Spotlight Interview: Gwendollyn Ulrich-Schlumbohm
Interview by Jessica Knippel PFF Fellow. M.A., Ph.D, Candidate in Religion
Gwendollyn (Gwen) Ulrich-Schlumbohm is currently a Ph.D. student in the Religious Studies Department at Claremont Graduate University with a focus on the intersection of history, religion, gender, sexuality, and the body. She earned both her Bachelor’s of Arts and Masters of Arts from San Diego State University in History. Since 2006, she has served as an adjunct history professor at several local community colleges in San Diego and Riverside Counties. Her current course preparation is both sections of the World History Survey, the United States Surveys, Western Civilization Surveys, and Women and Gender in United States History. She has written the curriculum for the Women in United States History class and was selected as the first adjunct professor to be an SDICCCA Mentor with SDSU in 2019. She is the happily married mother of three collegiate daughters and was the primary caretaker of her mother who passed in late 2019 from Multiple Sclerosis. She is now excited to further her research interests and expand her teaching career.
“I make myself accessible to students. I talk with them not to them. I laugh and share parts of my life. I make myself human- not the sage on the stage.”
How did you end up teaching?
I didn’t end up teaching, it was where I wanted to be.
I started at a community college. I was a poor kid who didn’t have a university offered to them as an option because back in the 90’s if your parents didn’t go to college, and you were not a “top student” or a student with money they just didn’t offer university as an option. It isn’t like it is now. They were not gender or equity minded. So, I started community college the summer I graduated from high school. I had a history teacher that made all the difference. She showed me that a lot of the subjects I thought I would hate I actually wound-up loving, and now I teach. I mean it took me a long time to get there. But knowing I once sat in the seats my students sat in, has really created a passion for what I do. I am helping the next me.
What do you feel you bring to your classes that is unique to you?
I make myself accessible to students. I talk with them not to them. I laugh and share parts of my life. I make myself human- not the sage on the stage.
I create pathways for them to get the grade they want. If they are in a certificate program and only need a “C” there is a way to achieve that. If they are a first-year student that has only basic skills, I create a path for them to achieve with hard work and ideas, if the writing isn’t there yet. I teach the skills they need to succeed in college as well as subject matter.
How do you incorporate you disciplines and values into your teaching?
I incorporate ethical and empathetic thinking in my classes. While it is easy to sit back and judge history by today’s morality, it is much harder to get into that historical mindset and be empathetic to the people of the past. It is important we see the people of the past as more than actors on a screen, we need to see them as people who faced ethical and moral dilemmas just like we do today. These people we talk about had many of the same problems and needs- maybe just not as much information. If we hold that, we can understand perspectives of the past.
How were your expectations different from the reality of teaching?
When I was a new professor- well I feel really bad for the students I had the first year. I graded like they were grad students. I forgot to lower my expectations of my students. When you are teaching at a community college you can have no expectations when it comes to prior knowledge, grammar… you need to be able to know your own subject so well that you can explain everything in multiple ways. You need to be kind and patient.
What has surprised you the most in teaching / research findings?
I was surprised by the fact that I had students who wanted an education so much that they were willing to live in their car in order to continue their studies. This is happening more and more often. Some even plan it as they move to universities. We have homeless students and students who, without dorms, are homeless. I was surprised how many of my students at the community college had mental health problems. I was surprised that there were cultural issues that made it almost impossible for some students to go to school. (I could not imagine a parent that did not want their kid in college but actually some parents want their daughters at home helping with younger kids or want sons out earning a wage. They do not see the value in further education.)
I was surprised how each community college (and I would think university) has its own flavor. Some can be really toxic, some can be really formal/informal, and some can be extraordinarily collegiate. Some colleges encourage you to be friendly with your peers, some maintain a strict hierarchy. You just don’t know until you have been there awhile.
What is your wish project? What type of assignment would you like to do, if you didn’t have to worry about grading, resources, time, etc.
I want to take students to the Mediterranean and dive the wrecks that are there and teach the history of the Ancient Mediterranean and visit the museums and important sites on the dry days. That would be a dream class.
What was the best piece of advice you received about teaching?
Value yourself, and your time. Know what you are getting paid for. Do not – as an adjunct – devote hours and hours to a college thinking it will make you more valuable. If it isn’t marketable on your CV or valuable for prep for your classes- let it go.
Who is a teacher you admired as a student and why?
There are several, but the professors I have modeled my own teaching style after are Dr. Susan Cayleff, and Dr. Beth Pollard at San Diego State. Two female instructors who taught very different things. One in Women’s Studies, and one in Ancient History.
Dr. Cayleff was the storyteller and held me to a standard that I never knew I could reach as an undergraduate. She was understanding when things fell apart and was kind when I was not kind to myself. She was fun and funny and made classes fly. I wanted to do the work she had assigned because it was designed to allow me freedom within the bounds of the course to explore. I have carried these pedogeological ideas into my own classes, and often give students the ability to choose their own additional readings.
Dr. Pollard was also kind in a way I didn’t understand then. She took a good idea and very rough words and pushed when I needed pushing and was kind when I needed kindness. My thesis was an emotionally draining work, and I was also mothering young children at the time. She gave me empathy when I needed it, but still held me to rigorous standards that I needed to meet. Dr. Pollard pushed me to an academic level I am very proud of- without breaking me. I was writing about an emotionally draining topic and she was incredibly supportive. She took an undergraduate who took some classes and had some ideas and created a historian. She understood my compelling need to tell a particular story and taught me how to tell it correctly for our discipline.
What kinds of capacities do you try to build in your courses besides SLOs?
The most important thing for me to teach in my classes besides content, is critical thinking. The discipline has changed from when I was in those seats- we live in an age where we have instant access to multiple opinions and some facts. Students need to know how to evaluate a source, they need to be able to think through a source using both inductive and deductive reasoning. They have to understand cause and effect but not just in the short term, but the long term as well. They have to be able to shift focus from the small picture to the big picture and back to really comprehend a particular issue.
Do they come to me with these skills? No. But instead of drill and kill on dates and events I make students think about cause and effect- short and long term. I have them make modern connections to things from the long past using modern news items. I have them read sources and pull them apart to think about them in new ways. Are they experts when they leave my class? No. But they are starting to skill up. These are the skills that they will use in other classes, and in life.