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.


Performance Reviews: Coaching Your Grad Students

Today’s Fri Fun Facts is about my new use of writing Performance Reviews for the Teaching Assistants. After looking through the Canadian Union of Public Employee’s Agreement between my employer and the local group, I decided that it would behoove me to offer the Teaching Assistants a more formal review.  Today’s Fri Fun Facts will speak to how I will do this every term on.

My intention was to provide each Teaching Assistant with an honest, fair assessment of their work this term hoping that they could use the review in their teaching dossiers or as part of their resume paperwork. Writing the reviews took more time than I thought it would, as I really wanted to convey a personal review for each Teaching Assistant. How did I do this?

When I meet with each Teaching Assistant to review their graded work, I would email myself notes about the meeting and these summaries were useful. When students would see me during office hours and offer unsolicited comments about their Teaching Assistant, I would email myself a copy of the comments for my records. These little things were important to providing me a memory of the Teaching Assistant’s performance.

My suggestions:

1. Keep notes or records about the Teaching Assistant’s performance. If there is every tricky situations, these notes are really useful. More importantly, this will be helpful when you have to write a letter of reference or serve as a reference.

2. Check in with the Teaching Assistants to make sure that they are doing well and feel that they are getting enough support from you. You should assign a mentor Teaching Assistant to a new Teaching Assistant.

3. Provide them guidelines about your expectations. You might email or verbalize this. I actually provide a dossier: a one to two page expectations letter, sample graded work, exams, grading guidelines for the university, and a copy of the syllabus.

4. Be available. You need to set up times to be available for their questions or be willing to guide and coach the Teaching Assistants as needed. Some will need more of your time and others hit the ground running.

5. With the review, think about the Teaching Assistant’s grading, effort, interaction with the team, students, and comment on this. Note any areas for improvement and be willing to note if you think that you could have supported the Teaching Assistant more.

6. Be honest. The review should be helpful, but it does not need to only be positive. Constructive comments are sometimes needed, but offer them in a helpful manner.

Overall, the Performance Review should be helpful for you, the Teaching Assistant, and any future employer who sees the document. Remember that the arrangement is really an apprenticeship and you need to mentor or coach the graduate student, as this is not “free” grading for you. The cost is really supervising and helping the Teaching Assistant perform the duties. I have to remind myself of this occasionally! How do you evaluate your graduate students? Performance reviews is feedback, and we all deserve constructive feedback.

Do Not Burn that Bridge: Collegiality

get hired

I am in the throes of letter writing and giving job references for former students and staff. This post is not a book review of the book in the photograph. I took the screen shot and of the book and add my post as a suggestion for a job applicant or new employee. One of the things that I have heard from prospective employers is the ways in which a candidate or hired employee fails miserably and burns a bridge. In my line of work as an instructor, advisor, mentor, coach or supervisor, I also occasionally see a student or staff member burn a bridge. Occasionally this is done with a positive attitude or the expectation that rewards are instantaneous upon merely doing the job.

I have heard repeatedly that a good attitude can help a new employee. If you are new to a job that you are not sure about make sure that during your shift you act like you care. This job could turn into something else for you and it is hard to shake off a bad impression. Be careful with social media. Do not post negative statements about your employer or co-workers. Nothing is private online and the worst thing that you can do is make you or your employer look bad. Likewise, if you have some terrible customers you also do not want to post information about them. Be careful and smart.

Make sure that you are dressing in a way that fits the environment. If there is a dress code, follow it. If there is not a dress code, ask your immediate manager what she or he suggests. There is nothing more embarrassing than having a manager speak to you about your clothing. In my early twenties, this happened to me twice and I never wore that blouse or the skirt again. Both seemed fine with the ensemble, but giving further thought I realized that they did not meet the conservative norms of that work place. I always suggest to my students who have job interviews to think about the dropped pen exercise. If you have to pick up a pen, will you feel comfortable as you lean in to grab the pen. Bend with your knees–not your back!

