative course/assignment designs that take advantage of tech in the classroom.

Most recently, Cathy N. Davidson, distinguished professor and founding director of the Futures Initiative at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, argued that we must recognize that educational structures should meet the needs of the time, to “train active learners who don’t just fit into the status quo, they challenge it.” Although my examples represent my field—history/humanities—I firmly believe that those in other fields can implement assignments in their own way.

Ever-Evolving Pedagogy

My pedagogy has been, and is, shaped by both my own background, educational experiences, and the ever-evolving backgrounds/needs of the student population. My educational philosophy is grounded in four important principles that I believe create an active and involved classroom environment: passion, creativity, independence, and clarity. I’ve been able to create digitally-based assignments and incorporate digital/visual elements—such as music videos, historical reenactments, or comedic sketches—into my classrooms to help foster those principles. I’ve found that it has helped students understand that A. history doesn’t have to be a boring, rote memorization of names, dates, and places and B. that they can incorporate many of the skills they learn in my classroom—digital or not—into their daily lives and future careers.

Digitally-Based Assignments: A Learning Process

I think one of the ways that digitally-based assignments have not always been as successful and impactful as they could be is the result of the “digital native” myth, which Stevenson English Professor, Dr. Amanda Licastro, discusses in her recent open-access publication on the problem of multimodality. Assuming that students have certain digital literacy skills due to growing up with this technology at their fingertips undermines students’ ability to successfully complete many digitally-based assignments. Even I’ve had to learn the digital world. One example Dr. Licastro discusses in her case studies is the use of multimedia, folksonomic elements—or tags/categories—and commenting in digital writing, such as blog posts, Learning Management System (LMS) assignments, Tweets, etc.

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By scaffolding “digital literacy practices into assignments with careful attention to the rhetoric they use and intentional instruction” and developing these skills in the academic environment suggests Dr. Licastro, instructors may cultivate active digital citizens and more successful digitally-based assignments. This is still a learning process for myself and I’ve learned that I have to be specific and teach the students how to use the elements I want them to use. I just wanted to share a few of digital assignment examples from my recent classes that help harness students’ dependence on social media in a way that can be not only academically productive, but develop digital skills that employers desire from recent graduates.

Digitally-Based Assignments: Some Examples from my Classroom
Twitter

These examples demonstrate how, despite being digitally-aware, students demonstrated varying proficiency with the Twitter platform. The only directive I gave starting out was to create a handle specific to their “persona” and to use a hashtag I created for use with that specific class. As you can see, some students were better about incorporating other folksonomic and multimedia elements than others. I’ve learned that I have to begin creating more “rules” for the assignment and teach them how to use the platform, rather than assume they know how to do so; especially how to make a succinct point in 140 characters or less.

Similar Digital Literacy
Similar Digital Literacy
Mixed Digital Literacy
TripLine

By allowing my students a bit of creativity and flexibility, I was turned on to a new tech platform that is great for my field: Tripline. Students are able to create digital “roadtrips” showcasing important historical landmarks along the way. It allows me to incorporate basic map-usage, digital writing, and multimedia skills into a single assignment. It also forces the student to think constructively about the point they are trying to get across.

PowerPoint

PowerPoint is not a new tool, but I’ve found that students often have very minimal skills when using the software. Aside from choosing a pre-made layout, students often incorporate too much text, too few visuals, and little-to-no animations. This is a demonstrable way for me to marry the traditional PowerPoint with new modes of thinking. In my assignment, I require them to design their slides as if they were Museum Exhibit panels. It  forces them to think more specifically about the layout, text-to-visual ratios, and “visitor” attention spans.

Blogging

Blogging is another tool that isn’t as “new” as others, but offers another way to teach digital literacy in the classroom. I’ve found that students often have difficulty navigating new platforms (ex. WordPress vs. Tumblr). They also use tags, categories, and multimedia elements with varying proficiency. It’s another assignment that I’ve had to be more explicit in my expectations. This helps students to understand how and why to use folksonomic and multimedia elements. They seem to understand “tags” in a loose sense for things like Instagram (as a way to drive traffic). But students aren’t always able to transfer that skill to other modes of digital writing.

