Student Evals Are In

I have had such an indescribably shitty past few days but today I was finally able to access student evals from my very first semester of teaching and right now my heart is so happy! I didn’t expect to love teaching so much, but it has truly been one of the most rewarding things I’ve done in grad school so far. To know that my students think of me as a helpful, enthusiastic, and capable instructor means so much.

Because of the aforementioned shitty past few days, I need a bit of positivity in my life. So here is a collection of a few of my favorite comments students left:

“Ms.Balance is absolutely the best TA I’ve ever had. Not only does she go above and beyond for her students by making little reading guide handouts to clearly outline a philosopher’s ideas in order to make sure we understand the topic, but she readily makes herself easy to contact out of class for any help at any moment. She really did more than she had to do as a TA […]. She really wants her students to succeed and it really shows in her work and the effort she puts into the class.”

“Brielle is a very passionate instructor in the Philosophy department. She made this very clear throughout this semester to everyone around her. I also believe that she truly cares about all of her students. […] I believe she provided many different useful tools and mentoring over the semester that really is an asset to UNC’s Introduction to Ethics course and students in the class.”

“Cool hair style :)”

“Gabrielle Balance’s help was the only reason why I passed the class. Her mentoring and individual care was above and beyond anything asked of for a TA. She really cares for her students and her recitation greatly approves the understanding of all of her students.”

“BRIELLE IS AMAZING! This recitation saved me in this class. She is one of the best teachers I have these semester.”

“Gabrielle did a very good job in her TA position. She had a great understanding of the ideas at play, she also did an excellent job of conveying those ideas to her students. She went above and beyond what the other TA’s for this course did. She did an amazing job in making sure her students had a good handle on the ideas in class with her in class discussions. I would not have done nearly as well in this course without her as my TA.”

“Gabrielle Balance was an amazing TA. I would not have understood the course without her. She very clearly explains hard topics and it is evident she cares about her students.”

“One of my favorite TAs I have had so far. She broke down the lectures very well to help us clearly understand it. She asked for our feedback a lot, and made sure she answered any questions that the class had. She is willing to work with you outside of class and held a couple of review sessions outside of class to prepare for finals or papers. Not only is she a good TA, she is also a great person who makes sure you feel included and supported which helps me feel more comfortable in class.”

“I loved this course, Ms Balance was an awesome TA that even people from other sections would try to attend her office hours. She was extremely helpful and made the material engaging”

I know this blog post is something I’ll come back to again and again whenever school gets tough to remind me why I do this and motivate me to keep going. ❤

“Teaching is never neutral.”

Recently my department held a teaching workshop, and we brought in someone from the School of Education to present to us. One of the topics that came up was how to approach politically-charged topics in the classroom as the teacher, the worry being that, as instructors, we want to portray a sense of neutrality to our students while still touching on important and relevant issues.

The presenter responded with with a simple yet striking assertion:

Teaching is never neutral.

This sparked a lot of discussion at the workshop and what was said has given me a lot to think about.

Firstly, I think our workshop leader is right. Teaching is never neutral, nor should it be. This doesn’t mean that instructors should start taking time at the beginning of each class to campaign for their favorite presidential candidate, but I do believe there are many ways in which instructors can and ought to take a stance.

Here are some things I do as an instructor which carry political significance:

  • Dress casually. Especially as a woman, how I present myself to students in terms of dress makes a big difference. I know lots of people who purposely dress more professionally on the days they teach to make an impact on how their students perceive them. I thought a lot about what kind of teacher I wanted to be and what kinds of values to espouse, and concluded that “appearing professional” wasn’t one of them. I want my students to respect me, but I don’t want it to be in part because of how I dress.
  • Include my pronouns in my email signature. I am obviously a woman, but I think the practice of being explicit about your pronouns anyways is a good one. It normalizes it for everyone and keeps it from being a burden that only trans people have to bear.
  • Instruct my students to address me by my first name. Again, I thought a lot about what kind of teacher I wanted to be, and concluded that I feel a lot more comfortable with my students calling me by my first name instead of using “Miss”. This is a barrier that some TAs (understandably and justifiably) want to keep up, but I personally don’t want it between me and my students.
  • Comply with accessibility requests. Okay, so, granted, this one is kind of required of me to do by my university, but even just the fact that this is a university-wide requirement sends a political message of anti-ableism.

