Preliminary Thoughts on the UNC Charlotte Shooting

I want to be clear: this is what it has been like for me in the last week. There are over 30,000 students, faculty, and staff at UNC Charlotte and I’m pretty sure there have been over 30,001 reactions to a gunman shooting our students last Tuesday.

So far, I’ve had students yell at me (via email) that they are PERFECTLY FINE AND NOTHING HAS AFFECTED THEM. I’ve had students share that they were in therapy first thing the next morning after the shooting. I’ve had students close to my age share that when they try to work, they can only stare at their computer screen. My colleagues are writing publicly and privately as they try to process all we are feeling. I’ve seen faculty and administrators that once they stopped helping everyone else, they fall into a funk where all we want to do is sleep and sleep is the last thing we can do, where it’s not clear when this is going to end, and wondering if or how we are ever going to be whole again. Yes, I switched from “they” to “we” on purpose.

To paraphrase one of the colleagues I most admire for her smartypants way of saying things: The kids are not alright. The adults are not alright. It feels like a demand for resilience to see “UNCCharlotteStrong” everywhere we look. We are not there yet and we don’t know when we are going to feel strong again.

I find comfort in Glennon Doyle’s maxim: First, the pain. Then, the waiting. Then, the rising. She shared this most recently as her reaction to the death of Rachel Held Evans. To me, it is the story of the Phoenix among other, more mainstream religious beliefs. I am still very much in the pain. I haven’t even started “the waiting.” At some point, I hope to be in the rising, which currently is an image of me at the NC Legislature demanding gun reform.

But that is not where everyone is. And even that idea that there will be rising is offensive to some of my colleagues as yet another call to demanded resilience.

So this is my story. This is what I feel, perhaps with observations that I’m not the only one feeling these things. Because there is no way on earth that I can share what everyone is feeling here at UNC Charlotte.

But the first and the strongest thing I’ve felt? Love and responsibility for my students. Another colleague first pointed out that although the students in that classroom are not “mine,” they are all absolutely mine. On Facebook, I saw a graduate PhD instructor come to this realization herself as an undergraduate ran onto her bus during the shooting saying she didn’t want to die yet.

When we teach, our students are vulnerable. We have to help them open them up to put the information inside and then get the knowledge out. They may fear that they are going to fail or that they are not smart enough to understand the material. I frequently call my students my kiddies (undergraduate, usually) and my little bunnies (graduate, mostly). I’ve heard strong pushback from some faculty that giving our students such nicknames infantilizes them. That is bullshit. I call them these nicknames as a signal that they can try, they can not do well, and I will still be here to help them succeed. They can be vulnerable in stretching and trying to learn and even if they miss it, I still care for them as humans and I will help them as students.

My students are growing, thriving humans who have the capacity to learn something new that might actually change their lives. They might learn how to think deeper and more critically about themselves, their lives, and even their research. It is hard and it is scary to go deeper in thinking. The fear of failure makes them vulnerable and I want to let them know they are safe to try harder when they are learning.

They should be vulnerable when they try to learn. But they should not be vulnerable to bullets.

I can hear my heart beat louder after writing that sentence. For the last week, I have considered all our UNC Charlotte students to be mine; other faculty have just been borrowing them. Last week, our students were not safe. My colleagues, whom I care very deeply about and identify completely with, were not safe.

I was driving my twins home from after-school tutoring when I got the alert on my phone that shots were reported near Kennedy and to Run, Hide, or Fight. I had to pull over to the side of the road to text “Are you ok?” to the colleagues I knew were on campus and all the students I thought might still be. Over the next few hours, I received dozens of texts me asking me “Are you ok?”

As the hours progressed, the circle of students I contacted continued to widen from my research lab to my current students to my program students to my past international engineering students who (as I correctly suspected) are good friends with one of the victims. I would have emailed last Fall and last Summer’s students to check on them if I could have figured out a way to do so. I tried. They have changed our Canvas email abilities.

