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Home | Episode #26
Why am I a Teacher?
April 12 2019 | Student Producer:

Noah Pallmeyer
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Why am I a Teacher?
USD Engineering Professor Susan Lord describes how her response to discrimination led her to community. (7 minutes)

So why am I a teacher? I think that I can sum this up in three points. So I'm a teacher because I come from a legacy of teachers, because I have a desire to be inclusive, and because I've had a community of support. So I'd like to share a bit of each of those three things with you. So I often say I'm a teacher because it's in my blood. My two of my grandparents were teachers.

My Grandma Eva Kennedy Lord was born in 1905. As a white woman at the time, she described her options as secretary, nurse, or teacher. So she picked teacher and she graduated from normal school age 17 and taught in a one room school house in Buffalo, New York. My grandfather, Arthur Lord Sr., was a math teacher who then became a principal. He died when I was really young, so I didn't know him.

But when I moved to San Diego in 1997 one of my grandpa's friends was living here and proudly told me a number of stories about him. One of them was how he really admired how my grandpa Art had always been a champion for others. I learned that my grandpa had stood up to the school board president in support of hiring an Italian at a time when Italians weren't considered worthy to be teachers and then I learned that the school board president was my Grandpa Art's father. So I'm a teacher because my parents are teachers. My mother, Rosemary Lord is the daughter of an Italian immigrant and a first generation college student and still raves about the transformative experience that Elmira College was for her. Mom is also a musician who played the piano for children's theater for many years behind the scenes mom quietly orchestrated, helping each kid succeed. When a kid really wanted to sing a song that was out of their range, my mom would change the key to make it possible. In a performance she'd stop and start over if needed. She changed tempo, mid song. Most people never noticed how much she did to make the kids look like stars. My father, Arthur Lorde Jr is also a musician, but a jazz musician. The only member of the Drexel Jazz Band for years, he taught physics at Drexel University in Philadelphia, and contrary to the elitism that often is found in physics, my dad always tried to make physics understandable to all of his students. For years, he taught the so called trailer section, which were the students who were now trailing behind because they had failed physics the first time. Dad did this willingly and really helped, did what it took to help those students succeed and become engineers. So coming from such a legacy of teachers becoming a teacher must have been easy for me, right? Well, parts of it were easy, but there were also some bumps in the journey that I hadn't expected.

At the beginning I mentioned a desire to be inclusive, so why is this so important to me? So I am a teacher who values being inclusive because I did not always feel included and I don't want any of my students to feel that. I went to graduate school because I thought I wanted to teach and knew I needed a phd and went to Stanford University in electrical engineering or what we call "double e." I expected the challenges to be technical and there were plenty of them but other parts were challenging in ways I hadn't expected. One of my most vivid memories of my first year at Stanford was having lunch with several male friends who were also double e's. Somehow the conversation turned to there's all these unqualified women and minorities running around in double e at Stanford. I was quiet and after a while I finally said, do you mean me cause I'm thinking I'll show you my transcript from Cornell.

Speaker 1: (03:21)
I have over a 4.0 GPA, I deserve to be here. Quickly they're like, oh no, not you, but there's all these others and when I asked who are those others, they couldn't come up with any names. uh I found I left with my heart pounding like it is now. Um, and I was pretty sure had I not been in the room, I would have been lumped in with all those others. And I thought, man, if this is the attitude of people of men who are at Stanford who've never been denied anything, they got into one of the top programs in electrical engineering. What must the attitude be like at a school that's not as highly ranked, where students maybe didn't get into Stanford and then this is what they think it's due to? It was chilling. I knew that women were about 10% of electrical engineering graduate school.

I just didn't know that that would be me. I didn't know that over and over I'd be the only woman in the room or in the lab and a lot of the male graduate students, since I was the only woman they'd see all day. We'd say, what do women think? How do I know what half the population thinks? Alright, so I did what made sense to me as a learner. I went and took some classes in feminist studies, figured let me go learn what more women think. Right? This opened my eyes to a whole different world. I had no idea. People study these kinds of things that they studied gender roles or they study things about why men were paid more than women. Um, it really helped me have a language to talk about the issues. And it helped me to separate some of "meanness to Susan" from issues of systematic sexism.

But there was a constant contrast. I remember vividly being in class one day and we're debating whether liberal feminism or radical feminism has the answers for today. And then I walked back to the lab and they're passing around the swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated. So graduate school was really difficult. Being a woman in a research group. One woman in a research group of 25 men was frankly just awful. I felt like I wore armor every day. I chose my battles carefully and I did graduate with my Ph.D. I chose to start my career teaching engineering at Bucknell, a school a lot like USD, that really values teaching. And I love the teaching. That brings me to my third point. I'm a teacher because I've had an amazing community of support and that includes many colleagues at USD, some of whom are here and a larger community of engineering education researchers.

When I started teaching at Bucknell with very little experience in teaching my department head came into my office one day and showed me a call for papers for a conference that he liked. It was called frontiers in education or FIE, and in 1994 it would be in San Jose, California. In the snow of Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, where I was. I was really missing the nice weather of California and honestly that's the only reason I decided to go to the conference. I wanted to go back to California. I had no idea. There were conferences that taught about how to teach better, let alone how to teach engineering better. I went to the conference, went to some talks. I hadn't the slightest idea what they were talking about. I went to other talks and I thought, wow, I could do that in my class and I can learn how to be a better teacher and how to reach more students.

And so that conference changed my life. It gave me a professional community that has nurtured me for more than two decades. I've been to that conference every year for 25 years now. So why am I a teacher? I am the living legacy of my grandfather who stood up for inclusion. My mother who helped all kids feel like stars. My father who helped the "trailers" reach the finish line. I get to do things that my grandma Eva could not. Having been excluded as a woman in engineering, I strive to have all my students feel included. The pain of exclusion led me to learn from disciplines way outside of engineering, which has now helped me to be a better engineering professor. What I thought were detours or potholes have helped me to be who I am and led me to a community of support. So I am a teacher because I was meant to be a teacher. It is my calling. It is in my blood and in my heart.