Who Works With The Smart Kids? Dr. Michaela A. Nowell Does!

Michaela NowellDr. Michaela A. Nowell received her Ph.D. in Sociology from Purdue University, and began as an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Fond du Lac in Fall 2012.  Her research focuses on the intersections of gender, sexuality, and body, as well as race and class, taking a critical lens regarding the sociology of fatness.  Below, Dr. Nowell dispels the myths about students at two-year colleges, and the faculty at these institutions.  She concludes with practical tips for teaching two-year college students.

Who Works With The Smart Kids?  I Do.

If I said I worked at a 2-year institution, would you assume my students are A) slackers B) unintelligent C) unmotivated or D) brilliant?

Bad, Elitist Advice In The Academy

In graduate school, a professor told us that (if we deigned to prioritize teaching over research) we wanted to teach at a prestigious, elite institution – one where we could teach the smart students. Teaching the “smart” students would be the most rewarding, and smart students were at good, prestigious universities.

As someone who went to community college, I couldn’t believe my ears. I was both too angry and too powerless to speak up. But I didn’t believe such an elitist, classist notion for one second. My own experience told me that was a lie. Smart kids are everywhere. Smart kids go to community college. I was a smart kid who went to community college. And although I may have been “exceptional” in some ways—many of which stem from my structurally supported privileges—I am not the exception to the rule.

Now I teach at a two-year, freshman-sophomore institution*…and my students are awesome. My students are plenty smart and seldom presumptuous, and it’s incredibly rewarding.

I know smart kids come from freshman-sophomore institutions.  In fact, I believe community college made me. I was a smart kid, but I had no idea what I could achieve. The opportunities, mentoring, and encouragement I received at community college changed the trajectory of my life. My experience at a Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio is why I became a professor—because I saw there the profound difference that professors can make, not only in students’ lives, but in the world at large. Also, because my first sociology professor, Katherine Rowell, believed in me more than I believed in myself, and I REALLY needed that. I know my students need that, too.

The Real Difference Isn’t Smarts (Or, no kidding, Structural Difference much?)

The main differences between my freshman-sophomore students and the students I taught at a prestigious 4-year university are that my current students are spread thinner in terms of time and resources, they are much less academically empowered, and (largely) they aren’t academically socialized.

My students have less resources and time, which means that the time they have to think about the ins-and-outs of being a successful student, let alone the time they have to enact those behaviors, is much less than most students at 4-year institutions. While they lack time and resources (one of my students has 2 jobs, a ridiculous commute, and is also a full-time student), they are fantastic at drawing on these real life experiences. If I’m teaching about role conflict and role strain, it’s not hard for them to imagine how that applies to real life. Instead of seeing their complicated lives as a drawback, I see it as an asset to accomplishing my teaching goals.

One of the biggest deficits I have observed is a lack of empowerment. Many, if not most, of my students don’t think they know the answers, and they are afraid to speak up and take the risk that someone will think they are stupid. They are not stupid, but most of the students I teach were in the middle of the pack and never received a lot of attention (or engagement) in their primary schooling. Further, they come from a system where they have been taught to be passive learners, to be bodies that are fed “knowledge” with the expectation that they memorize whatever the teacher or textbook says. They don’t see teachers as people who actually care about their learning and they don’t see teachers as accessible. Often, they think this is a failure on their part. I had a student struggling last semester who said to me, “I don’t know why I thought I could even go to college.” And this was a perfectly smart student! As a sociologist, I see this as a structural, systematic problem and not a problem of my students being unintelligent or lazy. When we say our students are underprepared we might instead say our institutions are underpreparing them…or, in fact, setting them up for failure.

Fifty-one percent of the students at my college are first generation college students, most of whom do not have the benefit of even cursory academic socialization.  Again, this doesn’t mean they aren’t smart. One of my colleagues put it this way, “The university students I taught were just better at eloquently restating the definitions, not better at understanding the material.” And yes, some freshman-sophomore students don’t have “the skills.” So what? I have found it more than rewarding to teach them. To help socialize them. To empower them. And to see how damn smart they are makes me proud in every moment.

For instance, I recently had an hour-long nerdfest with a student in which I taught her that she had access to journal articles and databases and encyclopedias and interlibrary loan, and we talked about literature reviews and the research process. I didn’t know this stuff when I started college either. You know what my freshman-sophomore student said? “Why isn’t this stuff available to the public? Why do we only have access to this through college? It doesn’t make sense. Would you want everyone to know this?” A questioning student is more important to me than an academically socialized one any day of the week.

