Student Voices: Pandemic Life as a Student Parent 

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Part 2: Parenting for Social Justice, An Interview with Erin Cross, Director of Penn’s LGBT Center and Mom

In the first blog post of this series, I talked about my journey as a student and a new mom during the pandemic. Even though my schedule is still very unpredictable day to day as I care for my son, writing in shorter chunks of time has helped with creativity and focus. In this post, I discuss what it means to be a parent who is committed to social justice, including the need to interrogate our privilege not only as individuals but as a family. Especially while my son is only a few months old, it is easy to get caught up in the immediate needs of diaper changes, naptime, and all those middle of the night feedings. But the bigger picture of what kind of parent I strive to be is also important. 

In the book, Negotiating Critical Literacies with Young Children, Vivian Vasquez writes about what happens when she shares a critical literacies curriculum with preschool children who are three to five years old. Through discussion, drawings, read alouds, and other activities, the children explore social issues including race, gender, and age in complex and thought-provoking ways. Vasquez highlights that children most adults would consider ‘very young’ are actively engaging in critical inquiry related to how they experience the world. Such opportunities to critically engage should be an everyday process, not limited to a classroom unit, holiday, or museum visit. 

To reflect more on this topic, I caught up with a former professor of mine at Penn GSE, Erin Cross. Erin is the Director of Penn’s LGBT Center, and also teaches a course on Gender and Sexuality in Education. On the first day of class, we went around and talked about why we enrolled. “One day, I want to be a mom,” I said. During our discussions, Erin sometimes also talked about her kids and their experiences with gender. We kept in touch and I am part of a group Erin facilitates for white parents who are striving to be anti-racist. I want to thank Erin for engaging with me so thoughtfully in the Q&A below. 

Jen: What does it mean to be an inclusive parent? 

Erin: Striving to have your kids exposed to as much breadth as possible of humanity and believing others lived experiences, including our kids’.  We try to talk about all kinds of differences whenever moments present themselves, ensure their books go beyond the white, straight, middle-class, citizen narrative, have varied people in their lives, and discover new art, etc. together. That is not enough, however. I also strive to be an anti-racist parent.  We do not sugar coat racism in our house, it would be such a disservice to our kids. It is important for them to see white people admitting they are racist and working on it instead of just saying ‘I understand what you are going through.’ We don’t; so we try to have other folks in their lives of similar ethnic and racial backgrounds to be there if they need them. They also see me and my wife working with communities of color as worker bees and using our white privilege to lift BIPOC voices whenever possible. Breaking the gender binary is also huge in our house as we have folks of all gender identities in our lives as well. I am proud our kids default to they or ask people their pronouns. Sure, they soak up cultural stereotypes because they are being raised in U.S. culture but we try to mitigate them as much as possible. It is weird to see one of our kids enact what he sees as masculinity as he tries on new identities though, because the current identity of ‘cool, macho boy’ did not come from us.  It is his experience and he needs to figure out who he is; however, and I have to say it is fun to watch as much as it is frustrating at times.

Jen: You co-facilitate a circle on Campus for Penn staff on whiteness and anti-racism. The theme is raising anti-racist kids. What advice do you have for student groups on Campus interested in creating similar spaces?

Erin: If students want to create a space to discuss and process their whiteness and their role in racism, go ahead and do it. A good place to start is Layla Saad’s book, Me and White Supremacy. In the book, Saad describes specific activities you can work through together to start addressing your own racism, like keeping a journal where you can reflect on how your white privilege has protected you throughout your life. Also, know there are staff and faculty in White Educators Committed to Anti-Racism and Equity (WE-CARE) who are trying to do their own work and feel free to reach out.

Jen: When I took your class on Gender and Sexuality in Education we read X: A Fabulous Child’s Story, a fictional story about a child whose gender was kept secret. When X goes to school, the adults react with hostility but other children begin to imitate X and find freedom in rejecting gender rules.  How does the fictional experience of X relate to your own real experiences as a parent?

Erin: Although I love the story and it still serves a purpose, it is also very much so stuck in its time and the gender binary. Moreover, since X does a bit of girl and a bit of boy and it is early in life, their actions and appearance are not tied to assumed sexual orientation. What if X really did stick to non-gendered activities? First, it would be impossible and I am guessing many of them would actually be masculine. But, really no reason to speculate I suppose. Kids today have more leeway in terms of gender expression, although it is important to note there are still very binary spaces in the US as well (based on faith communities, ethnic backgrounds, SES, etc.). I was not in my kids’ life when they were young but from stories it was quite interesting.  I know now we do our best not to work from gendered notions of things but we also know it seeps in from other spaces. That said, I love hearing how one boy at their school wears skirts and loves to twirl and the school and students are cool with it.

