This past week at the second workshop for the Cohort 1 VIPEr Fellows we had some really great conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion. In my breakout group, one of the topics of discussion was ideas for how to make students feel welcome in our classrooms: what were the little things we could start to do that might make a big difference? One specific point a group member noted was that we all care about our students, but the students don’t always recognize that because we don’t necessarily tell them directly.
For the last three years, I have given a “you belong here” speech on the first day of my second-semester general chemistry class (~ 60 students). It doesn’t seem like much, but students mention how it positively affected their perception of chemistry in their end-of-semester course evaluations. It also changes how likely students are to approach me for help. I do the “speech” when I get to the part of the syllabus that discusses course pre-requisites. Another member of my workshop group asked if I would write up what I say for a BITeS post. I’ve never written it down before because I just get on a roll once I start, but I’ve reproduced what I usually say below.
I also follow up after the first midterm exam, which is always the exam with the lowest class average. I have a section of the board where I write reminders each day, and on the day I return the first midterm I write: “(1) You belong here. (2) You can do chemistry. (3) There’s no shame in asking for help.” I always get a few students who come up to talk to me after that class whom I’ve never interacted with before.
“You belong here. If you are registered for this course you have either completed the formal prerequisite by passing CHEM 143 or I have personally approved your override request. Students take CHEM 144 for a wide variety of reasons, come from very different experiences, and have a range of high school chemistry backgrounds. You all belong in this class.
This is not a “weed-out course.” My goal is for everyone to succeed. “Success” likely looks different to each of you. Some of you are hoping to get an A, while for others a B+ would be an exciting achievement. Some of you already love chemistry and are prospective chem majors—that’s great. Some of you are prospective molecular biology, neuroscience, or psychology majors, and CHEM 144 is a required step before you can do what you really love—that’s great too. Some of you are interested in learning all the chemistry you can and others are just looking forward to passing the course and getting it out of the way. My goal as a professor is to make CHEM 144 a positive experience for all of you, whatever your reasons for being here and whatever your goals.
There is no shame in asking for help. Help me help you succeed. That’s what I’m here for. Everyone associated with the course—me, your TAs, the peer tutors—is here because they want to help you succeed. Your grade is not worth less than someone else’s grade because you asked for help in order to achieve it. There are many different resources available to help you, and they’re there because we want you to use them. I have office hours in my office and also in the science library if you don’t want to come to my office. I’m available by appointment if you can’t make the set times, as well as by email or you can ask questions in the anonymous question box. If you don’t want to meet with me and would prefer to work with someone else, that’s cool too. We have a bunch of dedicated TAs for the course, both grad and undergrad, who are there for you in your discussion section as well as during the weekly drop-in help session. Some awesome students who have taken CHEM 144 in the past have also committed their time to being peer tutors because they want to help you. If you were drowning, you would try to attract attention. If you’re struggling with chemistry, flail around and we’ll come get you.
One of my favorite things about CHEM 144 is that we cover four pretty different topics: reactions of ions in aqueous solution, kinetics, modern electronic structure, and coordination chemistry. What that means is, if you’re struggling with or don’t like a particular topic, just hang on for a few weeks and we’ll move on to something completely new for you to try. If you’re loving a topic or find it really clicks for you, that’s awesome—in a few weeks I’ll have a cool new topic to share with you! It’s okay if you find some topics really challenging or if there are some that you’re just not a fan of. I’m a professional chemist with a PhD in chemistry and there are kinds of chemistry I’m not good at and there are kinds of chemistry I don’t like. I got a B in orgo. I liked organic chemistry, but it just didn’t come naturally to me and I had a hard time with the exams. You don’t have to be good at everything—I’m certainly not. If you’re struggling, reach out to me and we can work together to help you get the resources you need to succeed.
Some of you may be thinking, “why is she going on about all this?” That’s okay, you may not need to hear it. However, from past experience, I can guarantee that at least half of the students in this room need to hear it, which is why I say it. You can do chemistry. I’m here to help, and I want you to succeed. Please, please, please, reach out for help if you need it.”