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.

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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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.

Mentoring: Job Searches and Month of Mentoring

Mentoring Matters. Mentoring comes up as one of the larger words in my blog’s word cloud. There is a good reason for this. I write (and think) about mentoring, coaching, and sponsoring lots. I am trying to make my March posts all about mentoring.

I was happy to have a great conversation recently with a former student from more than ten years ago about her last job search. She was lucky enough to find out about a local mentoring program at the local Jewish Community Center. Now, it is important for me to note a few things. My former student is not Jewish and the program was free! She knew that she needed a local mentor to help her with her job search, so she researched different possibilities and found this program.

She was assigned a seasoned mentor who was not quite twice her age. They met every other week to chat about work and her job prospects. Some might think of this relationship as a job coach, but it is billed as mentoring program. I’m glad that she was pro-active to seek a mentor during her job search. I was also proud of her for her initiative to take charge of her own success.

Not everyone has a good old boys or even a good old girls network. You need to establish your own networks and this might mean getting out of your comfort zones and going to meetings in your community or different communities. It is going to take work. There are days that feel like I have the same conversations over; however, I sit back and realize that for my mentee this is relatively new for them.

I am also reminded that those of us in the position to do so need to mentor, coach, and sponsor to help others network. We are only as good as our networks and we need to be willing to share our networks and lift others up so that they can have success, too. I remember a friend from a mentoring group calling me Spiderwoman thanks to the network webs that I weave. I like that. Spiderwoman!

Peer Mentoring: Graduate Women Scholars

I often tell my students that my mentoring does not have an expiration date. It does not. I benefited from some wonderful mentors and I feel indebted to them. I was lucky enough to have a mentor who had the foresight to organize all the women students who knocked on her door. I won’t get the history right here, but essentially she saw that women students wanted similar things from her. So, she decided to get them all together monthly and the group was borne.

I first started attending the mentoring group when I was an advanced undergraduate and continued throughout most of my graduate degrees (two MAs and the PhD). We would meet monthly and discuss issues like: how to put your curriculum vitae together, how to communicate effectively, how to write an abstract for a conference, how to have balance in your life, and so many other germane topics. What worked so well with the group is that it was a conversation. While the sponsoring faculty member had her degrees and experience to share with us, we also had graduate students at all stages of their education participating in the group. We learned from one another.

The rules were simple—we brought food to share and we made sure that when we left there were no dirty dishes or mess in her house. While there we sat around in a circle on the floor or bit of furniture and introduced ourselves and then the topic. We would take a break to eat and then resume the meeting. Continue reading

Mentoring Grad Students

I have been having more conversations with graduate students about life after graduate school. Not all of them are interested in the traditional career path in academe. I don’t blame them–the job market for full-time work in higher education is dismal. There is lots of work for contingent (part-time) faculty, but that doesn’t really provide a stable income. I know this well, as for most of my academic career, thus far, I worked part-time. Sometimes this work was between three different departments at three campuses, ergo the term “freeway flyer.”

I do think that we need to be more responsible with our mentoring of graduate students and part of this includes not suggesting graduate school as a viable option to some students. There, I said it. Graduate school is not for everyone; however, some will figure this out on their own. I am referring more so to being honest about the psychic and financial instability of graduate school. Lately, I am seeing more undergraduates entertain what they are referring to more “practical” programs like advanced degrees in Public Administration and even a few are entertaining MBA programs. I think this is a good thing–let them branch out into different degree programs. An advanced degree in Political Science is useful, but it is not the only option.

I have been pleased to see an ongoing threads and hashtags on Twitter #PhDchat #gradchat #NewPhD. These short conversations are interrogating degree programs and what we think needs to change. These are important conversations.

We need to be more honest with our graduate students and make sure that our institutions offers different types of job training or workshops. And, if the student does want to go into higher education, we need to do a better job mentoring. This can be tedious, but meeting one on one with the students is really worth the time. This is part of an ongoing train of thought for me.