Jen: As a new mom, I love to read to my son. I know you have been a teacher and are a mom as well. What are some of your favorite kids’ books?

Erin: So many. I also asked a few other pals who are educators and moms.

  • Julian is a Mermaid
  • Hands Hands Fingers Thumbs
  • The Day the Crayons Quit
  • Professor Wormbog in Search for the Zipperump-a-Zoo
  • Liza Lou and the Yellerbelly Swamp
  • The Day You Began
  • A Snowy Day
  • George
  • Chicka Chicka Boom Boom
  • In our Mother’s House
  • Today I Feel Silly
  • Tell Me Again About the Night I was Born
  • I Love My Hair
  • Tikki Tikki Tembo
  • Peter’s Chair
  • Whistle for Willie
  • I Am Enough
  • Chrysanthemum
  • The Very Hungry Caterpillar
  • Tomie DiPaolo books – Strega Nona in particular

By Jen Kobrin, Learning Fellow and Learning Specialist

Bigger Pictures: Make a Note

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

“I don’t know what I think until I’ve written about it.” ~  Various Attributions

Of all the things I talk about here at your learning center, the one I always feel a little bit guilty about is notetaking. I always feel like the subject is like a benignly neglected child in a big family, the kid who basically raises herself in a household that is far too stretched and busy to worry about someone who is more or less okay. That’s notetaking.

Academic notetaking has been largely conscribed by one thing:  the lecture. And historically, this makes sense. Back in the mists of time, professors would intone and, well, profess, and students would scratch away, trying to get down every word. It wasn’t uncommon for “serious” students to learn how to take shorthand in order to get down every word.  This technique can be described as truly Mediaeval, with its roots planted firmly in the monastic scriptorium, where sacred text was read aloud while Brother Scribes took down copy. What a gig.

Academia has embraced a few technological advances since the Monastic era, most notably the slide deck. Ah, yes. PowerPoint. Our frenemy. No matter where you come down on the ubiquitous deployment of PowerPoint in the higher ed classroom, there is one undeniable plus: the mad rush to get down every word has been alleviated, at least somewhat. So long as the slides are made available, you don’t have to worry about copying out the entire slide during class. All you really have to worry about is what is said off slide.

But there is another part of notes that gets routinely neglected, and that is the notes you make to yourself, and if you don’t do that now, I’d encourage you to give it a go, especially if you are currently in the type of humanities or social science courses that require you to come up with your own paper topics. These notes capture what you think about the lecture topics or reading material. Think of these kinds of notes as the record of what you think.

And one more thing: these types of notes don’t have to be declarative. Solid questions arising from the reading material count as notes too.

Staff Writer: Pete Kimchuk, Senior Learning Instructor

Bigger Pictures: Keep It Classy, Quakers

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

“Laptop multitasking hinders classroom learning for both users and nearby peers”   ~  Sana, Weston & Cepeda

Is it even possible to run a spoiler alert before the title of an academic paper?  Laptop multitasking hinders classroom learning for both users and nearby peers.  Talk about ruining the ending.

In any case, I’m not planning to rehash the paper – I trust you can read that for yourself, and I hope you do.  What I am going to talk about is something far more basic.

So, first, a question:  how many times have you yourself watched another student “multitasking” during class?  I’m not talking about watching someone type lecture notes, I mean watching somebody respond to their email, update their Facebook status, check out 21 Adorable Child Stars Who Grew Up Sooo Ugly?

Okay, now how many times has that been you?

Yeah, I know.  But don’t worry.  It’ll be our secret.  Not that you and I keeping our mouths shut about these multitasking indiscretions matters, because someone else knows, too.  Do you know who that is?

digit 2

That’s right, your professor.  More than likely, your TA as well.  Don’t think for one minute that the person tasked with operating the front of the house is somehow clueless about what’s going on out there in the rest of the room.  They see.  They know.  Some of them even keep tabs.

But even that’s not the bigger issue here.  Sure, it is bad if you don’t get the full 10% for class participation.  That piece of the final grade might make the difference between a B+ or an A-, and I always advise students to never leave points on the table.  The bigger issue here is that “multitasking” during class is, quite simply, rude.  Your actions tell your teacher that what’s going on in the front of the room is far less interesting and of far less import than what’s going on in social media.  So don’t do it.  It’s not nice to passively insult these people.

Staff Writer: Pete Kimchuk, Senior Learning Instructor


Bigger Pictures: Cramming Confession

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

“Cramming is not a practice.  It’s an exercise in panic.”

