Lessons Learned

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I have had two outlier terms in my teaching career. And, one was in the last year. When things work well, you feel like every damn thing is in order, and you want to pinch yourself. In a similar way, when things begin to go wrong you want to stop and fix them, but they continue to slip out of your reach, it feels like a train wreck. Well, I had a term like this and I’m looking back, so that I can look forward.

I used some new materials, had some strong personalities, and did my best. Well, things did not go as planned, and I need to do a few things. I need to own it. I need to move on. But, right now I am reviewing things. What could I have done to make things better? I know it was not just the books, the students, and me. There are always more factors at play when a class is mediocre. I pride myself on how much I enjoy teaching, as I view it as a form of mentoring and I find teaching fulfilling. And, when things go offside, I feel responsible.

I chose a few new books in order to push my class to read about debates in the field. If I could go back, I would have chosen one new book. The material was provocative enough to cause uncomfortable feelings, debate, and a good measure of animosity between the students, and some directed at me. It is far easier to teach the usual suspects. So, there is a part of me that stubbornly thinks that I would not change the books. I did explain that the material would push the students and that they should feel uncomfortable, but it was not enough. From the papers, I could read that a handful of the students did not like the book or both books. Now, whether or not I had a deep reflection about the content is a different story, but I did hear about the materials vocally. “I want a different book suggestion, since I cannot relate to this one.” I did not give the student another book option.

Course materials are important and I reviewed several books and was really happy with the overall syllabus and assignment. I can reluctantly admit that I would not teach both new books again. One did not work. I won’t name it, as it will do a few things. It will make the students realize that I am talking about their class, and it’s likely better that they not know which of the courses I am referring to in this post! Well, on their own, both books are intellectually engaging or problematic. I do not want to teach perfect books, as that is too darn easy. What else would I have done differently? I think I would have noted that this course had fewer readings and pages of work due to me, than previous terms. From reviewing the evaluations, it is clear that some of the students thought that I was asking them to do too much work. I was not.

The good news here is that I take each class as a learning experience. While teaching feels like it comes easy to me, it is good to know that I will still have an off term. It is good for me to reflect on the course. And, I am not a rock star every term. I have been fortunate to have so many awesome courses and experiences–this year reminded me to be humble! And, the few unhelpful evaluations say more about the student, than they do about me. Thanks for reading the post. I’d appreciate any feedback you have about awesome or crappy terms. We all have them.

 

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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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.

Popular Instructors

I cannot believe that I am starting my 18th teaching year. I always start counting the years in September and this is 18. One of the things that I am mulling is what a popular instructor or popular prof means in academe. Does this reflect your enrollments? Is this term cast as a negative assuming that your course content is easy? I think the context mattters.

1. Hearing it from some colleagues it is clear that it cheapens your pedagogy and the depth of what you teach. 

2. Hearing it from students varies, but it is mostly meant as a compliment. 

3. Some colleagues clearly mean it as a compliment. 

Overall, my sense is that the so-called popular instructors generally enjoy teaching. I think that is the difference.  

 

Sustaining You

Who makes you feel safe? Friends and others who know you are safe or some might say: home. When I think of people I trust and respect, this networks of friends, family, and inner circle at work are supportive, good listeners, and are honest with their advice. I do not want a nodding head and mere agreement. I want someone to listen and then comment–especially if we disagree or if the friend has something to add. Again, a big part of this is listening. Try to stay away from emotional vampires who just take, take, and take. These people are exhausting to engage with on an ongoing basis. I find that I am controlling my time more and putting more distance with the emo vamps, as those conversations are usually not two-way conversations.

Affirm the good relationships and spend time with the people who add to your day. Remind your network that they are important collaborators, friends, and people in your life. These people challenge you to be a better person and they deserve reminders that they are important. This makes me think of places where I feel at home or safe. I’m thinking of the places or things that add to my day. The smell of coffee definitely makes me smile, and then the taste, well. I love coffee. 

When I think of where I feel safe or comfortable, I often think of the classroom. As a natural extrovert, teaching feels like home. I am not referring to talking at my students, but rather leading, facilitating, and listening to them. I want the classroom to embody a place where we can discuss, challenge, disagree, and grow. Do not assume that I mean that I expect the classroom to not be a place of contentious conversation–it is. But, when I walk into a classroom to teach or to give a presentation, I feel like I am at home or in a good place that I am comfortable.

What caused this stream of thought? This quote from George Eliot, “Oh, the comfort. The inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person. Having neither to weigh thoughts nor measure words. But pouring them all out. Just as they are, chaff and grain together, certain that a faithful hand will take and sift them, keep what is worth keeping, and with a breath of kindness blow the rest away.”  Keep and nurture. Blow the rest away.

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Revisiting Course Experience Evaluations

During the term faculty are required to distribute university approved evaluation forms for students to fill out and these instruments field a wide array of responses. The campus where I work is moving to online evaluations and the reaction is mixed. Regarding student evaluation I have heard lots and have blogged about the evaluation process, but these are the most common responses that I have heard recently.

They are not qualified to judge me

It’s a popularity contest more than anything else

I don’t read them

They’re useful

I read them

I bury them

I learn from them

I don’t like them

The comments will turn into a RMPish experiment

I do not want to engage in the online versus paper evaluations for this post. Much of academic life is filled with judgment. We get assessed by our peers, by our department, reviewers of scholarly presses, others up the academic food chain, and by the government and public if you are at a public institution. Frankly, everyone is always weighing in about higher education.

We judge and assess student work, yet somehow we are uncomfortable with this singular act of student assessment of our course or courses. Why? Well, that is cause for a long post. Let me speak to how I have changed my feelings about them. I think that the official university evaluations are a mixed-bag. They provide feedback. Some of the feedback is useful and other feedback is interesting and at times not helpful. I am sure we have all had this experience with a peer review:
Reviewer 1 provides good feedback and you know that they read your chapter or article. Reviewer 2 has skimmed it and refers to some work that you cited, but the reviewer did not bother to notice this. Reviewer 3 did not read your work and really dislikes the topic and offers nothing that is useful beyond you wishing evil upon this person. . Reviewer 4 refers to his or her work and how this article offers nothing new, but there are a few helpful comments.

Student evaluations can work like this, too. However, the rub is that our departments use these evaluations to measure teaching effectiveness or prowess and at times the numbers and comments do not paint an accurate picture or maybe they do?! Perhaps your students really like you and like your courses and the evaluations offer this assessment. But, maybe your students dislike you or the material and the evaluations convey this. And, that is the problem. We need to assess the larger picture and the evaluations offer one part. This is why peer evaluation is also important. But, do not stop there. If your campus has a learning and teaching center, visit it. Take some workshops and avail yourself of the various opportunities and make sure that you add these workshops to your vitae in the appropriate area.

Teaching requires work and preparation and we have a tough audience. Our students are bombarded with distractions and if they are not interested in the topic I feel like I have to catch them. But, alas, no matter what I do, I will not catch all of them.

What does this mean for student evaluations, then? They are necessary. But, faculty can respond by reviewing them and reflecting. Do you need to mix things up? Is it time to have a trusted colleague do a peer review of your syllabus and lecture? Departments also have to invest in faculty and offer opportunities for professional development and insist that faculty work on their teaching dossier. I am biased here as teaching track faculty, but am resolute in my opinion that teaching takes work. I include a photo of Stress Paul, a rubber stress ball.

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