Relax

If you’re anything like me, you don’t really like having someone tell you that you need to relax. So, I will not tell you to relax, but I will say that I am still in a post-vacation bliss. I took a family vacation last week and am almost through the first week back at work. What did I learn? 

I like vacations. And, I need to take more occasional tech detoxes. I had an unplanned tech detox thanks to problems with my Smart Keyboard. I was able to read Twitter posts, but not reply or type. That pretty much meant that I wasn’t on Twitter that much. I didn’t travel with my laptop and I ended up reading several books and caught up on some magazines and Netflix series. I also made lots of memories with my family and had ample opportunity to sleep in and do very little. It was perfect. 

It’s great to be back at work. And, I am looking forward to my next vacation, which will be more of a staycation. I have included a photo from my vacation. I had my first cup of coffee most mornings on this deck. 

On Being Human: Teaching Expectations

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I’m about to embark on my 20th year of teaching. I cannot believe it. It seems like just a few years ago, I was a graduate student. But, it’s been more than a few years. I love teaching. One consistent thing that I’ve witnessed though, is that I cannot get sick or have a family emergency. A small percentage of my students, must think that I live under my desk and have a super immune system, but alas occasionally I do fall ill. When I do get sick, it’s a whopper of an illness. Oh, like whooping cough and coughing so hard that I pass out or a terrible flu strain for almost three weeks.

I have had an accident, family emergency, and illness affect my teaching life three times in the last twenty years. Each time this meant that I returned grading a bit later than usual. It also impacted my office hours or availability. I did not think that it was a big deal, as I was honest and clear with the students. However, each time it was clear that a group of students did not find my personal situation relevant and were quite brutal on the official student evaluations, that one rate your instructor who you love/hate site, and in office hours/email communication.

I know this might sound like a whiny post, and perhaps it is. I would like some breathing room, so that when I get really ill every seven years I can get back in the classroom and not have a barrage of negative feedback about how my illness impacted their ability to come see me or better understand the assignment that is explained thoughtfully in the syllabus. Professors are people too, and sometimes we get sick or are family members get sick. There, I feel better.

The image is from interwebs–Yik Yak. I’ve never used my iClicker as anything except its intended use. My use of it here is cheeky.

Failing

I saw a job posting that noted that a strong candidate would want to fail miserably. I don’t have that link, but honestly I think that I have done that recently by taking some chances with my courses. And, guess what? I am fine with it. I am willing to take risks and have it fail. Fail miserably. It is a learnable moment. Sure, I often note the importance of a teachable moment; however, when I have failed miserably with a course I am learning. It is important to push boundaries and push myself.

My happy place is to push my students. But, recently I have pushed and failed. I have failed with books that my students did not like at all or assignments that did not work well. I held office hours in the last week and was a bit surprised to hear that the students liked the assignment. I am not convinced that it was a resounding success, though. Either way, I will have at it again with the next class.

3769283867_01c3214399 image is via Chris Griffith

On the Fly

Innovation requires that you are willing to fail. I am not willing to always do what is easiest in the classroom. Occasionally my assignments include working with a non-profit or another entity and then reflecting on this work or having students do podcasts or vidcasts. I find that there are some students who are most comfortable with papers and exams.

The students need to trust me with the assignment. How do you support non-paper and exam assignments?

To Take Roll or Not

After 19 years of teaching, I decided to not include a participation and attendance mark. I did have people sign in to assess attendance unofficially. But, what I really wanted to see is if not having participation marks made a difference. Oh, it did. And, the biggest proof is in the marks. I have taught my Gender and Politics course numerous times during my academic career at four universities and I can confidently say that there was a noticeable change in the students’ attendance and their assignments.

  1. Attendance was mediocre at best. And, by not attending announcements were not heard regarding assignments. My syllabus is lengthy, but I speak to each assignment in more depth during a class meeting.
  2. My office hours were not as busy as usual. While some might think that this is a good thing–it’s not. Office hours are important. This is when many students will get the check in to make sure that they are on the right track or the chance to chat about their assignments.
  3. Overall, the marks were the lowest that I have ever seen. Now, they were not terrible, but 3-5 points lower than usual.

