How Do You Answer?

I have read Lean In and have blogged about it previously. At BlogHer13 I heard Sheryl Sandberg speak and got to meet her and take a quick photo. I also have read the updated book for college grads. And, I’m a lapsed member of the Lean In movement and circles (Education). At this year’s BlogHer14 in San Jose, California, I attended the Lean In circle workshop.

I am looking at the great cards that Dr. Carole Robin did with Lean In. I saw the question, smiled and immediately pictured a few things: my loveys and coffee. I was chagrined that I saw his face, and my two daughters’ faces, then pictured coffee. The question is not as simple as it looks. What brings out the best in you?

My immediate answer was personal. My family and my home brings out my best. When I think of extending that circle some, I can answer that question with my family of origin, my good friends, colleagues, the warm sun on my skin, my students, a great meal, and a strong Dark and Stormy. There are different nuances to the question and answer that you might give.

When I am teaching, a great class can bring out my best. I try to give my A game to my students, but a strong group of students who like the material can make a big difference with the class. Likewise, when I sit on a committee and other are committed to the agenda and the execution of the final product, the committee work moves more smoothly.

My Loveys bring out my best. My friends bring out my best. My work brings out my best.

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Mentoring

I am rounding out my two months of Spring Undergrad Advising for the department and thinking about how I help my students. I’ll place these thoughts in bullet form.

  • I want to help them find out how they are doing with the course of their studies
  • I enjoy giving them good advice
  • I offer them advice about their course choices
  • I inform them of any resources we have on campus that they might find useful
  • And, the most important thing–is that I listen

I do prefer to advise face to face; however, more of my advising and mentoring is taking place online via email and on different platforms. For students enrolled where I teach, I can do some of the fact finding via email, but there are moments when a face to face is needed and I point this out and then it is up to them. The photo below is of turtles sunning at Cedar Hill Golf Course trail.

 

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The Way You Work

Academic work requires so much solitary work and this makes it flexible and at times impossible. Work always beckons and the to do list can become burdensome. We are at the start of Summer, and it is the perfect time to think about how you can re-focus on the way you work. What works for you?
Right about now academics are thinking about the long list of things to accomplish during the Summer. Honestly, though, how do you work?

I find that I need some white noise when I am doing certain tasks and other tasks requires quiet or music at a low volume. At the day’s end when I am completely alone this is the time that I listen to music set high. I like to chunk out as many tasks as I can during these evenings alone at work. My job requires lots of meetings and this means that two times per week, I need to work later days to catch up from meetings.

I have blogged previously about the importance of having good work and life balance and boundaries. I know that this is extremely important, but the reality of work is that some months are more busy than others. I am working through a busy period as we transition from one Learning Management System to a newer, better version and this is keeping me extremely busy. I am also trying to think about the way I work and what keeps me organized and able to get things done. I love coffee and the entire process of making and savoring it. This ritual is part of my morning and reading the papers. I also realize that the caffeine is necessary some days.

I need desk time to plan and think. I use early mornings for this and evenings. I occasionally walk around the building or across campus and use this as desk or thinking time. I will talk into my phone and dictate notes from a meeting or send myself emails to update. I also use this time to clear my head and plan for the next meeting, task, or day. I need some alone time to organize my day. The photo below is pulled from Twitter and is a perfect. Work and life balance can at times feel Game of Thrones-ish!

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Fill the Right Cup

Ray Bradbury explained, “We are all cups, constantly and quietly being filled. The trick is, knowing how to tip ourselves over and let the beautiful stuff out.”

Which cups do you fill? Do you fill the cups of optimism, pragmatism, or pessimism? It is important to think about where you expend your mental energy. Thinking back to my grad school days there were moments when the pessimism cup was the cup that I filled and that was not a good thing, but those moments of overwhelm and impostor syndrome were intense. I have to thank my peer mentors and faculty mentors for helping me fill the other cups.

My networks helped me stay grounded during grad school. Sure, we had our moments when would complain about our workloads and our financial situations, but overall it was pretty fabulous to read, research, teach, and write for a living. My peer mentors were primarily from the cohorts ahead of me and to this day some of my closes friends are from my grad school days. I met both of my best-friends in grad school.

