Spotlight: Laura Graham
Written by Noah Ringler, PFF Fellow and Doctoral Student, Psychology. Noah’s research focuses on mindfulness, moral development and wisdom.
Laura Graham received her Ph.D. in Positive Developmental Psychology from Claremont Graduate University in 2019. While at Claremont, she taught as an Adjunct Professor at Whittier College. Following graduation, she was a Postdoctoral Scholar at the University of California, Riverside and taught at Chapman University. In her research, she uses mixed-methods to study how individuals create life stories that are meaningful, pleasurable, prosocial, and lead towards personal growth. Although still a researcher, teaching is where she feels most fulfilled, and she uses what she knows about personal growth to design her courses. She now teaches at Beloit College in Wisconsin.
“I love seeing students get excited about the subject or see it in their own lives.”
How were your expectations different from the reality of teaching?
I initially put a lot of weight on teaching because the thought of being able to be a professor was a huge factor in my decision to go to grad school. Thankfully, I did love teaching but this placed undue pressure on the courses and I took it personally when the students were not as engaged as I expected them to be. Sometimes there are days or even classes that are just not as enthusiastic about the material no matter how hard you try and that is okay!
One of the main reality checks that I encountered was the realization that you cannot do everything in a single course, and that you must make a course feasible in terms of content and assignments. I had (and still have!) such an idealized notion of what I would be able to accomplish in one semester- pouring time and energy into every lecture and designing a course that required all sorts of fun assignments but that ended up being too overwhelming when teaching multiple courses at once. The reality is that you can easily find yourself overworked from your own course design if you require so many lengthy writing assignments that are time-consuming to grade and require detailed feedback. My students appreciate the detailed comments, but it is not necessary for every assignment, and it is fine to be more efficient. The big lesson is that you can still design and teach a stellar course without attempting to “do it all” in one semester. What is good in theory is not always good in practice and it is okay to make it easier on yourself!
What have you learned about teaching from your students?
I have learned an enormous amount from my students. One important thing for me is that they really appreciate authenticity and enthusiasm. It takes work to show up engaged and spirited yourself, but it can make all the difference. The students perceive when you genuinely care about a topic or want them to succeed, and the enthusiasm can spread to them. It pays to follow their interests in your lectures, get to know them, build relationships and rapport, and be vulnerable and authentic. Something more tangible that I have learned is that they do like variation during class time- lecture, videos, activities. They much prefer to have a medium switch than to listen to lecture the whole time and are more attentive if they can have a variety.
What are some of your best techniques for inclusive and equitable learning?
I am always learning in this area and aware that I likely fall short and will need to keep learning and evolving to implement what works best, but some things have already shown promise. First, I try to implement equitable and inclusive learning in the syllabus and design of the course. I choose readings from authors that are under-represented in Psychology and from minority and marginalized authors. I also incorporate studies that use representative samples and focus on minority samples. I try to use language in the syllabus that is not exclusive to someone with my experience and background, that can be easily interpreted and understood by a diverse set of students, and especially those whose first language is not English. During our first course meeting, I set up community guidelines for myself and my students with their input. I make clear on the first day of class that I will attempt to make my classroom an equitable, safe, and inclusive place but that I know I will have areas in which I can improve. I tell my students that I am open to feedback and welcome it, and that they can let me know if I’ve done something wrong or can do more towards that end in the class. This works best when the students feel it is genuine and you give multiple ways in which they can give feedback (anonymously through mid-semester surveys, office hours, check-ins, etc.). I then take suggestions to add to my community guidelines from the class and we adopt these standards together, in class. I have more recently incorporated discussions of race and systemic oppression into the class, and this has also worked well to better directly acknowledge disparities in the US.
What are some changes you would like to see in higher education or predictions for how you see higher education changing?
Wow, great question. Of course, there has been progress made in diversity and inclusion and I really hope to see this continue. My school has a great scholarship program for low income, first generation, and/or traditionally under-represented students that provides close mentorship and resources so that they can achieve their goal of going to grad school and add to the diversity in academics. Many of these students do not have others in their network who can guide them in this process and this program engages them in research and mentorship that helps equalize the prospect of grad school. I would also like to see more tenure-track reform and positions that are teaching-focused but also offer job security.
What are three key pieces of advice for other teachers or your younger self?
–Always be willing to grow, adapt, and change. Teaching the same classes more than once is so nice to not have to prep a new class again, but it is important to stay fresh with your content and approach. The reality is that students change, cohorts of students are different, new methodologies pop up and you need to be willing to augment your practices to best serve your main goal of passing on knowledge to the students.
–Don’t take it too personally! I said this before, and I do believe that deriving meaning from teaching is an overall great thing but sometimes it leads to feeling pressure for every student to love and thrive in your class and this is very unrealistic. If a student is not invested and does not want to try, it is often not your fault. Monitor your teaching and change your methods when you need to, but the job does not require you to be heartbroken when students are not living up to your expectations. Sometimes being too permissive results in not holding students accountable, which does them a disservice in preparing them for life after college. I err on the side of flexibility and empathy, but this should not be taken to the extreme. This has been one of the hardest things for me to learn that I am still working on!
–Do not lose sight of why you are there!! Teaching is a difficult job, but it can be extremely rewarding. It is not something you should get into for money or prestige (because, obviously), and it will always be a better career if you genuinely care about the students and find meaning in your teaching. When you get bogged down in the minutia, remember why you care about this job and let that motivate you. Read some of your more positive reviews if you need to or think of the students who told you your class meant something to them and focus on that to help when you need a little extra push!
What do you love most about teaching?
The students!! I really love getting to know the students, hearing about their interests, ideas, and lives in general. I think college can be such a beautiful time of development and I want to facilitate that in small ways for my students. They are often eager, idealistic, and still figuring out what they want out of life and I love being there for that. I love seeing students get excited about the subject or see it in their own lives. I love to see them reflect on psychology and how they can use the knowledge they got from class. I also love the performance aspect. I know many profs dislike lecturing, but I actually get a thrill out of speaking in front of the class. Also knowing that you get to share ideas and see students learn them for the first time is both gratifying and fun. It is truly an amazing job.