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!

20130628-085435.jpg

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?

 

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.

 

Review: danah boyd’s Work

Read More Books

First of all, author danah boyd does not capitalize her name, so this is not a typographical error. I have read her book It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens (2014) a few times and I’m now teaching it in my Technology and Society 400: Technologies of the Future seminar. She does a great job of offering a thoughtful and respectful examination of teens use of social media. The big takeaway is that today teens use social media to socialize with one another. It is their social space.

She is not offering a wagging finger at youth about narcissism or technology addiction. Sure, she covers cyber-bullying and cyber predators, but overall she treats teens with socio-political agency and not as mindless victims to technology. She also speaks to the digital divide and the ways that youth use technology for important personal connection, and establishing their identities.

My students talked about technology use and addiction and one student noted that addiction is serious term and that we should be mindful of the use of the term. The student was correct, and we chatted about technology addiction. When I queried the class about how many sleep with their phones near their pillow, I saw many sheepish smiles.

This book provides a good opener to the seminar. I find it better to start off on a good foot and not jump right into doom and gloom about data mining, terms of service, and surveillance. That is for next week! Seriously, we are going to cover lots of material about technology and culture and very little condemns it. The class has a major project developing a mock up for an app that is needed on campus or in the greater community. Right now some students want to add to the current mobile app and others want to enhance Fitbits or other wearables for students. From my point–the future is bright.

boyd, danah. 2014. It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. New Have: Yale U P.

Things College Professors Like

Let me start by saying that this is not an exhaustive list. And, this list is based on my experiences as a college professor, teaching assistant, and life-long learner. I also talk to other instructors in the college environment, as well as teachers in the primary and secondary schools.

1. Show up to class

2. Read the syllabus or course outline

3. Come prepared

4. Talk to us after class or in office hours. You are never bugging us when you want to chat about the course or materials. If you need another copy of the syllabus, ask for it. 

5. Plan your time accordingly for the assignments. We realize that you have other courses 

6. When you email us, please use complete sentences and the usual rules of writing. And, start of formal and use Prof. A or Professor. Some profs prefer the title and others will say it’s fine to use their first name.

7. Be open to the materials and course content. 

8. Get involved

9. Come to office hours

10. Review graded work with the prof to see what you can do better next time. <This is different than asking for more points>.

11. Have fun

Number 11 is about making connections between the materials and your other courses or events in the news. Overall, I want to see you engaged and it is a give and take situation. I cannot expect students to magically engage–part of it is my work. I need to make you want to come to class. I will do my part.  

 

Thanksgiving 2014

It is Thanksgiving weekend in Canada and I am sitting here thinking about the things that I am thankful for with this new school year. In the spirit of brevity I will number.

1. I am thankful for my mostly good health.

2. I am thankful for my sweetheart’s good health.

3. I am thankful for my wonderful family–both made and born. Not a day goes by that I do not think of all my family in California.

4. I am thankful to have such wonderful friends near and far. I know that I can text or email this inner circle and hear from them quickly. Thank you.

5. I am thankful for my job as a professor. As I have noted before, I have the great fortune to mentor young people.

6. I am thankful for my admin gig. I get to help other faculty, staff, and students and enhance their learning environment.

7. I am thankful for my peer mentors. You know who you are. Thank you.

8. I am thankful for my students. I enjoy interacting with them in the classroom, office hours, and the mentoring moments.

I have lots more to say, but I think this is a great start for Canadian Thanksgiving. Smiling. The photo below is from UVIC Communications, Photo Services.

IMG_5615.JPG