My takeaway is that by not having a participation and attendance mark some students do not feel the pressure to come to class, to show up. I’m teaching in the again and I’m going to have a participation and attendance mark. My students benefit from it. I’m going to ask them to show up!

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Time Management: Todoist and Other Tools

A new year is here. I’m updating this post. Which apps are you using for time management or productivity? I’m still using Todoist.

I have previously blogged about how much I enjoy my job and offered advice for students and others about time management. Like most people I am juggling multiple deadlines, projects, and trying hard to get stuff done. How I have done this over the years has varied. Last Fall, I downloaded a few apps that worked like glorified lists and some were useful and fun.

A fun app that I used for a short period of the Winter was Carrot. This app gamified my productivity and rewarded me with praise when I accomplished lots and punished me with insults, when I fell behind. Of course, I wanted the accolades and not the missives from Carrot. I see that there is a Carrot exercise app, but I have not interest in that. I have since deleted Carrot, as it was not really an effective app for my use at work.

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My productivity changed drastically by my immersion with Todoist. At first I was using lightly; however, I started to increase my use as I got more busy with the demands of teaching, administrative work, and service. Where was Todoist, when I was a grad student? I have talked about productivity apps with my TS 300 students, and students in my office and I keep on referring them to Todoist. It is important that I note that I am a Type A person and enjoy apps of this nature. Todoist keeps me organized.

What I like best about the Todoist is that I am able to manage projects with different deadlines, integrate the app with my Outlook, and look long-term at projects or deadlines. I also like the way in which I can prioritize or share projects. I am not using the priorities as much as a I did at the start; however, it is useful for me to track what I am doing and what is coming up for me. Did I mention that I also like the look and feel of the app? I’ve bought other productivity or list apps and used them for a day or a week, and most of them were not intuitive for me or aesthetically pleasing. Developers will smile here, as they think of the app experience. I need the app experience to work for me. For all of these reasons I am an evangelist for Todoist.

Art of Listening: Office Hours

Each year during the latter part of the year, I find that my office hours and extra appointments are busy meeting with students. Office Hours are important, and they are not about me. This is the moment in which I do lots of listening. Typically this is the time of the year when students are scrambling to work on their papers, proposals, and other assignments. This last week my office hours were teeming with students who wanted to get help with their major research projects. Many wanted more direction about my comments, so that they could improve their assignment. For some students this process is not easy. I can see hands shaking and nervous looks as they sat and chat with me.

But, I would be remiss if I did not address that a small number of students come to office hours and are somewhat defensive. Again, this is a small amount and I would offer that one common trait with this small number is that they do not really listen. They are typically waiting to talk and respond, but tend to not listen to the advice or direction that I offer. And, they usually preface the meeting with something like this, “I am not here to ask for more marks.” <–Actually, you are or at least 9 out of 10 times, this is the case with the student in my office. It is better to note, “I want to do better with the next assignment.”

This small group is also typically convinced that their idea/topic is perfect and does not need any revision. These moments cause interesting conversations, as I am trying to help and I am cognizant of my grading rubric. It is my class! And, I am almost twenty years into teaching and have sound feedback to give. But, I cannot be defensive nor scold my students. Listening is important. I have to take a step back and think if the rubric or information in class or in the syllabus was clear.

Last year I had one student note in the course experience evaluation that my three sentences in the syllabus about an assignment was unacceptable. I took that to heart and reviewed my syllabus and lectures. Now, responding to the comment. The three class sessions dedicated to the assignment and extra office hours did not exist?! C’mon. I also had a student note that they did not know what they had to do to get the A+. I include a grading scale in my syllabus and it is clear that A+ work is exceptional. I point this out as I reflect on the comments and want to remind that patience works both ways.

That is right, the best advice I can give is patience. It is hard to review and revise our work and this is also hard for our students. We grade them and they get one official time to “grade” us. Smiling. This does not count RMP, Yik Yak or other social media. Patience is important. I keep on reminding myself of this when each student enters my office. And, I explain this to my Teaching Assistants, and other colleagues.