Related to this, peer mentors listened. The listening cup was overflowing and there are times when I miss that interaction–the ability to have long conversations. The cup that we need to keep filling is the listening cup. Listening is an important part of a supportive and honest network. As I am working with undergraduates through graduate students, I am thinking about the importance of them finding good peer networks. I am only one part of the puzzle and know that the rest of the puzzle must include peers.

I knew that at home I had support, and my friends and networks at work in the department and larger academic community helped me through my grad school days. Peer mentoring is invaluable and if your cohort does not feel supportive, seek out peers ahead of you for guidance or go outside of your department. This advice is appropriate for those of us years out of grad school, too. And, if you are years into your career remember to connect your students to other students and to other faculty. Expand your students’ networks–this is part of the mentoring or coaching process.

 Fill the cups! Confer, trust, connect, mentor, listen, and celebrate your success…

 

Study Political Science

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My normal routine is to read the local paper and then one of the national papers. I was on my third cup of coffee and came across the above letter to the editor. I had to smile. I was in a former student’s class earlier this week speaking to the upcoming American mid-term elections and social media in politics. My former student is finishing up his student teaching and had taken courses with me in Political Science. He is one of many former students who has chosen to go into secondary or post-secondary teaching. Many of my former students are also serving in public office or doing other non-partisan work for the government. The letter writer’s binary is a false one and I am sympathetic to her easy comparison; however we cannot assume that all politicians have a Political Science degree.

Over the course of 17 years of teaching my students have gone into virtually every sector of the economy. I am seeing more work in communications and the tech industry lately, but overall, they are everywhere and hold a Political Science degree. And, many of them are double majors or took a minor in another field in order to round out their education or pursue multiple areas of interest. During my next 17 years, I hope to see this continue. When students ask me, “What can I do with my degree?” I answer that they can do almost anything–it’s up to them. The classroom or office hour experience is only one part of their education. My hope is that they will get involved in campus and local opportunities.

Political Science is diverse field with many sub-fields and I am proud to call myself a Political Scientist. I am also proud of my Political Science students. Keep up the good work!

Sustaining You

Who makes you feel safe? Friends and others who know you are safe or some might say: home. When I think of people I trust and respect, this networks of friends, family, and inner circle at work are supportive, good listeners, and are honest with their advice. I do not want a nodding head and mere agreement. I want someone to listen and then comment–especially if we disagree or if the friend has something to add. Again, a big part of this is listening. Try to stay away from emotional vampires who just take, take, and take. These people are exhausting to engage with on an ongoing basis. I find that I am controlling my time more and putting more distance with the emo vamps, as those conversations are usually not two-way conversations.

Affirm the good relationships and spend time with the people who add to your day. Remind your network that they are important collaborators, friends, and people in your life. These people challenge you to be a better person and they deserve reminders that they are important. This makes me think of places where I feel at home or safe. I’m thinking of the places or things that add to my day. The smell of coffee definitely makes me smile, and then the taste, well. I love coffee. 

When I think of where I feel safe or comfortable, I often think of the classroom. As a natural extrovert, teaching feels like home. I am not referring to talking at my students, but rather leading, facilitating, and listening to them. I want the classroom to embody a place where we can discuss, challenge, disagree, and grow. Do not assume that I mean that I expect the classroom to not be a place of contentious conversation–it is. But, when I walk into a classroom to teach or to give a presentation, I feel like I am at home or in a good place that I am comfortable.

What caused this stream of thought? This quote from George Eliot, “Oh, the comfort. The inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person. Having neither to weigh thoughts nor measure words. But pouring them all out. Just as they are, chaff and grain together, certain that a faithful hand will take and sift them, keep what is worth keeping, and with a breath of kindness blow the rest away.”  Keep and nurture. Blow the rest away.

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5 Facts About Me

1.  I am committed to lifelong learning. I regularly read books outside of my area of education and training to learn and grow.

2. Related to number one, I am reading an array of books, magazines, and articles. I never leave the house or my office without something to read.

3. I have an irrational fear of zombies. My family and friends tease me about this. This fear does not stop me from reading zombie lit and watch terrible zombie movies. <This also didn’t stop me from buying a shirt about zombies liking us for our brains.>

4. My family centers me. Sitting around the dinner table or talking with them takes me to my happy place. As my kids get bigger I find that our conversations about life offer insight into the people they are becoming.

5. I will never get tired of working with students. The other day I shared an enthusiastic high five with a student, when I verified that he was ready to declare his major. This was his moment and we shared it.

 

Mentoring Graduate Students

I am assessing the last year and thinking about my mentoring of my Teaching Assistants (TAs) and Research Assistants (RAs). While I need them to grade and facilitate the tutorials, the other thing that I want them to do is learn. I am a firm believer in giving them ample opportunity to learn and lead. And, a major part of this is trying to get them used to project management and working with people. Another key thing is to help them have better work life balance. It is easy to get caught up in the “flexibility” of our academic jobs and to work all of the darn time.

One thing that I set up with my TAs is that any email sent on Friday at 5pm through Sunday is considered a Monday morning email. They are not on call to me and I want to have productive boundaries with them. I also set up with them the guidelines for responding to emails from me Monday through Friday and from my students. I think it is important to offer clear guidelines for working with me.

It was hard to let go and give more freedom for how they lead tutorials, but somehow this is easier for me. I have to trust them and that they will learn what works for the group of students in the tutorial. The art of letting go is important to offering the TAs a chance to get comfortable leading discussions and learning how to work with a supervisor. What have I learned? Some of my TAs are dedicated and others have different skill sets that will serve them well elsewhere.

My most successful TAs and RAs are the ones who take direction well, are organized, and think ahead about the course material or the project. These graduate students are generally more receptive to feedback and have a willingness to learn and do more. These particular graduate students take pride in the work and do not act like the job is funding—they treat the work, like a job. I am thankful for them.

Revisiting Course Experience Evaluations

During the term faculty are required to distribute university approved evaluation forms for students to fill out and these instruments field a wide array of responses. The campus where I work is moving to online evaluations and the reaction is mixed. Regarding student evaluation I have heard lots and have blogged about the evaluation process, but these are the most common responses that I have heard recently.

They are not qualified to judge me

It’s a popularity contest more than anything else

I don’t read them

They’re useful

I read them

I bury them

I learn from them

I don’t like them

The comments will turn into a RMPish experiment

I do not want to engage in the online versus paper evaluations for this post. Much of academic life is filled with judgment. We get assessed by our peers, by our department, reviewers of scholarly presses, others up the academic food chain, and by the government and public if you are at a public institution. Frankly, everyone is always weighing in about higher education.

We judge and assess student work, yet somehow we are uncomfortable with this singular act of student assessment of our course or courses. Why? Well, that is cause for a long post. Let me speak to how I have changed my feelings about them. I think that the official university evaluations are a mixed-bag. They provide feedback. Some of the feedback is useful and other feedback is interesting and at times not helpful. I am sure we have all had this experience with a peer review:
Reviewer 1 provides good feedback and you know that they read your chapter or article. Reviewer 2 has skimmed it and refers to some work that you cited, but the reviewer did not bother to notice this. Reviewer 3 did not read your work and really dislikes the topic and offers nothing that is useful beyond you wishing evil upon this person. . Reviewer 4 refers to his or her work and how this article offers nothing new, but there are a few helpful comments.

Student evaluations can work like this, too. However, the rub is that our departments use these evaluations to measure teaching effectiveness or prowess and at times the numbers and comments do not paint an accurate picture or maybe they do?! Perhaps your students really like you and like your courses and the evaluations offer this assessment. But, maybe your students dislike you or the material and the evaluations convey this. And, that is the problem. We need to assess the larger picture and the evaluations offer one part. This is why peer evaluation is also important. But, do not stop there. If your campus has a learning and teaching center, visit it. Take some workshops and avail yourself of the various opportunities and make sure that you add these workshops to your vitae in the appropriate area.

Teaching requires work and preparation and we have a tough audience. Our students are bombarded with distractions and if they are not interested in the topic I feel like I have to catch them. But, alas, no matter what I do, I will not catch all of them.

What does this mean for student evaluations, then? They are necessary. But, faculty can respond by reviewing them and reflecting. Do you need to mix things up? Is it time to have a trusted colleague do a peer review of your syllabus and lecture? Departments also have to invest in faculty and offer opportunities for professional development and insist that faculty work on their teaching dossier. I am biased here as teaching track faculty, but am resolute in my opinion that teaching takes work. I include a photo of Stress Paul, a rubber stress ball.

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