All posts by Ladonna Lewis

Not Knowing Any Better

I love what I get to do five days a week.
Every day in my classes, I am asked “why?” by a student, and everyday it makes me smile.

I have been thinking about this a lot in light of the fact that I was asked by PTK to speak at their induction ceremony tonight and I needed a topic. I looked around me to find my inspiration, and it came from my students. A student as a “why” question and I knew what to talk about with PTK… the importance of asking why.

Often when we have been in academics for a long time, we forget to ask the creative why, or why not questions.  We have been told that something is cannon in our discipline because it is, or we are told that something can’t be done because it simply can’t be done, and after a while, we have accepted those answers and we stop asking the questions. Our students don’t know that they should not be asking those questions, so they ask, and good for them.

Sometimes we need to challenge the idea that something can not be done. Admittedly, if something has not yet been done, most of the time it can’t be done… but sometimes, it simply has not been tried with the right approach. Our students can see the situation with fresh eyes, and because they don’t know any better, they ask.

Here’s to not knowing any better.


Money Matters?

I can’t help thinking that lately, money has become the focus in academia. As the state cuts all state funding from community colleges in Maricopa County Arizona, how do we continue to deliver the best two year school education in the United States? What do we do? The answer seems simple to me, we continue to carry out the mission of the college.
Here is the Glendale Community College mission (taken from our website):

Glendale Community College prepares students for further higher education, employment and advancement, and successful participation in a global society.

Let’s focus on that mission. Everyone at a college plays an educational role for our students, from the college president to the clerk typist, to the faculty member in the classroom, to the maintenance and operations people, to the student affairs staff. Everyone at the institution should be aware of the college mission, and keep that as the focus of everything that we do.
If we all do that, we can continue to deliver the best to out students despite the financial woes. We can continue to do what we do best!



This week is the first time in my academic career that I have officially felt I am having difficulty connecting with my students. I am in my 19th year as a college professor, having started at 27 years old.  I remember starting out, fresh out of graduate school. I was frequently mistaken for a student by faculty members who did not know me. I was able to easily connect with the students as I could relate to much of what they were going through. I longed to be respected by my peers, most of whom were older than I was. I sometimes wished I were older because I believed that if I were older, people would respect me and question me less.

Fast forward to this past week. In my 19 year career I have never been more challenged by students. The students in my classes today question me more than ever, and I don’t understand why. I saw them as disrespectful, as entitled, and as rude. I wondered why they felt the need to verbally share everything they know about a topic as though I am not going to cover the topic well enough if they don’t. I wondered why they act as though the are the authority on everything, as though I am not the person to cover the topics. I even wondered if I was in the right profession anymore. I started talking to my colleagues and found that many of them were feeling something similar, though maybe not as pronounced as I was. It was then that I realized that part of the problem was that I had spent a long time becoming a professor, and preparing myself for class every day, and maybe my feelings were hurt. I felt I was at a crossroads in my career, feeling disconnected from my students.

For the last few days I have been thinking about this, and I have come to the conclusion that I need to re-think my beliefs about my students and my role as their professor. The truth is, they do have the ability to find all the information I share with them on their own. With access to Google they can pretty much cover it all. What I need to do is make sure I am focused as a professor on giving them skills that Google can’t give them.  I can teach them to think like a scientist. I can teach them to be critical consumers of information (so I guess I should be happy they question me?), and I can teach them about integrity and professional responsibility.  Maybe teaching the content is becoming a smaller and smaller part of what I do.

The problem is not that the students are different, the problem is figuring out how to change what I do so that I can be fulfilled by my job and give them what they need. I am not one to engage in edutainment, I am pretty old school when it comes to teaching and I doubt that is going to change significantly. I need to connect what I can offer to what my students need.  If I can do that I can continue to do what I do at a high level and enjoy it. Something for us all to think about.


Seeing ourselves

I like diversity, even though sometimes being with people who are very different from me can make me uncomfortable. It is the kind of uncomfortable that challenges me to grow as a person, as a teacher, and as a scholar and I appreciate that kind of uncomfortable. I am sharing that because I want to encourage all of us to go outside of our comfort zones when it comes to diversity because I think it benefits our students if we do.

One of the ways that faculty and administrators can go outside of our comfort zones is to have honest conversations about the racial diversity on campus among the faculty and staff. Personally I don’t think that trying to have the faculty and staff reflect the diversity of our student population is an ambitious enough goal. I think every student deserves to be able to encounter someone on the faculty and staff with whom they can identity.