Other hints for looking for work–keep in contact with people who are well-connected or who you might want a reference from at a later date. This might be a bi-annual email that updates or an occasional hand written note. Make sure that you keep your circle of references up to date with all the wonderful things that you are doing. Related to this, be careful on social media. There are numerous examples of poor use of social media. I imagine that the communications staff at one East Coast university spent part of this last Monday chatting about a student’s racist post and the follow up posts that only made his original tweet worse. While his Twitter account is now deleted, many screen-shotted the tweet. Plus, the response against his racism was swift. That original tweet could haunt him.

Overall, be smart while you are looking for work and new on the job. Even if you do not have a probationary period, your first few days, weeks, and months are scrutinized. Check in with your co-workers and manager. If you do not have regular performance reviews, ask if you could have some assessment. Think of it as a work tune up. Reflect and learn. And, if you have questions–ask them.

Introspective Exercises

I am co-teaching a new course, Digital Skills for Your Career. Last night my slide deck consisted of a letter  in bullet point form to my 20 year old self. I shared with my students some regrets and points of reflection. It was blunt and at times humorous. My point was to help them with their exercises. Co-op and Career had provided them a venn diagram to fill out and for some of the students the exercise was a tough one. They needed to think about their skills, wants, and competencies. The exercise is all about introspection and self-promotion. It is not as easy as it sounds. 

And, their first assignment was due this week. We had asked them to curate a fulsome About.Me page, and in two weeks their LinkedIn URL is due. They worked away in pods chatting with one another about what is holding them back, and how to overcome self-doubt. 

Mentoring university students has taught me numerous things. One consistent issue is the uncertainty and the way it can stifle creativity, bravery, and happiness. My exercise in self-deprecation and honesty was to remind them that they are going to make mistakes and it is OK. We are three weeks into this course and I hope that they are enjoying it as much as I am. 

My photo of one of Co-op’s Slides. Thanks! 

Leaning In

This post first ran on Inside Higher Education as part of the University of Venus blogs. I’m sharing it here on my blog.

I’m going to offer a few reviews of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In and this first one is going to be a sweeping overview of the entire book. There are specific chapters that I want to speak to as well, but first I’ll do a review of the book and the Lean In movement. In order to get access to the Lean In circles, er… movement, you have to join the site via Facebook, which is of no surprise given that Sandberg is the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook. I say this in both an honest and tongue in cheek way, as I know that the Facebook metrics are working away analyzing users use of the Facebook platforms and various add ons.

The Lean In site offers anecdotes from different women who are members of Lean In and they each share their stories of times in their life when they leaned in. The members are mostly women and some men from different backgrounds (race, class, and work sector). What they share is an inspiring story about a learning experience or successful moment in their lives—either at work or in their personal lives. The anecdotes are concise. There are also videos that vary in time and some are quite lengthy (40 minutes long). I’ve enjoyed poring through the site and reading and watching the different stories. Some feel like testimonies and are quite personal, whereas others read like a motivational speech.

Getting back to the book, Sandberg is asking that women own their skills and success. Try to sit at the table; overcome the imposter syndrome. But, she also warns that we will have moments when we must work together and help others. This isn’t a book about selfishly helping yourself or being selfless. This book offers her personal story about when she had to lean out and focus on family or other issues in her life, or moments when she leaned in to get to the next stage in her career. She refers to statistics, feminism, and important stories as she shares her truth. She also acknowledges that some women (and men) will stay at home and do the important work of raising children, so she gives a nod to the parents who choose to stay at home and does refer to this opportunity as a privilege. I was glad to see this reference, as it is a privilege to stay home. Of course, some women are indigent and at home, but the opt out conversation is often lacking any discussion of class privilege or mention that women of color have been leaning in for years, if not decades and that their leaning in is complicated by racialized sexism.

On a side note, I’m really tired of the reviews and commentaries that are published by a commentator who has not opened the book. Not cool. And I am not keen with the haterade against the book based on the fact that Sandberg is a wealthy, Jewish woman. The review needs to say more than simply attacking the messenger. The book is not perfect, but Sandberg offers some great points that many of us need to hear again and again. I cannot represent all Latinas and know that I have class and heterosexual privilege, but I will say this: there are many takeaways from this book. It is important to believe in yourself, network, make smart decisions, invest in yourself, and help others. Mentor, coach, sponsor. Get mentored, sponsored, and coached. There is more to this book and so-called movement.