And every day my students ask great questions, make brilliant points, nurture connections across course material, and think interdisciplinarily. They do this better than the students I encountered at the prestigious university where I taught before. The trick is getting them comfortable enough to be willing to engage with you, to ask those questions in the first place. They haven’t learned to breech the professor-student barrier, let alone understand the benefits of engaging with your professor.  Once you prove to them you’re accessible, you open up a floodgate…and they will amaze you.

If you, as a professor, can’t seem to engage freshman-sophomore students, you may want to use your sociological imagination.  Sociologist Dalton Conley refers to the sociological imagination as “making the familiar strange.” In sociology we learn to question our assumptions and think about how social systems shape individuals. Are you expecting them to already be academically socialized? Are you expecting them to be empowered and excited about learning when they come from a system that teaches them to be passively unsatisfied with their learning environment? Are you expecting them to speak a language similar to the one you worked long and hard to speak correctly? If so, you have some unreasonable expectations that you might want to readjust. It may be easier to teach students who are already academically socialized, who take charge of their education on their own, and who have time to be dedicated to their status as a student, but that does not mean that those students are smarter and it does not equal a more rewarding job.

Practical Advice for Teaching Freshman-Sophomore Students

Here are some suggestions I think are especially important for teaching freshman-sophomore students, but they are also suggestions one might say are exemplary of a good teacher…and thus, they may be helpful for anyone teaching at any level.

  1. Address the realities and help prepare students to do better. Let them know that you know that X problem is going to occur and tell them the answer. I know some of my students will fade away. On the first day we talk about why this happens—something happens in their lives, they miss one or two classes, and then they are anxious or embarrassed or overwhelmed and they don’t come back—and why they should come back anyway. And letting them know that you know lays the groundwork for a common understanding.
  2. Reveal (some of) your secrets and get them on board with your methods. I tell them that I know they’ve been taught to memorize, but that memorizing doesn’t equal understanding and memorizing won’t do them a damn bit of good in my class. I systematically show them they can understand and remember concepts without memorizing them and I demonstrate methods they can use to foster connections in their brains. I socialize them to take charge of their learning…but I have to teach them how to learn from me. When I first started doing exercises where students have to teach each other part of the material, students were reluctant and some of them thought I was just being lazy. So I address these concerns when I do something like that for the first time. When students can see that 1) they did this and didn’t die and that 2) they learned and retained a lot of information and 3) that it was actually fun, they are no longer so skeptical.
  3. If you want them to talk, reveal that you know their secrets. They are insecure. They don’t want to look dumb. They get nervous. They know the answer but speaking up will draw attention to them and someone might judge them. They are confused and they aren’t “supposed” to be. Tell them you get it. Then tell them and show them you care more about their understanding than a right answer.
  4. Make it very clear that you care about their actual learning and comprehension and what they have to say. Do not just give lip service to this. I don’t know about your students, but my students want to learn from someone that gives a damn about them. I tell them we’re going to talk in this class. I also tell them I’m going to value what they have to say. And I honor that. Remember that in order to actually show them you value what they are saying, you have to sometimes cede the point you were “trying” to make and build upon the one they are trying to make. Professors too often fail to answer a question or address a comment because they have a preconceived notion of where the conversation should be going.
  5. Teach them that they are smart and that they can figure things out. More than anything, they are reluctant. I tell them I know they know the damn answers or have ideas and just won’t say anything. I get at their fears of not being smart in my speech about plagiarism where I tell them that, in my experience, people plagiarize when they are scared they aren’t smart enough to write whatever it is they are supposed to be writing. And I tell them that I want to hear what they have to say, not some academic gobbledygook.
  6. Treat them like human beings and let them know you are human, too. If the class isn’t prohibitively large, learn their names…and use them. You can learn their names if you set your mind to it. When they know that you know their name, they are no longer invisible in class (or outside of class). For most of their lives they have learned to love and hate their invisibility in the classroom. It protects them from speaking up and looking stupid, but it also allows them to be terribly disengaged and depersonalized. Knowing their names means you identify them as people and helps to break down the barriers that stifle student engagement.