Tiki-Toki: Interactive Timelines

Timelines are a pretty traditional and standard way of laying out information across time/space. Tiki-Toki and similar platforms allow students to translate the traditional skill of linear-thinking with critical thinking, examining not just when, but why, events have occurred. Not only do students lay events out on a timeline, but they provide categories for those events in a variety of ways (in this example: sources vs. structural elements) and incorporate multimedia elements to support their historical research.

Talk Conclusions

I was the last person to speak during the day-long event. But I was pleasantly surprised at the number of people who stuck around to hear me talk. The variety of topics within the theme of “Embracing Change” made for a wonderful experience. And there was a great mix of students, faculty, and staff who gave presentations. Each one was unique. Many were deeply personal and heartwrenching. Although mine was pedagogically focused, I hope many found it useful. As far as conclusions about my digitally-based assignments, it’s a learning process.

Don’t assume tech is useless or too complicated. Much like any other skill, students will have varying proficiency. Think about scaffolding assignments. This allows you to incorporate specific skills you want students to achieve or specific target goals (like X number of multimedia elements). Routinely incorporate digital technologies into the classroom/syllabus so that it becomes a natural extension of your pedagogy. Harness students’ reliance on digital devices and social media usage. Let digitally-based assignments serve as teachable moments regarding digital presence.

The Live-Stream Video

Below is the live-stream video from the second half of the event. I start at 1:25:25, but please feel free to listen to the other speakers!

Me, Myself, and my Mental Health

The original version of this post appeared on BritishNavalHistory.com and can be found here.

I thought long and hard about whether or not to write this post. Certainly others have already written about the subject far more eloquently than I ever could [See herehere, and here]. And there are no shortage of news articles about the “rising mental health crisis” in academia, which you can read herehere, or here. Furthermore, I’m no expert in the field of medicine or psychology. But I realized as I was talking with my students the other day that there is still a major stigma against mental health in the world at-large, especially in academia. Those in academia, whether students or faculty, often feel that if they suffer from some sort of mental health related issue—whether temporary or a permanent part of their life—that it means they’re weak or “not cut out” for the demands of academia or that they’ll never “make it.” So I’m not going to wax philosophical about large-scale solutions or attempt to “fix” the issue in this post. But I want to contribute to the conversation as we seek solutions by offering my own personal experiences and maybe suggest some starting points.

Often when we talk about mental health, we do so as if it is entirely separate from our physical health [further stigmatizing it in many ways]. But the reality is, our mental health is intricately tied to our physical health—whether our mental health impacts our physical health or vice versa. Just yesterday, a student of mine developed sudden onset chest pain and collapsed before being rushed to the emergency room. Knowing this student as I do and based upon our many conversations regarding school, work, and life responsibilities, I have no doubt that this was a physical response to an often hidden, internal war we rage with ourselves. I know it because I suffer from that internal battle myself.

My First Diagnosis

I have always been something of a perfectionist. I’m notorious for editing my papers as I write them (which, I’ve been told, is absolutely terrible for productivity), for reading over emails ten times before I send them or having legitimate mini-panic attacks if I find an error, and for berating myself for never being productive enough. Mental health issues run in my family: ranging from severe clinical depression to anger management issues to opioid dependency to general anxiety disorder. So it wasn’t a surprise to my mom when, at the tender age of 13, I was diagnosed with clinical depression and general anxiety disorder. I was treated with a barrage of medications as doctors sought one, or any combination, that would “even out” my hormones, serotonin levels, or mood/emotion neurotransmitters. I tried Prozac (which increased my suicidal thoughts), Wellbutrin (which caused my 105 lb frame to lose nearly 15 lbs in less than a month), Lexapro, Zoloft, Celexa, Cymbalta (which worked for a short time), and Effexor, just to name a few. Nothing seemed to “work.” In spite of this, by all accounts I appeared “normal.” I was an active kid who played on the soccer team and was a (albeit “nerdy” and “unpopular”) cheerleader and played softball. I had friends and I took AP classes and was in honors programs. But I suffered from severely low self-esteem and took to self-harm in the form of cutting from the age of 15 until 20. When my mom found out, I just found new ways to hide it. Cutting was the only thing in my life I felt like I had control over.