Now, I have heard lots of commentary about how this book does not help all women or is myopic in its view. These comments are interesting to me. No book will speak to everyone. This book and its message, though, might help some women realize that they deserve to be at the damn table. The book and its anecdotes might squelch feelings of impostor syndrome. The videos on the Lean In site might also make some women and men realize that they need to serve as a better mentor or coach to those around them. My suggestion to my current students or students who just graduated–Lean In.

Peer to Peer Mentoring: Leaning In

This is a good post to share for my March Month of Mentoring. I will post another about the book, since I have read it!

Now, I haven’t read Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In yet, but I’m going to weigh in based on the reviews offline, online, her 60 Minutes interview, as well as based on joining Lean In’s site last week. The conversations about the book and the phenomena of Lean In as a movement reminds me of Graduate Women Scholars of Southern California. This was a peer-mentoring women’s group facilitated by one of the Women’s Studies faculty members at San Diego State University. Dr. Susan Cayleff saw that her office hours were busy with women graduate students asking the same questions. In 1991 she decided to try hosting once per month meetings at her house related around a particular topic.

These monthly meetings were workshop-like and typically led by one of the members and the Cayleff. The topics covered varied from how to put together your CV, prepping for a conference presentation, working on your thesis/dissertation, dealing with your committee, and more. These meetings provided a safe place of support for women students. We were Leaning In. We were learning from one another and sharing strategies. It was a bullshit free zone for the most part and we were allowed to admit that we were second guessing our choices or having a hard time finishing projects. The women involved were primarily from the Art (Humanities) and Social Sciences from the local universities in San Diego; however, there were several from Los Angeles and even one or two who were from the Bay Area, but living in San Diego.

Thanks to this peer-mentoring group I was better prepared for grad school. Sure, I occasionally felt like I was faking it or didn’t belong, but overall the mentoring sessions reminded me that I had to make academe my own (or attempt to do so). I think that Lean In is on to something and that peer to peer mentoring is important. If Sandberg’s book and the site get more women to connect–great! I have benefited from strong mentors throughout my academic career and to this day have some great peer mentors and coaches. I have blogged before about how mentoring is my mandate. It is. Part of my mentoring is getting my students or peers to Lean In.

I need to read Sandberg’s book. And, yes, I know that she’s Harvard educated and part of the elite. I know that she’s wealthy–Google, then moved to Facebook as their Chief Operating Officer. But, from perusing different bios and videos, I can see that there is lots to gain from Lean In. And, I also know that we can be are worst enemies in our work lives, as well as our personal lives. Self-doubt, not negotiating, and making poor decisions hurts us all, but women more so at work. I am not an acolyte with rose-colored glasses. I think my main point is that I know how to Lean In and the Breathe Now is yet another example—a conference that I co-planned. Many of us have been networking, strategizing, and organizing. We know this work well. But, I’ll speak more to Sandberg’s book and movement after I read the book and pore through more of the blog.


Mentoring Graduate Students

I am assessing the last year and thinking about my mentoring of my Teaching Assistants (TAs) and Research Assistants (RAs). While I need them to grade and facilitate the tutorials, the other thing that I want them to do is learn. I am a firm believer in giving them ample opportunity to learn and lead. And, a major part of this is trying to get them used to project management and working with people. Another key thing is to help them have better work life balance. It is easy to get caught up in the “flexibility” of our academic jobs and to work all of the darn time.

One thing that I set up with my TAs is that any email sent on Friday at 5pm through Sunday is considered a Monday morning email. They are not on call to me and I want to have productive boundaries with them. I also set up with them the guidelines for responding to emails from me Monday through Friday and from my students. I think it is important to offer clear guidelines for working with me.

It was hard to let go and give more freedom for how they lead tutorials, but somehow this is easier for me. I have to trust them and that they will learn what works for the group of students in the tutorial. The art of letting go is important to offering the TAs a chance to get comfortable leading discussions and learning how to work with a supervisor. What have I learned? Some of my TAs are dedicated and others have different skill sets that will serve them well elsewhere.

My most successful TAs and RAs are the ones who take direction well, are organized, and think ahead about the course material or the project. These graduate students are generally more receptive to feedback and have a willingness to learn and do more. These particular graduate students take pride in the work and do not act like the job is funding—they treat the work, like a job. I am thankful for them.