Interview by Jonathan Aragorn. PFF Fellow. Doctoral Candidate School of Community and Global Health.
Alexandra T. Auslander , PhD, MPH, MS . Full-time Lecturer, Department of Kinesiology and Health Promotion at Cal Poly Pomona, and Assistant Professor of Public Health at West Coast University.
Dr. Alexandra Auslander (CGU 2017/2019) has been teaching at Cal Poly Pomona for the past 10 years in the Kinesiology and Health Promotion Department. She is also an Assistant Professor at West Coast University in the online MPH program. She received her MS Exercise Physiology from Cal Poly Pomona, an MPH (Epidemiology and Biostatistics) and a Ph.D. in Health Promotion Sciences from Claremont Graduate University. She likes health – a lot! And she is passionate about how exercise can be medicine. She’s interested in what motivates (or de-motivates) people to be physically active. When she is not teaching or doing research, she spends time with her husband, 3-year- old daughter, and her Labrador dog Barley. As a family, they spend a lot of time traveling, cooking, and being outdoors.
“Empathy and grace do a great deal of the engagement in online learning. … compassion is key.”
1. How did you end up teaching?
When I was getting my first masters, I was conducting a VO2 max experiment (a test to show how much oxygen uptake (VO2 max) is used when doing intense exercise) with one of my favorite professors. While casually talking about sports I play, I was also explaining the protocol to the participant, when my professor interjected “why don’t you teach here!” “Is that an option?” I questioned. “Absolutely” he said. “Luckily the kinesiology department needs extra teachers for the activity courses. Come, you should apply!”
I started shadowing some faculty members in summer classes and learned how to teach the material. As soon as I graduated, my department chair offered me a part time teaching position, and so, just like that, I was teaching college classes.
If I think back, I was teaching long before I had the title: I tutored math and science as a teenager, I was a soccer and softball coach in high school, and I was a personal trainer when I was getting my first masters in exercise physiology. I’ve always had an affinity towards teaching, in its many different forms.
2. What do you find engages students most in online teaching?
The things I find most engaging in online learning are: Pattern, transparency, options, enthusiasm, attendance options, tailoring assignments for the online platform, and building rapport through compassion.
Something that helps a lot when teaching online courses is to establish a strong pattern of announcements. I send out an email every Sunday to all students enrolled in the course to remind them what is coming up in the course so they can plan accordingly. This is an easy thing – it is inclusive, and it prevents students from falling behind. These are busy people, and a simple email can provide a lot of peace of mind that they are not missing something, or if they are, then I can catch that early. It is much less helpful to wait until something is late before sending an email. Why make students guess, or have to remember, just go ahead and tell them outright what they need to do in the coming week. They know that can look forward to that email which provides some certainty in the adjustment to online learning.
With the assignments themselves, I try to only select what is appropriate for online platform, and that engage students in a variety of ways of understanding. I also try to give students a full week to work on an assignment before introducing another task.
Another part of online engagement is enthusiasm. If you’re not excited about the material, then that will show in your speech, your tone, and even your assignments. Simply talking about the topic is not very exciting, there must be enthusiasm. This is true in person, but even more so online were everything else is flat.
Empathy and grace do a great deal of the engagement in online learning. Typically, students choose online learning because that is how they want to learn, but right now, learners do not have that choice; their only choice is to be online. That is an important consideration when facilitating an online class — compassion is key.
As part of that compassionate approach, I provide options for attendance. My courses are all asynchronous, meaning my students don’t have to attend; however, I still offer live lectures. So, if students want to have that engagement with me, they can attend over Zoom, and if they don’t want to, I record the lectures so they can watch it later. I think having that type of dual learning model is important for these uncertain times.
Taking this compassionate approach is good for engagement because it has helped me to build trust and rapport with my students.
As part of building rapport, I make myself available to meet over zoom, and even when it comes to email, I respond as quickly as possible. I get a lot of positive feedback on these aspects of teaching.
When we go back to in-person learning in the fall, these experiences will really help to tailor instruction to fit the dual model of learning that will likely be the new norm and help me to meet more of students’ diverse learning needs – something that has long been a challenge in traditional college teaching.
3. Who is the teacher you admired as a student and why?
There were two, my high school junior year English teacher, Ms. Deaker, and my college Jr. year genetics professor.
Ms. Deaker was my high school Junior year English teacher. She really wanted us to read, but we did not want to read To Kill a Mockingbird or any of these titles that we perceived as boring. So, she would bring in anything from John Grisham’s legal thrillers to Danielle Steel romance novels and let students pick what was interesting to them. She did not care what her students where reading, as long as they were learning to read and enjoying it.
I thought that was such a novel concept! Why do we have to be in this “box” of learning when the idea is to learn, and to love to read. The concept was not that we must dumb it down for 16-year-olds, but to break the association of reading as boring, literature as boring, history as boring. When in reality — it’s not! It is how you teach it that’s boring – or not!
