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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Managing People

Occasionally in higher education faculty will manage or supervise undergraduates or graduate students. Particular to my position, I am pretty darn lucky to have a team of Teaching Assistants reporting to me. I also have two undergraduates doing work for me, as well. Today’s Friday Fun Facts are about things I have learned about managing or supervising people.

For the last three years I have had ample opportunity to manage more than one dozen people and this short list is a start.

1. Clarity. Make sure that your directions are painfully clear. I provide the Teaching Assistants with a dossier that includes a one page statement and copies of graded work from the previous term.

2. Deadlines. This is related to the above point. You must make sure that you give clear deadlines for graded work or deliverables. If they are not met, then you can deal with it effectively.

3. Communication. I have found that the best thing that I can do is chat periodically via email or face to face and check in with the student. Likewise, the check in can prevent any issues.

4. Transparency. I find that occasionally a Teaching Assistant will not understand the logic behind an assignment or opportunity. And, I remember that this person is learning and I am mentoring him/her. For instance, I had an extra credit opportunity two weeks ago and one Teaching Assistant felt that awarding of 1-5 points was arbitrary. I explained that students who submitted strong work on time would beg to differ. You have to explain your reasoning and most times you’ll hear, “Oh, I didn’t think about that.” And, that is when you smile.

5. Professionalism. Establish the boundaries to the working relationship. Some will not understand that they can pop by for non-office hour consultations. If you have an open door policy with the students who are working with you–you need to tell them.

6. Mentor. Remember that for all intents and purposes what you are doing really comes down to mentoring. Mentoring undergraduates with how to plan events, do research, and more (just some of the tasks that the two students are currently undertaking). While the graduate students are facilitating discussion, grading, meeting with students, coming to class, and learning their own pedagogical strategies.

7. Supervising. Another important aspect of managing people is also dealing with any problems. In terms of the graduate students, it’s rather easy. You speak to the student and if you must make sure that the Graduate Advisor is in the loop. We have mid-term evaluations of our Teaching Assistants and this is the perfect time to share concerns or progress with the students, as well as with the Graduate Advisor. I have had no problem writing an unsatisfactory evaluation of a Teaching Assistant. You will save the next instructor the headache. However, I do suggest that you let the Teaching Assistant know that you have given an honest assessment.

Overall, these points are a start to the list and certainly not exhaustive. I would like to add that it’s extremely important to keep to performance reviews and give constructive feedback. One question that I have often asked is, “How can I help you be successful with your position?” This question is a simple one and more useful than, “What can I do for you?” My point is that you have to ask questions. What sort of questions do you ask?

 

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

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.