Freshman-sophomore students deserve great professors—as do all students, really. They deserve the positive impact that will have on their lives. They deserve to hear how smart they are. They deserve professors who believe in them. And they deserve to hear how rewarding it is to work with them.

The smart kids are everywhere. As a grad school friend of mine says, “Teach ‘em good.”



* Freshman-sophomore is a designation that is broader and less stigmatizing, acknowledging students at these levels are similar across different kinds of institutions. After all, we don’t typically mark students at universities as “4-year” students…they are “students.”

Sociology Of Fatness — Critical Perspectives For Teaching Sociology (And Anthropology)

Dr. Nowell

Dr. Nowell 

Michaela A. Nowell received her Ph.D. in Sociology from Purdue University, and began as an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Fond du Lac in Fall 2012.  Her research focuses on the intersections of gender, sexuality, and body, as well as race and class, taking a critical lens regarding the sociology of fatness. 

Below, Dr. Nowell offers great tips for implementing a critical perspective on fatness into sociology and anthropology courses.* 

What Is The Sociology Of Fatness?

Critical studies of fatness provide yet another dimension we can add to our teaching and research. Sociology of fatness is related in some way to most areas of research—social movements, education, gender, and religion just to name a few—but it is especially useful for those of us who utilize critical perspectives and/or focus on inequality.

In the Spring 2011 Newsletter for the Body and Embodiment Section of American Sociological Association, Dr. Carla Pfeffer (of Purdue North Central) and I described Fat Studies as “a subfield garnering more attention both within sociology and across other disciplines, [that] is characterized by critical attention to fatness as a social construct, a political and social justice issue, and as identity or lived experience. Fat studies is critical of obesity discourse and trends toward medicalizing the body, and also questions assumptions—both societal and within the academy—about fatness and fat people.”  [Download that essay here.]

In The Classroom — Pedagogy

How might sociology of fatness be relevant in your classroom? First, let’s think about practical classroom and pedagogical issues. Here are some questions you might ask yourself:

  • Are your classrooms and desks suitable and comfortable for students of all sizes? How might your campus accommodate people of size?
  • In your teaching, do you employ metaphors that uncritically construct fatness or fat people as negative, disgusting, or undesirable? (Do you question when students do this?)
  • When talking about the environment or rampant consumerism and excess, for example, do you make uncritical links to “obesity” or “Americans getting fatter”?
  • Have you or your colleagues used imagery similar to the below? This image implies that fat people are fat because they eat fast food and that fat people are symbols of the de-evolution of man. How might images such as this impact the classroom environment for students of all sizes?

  • Do you make denigrating or assuming comments about your students or your own body size?  How do you handle statements about body size in the classroom?
  • Do you take seriously students who feel harmed by weight-related comments or stigma?  A student in Indiana recently wrote me that her professor laughed in her face when she proposed fat stigma as the topic of her project. This student also said to me, about life on her campus, “I feel invisible.”
  • Comments about celebrities or peers like, “She/he needs to eat a hamburger!” are also body denigrating and a conflation of behavior and appearance.

In The Classroom — Questioning The Status Quo

In terms of classroom content and goals, one of the most basic things you can do is to teach students to question assumptions they make about fatness and fat people. Here are some questions you might address:

  • What meanings does the word fat hold for most people and how do we use it?
  • Has fat always been seen as bad? Is fat seen as bad, ugly, or unhealthy in other parts of the world? What can we learn from looking historically or cross-culturally?
  • How do we see fat people represented in the media, in movies, or on television? Does this have an impact on how we perceive fat people?
  • Are our beliefs about fat people grounded in a robust knowledge of empirical evidence? Is there evidence that contradicts commonly held beliefs?
  • In what ways might assumptions and stereotypes about fat people prevent them from engaging in healthy behaviors (ex. physical activity)?
  • Why do we as a society focus on personal responsibility rather than the systemic inequality and stigma affecting fat people? For example, when we talk about fat people’s health, do we consider the evidence that fat people experience pervasive stigma and discrimination in the health care industry or how this negatively impacts their health and quality of care?

What Are The Facts?

You may be asking yourself, “But isn’t being fat bad for you?” Scholars and activists alike have addressed these issues. First, weight science is tricky, and causality is difficult to determine. For example, while Type II diabetes is correlated with weight gain, it’s unproven whether the weight gain causes diabetes, whether diabetes causes weight gain, or if some other factor causes both.

