What a failed attempt at empathetic listening looks like for black graduate students at Virginia Tech


Disclaimer: the segments in bold are my attempts of paraphrasing some of the perspectives of an intense conversation held at a particular student organization’s general body meeting.

Sitting around in a circle doing arts and crafts isn’t going to make our problems go away!

This essentially means the speaker believes if Virginia Tech really wants to do something, it’s going to take more work than a group dedicated to talking about our problems. For others, they’ve been here before. It’s a walk down memory lane and they would rather discuss what the administration did to address previous issues raised before tackling new ones.

This group makes it seem like black students at Virginia Tech have the problem, as if we need support to work through our problems. But the problem is not with us, it’s with the culture at Virginia Tech that makes us feel the way we do.

In other words, Student Affairs should be creating a space to inform the dominant culture on campus of ways to not make underrepresented groups feel marginalized (e.g., training in diversity and inclusion).

We are already having these conversations in our own safe spaces.

I can understand this particular viewpoint; however, I can also see how Student Affairs may have wanted to create a safe space for people who have not already found one of their own. Perhaps due to not being aware of various student organizations on campus or not quite feeling as if they fit in the particular ones they have explored despite their desire to do so. I can relate.

One member’s research focuses on better understanding the experience of African-American students at Virginia Tech, especially those in agriculture-based fields of study. She explores how these students exist within the community in addition to how internal and external mentorship shape their experience and degree progress. She says:

“African American students at PWIs are sometimes faced with the challenge of being classified as a marginalized group. With that marginalization can sometimes result in automatic assumptions made and a generation of stereotypes.”

For this particular person, she believes the flyer was a poor example of outreach because the facilitators assume the problems of its target group by emphasizing particular emotions and experiences, instead of just asking. The board of the flyer reads:

Threat. Emotional wellbeing. Academic stress.

Family issues. Pressure to prove yourself.

Racism. Sociopolitical climate. Pressure to fit in.

Microaggressions. Stereotype threat.

In her research, she learns this is incredibly ineffective.

Furthermore, many of the members did not quite grasp why the facilitators believe “grouping them together” would encourage participation. They questioned if the facilitators knew that African Americans are statistically less likely to seek individual help in regards mental health. How is this any different?

When the previously mentioned member reached out to Student Affairs, they asked her to meet with them to see how they could make the support group more effective. She came to the rest of the members to get feedback. Their responses:

Throw the whole event away.

Dead it.

In other words, they do not want it or feel they need it. We shall see how this all pans out.

Finding My Authentic Teaching Self

I believe I have several traits that would benefit my authentic teaching self. I am laid-back, I am warm, I am a good empathetic listener, I have the ability to project when I need to, I can be quite charming when I rely on safe, light-hearted humor. I say safe because I am not one to tell jokes, rather I know the kind of comments to make that may cause the audience to chuckle. Since I don’t invest much time in setting up the joke, I am okay if they laugh or choose not to. For me, this is a good way to diffuse tension/nervousness in the room and on my end.

However, after my experience this past summer with advising five incoming engineering students, I realized I may only be able to keep the audience attentive if they already perceive the topic as interesting or beneficial. I can be energetic when I present in class after much practice, but these presentations are infrequent. I worry I will not be able to maintain an appropriate level of energy for an entire class period, every class period. I do not have much experience with engaging the audience; not just getting them to listen, but also actively participate. This past summer, I tried to encourage participation by asking the students to read certain segments or share their perspectives, so I was not the only one talking. Mostly, I found that they were disengaged—perceiving the academic advising session as just another block of time forced into their already jam-packed days created by the summer transition program. I would like to ask questions to keep my students engaged—I think students are more willing to respond when the questions are open-ended and do not have one answer. Perhaps there is one answer, but the instructor does not actually know at that particular point in time. When an instructor relies on asking questions to which the answer is already know, it can limit participation because most people do not want to be publicly wrong. I’ve found that students will even whisper/mumble the correct answer because they are not entirely sure. Going back to my roots as a drama/musical theater performer, I would like to work on my enunciation and diction—even expanding my own vocabulary. This often makes me the self-conscious when I present or teach, depending on the audience. Being comfortable with the words that are coming out of one’s mouth is important to effective communication and overall confidence.