As a student at The University of Oklahoma, I had two African-American professors. One of them was a psychology professor. She was a Princeton and Stanford graduate, and she was the most amazing person I had ever met (in fact, she is still the most amazing person I have ever met).  She inspired me to pursue my own graduate education. Meeting her was like opening up an entirely new world to me. I had not considered the possibility that someone like me could go to graduate school and become a professor until I met her. Now maybe I am unusual in that way (I know I am unusual in other ways) but I doubt it. I needed to see it to believe it, and I don’t think our students are that different from the way that I was as a student. Yes, I know, there are a lot more ways for students to be exposed to people who can model behaviors for them, there is all the information we can access on our tablets and smartphones, however there is no substitute for one-on-one contact with someone who can do more than just show us that it is possible to succeed. There is no substitute for having access to a real live person who can help us to learn the culture of the professional world.

There is no substitute for students being able to see themselves in us.



Coming out of the closet

I am a lesbian. That is certainly not a secret. When I arrived at GCC in 2002 I was president of the Gay and Lesbian employee organization for the district (now Equality Maricopa), and I immediately became co-advisor of the LGBT student group on campus. I was out to my fellow employees, but in class, I tended not to talk about my personal life.  Every once in a while, during the before class milling around, a student would ask me  something like “How does your husband feel about being married to a psychology professor?” I would respond with “I don’t have a husband, I have a wife, and she was a psychology major in college so I think she is OK with it.” Usually the student would apologize for asking, for reasons I don’t quite understand, and then we would move awkwardly forward with the class.

Then, a few years into my time at GCC, the psychology department lost a long time adjunct instructor who had been teaching our LGBT studies class. We searched for a replacement, but we were only able to find someone for one semester. Ultimately, I decided to teach the class. It was as a result of teaching that class that I learned how important being out of the closet could be to my students.

Many of the students who enroll in the LGBT studies class are looking for something. About half of them are straight allies looking to learn more about LGBT people. The other half are students who are themselves members of the LGBT community, and they want to know more about the environment at GCC for them, the laws that pertain to them, the social environment in Phoenix, and many other things.  I learned a lot about the importance of someone like me being out from these students. All of the students told me they had not had an LGBT instructor, and I knew that was probably not true, they just did not know that they had.

A couple of semesters ago, I was teaching an Introduction to Psychology class where a student asked me a question about my husband and I answered in the typical way, that I don’t have a husband, I have a wife, and then I shared the answer with them regarding my wife. During my office hour, one of the students in the class, who was presenting as male, came to my office and told me that he was transgender, but he was afraid to be out on campus or with his family. I listened, I told him what I knew about transitioning, but I mostly listened. I gave him contact information for a transgender activist I knew personally. I continued to check in with this student during the semester. As the semester ended, I was worried about him because I knew he was living his life in a way that was not consistent with who he was inside. I knew he was living in fear of his family finding out. I knew his being closeted was eating him up inside.

This past week, I ran into that transgender activist friend of mine. She told me that she had recently been in contact with one of my former students, and she told me the name. I was so happy to hear that now that student was presenting as female, the woman she really is, and was doing well. I would not have had the opportunity to get to know my student if I had not been out in my class.

We all have closets that we can come out of with our students when appropriate. Maybe we ourselves attended community college, or maybe we were first generation college students who had to learn to navigate academia and we made it through. Maybe we went to an elite university and we can dispel myths about what they are like. Maybe we worked two jobs putting ourselves through college and we can relate to their experience. Maybe we can just listen to them sometimes, and try to connect them with resources. Sometimes for students, just seeing that someone like them can be a college professor, or administrator, or professional, can help them see themselves achieving their goals.

I want to encourage my colleagues to consider coming out of their closets.


Sincerity is best

I learned to be sincere in my teaching when I was teaching at Mesa Community College. I am not good at “edutainment” teaching, I tend to be quite straight forward in my approach, and I thought that students would not like me as an instructor because I was not very exciting. In my second year of teaching at Mesa, I was awarded a Teacher of the Year award. I wondered why, and one of the student that nominated me told me the reason was because I cared about their learning. She said that it was clear that I cared, and that the caring was what mattered, not the “smoke and mirrors” and dazzling effects. I have always remembered to be sincere in my caring and approach, and let the rest take care of itself.