Professing: Mediocre Terms

I had the opportunity to chat with some other professors about their courses, and we ended up chatting about the occasional course “do over.” If you poll professors, there will always be a class or term where things just did not go as planned. In some instances it was out of your control. You might have been under tight deadlines for projects or you were teaching 4 courses with new preparations for each course.

One thing that we agreed upon was the need to reflect and then move on from that course or term. I have been thinking about this conversation some. I haven’t had a bad term, but I have had a course go off the rails. I have had a Teaching Assistant abandon the job, and I had to do all of that person’s marking. (And, the Teaching Assistant was still paid! But, that is another post.) The other graduate students in the department were not aware of the entire story and made that term terrible by blocking my door, standing outside of my office talking loudly during my office hours, and other bullying up behavior that was appalling. But, the term ended well and I have since supported many of those grad students with mentoring as they go onto the job market.

Many years ago a student threatened me via email repeatedly and the campus was great with the swift response, and I know that I never want that to happen again. The reality is, though, that I will have another interesting course. I will have a student say terrible things in class, in an email or in my office hours. I might have a student ask to see other graded work or make demands of me that I do not appreciate. And, I’ll have to respond thoughtfully or disengage accordingly. I am fine with that. This is part of my job, and honestly, these interactions are small. But, from talking with other professors, we wear this. We remember these moments. We can reflect, but we have to forget and move on to the next term.

I talk about teachable moments and I will have them. This can vary from the moment in class, office hours or after class. Teaching and mentoring is not easy. As the new school year looms for those teaching Summer session or continues for those who never great a break, hang in there! Raising my cup of coffee to all of the professors!

Some of You Will Like Me

Another term is ending for me and one theme that stands out for me is part of a lecture that I gave my students in my American Politics class. (The department renamed the course United States Politics, but my default over twenty years is American Politics. I know, I’m exercising American exceptionalism here or you can accuse me of that). The lecture was a primer one on how to do well on the assignments and I spoke to critical thinking and need for a higher level of analysis. I also advised them to come see me in my office hours. Then, I did something that I do not normally do. I referred to that site that allows people to rate instructors. You know which one that I am referring to–don’t you? It is like Voldemo…you cannot say the name!

The reason I referred to the site, as I explained to my students was that the last time I had quickly reviewed my ratings, I noted one person say that it is important to get me to like you. I recall having a quick laugh and smiling for the next twenty minutes, as this is not true. I told the students in my class, “I like all of you. The difference is that some of you will like me back.” I explained that my life is quite full and I am content. I also shared with them that my teaching philosophy statement notes that I am not in the habit of chasing the 5, which is the perfect score on our teaching evaluations. Yes, I had included this sentence in my dossier for a teaching award, the Faculty of Social Sciences Excellence in Teaching. I was honored to get the award! Back to my comments to my students, I was extremely honest with this group and later left the classroom feeling satisfied with this moment of brutal honesty.

The fact that a person or some people would think that instructors only “give” good marks to students that they like is false. Trust me, I have run the Excel equation and said, “Oh, no.” This is that moment when you really want a student to do well, but one assignment or two assignments sealed their mark with a C or worse. You feel for the student, but there is nothing you can do. Ultimately, what I told my students is that I try to have an open mind and that many of them come from various places across the province and some out of province. Regardless of where they are from there is a whole host of different views and more importantly different abilities with writing, thinking, and success with the work of being a student. I also explained to them that they will perform better in courses that they are interested in and should try to take courses that appeal to them. Then, they need to show up. Go to class, go to office hours, and get to know their instructors or Teaching Assistants. I even referrred to Wil Wheaton’s comments in a high school yearbook and he said the same thing: go to class, go to office hours. I agree with him. (Hey, follow him @wilw). In my opinion, it is not a matter of my liking you. No, it is about my assessment of the work and hopefully seeing an improvement through the term. This puts a smile on my face. It is great to write on the assignment: your work has improved, bravo!

The students who I mentor or coach I get to know better and subsequently do like them in a different way. I have had more opportunities to get to know them. And, I must say here that I have mentored more students who hold political opinions that are quite different than my own. My mentoring or teaching does not take this into consideration. Most years, I find that I am mentoring an equal number of women and men students; even though our campus is 60% women and 40% men. Overall, I would be hard pressed to say that I dislike a student. No, I am more apt to feel a negative thought about a colleague in another unit, who pontificates about how teaching is beneath us or questioning my presence on Senate as a teaching focused professor. These sort of statements rub me the wrong way.