Just typing all this has increased my adrenaline level again. No, I wasn’t there. But so much of what is my heart on this job was. We care for your children when they are our students. We care for them a lot.

The kids are not alright. The adults are not alright. And it may be a long time before we are “alright” again. When I can talk about this and not hear my heart beating, maybe then I’ll be “in the waiting.”

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Your Students Are Cheating

So, this is not a comfortable topic. And, surprisingly, the reaction I most frequently get from my academic colleagues is “Not my students.”

Alas.

Your students are cheating.  Not all of them. Not on everything. But on a hell of a lot more than you know, and, apparently, are willing to admit to yourself.

Why am I making this outrageous claim?

Last spring, we found, using our online testing software, that over 30% of our students cheated on every single item of their 2nd Psych 101 test.  Further, nearly all the students cheated on at least one question.

How?

We didn’t use respondus lockdown browser and they clicked out of their test to google search the answer.  But respondus lockdown browser isn’t enough.  Do your students have a smart phone?  They can use easily google test questions on their smart phones.  Heck, they can ask Alexa/Siri/Google out loud to search for some answers.

Still don’t believe me?  I just googled the stem of a test bank question from one of my clases.  Here is the top google search, which is basically the answer for every question in the test bank.

Don’t use test banks?  Create your own materials?

Go to Course Hero. Go to Study Blue. Go to Quizlet. Heck, just google a question from an assignment: this week my TA and I found 10 basic blogs with all the assignments and answers for free.  We found it because a student put a synonym on the answer for every other word. Nonetheless, our anti-cheating software vericite found it.  ((Ironically, the assignment was on academic cheating!  I SHITE YOU NOT!))

So what have we done?

We now use respondus lockdown with video monitoring to record students taking tests.  Is it effective?  Well, before I ever used online tests, my undergraduate test averages were around 75.  After online tests, they rose to between 82 and 85.  I was so proud of the rising test scores!!  My active learning strategies were really working!!!  Ha. This semester, after video monitoring, the average score was 67 on the first (easy) test.

We, as a department, are also teaching our students how to study again.  This includes basic information on how to take notes.  On how to read the book.  On how to listen to and participate in lectures.  My attitude has been one of support in my classes: “other students” have cheated.  But let me help you learn to take notes better, to take tests better ((surprisingly or not–a lost skill)), and to be proud of earning your grades and degree.

After catching 20% of my class plagiarizing, I made clear that I am MUCH LESS interested in the “right” answer than evidence of them thinking and trying.  The class exercises are not designed to be A Search For The Answer Dr. B Wants.  They are designed to give the students practice in critical thinking, applying theories to problems, and communicating their ideas.  That discussion and talking with each student who plagiarized improved their performance in terms of effort in the next exercises.  I’m also ditching that assignment.

Does it really matter?

Well, a friend of mine works at a fancy organization here in Charlotte as a fancy pants manager.  Yesterday, she shared that a two years out from graduation employee from a top national university is struggling with basic skills and behaviors at work.  This employee can’t take notes in meetings.  This employee can’t write basic sentences so that other people can understand them.  This is a top graduate of a top university who can’t perform basic employment skills.  I strongly suspect that this employee’s degree was bought not earned.

This is a controversial topic.  I get that.  Not everyone agrees with why we have a problem or what we should do.

Several colleagues fault giving online tests: they demand in-class tests with proctoring. I note that students are taking and sharing cell phone pictures of exams. I note the test bank I easily found above. I also like the automatic analysis I get about each item to help improve tests. ((Although, as an aside, on the last test, students were missing questions on topics that were highly covered in class and in the book. Hence, my efforts to help them learn how to study again.))

Some colleagues don’t care. So what if they cheat?  It’s too much work to file an academic settlement and they still learn the material anyway. I’d say they are not learning the material. And they expect that their presence in class is enough for the material to be absorbed adequately to graduate with a degree in our discipline.