     ~  Debra Gwartney

I hate to speak ill of a practice exercise with such a long and noble history, but a blogger’s got to do what a blogger’s got to do, even if the aforementioned blogger, when reflecting upon his own undergraduate practice experience re: cramming, now stands before you as nothing more (or less) than a big old hypocrite.

So let’s get that bit of academic confession out of the way, shall we?

Long ago, in a galaxy far away (a few decades, about 13 miles to the north) yours truly found himself in the kind of introductory Psych course that (so help me) could bore the paint right off the walls. Our prof was an amiable old guy who, for some inexplicable reason, genuinely liked us.  Who knows why?  We were far too many, and most were aggressively disinterested in a course that simply filled a requirement.  He seemed about as happy with the department’s mandatory attendance policy as we were, and he made it quite clear to anyone who cared to listen that he would much rather not take roll and just talk about interesting Psych stuff with the few people who were actually interested enough to show up and talk about the interesting Psych stuff.

The course materials, in those Dark Days before PowerPoint, consisted of an overpriced edition of a textbook (required) and a separate study guide (recommended).  Let me say for the record that I misread the syllabus and bought the study guide by accident.

It turned out the prof took his exam questions verbatim from the study guide.  He changed the order of the A, B, C, D answers, as well as the order of the questions, but that was it.  People still failed the course.  Seriously.  Even after I shared what was going on.

My strategy for this course was to get up early the day of the exam, figure out the study guide answers, cram my short term memory, take the test in the afternoon, and then promptly forget the morning’s work about 12 minutes after handing in the exam.

Anyway, I aced the exams, aced the course, and got over any lingering guilt rather quickly.  Happy ending, right?


The next semester I tried the same thing with Chemistry:  got up early, cracked open the study guide – and promptly realized I made a HUGE miscalculation.  I couldn’t get through all the material, let alone know it.  My grade proved that.  (Total transparency:  that grade was a 23).  The Chem cram approach died instantaneously.

Anyway, did I learn anything?  Certainly not about Chemistry, even though I passed the course, in large part because I could drop that 23.  And anything I eventually learned about Psychology came from courses I took later.  But I can pass on this observation:

Cramming only works until it doesn’t work anymore.

Staff Writer: Pete Kimchuk, Senior Learning Specialist

Bigger Pictures: So Much to Read, So Little Time

Monday, November 7, 2016

“The flood of print has turned reading into a process of gulping rather than savoring.”

                                                                                                                           ~  Raymond Chandler

Raymond Chandler, the author who gave us The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye and Farewell, My Lovely, as well as generously providing the epigram for today’s blog post, died way back in 1959.  He had good reason to bemoan the “flood of print”.  During his career paperbacks became cheaper and easier to produce, to say nothing of large circulation magazines and daily newspapers, many of which published multiple daily editions. So while Old Ray didn’t live long enough to witness the mad proliferation of text brought to us courtesy of the world wide web, there was certainly a greater availability of potential reading material.

In the land of academic reading the idea that a student will savor what’s been assigned seems beside the point. When confronted with hundreds of pages of required reading, the first urge is just to power through, roll the eyeballs over line after line of words, words, words until this nightmare is over. Because that’s what we’re supposed to do, right?  Complete the assignment, finish the book, read the PDFs.  Move on.

Savoring, in Chandler’s parlance, here is akin to processing, to thinking deeply, which is after all what we’re supposed to be doing anyway.  I’m not saying that we can do that with every assigned page of text, but I am saying that we should at least pick out chunks that resonate with us as readers and we should reread these bits, and think about what these passages mean not just in the context of the class material, but beyond.

On the other side we should acknowledge the dilemma of those tasked with building the reading list and the syllabus. This requires more than anything else to strike a balance between breadth and depth. Deciding what should be skimmed and what to read deeply is as much art as science, even for those who assign the work.

This is an old tension, maybe even an ancient one. Did the sages of Sumer worry that the unprecedented availability of cuneiform tablets made it more difficult to appreciate what had been pressed into the soft clay with a stylus?  Sure.  Let’s go with that.

Staff Writer: Pete Kimchuk

Bigger Pictures: So Now You’re a Grad Student

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

“If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?”

                                                                                                                                              ~  Albert Einstein

Welcome to the next stage of your education.

Over the last couple weeks, chances are you’ve probably noticed that a few things are different. You probably noticed that you feel different– and not necessarily in good ways.  Let’s take a gander, why don’t we, at one of the more insidious.

