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.

 

Grab Your Popcorn: Republican National Convention 

This next week we will see the Grand Old Party, Republican Party begin the Convention season in Cleveland, Ohio. The Republican National Convention (RNC) has descended on Cleveland, and it will be a rocking, raucous performance of patriotism and most important a celebration of the party’s political platform and presumptive nominee, Donald Trump. This last year’s presidential election and primary and caucus season was like no other. Sure, there was the usual suspects and at one time almost two dozen candidates; however, when Trump threw his name into the ring many wondered if this was real and others nodded in support of his campaign. We witnessed the political dynasties rise and fall. The so-called Republican establishment did not perform well. Recall, Jeb Bush at an event asking the attendees, “Please clap.” This was not a shining moment for the Bush dynasty.
Tea Party darlings did not make as much progress as some suspected. If anything, this election was about forecasting and humility. I know that I have said repeatedly that I need a hat made into chocolate so that I could eat it. I suspected that Bush, Rubio or Kasich would make it further, and they did not. It’s clear that this was the anti-political establishment election. And, couple this with the #summerofviolence, #blacklivesmatter, and countless other hashtags on social media channels. It is clear that there is lots of political and social unrest in the United States.  

What will we see at the RNC? We will see lots of red, white, and blue. Multiple references and endorsements to the party’s platform, references to the sanctity of the nuclear family, endorsement of Trump, references to the Judeo-Christian God, and the repeated taking down of the Democrats and their presumptive nominee, Hillary Clinton. The speakers will go out of their way to explain how they are different than the other party. 

The RNC is a moment of promises, wishful thinking, and a look back at the way things used to be and how we can return to this time with a Republican president in the White House. Make no mistake, both conventions will be political performances rife with platitudes, and condemnations of the other party. Make sure that you look at the websites for each conventions, as it’s interesting to see how the conventions are laid out and the array of services for the attendees. Grab a bag of popcorn, a notepad and pencil or your smart phone. There will be lots of sound bites and media ready quotes from the array of speakers. 

Thinking about Learning Spaces

Almost one year ago, I attended the National Forum on Active Learning Classroom conference held at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. It was a truly amazing conference! Between the Society for College and University Planning and this conference, my head is going to explode with all the great information that I heard. The good news is that I feel validated. Validated for my teaching style and the disruption that I cause in the classroom and with my educational technology use.

I understand from my friends and colleagues in many departments that their classroom is everywhere. They teach online and I tend to veer toward a blended or flexible format. I might have two sessions of lecture/discussion style, lab time or online/group learning time. The reality is that learning spaces exist in and outside of the traditional classroom and we need to make sure that we are supportive of the variety of teaching modalities. Likewise, our students are used to making virtually any space a learning space and we need to remember this as we plan space on campus.

One little takeaway was the artful way that the facilities office has suggested that students clean up after themselves. This is the way to encourage students and does not rant or nag at them, which they dislike. And, I cannot blame that. Many colleges are moving to recycling centers outside of classrooms to encourage sorting your garbage and recycling. I took lots of photos at the conference and there are some other great posters in the rooms. 

 

U of MN classroom

The conference was small with about 250 attendees and the group was mixed in terms of facilities staff, administrators, and faculty.  However, based on my interactions, it seemed like there were more faculty at this conference. The faculty shared a common interest–dedication to teaching and learning. It is refreshing to interact with large groups of people dedicated to teaching and learning. We talked lots about flipping the classroom and the importance of active learning spaces. The photos below are from the conference sessions. All of the sessions were held in active learning spaces. I have more to say, and this is just one post. Look for more about this topic, and I have more below the photos!

  

A year later I can say that I have learned lots about learning spaces that are planned and found. The first thing is that students will help you “break” a classroom in ways that you may not have thought of during the planning. For instance, we have writable wall space, but did not make every last inch writable. Guess what? Some creative students assumed that every last inch was writable. Yup. If some of the space is writable, you need to make it all writable or have those fancy stickers or posters on the wall noting it’s writable space.

Another thing that I have learned is that a flexible classroom space will not work for every instructor. I fielded requests for four different lecterns. The rooms had one lectern, but there are “favorite” types of lecterns. In short, once a space is remodeled you must expect a year or two of testing, breaking, and consultations in order to assess what worked well or what needs improvement. Overall, working on a committee that is trying to make the face to face classroom space better is a rewarding work.

