Originally published in “Notes of Excellence” newsletter, issue 014 – November 2014.
My name is Ann Cavazos Chen. I am a nurse-attorney who earned an MFA in fiction in 2013 from Mason. My turn-ons are peanut butter with honey, single barrel Evan Williams bourbon (neat), mountain biking, and great books like Redeployed. My turn-offs are windowless offices, standing in line at Starbucks, and taking attendance on Friday afternoons. For fun, I race in triathlons because, what’s life without a little pain?
What is the most innovative thing you do with your students and/or your classes? Why do you think it is effective?
I wear mostly black. Truthfully, I never know what’s going to work moment-to-moment or class-to-class. I work in 15-minute increments. I’ll say that’s because I want to make my classes dynamic, but I’m lying. It’s because I want to be only ten minutes from taking evasive action and finding an exit strategy when a class activity bombs.
What do you do that creates a strong learning environment for your students?
I call each student by name and specifically praise good work. I’ll give silly prizes like plastic soldiers or rubber chickens for good papers or insightful comments. I have five minutes of mindfulness mediation at the beginning of my class that starts at 3:30pm on Fridays. It helps refocus their energy. I bring local produce to taste when we discuss food security. I try to foster the feeling of community. This generation will be choosing my nursing home; therefore, I try to be kind to them.
What’s one tip that you would offer to faculty new to teaching at Mason?
Have a sense of humor about yourself and your subject. Remember what it was like to leave home for the first time and not know much more than how to feed yourself and brush your teeth. Be good enough. If you’re teaching your subject on the post-fellowship level, you’re going to miss most of your students. Talk to them one step above their comfort level. Make them meet you, but don’t torture them unnecessarily. Enjoy them. They are bright, optimistic, and believe in happy endings. Don’t take that away from them, but instead enjoy their enthusiasm for life.
What’s the most challenging thing for you in your teaching, and how do you address this challenge?
It breaks my heart to have a student give up on my class. I can push, nag, and cajole, but I can’t do the work for them. The students who can do the work but choose not to keep me up at night. I always think there is something more I could say or do.