Community Champion Fabian Parsch
Fabian Parsch is a graduate student in the Department of Mathematics and a mathematics instructor in the Faculties of Arts and Science and Engineering.
1. In the nomination, the student describes you as engaging. The student also states that you use relevant and interesting analogies to explain content while drawing attention to concepts which you feel they would have trouble with understanding when working on problems by themselves. Could you tell us a bit more about how you accomplish this, and why it’s an important aspect of your approach to teaching?
Teaching math courses in Engineering as well as Arts and Science, I often encounter students that seem scared of the material. I try to counter that by sharing common frustrations like “Don’t feel stupid if this happens.” or “Back when I was in undergrad, this took me ten hours to figure out.” The latter one is really important since in math you can get frustrated over the time investment very easily. Over the years, you learn what these common pitfalls are. By highlighting them beforehand, they can focus more on the material and less on what I would call “meta-feelings” of “why can’t I solve this, it’s been two hours?”. I also try to connect math facts to anecdotes so the topics become much more relatable. For example, there is something called “curl” in vector calculus which can be excellently explained with the behaviour of rubber ducks in a whirlpool. Things like that really change the classroom atmosphere for the better.
2. Discussions about health are often related to concerns about healthy eating, physical activity, managing stress and sleep. We’d be interested to hear from you. What are your thoughts on the concept of a healthy campus and how it can be integrated into the classroom setting?
When I organize my class, I plan and schedule it so that classic work traps can be avoided. Most instructors have problem sets due in the morning and that promotes an overnight cram. In my class, assignments are submitted online and students have their problem sets due at 10 or 11pm. This way, they can actually get a good sleep, since they can’t work through the night. Similarly, when I choose the dates for my midterms, I make sure that the students don’t have other midterms on the same day. This also avoids one-day-cramming. Before tests, I remind them not to forget to sleep and encourage them to take the necessary time off to “chill”.
What I often do is to tell them that it is definitely normal to “feel like an idiot” sometimes. Recently, a student approached me before class and over a math question we got into a conversation where she told me that she felt completely stupid and inappropriately qualified. She described feelings that one would call “imposter syndrome”. I told her that “even” as a math instructor, every day there is a moment when I feel completely stupid; she said that knowing she isn’t the only one made her feel much better. Generally, I don’t just answer my students’ questions, but I answer the “background” of that question, because the students who ask questions are often also the ones who are in a mentally difficult spot. I talk to them about how things are going generally and not just about the math questions at hand.
3. In the nomination, the student states that you knew about the challenges students face in regards to learning the content being taught and you sought to address these challenges in your teaching, specifically for your MAT187 lectures. Furthermore, the student states that you made them feel comfortable asking questions and that they looked forward to your lectures. Please let us know what this nomination as a Healthy Campus Champion means to you personally and/or professionally?
As much as I was surprised by it, I appreciate the nomination very much because it shows my effort over the years actually has an impact. Knowing of this impact makes me much more cognizant about these things and reinforces my behaviour. While I don’t need or expect students to thank me for being nice, it motivates me and shows me that it’s worth it.
4. We would also be interested to know if you have any suggestions about what more could be done to foster campus environments that support the well-being of students?
The biggest issue generally speaking is workload, deadlines, and what is called “cramming”. There is little to no coordination between the schedules of different courses. Students tell me, “I have three assignments due this week and nothing the week after.” This shows that it would be worth having a concerted effort on a more central level to coordinate deadlines, midterms and other term work better so that the workload is more steady. This would be much healthier than the current peaks where they do nothing for three weeks and then face an insurmountable amount of work all at once. This can only change through a central effort since individual instructors don’t have the necessary overview of other courses’ schedules.
It’s also really important to tell students that feeling stressed is not their isolated experience but that everyone faces it. I think the message “we were all there once” should really be brought across.