Rock face with geological tool

CLAS Acts January 2019

Monthly newsletter for CLAS TT faculty



For last year’s words belong to last year’s language. And next year’s words await another voice. And to make an end is to make a beginning.
~T.S. Eliot


A very happy 2019 to you all.  

This January may well see the announcement of our next university president.  The next several months will be a time of appreciating all that has developed and grown under Tom Haas’ stewardship—thank you, Tom—and thinking about how to assist our new leader to understand us well.  All that we learn from assessment, accreditation processes, talking to our alumni, looking at statistics and strategic plans, hallway conversations, and participating in faculty governance discussions is relevant to the narrative of who we are and are becoming as a college and as units. 

At this time of year, with FARs due January 15, you are certainly thinking about how the last year went and projecting into your individual future.  I invite you to think about how this fits into the larger whole of your unit and college.  Studies are showing that many in our culture are suffering from forms of loneliness, so I hope that you are combating that tendency as you make your plans.  Are there connections you can think of making in your teaching or research?  The College Office is often well placed to give you an assist—and that’s as it should always be; even the etymology of the word “college” reminds us that it is about partnership.  Some ways to get rolling include checking out the Teach Together program launched last fall, and getting the dates of the Winter CLAS Faculty Research Colloquia on your calendar (January 17, February 14, March 14,  2:30pm refreshments and conversation, 3-5pm for the talks, 308 PAD).  Service by its nature tends to connect you to others.  You’ll receive email from your Faculty Council before long urging you to consider running for university or college committees.  Not only will this help you to learn the bigger picture, you will make connections with quite admirable people outside of your unit.  

May the students in your classes show early signs of intellectual engagement and willingness to meet you half way. May 2019 be for you a year of happiness in your work, and excitement in how you grow because of it.

Trust, Intentionality, and the Rendezvous― Designing Inclusive Meetings for Educators with Caitlin Callahan

For it is not true that the work of man is finished,

That we have nothing more to do in the world,

That we are just parasites in this world,

That it is enough for us to walk in step with the world,

For the work of man is only just beginning and it remains to conquer all,

The violence entrenched in the recess of his passion,

And no race holds a monopoly of beauty, of intelligence, of strength, and,

There is a place for all at the Rendezvous of Victory.

~ Aimé Césaire*

Assistant Professor of Geology, Caitlin Callahan has attended, since its first iteration in 2013, a meeting of the National Association of Geoscience Teachers known as the Earth Educators’ Rendezvous.  That playfully auspicious name accurately signals that this is not an ordinary academic meeting. 

Not only does the week-long Rendezvous involve multiple 2- and 3-day workshops, afternoon workshops, plenary speakers and roundtable discussions, it also takes the radically inclusive step of seeing as its audience academics from R1 intuitions, undergraduate universities, 2-year colleges, government and nonprofit employees, and K-12 teachers.  It serves all who are interested in teaching and learning about the Earth.

Caitlin’s own interests have long been to think about how we teach, learn, think about, and participate in science, so her attachment to the Rendezvous quickly escalated.  She was tapped to be on the planning committee and then to be the co-chair for the 2018 and 2019 sessions.  The committee intentionally involves about a dozen members from different communities so that they can well represent the audiences of the event.

The planning committee not only develops workshop topics and invites plenary speakers, they also very intentionally look for how they can develop leadership capacity in their community.  To illustrate, Caitlin recalls an experienced geoscience educator who suggested a workshop topic via their topic suggestion web link.  A second educator of far less experience expressed interest in seeing a closely related topic.  The planning committee asked the experienced academic if there was a possibility of  co-leading the session.

So the Rendezvous is both about teaching and about bringing more people to the table and these are interrelated.

“It’s a challenge, but worthwhile,” Caitlin observes.  “I learned from the person who did an evaluation of the first three years of the Rendezvous that people want to give as well as get. Their feeling of welcome and engagement is only high when they have the opportunity to give something.  We on the planning committee talk about this as the give/get ratio.  The ratio can’t be zero.  Letting people make a contribution is key.”

Caitlin is still explicitly talking about the Rendezvous but it would be hard for any educator to miss the significance of this idea for teaching and even retention of students. 

“We look at how as leaders we can work on that ratio.  The workshops are not meant to be lectures.  We also have activities such as a Share-a-thon in which people have an opportunity to give a 30 second spiel on a teaching idea, and we have 20-minute teaching demos so there are lots of ways of participating.  And one of the cornerstones of the workshop is a session for post docs and graduate students called Preparing for an Academic Career in which we explain how to build teaching and research portfolios and stress the importance of building allies early.”

Caitlin says that for her the Rendezvous is like going to camp because it builds a sense of community and has interaction that you would not necessarily get at other kinds of meetings.  The planning committee takes seriously the challenge of making sure that all parts of their wide audience feel fully respected and know that any concerns will be heard.

This year the committee is thinking particularly about the needs of one part of their constituency, the heads or chairs of geoscience programs.  One of the workshops will be specifically for them.   

“We are also thinking about those who have been underrepresented in our field and so the location of the 2019 Rendezvous co-hosted by University of Tennessee and Vanderbilt University will provide a location that is within a reasonable travel distance for some of the historically black colleges and universities (HBCU).  We are making an explicit effort to create this opportunity and to have the HBCU working group’s interests well represented in the programming.”

Also on her mind as they plan the 2019 meeting are the workshops on teaching well at the introductory level, how to address implicit bias in the classroom, mentoring, and technology.  Workshops have been on everything from how to teach about climate change in a time of strife to the use of drones.  This spread helps them to have topics of interest to their diverse participants.

Caitlin hopes that someday GVSU will be able to host this meeting.  She’d be happy to show off our campus.  Despite the work involved, she finds that at this point in her career, her work as co-chair provides very valuable networking.  She also finds that the workshops directly benefit her own teaching in ways such as reminding her to do more backward design of her lessons so that they really work toward her goals rather than falling into the “survival mode” that all faculty have to guard against.

“Sometimes I can also bring back something such as an activity that I know will appeal to a particular college here.”

Caitlin also sees the relevance of the Rendezvous experience to the passion she feels for mentoring.  She recalls how much it meant to her when a presenter talked about the importance of building trust in mentoring relationships.  “We need to help those we mentor build social capital,” Caitlin notes.  Not only do mentors need to help their charges appreciate and build social capital, network, identify needs through honest conversation, but they also have to know that they can’t do it all; a number of mentors can often do that job better.

She finds that when building trust in the classroom it helps to pay attention to the symptoms as well as the causes.  Using sociological theoretical frameworks to see the lived experience of the students is as valuable to her teaching as the geological theoretical frameworks of things like plate tectonics.

“To build trust,” Caitlin explains, “you need that sense of belonging, and that is related to the give/get ratio.  We need to let our students have the opportunity to give.”



*Notebook of a return to my native land [Cahier d'un retour au pays natal] (Bloodaxe contemporary French poets), 1995.