Lessons Learned

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I have had two outlier terms in my teaching career. And, one was in the last year. When things work well, you feel like every damn thing is in order, and you want to pinch yourself. In a similar way, when things begin to go wrong you want to stop and fix them, but they continue to slip out of your reach, it feels like a train wreck. Well, I had a term like this and I’m looking back, so that I can look forward.

I used some new materials, had some strong personalities, and did my best. Well, things did not go as planned, and I need to do a few things. I need to own it. I need to move on. But, right now I am reviewing things. What could I have done to make things better? I know it was not just the books, the students, and me. There are always more factors at play when a class is mediocre. I pride myself on how much I enjoy teaching, as I view it as a form of mentoring and I find teaching fulfilling. And, when things go offside, I feel responsible.

I chose a few new books in order to push my class to read about debates in the field. If I could go back, I would have chosen one new book. The material was provocative enough to cause uncomfortable feelings, debate, and a good measure of animosity between the students, and some directed at me. It is far easier to teach the usual suspects. So, there is a part of me that stubbornly thinks that I would not change the books. I did explain that the material would push the students and that they should feel uncomfortable, but it was not enough. From the papers, I could read that a handful of the students did not like the book or both books. Now, whether or not I had a deep reflection about the content is a different story, but I did hear about the materials vocally. “I want a different book suggestion, since I cannot relate to this one.” I did not give the student another book option.

Course materials are important and I reviewed several books and was really happy with the overall syllabus and assignment. I can reluctantly admit that I would not teach both new books again. One did not work. I won’t name it, as it will do a few things. It will make the students realize that I am talking about their class, and it’s likely better that they not know which of the courses I am referring to in this post! Well, on their own, both books are intellectually engaging or problematic. I do not want to teach perfect books, as that is too darn easy. What else would I have done differently? I think I would have noted that this course had fewer readings and pages of work due to me, than previous terms. From reviewing the evaluations, it is clear that some of the students thought that I was asking them to do too much work. I was not.

The good news here is that I take each class as a learning experience. While teaching feels like it comes easy to me, it is good to know that I will still have an off term. It is good for me to reflect on the course. And, I am not a rock star every term. I have been fortunate to have so many awesome courses and experiences–this year reminded me to be humble! And, the few unhelpful evaluations say more about the student, than they do about me. Thanks for reading the post. I’d appreciate any feedback you have about awesome or crappy terms. We all have them.


BlogHer Exercise: Letter to Younger Self

I attended an afternoon session at the Pathfinder event at #BlogHer 2011, ” My Blog as Life Changer.” One exercise was a letter to your younger self. (Now, this is a great book that I just read in Huntington Beach.) I did the exercise and this was my first stab. So many examples of passive voice, but this is unedited–my first draft. What a great exercise! I have three working topics. This letter refers to my work in higher education. I’ll post one of the other ones later this month.

Dear Janni:

You will be pleasantly surprised that you end up not only really enjoying teaching, but are pretty good at it. This teaching in the classroom will translate into your hands-on style of mentoring. Not all students will get it, so don’t be disappointed. And, not all of your colleagues will appreciate it, as for some of them their research agendas are more important. Don’t worry about what they think and continue to focus your energies on what you are good at in the classroom and during office hours.

Students need a fair advocate and at times some of them will bristle when they don’t get their way. Don’t be surprised. You are going to save your emails for a year after a class—do that. It will protect you and the student. And, always document any interesting situations for the same reason.

There are going to be hard times when you have to speak out to support a colleague or a student—don’t be scared to do so. You won’t lose your job over it. If anything, people will respect you for these efforts. There will be times when it will be hard to be in your 9th, 10th, 11th year of teaching full-time as a part-timer. You will get a full-time tenure track job in a city that you want to live in. So, don’t bother stressing about applying for jobs in places that you aren’t sure you would like to work at for whatever reason.

Also, no job is a sure thing—no matter what connections you have. When you are given special information about a job—don’t take it. It will backfire on you. And, if you do take it—note that the person who gave you information was a saboteur.  Move on with your chin up and don’t look back.

You are going to work with thousands of great, intelligent, caring students. You will become a mentor, friend, confident, and in some instances connector for many. Be prepared for office hours and to decompress afterwards, as they can be exhausting. You will find out things that will make you angry—so be prepared to send students to the appropriate offices for help. This really is part of your job description with the way you work.

You are going to use your dissertation research in different ways. Try to get chapters published, but please note that the entire process: research, writing, and networking will serve you well throughout your career. And, continue to go to meetings to network. These networks will prove invaluable and you will eventually have a leadership role in some of the Political Science associations and on campus. You will use your powers for good.

Don’t wait to get a smart phone, blog, or attend Tweet ups. You will expand your networking into the community that you call home.