When I went to college, I decided to quit trying new antidepressants and did my best to manage my mental health issues on my own. That really meant that I tried to suppress them as I took course overloads nearly every semester of 18-21 credits while working part time and trying to maintain some semblance of a social life. I suffered from frequent headaches (sometimes to the point of migraines), neck pain, back spasms and pain, dehydration, irregular sleeping patterns, anemia, and poor eating habits (affecting my energy, which often felt non-existent). I was ALWAYS tired. Even though I tried working out or being active to help counter some of these issues, every time I was the least bit active, it felt like my heart was going to explode out of my chest. I generally attributed those feelings to the asthma I had been diagnosed with as a child, but my inhaler was no longer effective in treating the symptoms. So I became less active, which freed up time for my academic work, but did nothing to improve my physical (or mental) well-being. I wanted to be the woman who did it all. I wanted the 4.0 GPA and stellar recommendations and perfect hair and a fit physique and beautiful handwriting and to be artistic and adventurous and travel and publish, etc.

Graduate School

My friends in college were supportive and we helped each other through those struggles. Having that safety net, I think, was one of the major contributors to my sanity during those years. So when I graduated a year early and had the choice of staying at the same college for grad school or going to another local college nearly 3 hours away, I stayed so that I could stay with my friends while they finished their degrees. I couldn’t bring myself to leave that sense of security. And while in grad school, I made new friends in that program who filled the void when my undergraduate friends all graduated and left. I coped with my mental health issues in my Master’s program by consuming copious amounts of coffee (I’m talking, quite literally, 12-18 cups a day), binge drinking, and developing unhealthy attachments to my significant others at the time. Looking back on those days, I appeared like a disaster waiting to happen. I clearly couldn’t “do it all” and I clearly wasn’t actually addressing my mental health issues. A total breakdown seemed inevitable. I am fortunate that such a breakdown never came to pass and I’m still not quite sure how I avoided that scenario as I headed into the PhD program.

While in my PhD program, I really had to come to terms with the fact that I hadn’t been successfully coping with my mental health problems at all and that if I didn’t make some sort of change, I would be bound for collapse. Unlike the MA program, which allowed a high level of sociability, I found the PhD program to be much more isolating. Not only had I moved a solid 8 hours away from my friends and family in North Carolina, but this time I had no roommate, no significant other, and no real connection to the area. I made friends in the program, to be sure, but it wasn’t the same. I think part of that is because we knew that as colleagues at this level, we were—in many ways—in competition with each other. Competing for fellowships and research grants and travel awards and conference slots and the best classes to teach as part of our assistantships and publishing opportunities. And I’ve found that academia—especially the humanities—can be an isolating place. Unlike some fields, collaboration still feels fairly taboo and viewed with skepticism within the field of history. Even outside of graduate school, the competition for ever-dwindling resources causes many to keep their peers at arm’s length. And bringing up any perceivable “weakness” like mental health problems felt like putting a target on your chest. The same things I’d struggled with earlier carried over to the PhD program: headaches, general body pain, nerve sensitivity, poor sleep, lack of energy, frequent illness, etc.

It was while I was in the PhD program, though, that I met my husband. He wasn’t in academia and he provided me with an outside perspective and clarity that forced me to really reflect on what I’d been doing to myself for the last several years. He recognized that I was running myself into the ground and that it was affecting me physically. My husband encouraged me to take frequent breaks, would remind me to eat and to drink water and to reduce my coffee intake, and tried to keep me from staying up to all hours of the night working. I wish I could say that I managed to turn everything around immediately; that marriage was my cure. But the fact is, that’s not how this works. I’m still a work-in-progress. But in meeting him, I’ve made some important discoveries about my mental and physical health that may help me learn how to more effectively manage my own issues and maybe help my students find ways to address their own. Because there is no one-size-fits-all approach.

New Diagnoses

The first major breakthrough was the fact that some of my physical issues were the result—not of asthma—but of an undiagnosed heart condition (that took 2 years, countless stress tests, 3 echocardiograms, a Holter Monitor, 1 transesophageal echocardiogram, and 4 cardiologists to discover) called Ventricular Septal Defect. Knowing the issue and finding treatments to address the symptoms has helped me to regain some activity in my life. I know, now, that I have to limit my cardio exercise (so I save it for hiking) and can focus on things like strength training and yoga in my general day-to-day. Additionally, I can no longer have the excessive amount of caffeine I once consumed in my younger years. I’m sure that my 12-18 cups of coffee a day in grad school really took a toll on my heart health and I potentially put myself in a very dangerous position without realizing it at the time. Finding the energy to be active is still difficult and I often use my lack of “free” time as an excuse to not be physically active. But yoga is having some small therapeutic effects on my mental health.