I remember Josh Gates had a show called Expedition Unknown that I loved to watch. He explored historical mysteries and legends from a funny, interesting perspective that really got me engaged in learning. I believe this is the same type of approach that Miss Deaker was taking, if it takes a thriller, detective, or love novel to get a student engaged in reading, then so be it!
The other professor that I admired a great deal was my Jr. year Genetics professor. I remember he was young; I would say in his 30s, very smart, and good at disseminating information that was quite difficult. What I really loved was that he was also on a research team at UCSF, working on the HPV Gardasil shot. He would come to class and give us updates on their post clinical trials and I could see this connection between science and politics, because we did have a very conservative administration at the time. He said:
“This [Gardasil shot] has been shown to work so well for preventing HPV and cervical cancer, that if this doesn’t get past it’s because of a political block.”
So not only was he great at teaching, but he also had this hands-on, outside industry experience, for these very contemporary issues. I was 20 at the time, and this was a very relevant topic for students of that age. This connection between science and politics was so interesting to me, as well as the real-world relevance of the work being done. Because of this teacher, I learned very early on that scientific research is very politicized, which was so important for a budding young scientist like myself to realize.
4. How has your teaching evolved since your first semester?
When I started, I did not feel like I knew what I was doing. I lacked confidence. It also did not help that I was young, between 26 and 27, and the other faculty thought I was a student. So, at first, I did not give myself permission to make the classes I taught my own. I confined my practices to what the professors before me did, and what I perceived I had to do to play it safe and satisfy the status quo; however, over time that has all changed.
I just finished my 9th year of teaching; my position has become much more established, and I now give myself permission to be myself, and to be true to teaching methods I believe in. I stopped worrying about everyone liking me, and instead focus on just being a good, student-centered teacher.
I have learned important practices that work for me, such as finding the balance between empathy and objective grading, establishing transparency and pattern for students, and staying within the established curriculum, but selecting contemporary topics that are meaningful for students to engaging in learning, being very responsive and accessible, as well as giving students at least a full week to complete an assignment.
I truly believe in saying yes to all the opportunities that come your way and getting started as soon as you can. After my experience I would advise others to not wait until you think you are perfect for the job; come as you are, and you will grow into those opportunities over time, with much practice, and patience.
5. What things are out of your control?
There are a lot of things that are out of my control, and that is a hard thing to accept when you care a lot as I do. I cannot control my students’ circumstances, their access to the internet, how supportive their personal relationships are, the number of jobs they are juggling, or their intrinsic motivation levels. I can be a resource person. I can be willing to work with them through whatever circumstances they are dealing with, but I cannot control their presence and readiness to learn.
It is a really challenging thing to accept. I do not want to feel like I am giving up on anybody, I want everyone to succeed.
From a public health perspective, we know there is a lot at play in the background, such as environmental and ecological factors, that can make a student’s circumstances much more difficult. The barriers to success are not equal for all the students in my classes. I can work with that, I can be empathetic, and I can be flexible, but I cannot help my students to be more present. That must come from them. It is so important because one must be present, and intrinsically invested, to get something meaningful from the learning experience, and for the transformation to happen. All the flexibility and empathy in the world cannot do that; sometimes, now is just not the right time, and that’s okay. I am here with open arms when the time is right. So, all that to say, when you care, and care a lot as I do, the hardest part about educating is accepting that some things are just out of your control. Over time, I have learned to make my peace with that.
6. What do you feel you bring to your classes that is unique to you?
I don’t just teach the course content; I also provide mentorship, and actively look for opportunities to broaden my students’ perspective on life, and on their careers.
I personally did not take a linear path to my own career; in fact, I lived a great deal between my degrees, and because of that, I gained a very diverse perspective on life. I share my experiences with my class, both personal and professional. I teach my students that life is so much more than what it seems, that their careers can take directions they have not yet contemplated.
Many of my students are coming to college with the same linear path in mind: Get the undergraduate degree, then onto the best graduate school, then land the best job at the best company, and become the best physical therapist,
Not only is that a very limited path, but it leaves a lot of room for disappointment. What if things don’t happen in that order, or in that exact way? There is so much more in life then what we assume. Why limit ourselves? Why not explore, and be open to more? Life is more than what we think success looks like; a career that is happy making may be the best choice of all.
Don’t get me wrong. For some, the linear path is a wonderful choice. For some, the best path is the most obvious one, but we can’t all be the same person. For others, the ideal career is less obvious. Sometimes we have to break away from the beaten path in order to find our own unique route. Sometimes if we take the time to stop chasing what we think is ideal, if we take the time to live, to explore, to observe, and to know ourselves, we can find something better then we dreamed of.
In Kinesiology and health promotion, physical therapy seems to be the path all my students have in mind, but they are often surprised to learn about all the career options there are in public health. However, the recent pandemic is starting to take public health from backstage to front stage.
All that to say, the professor role is about more than teaching and research, it is also about mentorship and that is something unique I bring to my classes.