This fall semester I taught three seminar courses (in addition to managing a few independent study students):

  • Senior Seminar: working with my students on their senior thesis research
  • Sophomore Seminar: introducing students to independent research in biology, writing in the discipline of biology, and continuing to develop their oral communication skills. My students worked with the human dive response and came up with some really cool group experiments, including how music, caffeine, and exercise influences the strength of the dive response.
  • Freshman Seminar: introducing first semester students to college writing and speaking, critical reading and thinking, and college life in general.

For the freshman seminar, faculty are free to choose the theme of the course. Instead of picking a science topic, I decided that we would explore the modern D.I.Y. (do it yourself) movement (here is a link describing part of the movement). The D.I.Y. movement encompasses craft, technology, homesteading, publishing, and even activism. As an added bonus, we would get to work with our hands and learn some new skills as part of the course. For the last part of the course, I asked students to take on a D.I.Y. project that would help them learn a new skill. Their final paper and speech would be about this project. Based on the speeches so far, they really took the project seriously.

One of my students learned how to do this kind of spray paint art, and a tutorial is here. Her final piece turned out very similar, minus the boat.


Image url:

Another student, who is an avid woodworker, decided to learn how to do mosaics. While she didn’t make the chair below, she did all of the mosaic work:


Photo taken by L. Whitenack

Other students have crocheted, made ice cream, constructed a light fixture from found materials, created jewelry, learned how to decorate a cake…it’s been amazing.

What I did not mention about that freshman seminar is that it’s also part of a program that is “designed to improve the first year college experience of students traditionally underrepresented and/or underserved in American higher education, including, but not limited to U.S. ethnic minority students, first-generation college students, students who come to Allegheny from a great distance and students from urban or rural high schools with a low college matriculation rate.” It is truly a wonderful program. My first year students have bonded with each other in ways I did not expect, and are genuinely curious about each other’s backgrounds. We spent 20 minutes in class last week sampling Mexican candy that one of my students brought to class. Let me tell you, students from PA and western NY have no idea what to do with chili-covered tamaranid candy.

And then the election happened.

For the two weeks following the election, my office doubled as a safe space for my students. Students who were afraid to go off campus because of their skin color. Students whose families canceled Thanksgiving.  Students who were thrust into the position of peacekeeper in their families. Students who needed somewhere they could just be, even if they were just sitting on my couch doing homework for an hour while I continued with my work. And what about those students who are feeling silenced because they supported the winning candidate? Do they have somewhere to go?, because they’re certainly not coming to me.

My office as a safe space is nothing new. I’m a female faculty member with kids, so I get double mom-points. Students tell me all sorts of things that many of our white male faculty are completely clueless about. This time feels very different though. Before, my students’ problems were exactly that – their problems – and I could help them or at least direct them to the appropriate help. I still took a little bit with me, but did okay with keeping them somewhat separate. This time, I am wondering how to take care of my students while taking care of my family and myself.  Is there something I should be doing for my students that I am not? How do I help my adopted family members who are putting plans in place to flee the country if necessary? How hard do I fight the person who keeps putting my #BlackLivesMatter sign into  our emptied trash can on trash pickup days? How do I set those issues aside to make sure that I am taking care of myself? I can’t fix these problems; I don’t know how.

I am not one to sit idly by for anything. And so, I research, I read, and I put my efforts into taking care of those around me. This “invisible” work load of student care, added in to my normal work load, plus time to think as I waited for student papers to roll in during finals week, was exhausting.


My first year students asked me during the last week of classes if I was going to do a new DIY skill while they were doing theirs. I had completely meant to try something new and crafty, and it got lost in the semester. But then I realized that I had picked up a new skill: grassroots activism. I joined our local SURJ chapter, as well as a smaller local group.

Now we are at the beginning of the spring semester, and classes start tomorrow. I am teaching what is considered a more “normal” science-y teaching load: intro biology, biostatistics, and senior seminar. I am somewhat refreshed, after a lovely bout of shingles forced me to just rest for a week. I don’t know what this semester will bring though, outside of the classroom. What is inauguration day going to look like for my students and colleagues? What about the days after? Tenure, and therefore academic freedom, is already under fire in a handful of states. I work at a private institution, so in some ways I am “safe”, but a lot of my friends are not. It’s easy for me to imagine a situation where my colleagues teaching evolution, immunology, or even intro bio could be silenced. In my intro bio course, I teach about vaccines, STIs, birth control, the age of the earth and life, evolution, climate change…all hot button topics, and yet none are “political” on the surface. Sure, most intro bio professors do not borrow an IUD or diaphragm sizing set from their doctors, so I get that I might be doing a bit more than others, but the rest of it is normal intro bio stuff.

And so I wait. And I read. And I watch. And I think. My brain is my best tool for anything that comes. And I keep doing my jobs – educating our students, being where I am needed, preparing my two kids for their futures – with my eyes and brain open wide.





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