Touching briefly on the idea of using physical obstacles on teaching presented by Professor Fowler, I’ve often thought about this. I feel writing on the board with one’s back turned to the class is ineffective in maintaining connection and engagement. I personally like the idea of using a document camera, although this can be an example of an obstacle between the instructor and intended audience addressed by Professor Fowler, such as a podium. However, combined with guided notes that are available to print and bound, document cameras can be useful to fill in key concepts/equations while still being able to look up to interact with the students. I will continue to consider organizing the class in 15- to 20-minute segments to be mindful of the varying attention spans—I thought this was an valuable consideration raised by Professor Fowler.

I would say that I think it is important to cover the key topics in a class, especially an engineering class. Thus, in order to not prioritize coverage over meaningful learning (I cannot tell you how many times I have heard my professor say this semester “I have 45 slides to get through in 45 minutes”), it might be useful to plan a “condensed” and “extended” version of the class. The extended version of the class would provide additional topics the class can choose to explore, perhaps with a research or industry focus. It is also crucial to actually schedule in “workshop” classes/practice sessions, to work on problems throughout the course, not just the class before the exam. Scheduling them in allows the students to prepare problems and does not leave them with the feeling that the instructor “sacrificed” a class period to answer questions.

Consideration of Ethical Theories

Normative relativism: values and norm systems for each culture are equal; impossible to say that certain norms and values are better than others. We have to respect all value and norm systems. No universal norms.

The author identifies 3 flaws in the aforementioned theory:

  1. Contradiction between no universal norms and the universal norm to respect all value and norm systems
  2. Meaningful moral discussion hindered by defaulting to one’s own personal opinion
  3. Potential creation of unworkable or intolerable situations

To support the second flaw, the author asks: “should the torture of political prisoners be tolerated because this is customary within a given culture?” Quite an extreme example; I imagine the author wants this example to be thought-provoking. The author then goes on to describe an opposing position, universalism, which argues that there is a system of norms and values that is universally applicable. The authors raised these two theories and their imperfections to suggest there are more rational theories.

However, I find that there is a way to be more considerate of the key components of the normative relativism theory. Virtue ethics fits in well with this. Virtue ethics allows for moral judgment to be made based on not action or consequences of the action, but the actor’s characteristics. When considering these theories, I could not help but to think of the history between Colonial France and Algeria. Forceful unveilings, staged unveiling ceremonies, burning of women’s veils once they were removed, the propaganda—”to liberate Muslim women from the patriarchy, enabled by colonization.” Clearly, normative relativism was not at play here. But we can also see that not even virtue ethics made its mark. The action and consequences of Muslim women wearing their veils were not judged based on their qualities or characteristics. Perhaps for them, wearing the veil allowed for them to realize a good life—ascribing to the virtues of piety, modesty, integrity, courage.

Unveil yourselves

Translation: Are you not pretty? Unveil yourselves!

Reflections on “Organized Thoughtlessness”

“Representatives of the outside are on the inside. Traitors in our midst.”

“Whistleblowing…is another tactic for spreading disunity and creating conflict.”

—Former  President, General Motors (GM)

“The preferred solution: total control of the internal environment to combat threat from the external environment. Most threatening of all…is the thought that the proprietary organization isn’t really private.”


How can privacy be expected when one’s job is to provide a service to people—who most of the times are paying for the service? Who are expecting quality, reliability, and even safety in return for their hard-earned money?

We’ve seen it in DC. We’ve seen it in Flint. And although many of us may not have seen it—it happened with B. F. Goodrich. A “subordinate” was fired after reporting to the FBI that the brake intended for the air force was not accompanied with appropriate test results, while his supervisors were promoted. It appears the organizational paranoia has no consideration for the fact that often time whistleblowers’ first action is to keep the matter private, likely to avoid disunity or conflict.

Fred Alford explores the concept of feudalism in an organization as being the perception of the whistleblower looking from the bottom up. In case you can’t entirely remember your time learning about medieval Europe—feudalism was a social system that is essentially based on hierarchy of power in which a lower class provide services for the class above its own in return for a service.

Alford says that feudalism is marked by power being a private possession. One is not expected to work for or represent the organization as a whole, but rather a workers’ decisions are often times made solely on a private relationship with the boss compromised by the power dynamic, despite one’s own moral compass. These private relationships allow for those “up top” to claim that they knew nothing about a given incident, once the whistleblower goes public.

untitled unmastered.