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.

Great Book: How to Deal with Difficult People

I have found that some books work as great conversation starters. Several months ago I read Gill Hasson’s How to Deal with Difficult People: Smart Tactics for Overcoming the Problem People in Your Life. This book caused more nervous reactions from people in my office than other books. I later moved the book out of eyesight so that people would not nervously asked if I bought the book in preparation for a meeting!

difficult front cover

The truth is that I did buy the book to review the array of skills that are needed to work effectively with difficult situations and difficult people. The book is about communication and it’s a great addition to my library. I have also suggested the book to others. I appreciate the back cover, “This book explains how to cope with a range of situations with difficult people and to focus on what you can change.”

The table of contents is clearly divided into three main areas: Dealing with Difficult People, Putting It into Practice, and When All Else Fails. Each section is about communication; however, the sections also provide opportunity for introspection. What can you do better? And, tips for dealing with different types of hostility. We all have dealt with the co-worker who is unwilling to take on work. “Oh, I’d do it, but I just don’t have the capacity to do one more thing.” And, I know that this is typically a way to not share a work task.

The book also gives some great tips. Listening. I am getting better at listening, but this is a real skill. I have ideas and I am bursting with them, but I have to remember to pause. This takes work! Hasson notes that it’s important to be direct and honest, and offers some assertive phrases:

I need you to…

Can you explain?

Can you tell me more?

I think it would be better to discuss this at another time.

There are certain phrases that many of us understand that can escalate a situation. Using “you” instead of I. Starting off a sentence with: I’m not racist/sexist/homophobic, but. With all due respect. These phrases usually contradict what the person is trying to say and can escalate a conversation. The phrases are anything but part of effective communication. The backdrop of the book is that we need to communicate honestly. Never send an email when you’re angry. Pick up the phone or make time to speak face to face.

Hasson also explains that some people are impossible. That’s right–it’s not that they are difficult, but they are impossible and there is no way to compromise or communicate with them. You need to put on your thick skin and plan how you will communicate and feel about the engagement. And, Hasson notes that with the impossible person, you might want to not engage. The impossible person envelopes themselves in drama and relishes pulling you in. Run. Run as fast as you can and stay away from this person. But, if you must engage, try to make it on your terms.

I try to protect my time and will make sure that I have an immediate other appointment after a meeting with a really difficult or impossible person. I have also protected my personal time from people what some refer to as emotional vampires and seem to only need me. This is not real friendship. Gill Hasson’s book is perfect work and your personal life. The book is filled with lots of tips and I will likely offer a post related solely to one chapter. There is a great chapter on bullies, and that chapter deserves its own post. Here is a screen shot of the back cover.

difficult back cover

Why I Run Review Sessions

I am revisiting this idea. While I am not teaching a large first year course anymore, this post is relevant. I started this post a few years ago and saved it as a draft. Now, I am finishing it and mindful that it is a good reminder for my teaching and learning. I am an advocate of review sessions and workshops for students. We want students to think about how their professor is helpful. I include a screen grab from a search for “my professor is.”

my prof is

I am co-teaching a first year level course with three other faculty and one of the things that I take on as the professor of record is offering review sessions for the exams and other major assignments. I have taught first year courses for most of my academic career and the review sessions are important to helping my students with their learning. Review sessions or re-visiting “how to be successful” is not pandering to our students. It is an important part of active teaching.

Now that I have started my 19th year of teaching, I have come to realize several things. My students want more guidance about assignments. For an array of reasons, when I first started teaching the typical student would come to office hours or ask a question about an assignment in class. Now a majority of them want me to give them more information about the major assignments during class time. They likely feel that the stakes are higher for them and they want to fully understand my expectations.

I have also found that when we are blogging, uploading to Wikipedia or using any educational technology platforms in the classroom they need more than one workshop session to learn the technology. Some colleagues are surprised to hear this, “but they are the digital generation.” Yes, we can refer to our students as such, but when marks are involved it is a different story. This is not an exhaustive list of what I have learned over the years. I will certainly add to this post, as I ruminate why I am fine with clarifying, review sessions or otherwise digging deeper.