A Check-in: The Beginning of Year 2

3 weeks in. So far, so good – great, actually! I’m not really sure where to start, so I guess I’ll just go in order.

I spent the summer living with my partner in Santa Barbara, California. I really missed that place, and getting to spend so much time there was healing. Living in my favorite city with my favorite person did a lot to undo all of the mental and emotional stress I felt throughout my first year, and ultimately I think this recovery set a really solid foundation for the start of my second year.

I moved back to the east coast for the start of the school year after the first week of August. My dog, Luna, stayed with my partner in California with my partner, so I moved alone. My lease ended on my old apartment and I moved into a new place with one of the people in my department. She’s incredible, and she’s got the sweetest boys (a dog and a cat). She’s big into home decor and customization, so she’s got rugs and pictures and plants everywhere. It’s a complete 180 from my old place, and I feel so much more at home here. I think living with her has also been good for my mental health in general; she’s a great roommate, really cheery, and nice to spend time with. (She’s also the one who deals with the cockroaches – an endeavor I had to undertake by myself when I lived alone.)

The diversity workshop I had been planning and co-organizing for the better part of a year took place a week before classes started. We had a great group of participants and we received great feedback! This being the first time we’ve organized it, it was really really rewarding to hear good things from them. Despite how much stress and work went into putting this workshop, I’m really excited to build on what I’ve learned this time around and move forward!

I increased my dosage for antidepressants. I started taking them about 7 months ago and stumbled around a bit trying to figure out kind/brand worked best for me. I saw some small but definite changes back then but now that I’ve settled on a particular brand, I was able to increase my dose about two weeks ago. The effects have definitely been noticeable! My anxiety can still be pretty bad at times, but it’s less debilitating overall. Most significantly, my depression is comparatively non-existent! I can get up to work, get myself out of the house, keep my space clean, go to the gym, enjoy the company of other people, and keep generally good spirits throughout the week! It’s an incredible feeling – even more so because it’s been consistent. I’m very, very pleased about how I’m responding to these meds.

I’ve been working out consistently and it’s done a lot to help with my perception of my health and body. Because of my eating disorder the way I’ve viewed my body has always been a bit warped and toxic, but whenever I’m working out consistently I experience less anxiety about it – even if the physical changes aren’t too noticeable. I try to do yoga most mornings, run 3x a week, lift 3x a week, and have one day off to rest and recover. I’m really proud of myself keeping this schedule up; I think a lot of it has to do with increased motivation from my antidepressants working really well.

I starting teaching! (TAing, technically.) It’s an intro to moral theory course and I have two discussion sections every week. Being the only person in my cohort having never taught before, I was pretty nervous my first week. But I’ve really come to enjoy it! It’s incredibly rewarding, and so nice to see my students engage in class discussion. I’ve had several students tell me that what I’m doing is really helpful in their understanding of the material and it really encourages me to be the best teacher I can be. My undergrad Intro to Ethics TA was who ultimately got me interested in pursuing philosophy, and I hope I can impart some of that passion onto my students now that I’m in that role.

Overall, I’ve been keeping on top of my work. My time management and prioritization skills have gotten way better since I was a first year and I feel very much on top of things. I haven’t yet felt overwhelmed about my workload and I’m completing all my reading assignments on time. One thing I’m particularly proud of so far this year is my participation in classroom discussions. I had trouble with this last year because of anxiety and impostor syndrome and just fear/timidness in general, but this year I feel like I’m doing a lot better in getting over that and convincing myself that I have valuable things to contribute.