“The whole idea of corrosion control is more of an art than a science”

— Lloyd Stowe, P.E., Chief of Plant Operations, Washington Aqueduct


What does it mean when a professional engineer and chief of plant operations attributes controlling a scientific phenomenon (i.e., corrosion) to being outside the realm of science? Perhaps he means that even when one thinks he/she knows all there is to know about corrosion, there are so many contributing factors that it is likely some things can be overlooked. Perhaps he means corrosion control goes beyond what is rational or scientific, as others attribute to something that is an “art.” Perhaps it is a matter of perspective – a scientist in 2018 may indeed view corrosion control as a science, as research advances and having been able to learn from the past mistakes. In this case, learning from mistakes often comes at the cost of a threat to public welfare.

I can only hope that Stowe made this statement as a way to reassure the public that while the team at the Washington Aqueduct did the best they can to make a decision that would minimize one issue, there were unintended consequences they were unable to avoid because corrosion control is so massive. On the other hand, as someone who has concern for the victims of the DC Lead Crisis, it is hard to not see this as an excuse. I cannot help but to translate this as “corrosion control is an art, and I am not an artist.”

I see this as a lesson to be learned about how vital it is to be open and truthful with clarity – not to use language that can be vague or abstract. To not allow for misinterpretation, as a means to value one’s social contract as an engineer.

Source: Google

The “Googling the Error” section of the “Arc of Life Learning” chapter in Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown’s A New Culture of Learning resonated with me the most this week. Possibly because these days I am Allen and he is me. I was not always this way. When I arrived at Virginia Tech as a graduate student in June 2017, my fellow lab mates suggested I learn the program R as this allows for graphing data in the format my advisor prefers. Apparently Excel graphs are deemed a bit unprofessional in the world I only recently became a part of—who knew? I saw that there was book available to teach all there was to know about R, thus I asked if this was the best way to learn the program. I was a new graduate student eager to learn things the “right way”. In summary I was told “No. Just google anything you need to know.” They were not wrong. Even after taking a class in my department which essentially teaches R in the context of environmental sampling and monitoring—still not wrong. I would absolutely argue that the class was helpful for two of the reasons Robert Talbert lists in “Four things lecture is good for”: modeling thought processes and giving context. However, now that I am beyond the class and actually to the point where I have my own data to work with, it is nearly impossible and time-consuming to search through the course material for the specific file which contained a specific example of how to change the range on the y-axis. I try, I really do—primarily because I want to actually make use of what I learned and the work I put into the semester, but my priority is producing results not holding on to principle.

In the same section of A New Culture of Learning, a passage caused me to reflect on my understanding of what we discussed last week: “by ‘googling’ the error, he was able to tap into—and learn from—large, diverse networks of programming and hobbyists who all faced similar issues.” Networked learning. But the thing is, I often overlook the people in the process that comprise this network. Often, Google is viewed as this omnipotent being that has all the answers. Too many times I’ve seen people cite Google Images (not even going to talk about Wikipedia). In reality, Google is simply a search engine that directs us to questions and answers provided by real people. When I “google the error,” I unfortunately don’t make any attempts to be a part of the conversation. I get my answer and I get out. Really, I should be more grateful to all the people who were helpful enough to take the time to answer questions for people like me and of course, the brave answer-seekers.

Networked Learning and Inclusion

The third suggestion presented by Doug Belshaw in “Working Openly on the Web” is to ensure data is readable by both humans and machines. This statement reminded me of a Graduate Teaching Assistant (GTA) workshop I attended a couple of weeks ago. The workshop attendees were advised to make sure any file we upload is also readable by machines. However, this was addressed in the context of how graduate teaching assistants may further accommodate students with disabilities.

Seth Godin argues that blogging is a means to force oneself to become part of the conversation.

Reflecting on all of these points, I have come to conclude that making data readable by machines does not just allow for “network effects”, as suggested by Doug Belshaw, and blogging is not just a platform to participate in the conversation if one so chooses. Rather the idea of “networked learning” allows for any- and every- one to be an active participant in one’s education. It includes those students whose learning needs may otherwise be overlooked by traditional pedagogy.

I was most inspired by Michael Welsh’s presentation of a “scaffolded” final project that makes the process “worth it” for each individual student. I have been in a few classes, both graduate and undergraduate, that have included checkpoints by which my instructors could give feedback for the next phase and the final submission. I’ve found this helpful due to the instructor feedback and that this does not allow for leaving a final project until the last moment. I’ve even experienced not submitting one deadline to my expectations, and it was reassuring to know that I would be able to recover as I progressed.

I am interested to learn ways to incorporate networked learning, “scaffolded” assignments, and ultimately inclusion in my own teaching practices.