 

Epiphanies

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

 

What My Students Have Taught Me

I submitted my students’ grades and I have now completed my 18th year of teaching. I want to reflect on this year, but also begin to think about the next school term. This post offers some thoughts about what my students have taught me.

What have I learned from my students?

  1. Some of them are at university as a placeholder. Everyone tells them it was next for them. For many of them they are in the right place, but for some they will need some time off or to do other things, and this is fine. We have to support them.
  2. Their first year is hard. They are acculturating to university life and possibly living away from their parents. You have to treat the students with extra patience during the first term. Be firm, but patient.
  3. They are excited. You really want to keep that enthusiasm up, as it will for them when they are exhausted, homesick or second guessing themselves.
  4. You are part of their university experience.
  5. Working with first years for the bulk of my years, you are one of many who have impact on their ability to get through the first year. It is important to set guidelines, but be kind.

Overall, my first years have taught me humility. They are the hardest students to work with, as they demand the most of me. They also offer the most harsh quantitative and qualitative assessment of my teaching. It is ironic that a class full of people who are for the most part new to university are assessing my ability to teach. Who are they comparing me to? But it is important to hear from all my students, and learn from them. They make me smile with their compliments and criticism. It’s interesting to see that three students might like my use of “keener,” but one thinks that it is offensive. Yes, offensive. I cannot please everyone, and I do not try to do so. It is impossible!

I really look forward to year 19, which starts next month with the new term. I include a photo of my favorite Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who is also known as the Notorious RBG.

notorious rbg

 

Friday Fun Facts

I am trying to get back on the Friday Fun Facts bike. My Fun Facts will be about conferencing.

  1. I started attending academic conferences when I was an undergrad. One of my mentors was supportive and shared that I  needed to get used to presenting  my work and the entire conference experience.
  2. My first terrible conference experience was at an APSA. I was a grad student and the discussant was unpleasant to the entire panel. I listened and learned and have taken my discussant role seriously. I am thoughtful and supportive.
  3. Once I earned my PhD, I always made sure that I took a grad student out to breakfast or dinner at a conference. And, I always introduce grad students to my network. I know what it is like to feel like an outsider in the at times clique-ish academic environment.
  4. If I see poor behavior by a discussant at a conference, I contact the conference organizers. I will not be a bystander to someone needlessly being an ass to people. See number 2. I will usually respond to the colleague who is not using a filter.
  5. I have multiple copies of my presentation and travel with my own dongles/connectors. I learned the hard way and have become very agile and ready to present my talk.
  6. I often invite a student or more junior colleague to present with me on a panel or round-table.

Hope these six, fast facts are useful. Share your conference facts! Sharing an image from Twitter. I love this mug.

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Whine Weds

I’ve seen the #wineWeds and #whineWed tags on Twitter and both have made me smile. Although I do prefer the sarcastic #whineWeds tag. Lately, I have followed the #wellnessWeds tag on Twitter and other social networking sites. I am trying to spend any extra time thinking about the positive and surrounding myself with people who really bring me joy. Yes, I have read Marie Kondo’s books and I have decluttered lots in my house, and other parts of my life. There is something truly liberating for me to be able to protect my time.

Recently I was at a regional conference in my home discipline and I took special care to protect to my schedule, and outside of conference commitments I was very careful with any extra time that I had. I brought along some work and I needed to take care of it. I read reports, and graded in the sun, and kept up with my email. I also attended fewer obligatory receptions, and I am fine with that. I was in charge of my time. I did get some networking in, but it’s not the feverish networking of someone who is looking for work and trying to make all the connections. I’ve been there.

I am hearing from vendors or other partners about the need for a conference call and the one to three day warning for the meetings is not enough. The emails that note ASAP are not a priority for me and my time. The people who I work with regularly and have access to me and my time do not need to flag the message as important. It is often the vendor or someone who has not planned their time well, who uses that flag or note.

I need to balance my work and it is getting easier for me to offer a polite no and suggest the call or meeting for next week or the week after. So, on this #wellnessWeds I lift up my coffee and say, “Protecting your time, protects you.” It is perfectly acceptable to say, No. No, I am not available. No, I will not engage with you. No, I will not respond to your passive aggressive email with a passive aggressive response. No. But, always say yes to Tacos.

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