You may have noticed what can best be described as a creeping insecurity.  This probably happened when, in a flash of self-awareness, you realized that all you know is how much you don’t know.  You sense it when you’re reading, you feel it during class discussion, you wrestle with it in the middle of the night when you can’t get to sleep because how can you possibly sleep when there’s so much you don’t know that you should know, and you should have made yourself somehow know all that stuff years ago before you got to the point where all these people you don’t even know are going to know precisely how much you don’t know.

Sound familiar?

First, take a deep breath.

What you’re experiencing is known as imposter syndrome.  There is some debate as to whether you were issued it when you got your PennCard, or if you picked it up during orientation.  In any event, rest assured, you are not alone.

Consider:  Your learning curve is steepest at the start of a program, even if you have an undergrad’s background in the discipline.  This may strike you as even more dispiriting, but just take it as a simple sign of the depth you’ll be required to go to in your graduate work.  There’s no need to turn practical self-evaluation into personal self-flagellation.

Many people wind up in graduate school because somewhere along the line they got really good at school.  They learned how to learn.  School became an arena of success.  This doesn’t make them immune to imposter syndrome.  Other people wind up in grad and professional programs because they see no alternative if they hope to continue along a particular career trajectory.  Among these folks you’ll find people who may not believe that they were ever good at school, but they know they have to suck it up and do what they have to do, which means going back to school, a place where they feel they don’t belong.   If you fall into this category, you’re more than likely experiencing imposter syndrome with a particularly nasty bite.  But you can always learn to learn better.

As I always say, you know where to find us.

Staff Writer: Pete Kimchuk, Senior Learning Instructor

Bigger Pictures: Come for the Tips

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

“All men can see these tactics whereby I conquer, but what none can see is the strategy out of which victory is evolved.”

     ~  Sun Tzu

Confession:  I’ve never been crazy about the word “tips” when it comes to how to study, or do better on exams, or do everything you said you would do before you realized that you over-committed.

I used to think that it was because “tips” sounds lightweight, a feathery and effortless little nothing that removes stains from your fine woolens, or helps you pick up a few bucks at the race track.  Tips can be bad, too, like when someone leaves you $0.23 on a $54 check.

But aren’t we a learning center?  Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do?  Aren’t we supposed to provide handy dandy “tips” and then, by the power vested in us by the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, these “tips” become “spells” and then everyone goes home happy, except for Draco Malfoy, because “duh”?

Rest assured that my initial bad reaction to the word “tips” really has nothing to do with the earnest young witch or wizard student who comes to our humble little shop looking for help and/or advice.  What gets me about the word “tips” is the underlying thought that better learning involves nothing more than grabbing a few random bon mots before skipping off to a 3.87 gpa.

Anyway, I’ve mellowed.

What we do here at your learning center is help you tackle your academic challenges through self-evaluation and refining your learning process, followed by further self-evaluation and tweaking of the process. You know:  lather, rinse, repeat.

What I’m saying is, if you’re looking for a few tips, come on in. We’re delighted to go through how it is you’re going about doing your academic stuff. Just don’t be surprised if you start to see that this learning how to learn thing is deeper than you expected.

Pete Kimchuk, Senior Learning Instructor

Bigger Pictures: The Problem With Problems

Monday, October 26, 2015

“If you don’t make mistakes, you’re not working on hard enough problems. And that’s a big mistake.”
~ Frank Wilczek, 2004 Nobel Prize winner in physics

My Weingarten colleague, Rashmi Kumar, knowing my deep affection for epigrams, aphorisms and anything even remotely quotable, gave me this one while we were prepping for a STEM related workshop. Good one, isn’t it?

Wilczek won his Nobel Prize (along with David Gross and H. David Politzer) for his discovery of asymptotic freedom, which deals with the distance between quarks and the effect on strong interaction. If you’re looking for a better explanation and you’re not rooming with Sheldon Cooper, you can read this instead [SPOILER ALERT: the closer the quarks, the less the strong interaction.]

But back to the quote. I like this one because, for me, it encapsulates a useful piece of metacognitive wisdom: you can learn more from getting something wrong than by getting it right. To put a finer point on it, you deepen your understanding by searching out why something is wrong, why you can’t see it, and along the way maybe discover whatever blind spot in the mind’s eye that prevents you from seeing everything whole. It’s a wondrous moment when you finally see why some particular something or other is a mistake, and that feeling of exhilaration can last you quite a while, right up until the next mistake, usually on the very next problem. But it’s best not to dwell on that. Making mistakes is not just a part of any successful process, but the inextricable part.

On a more pragmatic level, the quote also implies a strategic realization: plug and chug gets you only so far. All those formulas and equations and numbers mean something, and if you’re not actively looking for the deeper meaning and the bigger picture, you’ll never find it.

Staff Blogger: Pete Kimchuk, Senior Learning Instructor