They’ve always done this. This is old news. Fraternities and sororities have always had old tests and assignments.  Ok.  That doesn’t make it right. And I’ve never let students keep my tests.  Further, now, they copy and paste answers from one screen to another.  It doesn’t even pass through their brain.

Some colleagues deny that it’s possible to cheat in their class or by their students. I have found my own personally developed case studies and examples available on Course Hero. We have found thousands of course and lab specific documents from some departments on our campus on Course Hero, alone.

We shouldn’t make students pay for monitoring software, therefore, we cannot monitor them.  I FULLY AGREE WITH THIS.  The university should pick it up. But I’m not going to wait until that happens, letting my tests continue on with 84 averages for students who have not studied.

It’s a tough balance, right? We can suspect that many students have cheated. But my students and I are in a social contract right now during my class and I like to like my students.  Well, folks, we can do tough things. I honestly don’t give a flying fig newton what my students have done before or in other classes.  It’s a clean slate with me: I’m going to teach them how to study and how to learn my course’s material.

And they are going to earn their college degree on their own.

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Academic Colleagues

I understand how it can go both ways in academia.  You can have colleagues who are really part of your family.  And you have colleagues you are, um, not.

Whichever way it happens, academic colleagues are completely unlike colleagues in other organizations. Academia is the last career in which you can be guaranteed lifetime employment. What this means is that we work with the same people for 30 to 40 years.

That’s a long time.

And while it is of course likely that there will be ebbs and flows in relationships and interpersonal dynamics, there are times where I don’t think there is anything like the relationships you form with the people you work with at a university.

Like this week.

This week was the trial for the murderer of our dear colleague Jeannine Skinner. She was murdered last September 1, 2017. It was hellish because Jeannine is/was extraordinary. I know that can be cliche, but at her funeral last September I found out that I was not the only person who saw her sunshine-beaming-from-her-face smile and thought “I’m going to be your friend. I will try not to freak you out by immediately pouncing into your life. But YOU! Friend! With me!!”

She was on a trajectory to be an outstanding researcher.  I reviewed her first year faculty research proposal as part of my university service duties.  It was equivalent to some of our best full professors who have been writing the proposals for 20 years.

She was driven to help under-served, minority, and low income seniors keep their health and their cognitions.  The city of Charlotte lost out on her contributions.

But we, as her colleagues and friends, lost out on what we thought was going to be at least a 30-year friendship.

This week, my work colleagues and I gathered over two days to support her family and her memory as her murderer pleaded guilty.  I’m telling you right now, I cannot imagine feeling closer to anyone else that I work with. We cried together. We hugged each other as we saw someone losing it.  We laughed when one of our own was legitimately threatened to be thrown out of court for asking if someone else needed a tissue.  They take VERY SERIOUSLY the no talking rule in court.

We spent time hugging, visiting, and praying with Jeannine’s family.  ((Who are, all three, exceptional human beings))

Academia is just not like other places.  I don’t know how other co-workers handle a tragedy in their midst. But I so love all of my colleagues right now.  I can’t imagine people say that about the other places that they work.

But that’s how I am feeling about my colleagues and my department after how we all held each other up this week.

I do wish I would stop crying for a couple of three minutes.  But I think that will stop eventually. I’m hoping this closeness stays around a while longer.

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Spring Break Study Abroad to Prague: Part 3

This entry should be titled: Professors Learn Things, too.

In addition to focusing on what the students can learn about multicultural teams in multinational organizations, I also used this trip as a way to enrich my own understanding of work and employees.  I’m an organizational scientist.  Nonetheless, I do not spend a lot of time in organizations talking with organizational leaders and regular employees about their jobs. I find that not only do I translate my copious notes during the visit into fancy pants theoretical comments (e.g., when the leader says that he told the teammates in conflict to work it out, I translated that into “Socializing the group into norms of working behavior dealing with intercultural conflict”), I also come back to my teaching with rich examples of work behavior that can help me explain organizational theories to my students.