Like I said, so far, so good! 🙂

The Aims of Higher Education: A New Take on Intellectual Virtues; Encouraging Tenacious Philosophers

I’m part of a graduate student teaching group here and last week we read and discussed a fantastic paper by Kyla Ebels-Duggan called Autonomy as Intellectual Virtue. Not only was it incredibly well written (in terms of clarity, organization, and style), but more importantly, I found its message to be very profound and forceful. Indeed, it’s changed my own views about how I ought to approach philosophy. Ebels-Duggan’s paper can be found in full in the book The Aims of Higher Education: Problems of Morality and Justice (ed. Brighouse and McPherson), but I’ll summarize it here:

The standard view is that higher education is valuable because it exposes students to a wide variety of opinions and teaches them to think critically about them – something that would not otherwise happen. That is, students tend to hold on to the ideas they’ve been raised with without stopping to question them and consider alternatives, and higher education gives them the opportunity to do so. Thus, students become autonomous in the sense that they gain the ability to make an educated choice about which opinions/theories/worldviews to adopt for themselves.

Ebels-Duggan questions whether this is really an accurate picture. Rarely has she found students unreflectively clinging to whatever worldview they were raised with. Rather, she often sees the very opposite problem: “overconfidence in critical stance…paired with a professed lack of positive convictions about normative matters.” In other words, students are often quick to find fault in the different theories they are exposed to rather than approaching them with the mindset that they actually matter or have any real value. Criticizing every new idea naturally goes hand-in-hand with an unwillingness to commit to any of them, and so what we see are students who criticize everything and stand by nothing; the value in what they are learning goes unrecognized. This, Ebels-Duggans believes, is the real problem.

She then prescribes a new approach to teaching to counter the two vices outlined above: an overly-critical stance and a lack of positive conviction. Against the first, she emphasizes the virtues of charity (approaching new ideas “with the presumption that there is something true and worthwhile to be found there”) and humility (“recognizing the genuine difficulty of serious intellectual tasks”). So, rather than immediately criticize, the charitable and humble student will acknowledge that easy answers are near-impossible to find, and will thus try to find to interpret the theories they learn in the best way possible. To combat the second vice, Ebels-Duggans says we should aim to foster the virtue of tenacity. In her words, “Intellectually tenacious people…do not easily abandon [their views]. They are not likely to fall prey to the idea that they are entitled only to those views that they can fully defend against skeptics…[They display] some willingness to tolerate tension.”

She concludes her paper with two points:

First, that rather than treating all theories equally and expecting students to choose among them using their learned critical thinking skills, we should instead help students to discern which theories deserve to be taken seriously – especially in conjunction with the virtue of charity, for we would not want them to internalize the wrong sorts of ideas.

And finally, that all of this amounts to an incredibly difficult and delicate task for us teachers, and perhaps the best we can do is to simply be conscious of these challenges and act as models for our students.

I really do recommend reading the paper in its entirety. My short summary captures only a fraction of the ingenuity, insight, and force that Ebels-Duggan has managed to portray.

• • •

I think the the part that had the biggest effect on me was Ebels-Duggan’s discussion on tenacity.

Oftentimes philosophers will hesitate to commit to or align themselves with any given view, and instead say something like “I’m sympathetic to the idea of…” to play it safe. And as an undergrad I had a friend who would constantly ask for justification of every little claim as though it was wrong of me to hold views I couldn’t rigorously justify down to their core. Such an impossible standard lead her to commit to nothing herself (we referred to this and the aforementioned phenomena as “hedging”) and she completely lacked the sort of tenacity Ebels-Duggan describes here. I even recently witnessed a (different) friend concede that, because she couldn’t give a complete account of where morality gains its authority on a meta-ethical level, moral prescriptions on the applied level had no “legitimate” force behind them – even though, knowing her personally, her actions and views on social justice completely contradict this.

I was led to believe that these sorts of behaviors – hedging, conceding the weaker position, etc. – were marks of epistemic responsibility; i.e., it was just good epistemic practice to abide by such high standards. And don’t get me wrong – to an extent, it is, but definitely not to the lengths we’re pushing it.

I am convinced that we need to put more emphasis on encouraging tenacity in our students. Indeed, it is something I need to work on for myself.

This will be the first post filed under the “Academia” category of my blog.

Posts in this category can broadly be described as insight I’ve gained into the workings of academia, professional philosophy, education, or related topics.