I have a special place in students’ lives. I am part of their college experience. I can be a mentor or coach. I get to work with them and I think that is an honor. I do, but today I have 70 items to mark so it feels somewhat burdensome, but overall I think that I am in a great place. I was reminded of this last night when I attended a former student’s wedding. I had met her parents before, but to hear that to this day she still talks about my classes–I was touched. Over the course of my career, I have met many siblings and have taught all the siblings in several families and have had coffees to meet my students’ babies. Like I said, I am lucky and know that some of my students will like me. The tumbler below is from a former student. She has also worked with my kids–it is a small community. I wish her luck with what is next!

It’s interesting to see that being liked by students is often viewed as a negative thing by some colleagues. One of the things that I have now resolved to not do is apply for teaching awards. I have won one and I have been nominated for another on more than one occasion. I am done. I know that I am an effective professor, and love teaching and working with my students. And, that is all that I need. The force is strong in this academic administrator!

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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.

Energy Focus

It’s that time of the year when you have to reframe requests. I was chatting with some faculty colleagues about student work, and noted that I do not accept late work. The truth is that I do with qualifiers. I have a sentence or two in my syllabi that notes that students need to contact me before an assignment is due if they are deathly ill or an emergency has come up for them. I find it easier to specifically state my expectations. But, I also know that I have to be flexible. Life happens. 

I do not have enough mental energy to stress about late work. I was more rigid about deadlines, and then moved to rolling deadlines. And, an amazing thing happened, the percentage of students with excuses dropped. They knew that the first deadline meant more comments, and the last deadline was not late. This works well for my students. But, overall, my opinion with late work is one with less frustration. In some of my classes there are no rolling deadlines and just the policy–no late work is accepted. 

I have to choose what is my biggest concern. I want my students to be successful in the course. I do not want to hound them. I will not. They need my energies focused in the classroom and office hours. 

The photo below is the flip side of my Social Media name tag. My name is on the other side, but this side works. 

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.

 

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

 

Dear Professor: My Parents are Lost at Sea and I Need an Extension

I have revised this post. Today’s Fri Fun Facts is about keeping it real. I give lots of advice on the Fri Fun facts and today it’s about not crafting elaborate stories in order to get an extension on work. During the last several school years I am seeing that the grandparents are safe and not dying at the high rates that they used to and this might be related to how clear my syllabus is about providing proof. And, the proof about a death in the family usually is from the service—the funeral home or church typically puts together a program for the service. This might seem like an onerous request, but I find that it has kept many grandparents safe! In the last three years, I have stopped asking for this and have met one on one with the student who needs an extension. I just do not have enough mental capacity to ask for the proof. I need to come from a place of trust, and take my student’s word.

I am giving some quick advice about due dates and managing your time. In case you’re wondering, I did get a student email about parents lost at sea. I contacted tthe Coast Guard. The student was embellishing and did not get an extension. Today, I likely would not contact the Coast Guard–who has the time? I offer some advice, though.

1. Manage your time well. In my courses the paper assignments are included in the syllabus, so from day one the students know what the assignments are and when they are due.

2. If you’re in over your head, make an appointment or come to your instructor’s office hours. I’ll be honest, I do think that I am more likely to be more flexible when a student “owns” their education and sense of overwhelm and talks to me face to face and asks for an extension. I do not always give the extension, but I think I am more apt to weigh the request differently than a last minute email.

3. Rely on resources around campus. At UVIC the library has an assignment calculator and students can type in the due date and a schedule is calculated that helps students organize their time. Attend class, go to tutorial, office hours, and schedule the time to conduct research and writing time.

4. Re-read points 1-3. I cannot emphasize how much guidance you will get from your professor if you ask for it. There is a reason why I had 8 hours of office hours this last week and that there was a line up–I care and I’m here to help. The only way that you’ll get guidance from your professor is if you talk to her/him.

With this—I ask that you finish your term on a high note and organize your time before the final exams begin. Good luck!

Disclaimer: This post has nothing to do with any of my current courses or students. It is merely the time of year when a post of this nature is appropriate. Again, this is not about my current class! You are rocking it.