What (this) Director does

Its Blog-tober folks! I’m celebrating by challenging myself to make one post per week this month and getting back into the grove of posting here among the lady-geos.

Nicollette

I am in a role that can be described as liminal.1

While I work at an institution of higher education, I am neither a faculty member (professor of knowledge) nor a student (trainee; receiver of knowledge). I am academic staff and my programs bridge the curricular and co-curricular. As such, I exist in a game of limbo that allows me to see the gray areas in a workplace that often times want reports and solutions that are written in black and/or white.

I often get asked by students and faculty alike: exactly what is it that you do.

I usually respond starting with “long story short, I make STEM work for all students.”

My department harnesses the power of peer instruction2 by providing free, regular, and intentional opportunities for students to be mentored by other students who did well in the courses that they are currently enrolled in. We currently employ more than 45 undergraduate employees who lead workshops (much like RAs or TAs in graduate school) and/or host drop-in sessions for many of the traditionally difficult entry and mid-level STEM courses on campus. 3 This technique of Supplemental Instruction is not new, but was made broadly known by researchers at the University of Missouri – Kansas City who employed this technique in large lecture courses specifically for first-gen and students of color. They found that putting these structures in place increased learning and retention for all students. 4As students build community among and for themselves, they build confidence which benefits the mentors and the mentees. As a part of the work, I also conduct/direct research that quantifies the impact on students who opt-in or opt-out of our programs and has demonstrated that our results mimic what has been true at many other institutions that implemented this model and approach.

Nicollette in her natural environment: attending a student event called STEM in Color.
Photo by John Seyfried

My day to day is less glamourous. I send tons of emails – reminding staff of deadlines, ensuring that folks have the tools they need (markers, candy, classroom space) to make the enterprise a success. That means that I’ve had to learn how to delegate tasks, and to do triage. I’ve also been developing ways to give my student staff more support so that they didn’t feel like independent contractors who work for a shadow organization. This has meant building in more accountability, scheduling and often leading workshops for their professional development.  I also have learned how to keep faculty involved in the process as mentors to the students who are learning how to teach in support of their courses. There are many moving parts and as the director, I play the role of the orchestral conductor. Sometimes my well runs dry and I have almost nothing left to give. At other times I step back and can say “I did that” because I know that the organization is not in the same place that it was when I started, and that attitudes of my staff are changing to focus more on growth and development.

As an extension of that work, I also spend a lot of time listening to and (officially or unofficially) mentoring students – particularly women, firstgen low income, students of color, and queer students. At times I am one of the few adults that they feel comfortable talking to about their understanding of identity in the STEM space5. I often hear stories about awkward professors who don’t make eye contact and who mumble their lectures at the board, or professors who dismiss the validity of a social justice framework in STEM environments. I get the stories that faculty often are desperate to hear and students would not want to share as a result of the power dynamics in the classroom. I know that in part it is because of my identity as a Black woman who has a STEM degree, but I also know that I work hard to build positive rapport with students. I host events, and bring people to campus so that folks can see successful examples of folks who have broken glass cellings and are doing amazing scholarly work. I make space and bring people together.

I am orchestra conductor; I am mentor; and I am also story catcher.

Telling people about my story — how and why I did research in paleoclimatology and why it matters.
Photo by John Seyfried

I think that my role as a story catcher started developing when I was a graduate student, and started asking the hard questions about why there wasn’t diversity in the program and talking to the other socially minoritized students about our experiences. I often wonder what it would be like if faculty would be able to hear the stories first hand. I know that there are trends that are so widespread that they are true for specific communities in our campus environment. I also know that when I bring stories to the fore, they are not seen as a collective pattern, but a string of individual inconveniences that can be rectified through hard work on the part of the marginalized. In my current work, I document disaggregated & anonymized findings from my meetings with students and share them with faculty who hope to implement systemic change in the way that we do STEM at Oberlin College.  I’ve added to work that was done by my predecessor, and to work that was done before he was here as well.

Honestly, its not all sunshine and roses as I am often dismissed. I am told that change is happening and that I (and the broader community of ungrateful complainers) should be happy. Sometimes I am told that I am being to negative, and that I should praise the positivity that is happening. But other times, the aggregate experiences are met with curiosity and sparks a tiny fire. My goal is for folks to consider their practices and how they can be agents of change in their spaces though curricular redesign and though an examination of their own internalized assumptions in the classroom. I want to start discussions and to ask hard questions like: Whose voices are heard? Whose experiences seen as relevant to the content? Who can take up space? Who belongs? What can I do? Why? How?

So what is it that I do?

I conduct, I listen, I share, and I lead. It’s complicated. But its uniquely me.

-Nicollette

Footnotes:

1Dorky terms that can both be sedimentary and social science jargon at the same time, ftw!

2 If you’ve never heard of peer instruction before, there is no need to fret – its educational jargon. If you’ve ever experienced the phenomenon of being in a meeting or classroom where someone says something and you’ve missed the main point the first time, but then later on your neighbor leans over and explains it to you in their own words and you had an ‘aha’ moment, you’ve experienced the power of peer instruction.

3I wish that I had structures like this in place when I was taking introductory chemistry, or calculus as an undergraduate and I am honored to be the person who makes sure that structures are in place for the exchanges to happen.

4UMKC lists the purpose of the supplemental instruction programs there as threefold: To increase retention within targeted historically difficult courses, To improve student grades in targeted historically difficult courses, To increase the graduation rates of students (https://info.umkc.edu/si/)

5As in graduate school, I continue to be one of the few. Being one of the four black people who work in the STEM division service to the community comes as a part of the territory. I am also SUPER visible as the director of the academic support programs and I am aware that my social identities impact which students choose to come by my office for a chat. I often wonder who folks would go to if I weren’t there.

2 thoughts on “What (this) Director does

  1. This: “I also know that when I bring stories to the fore, they are not seen as a collective pattern, but a string of individual inconveniences that can be rectified through hard work on the part of the marginalized”, and this: “I am told that change is happening and that I (and the broader community of ungrateful complainers) should be happy. Sometimes I am told that I am being to negative, and that I should praise the positivity that is happening”.

    Those statements ring so true to me… I am, as always, thrilled you write for this blog. ❤

    Like

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