Your research agenda will include all the things that you care about, so don’t leave Political Science. You will make Political Science work for you and you’ll be content.

2016 additions: You will find different opportunities that take you out of the classroom some. Do not be afraid. Take them. You can make a difference representing women on campus. And, when you are asked to think about a job in administration do not  pause. Say that you’re interested. You’ll make a good academic administrator. And, you’re going to meet Glenn Beck–hell doesn’t freeze, but believe his assistant when he calls.

Janni on the blaze_Beck

Fri Fun Facts: Women in #HigherED #IT

Today’s Friday Fun Fact post is dedicated to women. Women are a minority in higher education information technology workforce. Here is a great infographic from Educause.

educause gender higher ed IT

From the infographic you see that men comprise 2/3 of the higher education information technology workforce. The numbers look accurate based on my experience in higher education. I find that the highly technical work is often completed by men; while the teaching and learning with technology support staff are more likely to be women. There is definitely some interesting data here to think about related to specific areas in higher education.

The Way You Work: Revisited

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 term at the campus where I work, 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 I have to catch up from the meetings. I am an early riser and tend to get lots completed before anyone else in my family wakes up.

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 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 most days.

I need desk time to plan and think, and I need to walk around and will find myself in walking meetings. <They are awesome!>  . 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. I use Todoist to organize my tasks and I have found this tool works well for me. While this is not a feminist rant, I was thinking about this quote and feel it fits.

Aragon Rant_Twitter



Most instructors have likely experienced this. You get your mail in the department and you have a card from a former student that essentially says the following: I took your class a number of years ago and wanted to say thank you. I thought you were crazy, but now that I’ve been working I find that I think of you and the class fondly. I am sorry for being a jerk. Your class was important. Thank you. I appreciate the thanks, and I also appreciate the apologies for sarcasm or making the class discussion more difficult. These notes are quite meaningful.

Approximately ten times per year, I get emails, cards or Facebook messages like the above from my former students. Funny enough the cards are from an array of students and it is sloppy to say it is from the haters. The cards come from former students who are being honest. Some might think  that they were difficult, but I find that their memory and my memory vary. I can think of two very difficult groups over the years, and I have heard from one person out of that group, and the apology appeared honest at first. I say that, as that former student appeared lots in my social media being rather antagonistic. I wish I could say that the above is pure hyperbole. It is not.

Lately, this has happened more than most years. I think it’s the fact that the numbers of students that I have taught has increased or maybe it is the fact that I just finished my tenth year at the fourth university. They know how to contact me via snail mail, email or social media.

My point here is I have found that the students who send these notes surprise me. I am happily surprised that they contacted me. I am happily surprised with the thanks, and reminded about the privilege that I have working with them in the classroom. But, each card notes that I was approachable, enthusiastic or that my playing devil’s advocate made a difference. My students are not jerks. They are diligent, hard-working, exhausted, balancing lots, and do what they can. They are imperfect. And, so am I.

Great caption, excuse the f bomb


Fill the Right Cup: Revisit


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.” This metaphor works for me. And, I have taken care to surround myself with people who fill the cups, and not only take away from you. 

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…and by all means surround yourself with your friends and family.


Girls Learning Code: Scratching at the Surface 

This last weekend I volunteered at one of the local Ladies Learning Code events. I helped by doing social media for the Girls Learning Code event at St. Margaret’s, an all girls school in Victoria, BC. The “code” for the day was learning Scratch, and the girls had fun designing games. The school had donated space including the use of their labs, a large area for the girls to eat their lunches, and then the presentation of the games. We ended up using a computer lab at the Junior School and another lab next door at the Senior School campus. Thank you to the school! 

The day was fun and the girls demonsrated their wicked skills with Scratch. Some of the girls were familiar with Scratch, and others were new to it. Regardless, they had fun. The labs were warm with the hum of the computers and the din of conversation among the girls and the mentors roving around to assist. The mentors donated the bulk of their day to help. And, I want to speak to the mentors. 

The vast bulk of the mentors were women, and virtually all of them shared one message. They wished that Girls Learning Code existed when they were young, and that we need more women in the tech industry. One mentor noted that she has never worked on a project team with another woman. And, another mentor noted that in some of her Computer Science courses she is the only woman or one of three in a class of 50. Yeah, re-read those sentences. It’s 2015. We still have work to do. 

A few of the mentors were men and they echoed the comment. “We need more women and girls coding.” The mentors were great and coached the girls through the day. But, I really hope that the girls were left with the messages that it’s cool to like Math, Games, Computers, and Science. The mentors were introduced to the parents, and again the mentors shared their stories. I am sure that some of the girls and parents left the event with a sense of optimism. I hope to see these girls at more of the Girls Learning Code events. 

I used #llcyyj on Instagram, Vine, and Periscope. The Twitter handle is @llcvictoria.