STICK WITH ME HERE: It’s not that boring.

So last night’s graduate I/O class dealt with careers.  We talked about structure vs. agency (i.e., institutional and organizational constraints vs. individual choice). I had a great example from the trip about the constraints of a communist country over who can actually have a job (only those who support the communist party) and what education can they pursue (not what they want, but what is needed by the country) and an individual’s powerful choice to defect from said country and start a successful career on another continent in another language and then come back after communism fell and start ANOTHER career based on what he really wanted to do in the first place.

That’s not really an example that comes to mind when we think of institutional constraints and individual choice. Yet, I’d argue that this extreme example makes it easier to understand the more nuanced examples of career constraints and choices we see in the US.

Which leads me to another insight.  My 20-something students and I are DAMN tired of hearing about how Millennials and their avocado toast are ruining America. I have always had a hard time believing in “cohorts” in organizational science: that Baby boomers vs. Gen X Vs. Millennials  vs. whatever the hell is going on now are different employees and want different things out of their jobs. First of all, it doesn’t apply to me.  I’m supposed to be at the tail end of Baby Boomers but I felt more like Gen X in attitude, and, to be honest, I love avocado toast.  Second, a lot of this analysis seems like it boils down to whatever “cohort” is in power says “those young whippersnappers don’t do it the right way, like we used to as kids.”

It’s bullshit.

But when you look at countries and analyze them by their institutional constraints (these ideas are inspired by Tomlinson et al, 2018 as well as what I learned in Prague), I think you can see when cohorts *can* develop in countries.  When the institutional constraints (e.g., the country and its culture) radically change, the people within the country change.  This change probably most relevantly affects younger people coming of age. And so yes, a “cohort” of people with different (from early generations) beliefs can emerge.

In the US? The Depression.  World War II.  The sexual and gender revolution of the 60s and 70s. Those were BIG cultural changes in our country.  But since the 70s?  I argue that things have been pretty stable since then. Yes, 9/11. But was an event, not a cultural change. So is there a “Greatest Generation” and a “Boomer” cohort?  Yes.  But afterwards? I don’t think so.  I think we just got used to expecting a cohort, so we started creating them even though they don’t exist.  ((That said: one smarty pants student suggested the ubiquitous use of technology is creating a cohort. And I think it’s possible Trump/#Enough COULD create a cohort, too))

And all of this became clear to me in listening to and attending cultural events in Prague about the 1968 Prague Spring and the 1989 Velvet Revolution.  OF COURSE, the country and the institutional culture changed.  Of course, there are likely cohort effects for employees and citizens in Czech Republic because of those events, especially for the fall of communism. I don’t think there were even business schools in Czech Republic before the fall of communism, because why would you major in Satan?

So, yeah. It seems to be that we are foolish to think there is always a cohort of employees that are vastly different than the ones before them. I suggest that only if there are substantial cultural changes that affect a whole nation should we expect entire generations to be substantially different than others.

And that is something I would not have thought of if I had not left the US and immersed myself, if only for a week, in another environment.

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Spring Break Study Abroad to Prague: Part 2

Yesterday, in Part 1, I talked about some the intellectual benefits of our Spring Break Study abroad program.

 

Today, I want to talk about what I perceive as the personal benefits of this sort of trip. It actually surprised me after my first Study Abroad trip to Berlin how close the students became to each other and I became to them. It’s hard to spend 9 full days with folks and not develop a real knowledge and affection for them.

The interesting thing about Study Abroad program is the number of contact hours the professor has with the students during the trip. In a regular course, one has approximately 45 contact hours with kids (3 hours/week for 15 weeks or so).  Although we met several times before we left for Prague, I think it’s reasonable to say that over the 10 days we were there, we spent on average about 8 hours/day together.

80 > 45.

