Love letters from graduate students

the title is in white lettering on a tan banner. The main image is an overhead shot of five students at a round table collaborating

This past week, a collection of reflective essays I co-edited received an outstanding book award from a national organization for educational research (see my colleague’s tweet). I’m thrilled for the contributing authors, graduate students and recent graduate students, who continue to have their experiences and stories-of-becoming as educators witnessed and validated. I’m honored to receive the recognition; the book Teaching as if Learning Matters: Pedagogies of Becoming by Next-Generation Faculty represents my own story-of-becoming as a mentor over 18 years of working at the same university. 

A woman in a long blue dress and heels is standing next to a blue Jeep Wrangler in a campus surface parking lot. The trees are green behind her. She has sunglasses on.
One of my first days on the job at this university (that car is a rental).

It’s fitting that we received this recognition now, just days after I formally resigned from my university position. Yes, you read that correctly. As of May, I will no longer be affiliated with my current university employer. And as of this writing, I have no full-time job lined up. It’s ok. I need to be institutionally unaffiliated for a beat. After a rest and reset, I would like to pursue new contexts and approaches in graduate student development for putting my strengths and dreams to use. 

Fifteen people are standing together smiling in front of an office sign, Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning. The person in the front middle is holding the sign, "We are the #PODNetwork."
The staff of the Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning. This was taken in maybe 2017 or 2018.

Over the last two weeks, I’ve been grieving this change in my identity as a PhD-earner who has spent 23 years as a full-time employee for public and private universities. I have been in community with scores of faculty and staff colleagues across campus. I’ve interacted with thousands of graduate students in the 18 years I’ve been at this university.  I am saying goodbye to an organizational, workplace, and cultural context that I’m familiar with. My community of higher-ed-adjacent friends have been a comforting support circle, empathizing with my sorrows and fears and promising me that I won’t become invisible after I hand over my university office key. 

A woman is smiling wide in front of her office door. She has brown hair and is wearing a red scarf. The glass wall has tons of post it notes on it
Me at my graduate school office in April 2019, the weekend of the powwow.

In the last two weeks, I’ve also been grieving my past selves whose dreams were never realized and who experienced moments of rupture that never mended. In each of the past four years, I have faced mortality in terrifying ways that have fundamentally changed my self-concept and sense of purpose. Few people know anything about those experiences. Even fewer people know how those experiences changed my trajectory. And even fewer people truly know what the agony of those moments have felt like. Paid professionals, a Twelve-Step program, and my closest circle of friends continue to help me metabolize those experiences. 

Driveway mandala in chalk. The author is on the right in a grey sweatshirt holding chalk. There is a large mandala of peacock feathers in green, yellow, and pink. A woman is at the top of the photo.
During the early pandemic, I learned to make driveway chalk mandalas.

I received the email about the book award the evening before I made my resignation public. That message helped me balance my grief with all of the loving relationships and communities I had been a part of creating over my 18 years. As I depart this university, I cherish the book and the contained graduate students’ essays as love letters. Between the lines, I can see, hear, and feel what mattered to them about the worlds we co-created. 

My three co-editors on this book have been my colleagues and daily co-workers since the day I started working at this university. Of the 33 graduate-student-authors who contributed to the book, I have been part of the personal and professional journey of over three-quarters of them. I have co-published/-presented other studies with many of these authors. Almost a third of the authors are people I supervised as hourly employees. I served on the PhD committees of a couple of the authors. Together, we’ve co-created many graduate student learning communities about the scholarship of teaching and learning, intersections of identity and instruction, SEA Scholars, Teagle Collegium, pedagogy courses, course design, and teaching statements. These research collaboratives of graduate students, staff, and faculty each have been their own planetary systems of colleague-friends that were nourishing physically, intellectually, and spiritually. We crossed boundaries in those communities including: roles and hierarchies, academic programs, RCM structures and offices, institutions, and organizations. We questioned dominant, normative academic cultures and discourses about who belongs, whose stories “count,” how work gets done, what parts of ourselves we feel safe to bring to different spaces, and how to love in academia. 

Six people are standing in a courtyard smiling. The trees and plants behind them are green.
The first Intersections of Identity and Instruction Graduate Student Learning Community

In workshops I have facilitated about building a mentor network, graduate students usually express hesitation and anxiety about asking for a mentor’s time. They worry mentors are too busy or don’t get anything from the mentoring relationship. I’m just one voice, but I assure you, sweet human beings, I have learned so much from each of you as your mentor. This book and the graduate students’ stories within represent what I have learned from them as one of their mentors. I learned to create spaces of testimony and witness. I learned to practice accompaniment and care. I learned to engage in feminist praxis and resistance. I learned to restructure my own understanding of belonging as we explored cosmologies and epistemologies; disability and chronic illness; LGBTQ experience; neurodivergence; indigeneity and the impacts of colonialism and imperialism; and mental health. I learned to clear the path and get out of their way. I learned to put my energy into supporting counter-spaces and microclimates of ethical care. I learned to let the graduate students tell their stories as they needed their stories to be heard. 

Five people are standing in a campus quad smiling.
The SoTL graduate student learning community

Looking toward my next professional journey, Teaching as if Learning Matters, as an object that contains accounts from graduate students of their growth, serves as my compass. It is a reminder of my dedication to valuing the first-person value and meanings of belonging that graduate students, especially historically excluded grads, make of their experiences in institutional learning communities outside their academic programs.

A person holding a mug with a flamingo on it. The flamingo is wearing a hat made of flowers.
The fancy flamingo mug, a symbol of one of the learning communities.

One thought on “Love letters from graduate students

  1. Sending you all my love and best wishes for the next phase of your journey. Thank you for curating a brilliant anthology of important stories and perspectives regarding grad student teaching in TASLM, and importantly, thank you for sharing YOU with us through your reflective pieces on this blog.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: