Honesty Redux

This post just ran on UVenus and Inside Higher Education and I want to share it here on my personal blog. Saying that honesty is important almost feels like stating the obvious, but in practice it can be quite complicated.

A few weeks back I was chatting with a friend and she asked what my New Year’s Resolution was. I paused and thought about how I do not really believe in these sorts of things, but then realized that my resolutions are formed in late August or September, prior to a new school term starting. Last year my resolution was to continue to make mentoring my mandate. This school year my resolution was for honesty. Now, this honesty works both ways. I mean to continue to offer my honest, helpful comments to my students, mentees, and graduate students who I supervise or coach as my Teaching Assistants. But, it also means that I expect honesty.

What has this meant this last term? I have not responded to emails that crossed the line. I have set up face to face meetings with colleagues or students who sent the email to discuss the matter at hand. Life is too short to not communicate clearly and if I have the opportunity, I would rather clarify an issue face to face. This policy has worked like a charm. I have felt clarity with an honest conversation where all parties really come from a place of “I” and not “you”. I think I have to thank the Human Rights office and the two committees that I have sat on for the last year and a half for the foresight and tools to make me a better communicator and also expect the same from my students and colleagues.

In terms of my blogging and social media visibility, this has also meant that trolls exert no power or emotional energy for me. I am not saying that they took up that much space before, but now they take up zero space. I easily ignore them and move on, and this is quite freeing. I have used this place of honesty as a way to forge productive energies. I do not think that trolls are practicing honesty. No, the keyboard warrior is actually a coward. I have previously heard that I am blunt or brutally honest, and I think that these assessments have been fair. However, I do think that this resolution of honesty is different for me and my interactions with students.

I no longer circle around comments and waste time trying to not offend and choose my words ever so carefully. There are moments when you really cannot find something positive to say about a student’s work. This does not mean that I lack compassion or do not try to help my students perform well.  I offer constructive, honest comments and if this means that I state, “This is not your best work. This is sloppy work. You did not review my syllabus closely.” I will say it. I have said it. The reactions from students have varied and I know that one student thanked me profusely for my honesty. His next two assignments were stronger, and during the holidays he sent a nice thank you note. I was clear that he had not submitted his best work and that I expected more from him. I have told my mentee that I expect her to participate more in class—that she does not get a free pass—no favoritism. Guess what—she started talking more. I raised the bar, and many students responded with better work.

Sure, there was a student or two who noted something to the effect of, “I’ve never had a professor be so forward or speak to me this way.” My response was that I was sorry that no one had taken the time to be honest. I do not live my life by the students’ comments on sites about professors—see I won’t give them a shout out. I prefer to see the student do well, try harder, and graduate. I am not in the department to make friends. I am mentoring students and this includes honesty.  The year is halfway over and I will continue with my resolution of honesty. I really believe that the vast majority of my students appreciate it. Some of them might realize it a year or so later–and their cards or emails are a testament to the importance of honesty.

Faculty In Residence: Part 1

I was contacted this Summer by the Student Residence Program to find out if I wanted to participate in this new program on campus: Faculty In Residence. What this entails as far as I know, is meeting with students who live on campus and discussing different topics. The time commitment is up to me. This project will have students meet professors in a non-classroom environment.

I’ve participated before in talks to students who live in residence, which were more informative talks about research or how to be a good student. This initiative though is meant to get the students to establish a better or perhaps different relationship with faculty. Perhaps–demystify the professor. I don’t know everything about the initiative, but I did agree to it. As I have repeatedly blogged about, mentoring is my mandate and I take mentoring and coaching students and peers seriously. I also have mentors and friends who I go to, so mentoring/coaching never really ends.

And, to the students who suggested me for this program, I thank you.

This short post is one of hopefully several about the Faculty in Residence program.

Looking for Work: There is a Book for That

I stumbled upon a shelf or two at the bookstore filled with career advice books for undergrads and other job seekers. I was quite curious and leafed through some. And, I took photos of a few of them. I’m sure that many of these books dispense good advice for job seekers, and given my penchant to read as much as I can I think it’s good to do your homework. But, there is a part of me that also hopes that students go to the Career Center or whatever name it’s called on campus. Here are some screen shots of some of the books that I leafed through the other day.

I didn’t see anything Earth shattering in the above book–but it does have a snazzy title and will definitely cause some to buy it hoping that the right equation is there for them. I’m not dismissing the book or endorsing it. But, it does catch the eye! I wonder how many copies of this book have sold? You, too can use Social Media to help you get a job. Yes, you can, but just being on social media is not enough. Big smile. Mind your digital footprint. It’s always good to occasionally Google yourself and see what is out there. Clean up your presence if you must. There are reputation management companies to assist you with this, too! Hopefully, most won’t need to resort to the consultant to clean up the digital footprint!

I’ve read the Parachute book and back in the day found it helpful. No wonder it’s been repeatedly published. Many people have no clue what they want to do and books like it are useful to get you thinking about the possibilities and the reality of your own skills and interests. And, nothing beats talking with a career educator, mentor, coach or trusted person in your life. Which brings me to my next thought–I really hope that students scouring the shelves in the university bookstore look to their network as a rich resource, too. Start off with your friends, family, profs, employers, and the career center! Set up coffee meetings and ask that contact to introduce you to a person or two so that you can increase your networks.

Another screen shot of a book and its secrets!

44 Secrets! Now, some of them make me think of Captain Obvious, but I’ve been working since I was 16. I do think that the book has lots of great hints/information for the job seeker. It looks helpful in a cheeky sort of way. I should have taken more photos of the table of contents, as this book really made me laugh out loud.

I liked the section about: You’re Hired, Now What? This is also an important part of the job seeking process. What to do when you get hired. Some of the best advice that I’ve heard about once you’ve been hired is that you act and dress for the job you want. I’ve had other great advice, too. You know–keep your head down and work hard, avoid landmines, make good allies, and don’t piss off the more senior people. This is a quick list of some of the advice and certainly not exhaustive.

I have lots of former students on the job hunt right now and I wish each and every one of them good luck. If any of these books look promising, stop by a bookstore and leaf through it before you buy it. And, remember that we have a great Career Center on campus! Have one of the career educators review your resume and a sample cover letter. The staff or mentors on campus are here to help and you want to represent yourself in the best way that you can. Good luck!

Mentoring and Coaching: Post-Graduation

I’ve blogged lots about mentoring and coaching. I’ve differentiated the ways that some students require more hands on approach–ergo the mentoring, and some require less and I view this as more of the coaching strategy. I decided to do something different and buy some stationery and send some of my mentees (will use just that word) a note. I wrote the notes recently, but will send them prior to the Fall term. Now, I’ve sent emails and messages via other social media platforms, but I’m kicking it old school with the note cards.

Some of them will start or continue graduate school in the Fall, and others will join the working world outside of academe. I bought these note cards at the Papery on Fort St in Victoria, BC and chose something that was not too big, so that the sentiment wasn’t a thesis. My intention was to write something supportive, and dispense some advice. Academics tend to live our lives term by term or maybe even school year by school year. Graduate students get used to this, too. After graduation many of my former students note that they miss college and the schedule. Thus, I felt it was appropriate to send the note card just when a school term starts and the graduate might reminisce about their undergraduate days. (I know that many of them do, as I get the emails or Facebook messages telling me that they miss their university days and their old schedules).

Each note card was personalized to the particular mentee and my wishes for them. I gave them well wishes and felt quite emotional as I wrote the cards. I’ve given cards for graduation during the last several years, but these cards of well-wishes were different. I don’t view them as closure to our relationship, as I see the mentoring or coaching as not having an expiration date. And, to be quite frank a few of these mentees are now actually great friends to me, and my family. Now, for any former students who didn’t get a note and are wondering where is there note card–this was a first time project and I sent out several. I will do this again. I really hope the students who get the note cards appreciate them. I’ve only started this and will see how it works.

Post-Conference Thoughts

Last week I attended a national conference and had a great conference experience. This post will speak to things that we junior to mid-career faculty can do better. And, I’ll also have some advice for the advanced graduate students.

1. Walk around ready to engage in small talk with people you don’t know or want to meet. Try to avoid only chatting with your friends and colleagues. While picking up with them is important, you also can serve as a bridge to someone new at that meeting or new to the discipline.

2. Smile and say hello. It sounds simple, but it doesn’t come naturally for everyone. Ask people about their project. Try to be friendly. When Rita Mae Kelly died some years ago, I was quite upset. I didn’t know her well, but I recalled on numerous occasions she approached me and chatted with me for 5-15 minutes asking me about my grad school experience. She went out of her way to make me feel comfortable at the Political Science Meetings. When a session was held for her, I was in the audience crying. I looked forward to her chats. We never exchanged an email, but I was familiar with her work and I have all those memories of our chats that can’t count up to more than 5.

3. Go to the receptions and some of the dinners. It’s good be seen, but also it’s another opportunity for you to meet new people or strengthen old networks. When I walked into the banquet room with 270+ people I made the immediate decision to not look for friends. Instead I walked up to a half filled table and sat down there. As luck would have it, sitting across from me was someone I “met” via Twitter! I ended up having interesting conversations with a retired colleague and an advanced grad student from a UK program.

4. I was glad that I was active on the Twitter tag for the conference. The first morning I had breakfast with an undergrad from another province. We chatted and walked back to the conference site. I was also able to meet some others in real life, who I had previously known on Twitter. Social Media can be useful for the conference. I took notes at the Women’s’ Caucus Luncheon’s Mentoring Session and posted them immediately on Tumbler.

5. I attended lots of wonderful sessions and made a point to speak to one of the presenters. And, I also thanked the chair or discussant for their helpful comments. I paid attention. The panelists in some cases were senior people across the discipline, and in other instances are future colleagues. One of these conversations once led to a publication opportunity.

6. Take business cards. You might meet new people who want to contact you or vice versa. It’s good to have the cards at the ready. I find that I am apt to pass them out more so to advanced graduate students and let them know that I’m just an email or tweet away!

Overall, the conference was a success and from my comments you can glean: be out there!

Interactions with Students~

I’m taking a break from the Fri Fun Facts. Instead, Friday will offer short posts about something that is on  my mind.

Working with young people there are many different opportunities to mentor or coach undergraduates. I find that some of these moments present themselves when you aren’t really expecting it. Each year I get cards or emails from students who have taken one class from me or have seen me in office hours and are graduating or transferring to another university closer to home. And, I’m always a little bit surprised to get the note or email that thanks me for a good class or for some help.

The reason why I’m surprised is that these particular students did not see me lots and only took one class from me. Given that I teach several classes most are apt to have had at least one class with me. My point here is that at times you can make a difference in a student’s experience in a class or in the office and not realize it. I always follow up the contact with an email or face to face chat if I can.

After I started the post, I cleaned up my home office and found a stack of emails or notes from students from 2002-2009! I read each one and remembered the students. I’m thankful that they took the time to contact me. What all of this reminds me is that we have moments in our offices or classroom, when we make a connection with a student. And, sometimes we are not even aware of it.

Fri Fun Facts: Performance Reviews

Today’s Fri Fun Facts is about my new use of writing Performance Reviews for the Teaching Assistants. After looking through the Canadian Union of Public Employee’s Agreement between my employer and the local group, I decided that it would behoove me to offer the Teaching Assistants a more formal review.  Today’s Fri Fun Facts will speak to how I will do this every term on.

Performance Review

My intention was to provide each Teaching Assistant with an honest, fair assessment of their work this term hoping that they could use the review in their teaching dossiers or as part of their resume paperwork. Writing the reviews took more time than I thought it would, as I really wanted to convey a personal review for each Teaching Assistant. How did I do this?

When I meet with each Teaching Assistant to review their graded work, I would email myself notes about the meeting and these summaries were useful. When students would see me during office hours and offer unsolicited comments about their Teaching Assistant, I would email myself a copy of the comments for my records. These little things were important to providing me a memory of the Teaching Assistant’s performance.

My suggestions:

1. Keep notes or records about the Teaching Assistant’s performance. If there is every tricky situations, these notes are really useful.

2. Check in with the Teaching Assistants to make sure that they are doing well and feel that they are getting enough support from you.

3. Provide them guidelines about your expectations. You might email or verbalize this. I actually provide a dossier: a one to two page expectations letter, sample graded work, exams, grading guidelines for the university, and a copy of the syllabus.

4. Be available. You need to set up times to be available for their questions or be willing to guide and coach the Teaching Assistants as needed. Some will need more of your time and others hit the ground running.

5. With the review, think about the Teaching Assistant’s grading, effort, interaction with the team, students, and comment on this. Note any areas for improvement and be willing to note if you think that you could have supported the Teaching Assistant more.

6. Be honest. The review should be helpful, but it does not need to only be positive. Constructive comments are sometimes needed, but offer them in a helpful manner.

Overall, the Performance Review should be helpful for you, the Teaching Assistant, and any future employer who sees the document. Remember that the arrangement is really an apprenticeship and you need to mentor or coach the graduate student, as this is not “free” grading for you. The cost is really supervising and helping the Teaching Assistant perform the duties. I have to remind myself of this occasionally! How do you evaluate your graduate students?