FORTUNATELY for them, I was not lecturing them the whole time.  HA!  But yes, I did try to engage in learning moments throughout the days, including the last day at 4:30 am discussing entitativity and being a group outsider. In the dark van heading to the airport with a bunch of sleepy kids, we decided that was enough theoretical discussion and academic learning for one day.

We also had cultural events to help students understand life in Czech Republic including a tour of the Jewish Quarter, the Museum of Communism, and an extremely challenging exhibit at the DOX Museum of Contemporary Art. One of my proudest moments of the students is how they struggled to make sense of that exhibit (focusing on mental illness, corrupt politicians, and discrimination) to come an understanding that was both enlightening, sad, and hopeful.

I also tried to engage in mentoring as much as possible with the students including What They Wanted To Do when They Grow Up and advice on Grad Schools and double majors and minors. We are a big U. I think it’s part of my responsibility to give assvice to every student I come into close contact with.

But the fun parts were the personal stories:  Which student absolutely had to have a snack every 3 hours, who asked the best questions to all the organizations, the number of students with infectious laughs, contagious smiles, and wicked sense of humors, who has the chutzpah to explore all over the city, and who hates mushrooms (A LOT of students; that is weird).

Though they were still for the most part, ahem, “undergraduates,” I was told by two separate folks that these were the best American students they had ever encountered.  The first complement came from the University of Economics presentation, in which the students were clearly very engaged and had extremely interesting questions.  The second was from our guide and supporter, Petr Zidek, who was responsible for much of positive experiences. (And is in the picture just above this)  Here is his tour guide site and you should hire him for a guided tour or two when you go.  Also, the students loved him. Petr also said that we were the best group of students he’s guided: easy going and responsible, even when they were searching for more snacks.

The other weird part? One of our students ran into a undergrad business major from Saginaw State University who knew my PhD student, Iza Szmanska. Even weirder was walking through Old Town Square and hearing my name called out. I immediately thought it would be too egocentric to think that someone was calling for me, but I turned around and saw two UNC Charlotte I/O Grads coming up to me.  I knew Heather and Milly were in Prague, but I didn’t expect to run into them at 10 am on a Saturday morning in the middle of the Old Town Square! It’s a small freaking world, people.

So, what else did we figure out? Well, first, Prague likes to use its heaters. I’m pretty that our hotel staff thinks that they way Americans walk into a building is by saying BLAAAARGH and ripping off their coats. At one organization, everyone took off as much as they could without getting down to their skivvies, we were so dang overheated. Second, Czech beer is really good and is, in all honesty, cheaper than water. The wine? Not so much. Third, goulash is basically beef stew and they could stand to add a few veggies to the mix. I’m just saying that at one point, I started fantasizing about green beans. Or even just some steamed broccoli.  There were discussions about broccoli among the students and me.

It was a great trip.  It’s really weird to be back here and to not be with the students all the time, talking about how I interpreted much of what was being said into theories of groups, communication, and diversity, listening to gossip, and occasionally advising them on hangovers (see comment about “undergraduates” above).

And because my students ALL took selfies at every event we went to, here I am at T-Mobile, trying to look somewhat cool.

 

 

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Spring Break Study Abroad to Prague: Part 1

We just returned from Prague for a Spring Break Study abroad program focusing on successful international employees, teams, and leaders.  I’m dividing this debriefing blog into two parts.

Today, I’m talking about what we learned and did.  Tomorrow, I’m talking about what it’s like to be a professor in close relationship with students for a week+ in another country.  (Spoiler: it is good)

So, the trip was to help students experientially understand what it is like to work abroad in multi-national organizations in multi-cultural teams.  We can certainly read about such experiences in the classroom, but to take the students out of  the US and plop them into a foreign country and talk with leaders of HR and of employees in these teams provides (I hope) a bit of the disorientation that comes with working overseas and lets our students hear from people who do this every day and do with successfully.