The second major breakthrough was when my current physician diagnosed me not as having clinical depression with general anxiety disorder, but as having Biopolar II disorder. The treatment process is different for Bipolar II and there are new options for me to consider in consultation with my physician. The tricky part is recognizing when I’ve slipped from my personal “normal” into a hypomanic episode or a state of depression. My husband can clearly tell when I’m in a hypomanic episode because I exude confidence, express a more positive outlook, and often have difficulty focusing because I jump from task-to-task much like someone with an attention deficit disorder. Those episodes are easier to recognize and often last for a very short amount of time. The more difficult to ascertain is when I’ve slipped into a state of depression, because it tends to resemble my personal “normal” initially. But I begin to realize when I’m in one of these states because my thoughts become more negative, my self-esteem drops, I lack the desire to do basic tasks (like showering, putting makeup on, brushing my teeth, or even moving my body at all), and I become even more tired than usual. When I thought I suffered simply from clinical depression, I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t just always feel as good as I did in what I now know was a hypomanic episode. I would beat myself up for not being able to maintain those positive emotions and outlook.

Post-Graduate Life

Whenever I meet my students for the first time each semester, I always include these 2 facts in my “introduction.” Several people have expressed to me that they think this is a bad idea because it makes me vulnerable, whether to attacks or manipulations from students or to repercussions from the administration where I work. I’m aware of the risks associated with being open and honest about my diagnoses. That it’s too personal. Certainly my personal life and details are still mine and I don’t “overshare” with my students. They don’t need to know that I cried in the shower for 45 minutes last night for no real reason. But I find that most of my students develop a new sense of respect for me as a result of my honesty about my general diagnoses because so many of them are struggling with their own mental and physical health issues. And when you know you aren’t alone, or that there’s someone who has managed to achieve success in various aspects of life, it provides a sense of hope that they can do it too. It has led to several students feeling comfortable enough to share with me their own struggles and I can point them in the direction of local or campus resources that can help them. Because too often they are either unaware of or afraid to seek out those resources. But with support, they’re more likely to take advantage of what’s available to them. And hopefully this means they’ll be less likely to suffer physical/mental breakdowns, fail classes, or drop out entirely.

There are still things that I struggle with in terms of finding “balance,” in my work and life, especially when I’m feeling particularly isolated in my new location and job. I still have trouble sleeping (but my two loveable Boxers try to help with the best puppy cuddles ever). I don’t eat as well as I should (Repeat after me: cheese is not a food group). And sometimes I forget to eat entirely or I overeat. I often have to force myself to be active (paying for a yoga membership helps) and schedule time to call friends and family (a huge shout out to those friends and family that stick with me, even when I feel like the world’s worst at keeping in touch). Although I try to stick to a sleep schedule, I end up working 16+ hour days and sleep too long in the mornings. I feel immense guilt if I don’t finish something right away or if I don’t spend ALL day working. I tend to answer my email immediately and at any time if I’m awake, even on weekends. And I overextend myself with commitments to committees and volunteer opportunities and conferences and projects. But I’m taking baby steps. And hopefully I’ll get better at saying “no” to things that matter less so I can start saying “yes” to things that matter most. Some of the things I’m trying to implement (some more successfully than others):

  • Eating breakfast
  • Drinking enough water
  • Not answering emails after 8pm during the week unless it’s an emergency
  • Limiting my answering of emails on weekends
  • Attempting social media-free weekends
  • Doing yoga at least 3 times a week
  • Creating a schedule to set time specifically for class-related work, research, and committee responsibilities to prevent too much emphasis in one area
  • Reducing my commitments
  • Allowing myself some down time each evening without guilt

Hopefully in time these will become habits, not just attempts. In the world of academia where I feel a constant sense of competition, grapple with imposter syndrome, and have an overwhelming schedule, it’s even more important for me to recognize the limits of my mental and physical well-being and to not overextend myself. And I want to encourage my colleagues and my students to develop self-awareness and set their own limits. Until we can talk more openly about our struggles without fear of repercussion or admonishment or shame, I worry more of my students and colleagues will find themselves on the verge of mental and physical breakdowns.

Enjoy this picture of my dogs and one of my attempt at sociability with colleagues for a belated Galentine’s Night:

My Boxer puppies.

Me & some colleagues.