There is also conflicting evidence and multiple angles to consider. Research from the CDC showed that, contrary to popular belief, people in the “overweight” category are better off than those in either the underweight or normal weight categories. Research also shows that while fat people may have a higher incidence of heart failure, they are more likely to survive them. While you may have heard a lot about the “obesity epidemic,” many scholars contest this term, and such sensationalist language often masks the facts. For example, most people assume that we are still getting fatter, when in fact the data for both children and adults in the U.S. indicate that weight has plateaued. And while there is evidence for weight gain over a period of time, no one has established the cause of that pattern.

Stigma Is Harmful

Fat stigma is as pervasive as gender and racial stigma and prevalent in the areas of education, health care, and employment. While fatness is framed as as related to individual behaviors, fat stigma in the health care industry has direct and indirect effects on the health of fat people, similar to the way in which racial stigma affects health. For example, fat people wait longer to go to the doctor and are often treated poorly or denied care “until they lose weight.”

Weight Loss And Health Are Not Synonymous

Even if we were to assume losing weight improves health, there is no proven way to make a fat person permanently thin. In fact, keeping weight off for more than two years is extremely unlikely and people tend to gain back the weight they lose plus more. Repeatedly losing and gaining weight is called weight cycling and is shown to have a negative effect on health. We conflate the notions of weight and health, such that a focus on weight loss tends to take precedence over healthy behaviors and/or indicators of health, actually encouraging unhealthy behaviors and mentalities. Have you ever heard someone say, “I was sick for a whole week, but at least I lost ten pounds!”? Evidence suggests that people of all sizes can be healthy and that those who focus on health behaviors rather than weight loss improve health indicators.

Social Justice Regardless Of Size Or Health

Finally, we live in a society that is rampant with healthism — the notion that health is a moral imperative. We socially construct how we understand health, focus on particular aspects of health over others (ex. physical over mental), and often denigrate those we see as “at fault” for their own health problems. The most severe targets of healthism are usually members of groups who already suffer systematic and institutional oppression, like the poor, African Americans, and Latinos. Our discourse around “health” often functions in classist, racist, and ableist ways. The bottom line is that regardless of someone’s health or health status in any category, people of all shapes and sizes deserve basic human dignity, respect, rights and freedom from oppression.

Further Reading

If you would like more resources on fat studies or ideas for teaching, I put together a resource guide with some colleagues that I am happy to send you.

Crawford, R. 1980. “Healthism and the medicalization of everyday life.” International Journal of Health Services 10(3): 356-388.

Curtis, Jeptha P., Jared G. Selter, Yongfei Wang, Saif S. Rathore, Ion S. Jovin, Farid Jadabaie, Mikhail Kosiborod, Edward L. Portnay, Seth I. Sokol, Feras Bader, and Harlan M. Krumholz. 2005. “The Obesity Paradox: Body Mass Index and Outcomes in Patients with Heart Failure.” Archives of Internal Medicine 165(1): 55-61.

Flegal, Katherine M., Barry I. Graubard, David F. Williamson, and Mitchell H. Gail. 2005. “Excess Deaths Associated With Underweight, Overweight, and Obesity.” Journal of the American Medical Association 293(15): 1861-1867.

Flegal, Katherine M., Margaret D. Carroll, Cynthia L. Ogden, and LR Curtin. “Prevalence and trends in obesity among US adults, 1999-2008.” 2010. Journal of the American Medical Association 303(3): 235-241.

Ogden, Cynthia L., Margaret D. Carroll, Brian K. Kit, and Katherine M. Flegal. 2012. “Prevalence of Obesity and Trends in Body Mass Index Among US Children and Adolescents, 1999-2010.” Journal of the American Medical Association 307(5): 493-490.

Puhl, Rebecca M., Tatiana Andreyeva, and Kelly D. Brownell. 2008. “Perceptions of weight discrimination: prevalence and comparison to race and gender discrimination in America.” International Journal of Obesity 32(6): 992–1000.

Puhl, Rebecca M. and Chelsea A. Heuer. 2009. “The Stigma of Obesity: A Review and Update.” Obesity 17(5): 941–964.  [DOWNLOAD]


* Note: This essay was originally printed in Critical Mass (Dec 2012, Volume 15, No. 1), the newsletter of the University of Wisconsin Colleges Department of Anthropology and Sociology.  [Download the original article here.]