I like it.  I believe it challenges students’ previous notions about working abroad. It lets undergrads hear phenomenally insightful advice from leaders in the field. It comprehensively exposes them to cultures (including food, art, language, beliefs) that they cannot experience in a regular classroom.

For our program, in the mornings, we met with exceptional organizations like Novartis, The University of Economics, Prague, and HSBC. Before we left for the trip, my students picked out topics they wanted to write a literature review on.  During the trip, they asked questions of the organizational leaders related to their topic. Better, though, is the knowledge we created as a class learning about and responding to the information the leaders share on their own and their answers to our questions.

One thing I find so interesting on these study abroad trips is how the multinational teams and their HR managers respond to the inherent diversity on their teams.  Rare was the team composed only of Czech citizens. More common were the teams composed of Czech, German, Italian, French, American, and Indian–among other—countries.

I really appreciate the humor and the drama that comes from what these leaders shared with us.  The humor: The Italian employee wondering why his German teammate was so rude and cold to him all the time, and the manager saying “He’s not rude and cold; he’s German!” And the German teammate responding afterwards by effusively greeting and kissing his Italian teammate every morning until the Italian yelled ENOUGH!  The drama coming from a Polish and a Czech teammate (I believe?) having such a bad political fight that they wouldn’t speak to each other and their manager saying there is no place for that sort of behavior at work and they had to figure out how to work together or they are both fired.  They joyfully figured it out.

What I like about this is that it’s assumed that your teammates are going to be different than you. And it is ok to name a cultural explanation for the differences. The Italians are effusive.  If you want people awake at an early morning presentation, have an Italian teammate do it. Conflict over culture qua culture is not acceptable. You have to figure out how to get along with different people and do your work.  Period.

Or as Shawn and Gus would say on Psych, Suck it.

 

I do not believe that there is no discrimination in European multi-national teams.  I gather women still have a glass ceiling to shatter.  I think certain countries, certain ethnicities, and certain religions would argue they are not fully represented and possibly actively discriminated against.

And I’m not sure that saying “Oh, don’t mind Janet’s behavior, she’s just being Black” is a productive statement here in the US.  ((ETA: That is definitely not a good thing to say.)) But realizing everyone is different and it’s likely based on their “culture” and you need to figure out how to get along with them? That’s not too shabby.

But yes, I did laugh myself silly today thinking of how funny it would be to say of a teammate “Oh he is not actually being a jerk. His white male privilege is showing.”  ((Still cracking me up))

In any case, I treat all of the organizations we visit as a qualitative site visit. I hope the students get a lot out of it.  My brain always expands on these trips and I learn a lot.

Tomorrow, the best part: the kids.

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Academic Life As the Winter Olympics

SO, yeah.  I figured out this lesson in Grad School, when I was near the end of my dissertation.  I was working my booty off, scared I wasn’t going to finish, and, generally, overwhelmed by next sunrise.

A friend/peer from my peer mentor group told me he knew I was going to finish and he gave me a piece of advice that was true and has helped me through a lot of overwhelming times.

 

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When should you have a baby in academia?

Why the hell do they not ask men this question?  It’s a rigged system until academia figures out that half the population gives birth.  And that, actually, birthing babies takes a moment.

 

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Should You Go To Grad School?

No.  No, you should not. Let me tell you why.

 

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Writing The Truth

We all think we write the truth, right?  We all hope we are.  But what I’ve found is that when I know I’ve found a problem in my writing–that there’s something that doesn’t make sense or isn’t logical–the problem is that I haven’t uncovered the Truth for that paper.

 

And further, usually, writing that Truth means admitting some sort of vulnerability, usually in my logic.  Once I do that, the Truth always seems to come forward and reveal itself and vastly improve my paper.

Writing is weird, eh?  I’m writing right now.  (HA!) But writing about how to write is so dang hard.

Maybe talking about it will make it simpler:

 

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