Professing: Mediocre Terms

I had the opportunity to chat with some other professors about their courses, and we ended up chatting about the occasional course “do over.” If you poll professors, there will always be a class or term where things just did not go as planned. In some instances it was out of your control. You might have been under tight deadlines for projects or you were teaching 4 courses with new preparations for each course.

One thing that we agreed upon was the need to reflect and then move on from that course or term. I have been thinking about this conversation some. I haven’t had a bad term, but I have had a course go off the rails. I have had a Teaching Assistant abandon the job, and I had to do all of that person’s marking. (And, the Teaching Assistant was still paid! But, that is another post.) The other graduate students in the department were not aware of the entire story and made that term terrible by blocking my door, standing outside of my office talking loudly during my office hours, and other bullying up behavior that was appalling. But, the term ended well and I have since supported many of those grad students with mentoring as they go onto the job market.

Many years ago a student threatened me via email repeatedly and the campus was great with the swift response, and I know that I never want that to happen again. The reality is, though, that I will have another interesting course. I will have a student say terrible things in class, in an email or in my office hours. I might have a student ask to see other graded work or make demands of me that I do not appreciate. And, I’ll have to respond thoughtfully or disengage accordingly. I am fine with that. This is part of my job, and honestly, these interactions are small. But, from talking with other professors, we wear this. We remember these moments. We can reflect, but we have to forget and move on to the next term.

I talk about teachable moments and I will have them. This can vary from the moment in class, office hours or after class. Teaching and mentoring is not easy. As the new school year looms for those teaching Summer session or continues for those who never great a break, hang in there! Raising my cup of coffee to all of the professors!

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.


Conferences and Conferencing

This Spring is extremely busy or perhaps more busy. I have been to four conferences in less than two weeks. I have had ample opportunity to re-connect or meet new people at each of the conferences and I have some advice for networking. This is not an exhaustive list.

  1. It’s great to introduce yourself, but make sure that you pause and listen to the people that you’re meeting.
  2. You’ll need to re-charge after the networking, and it’s important that you self-care and have some down time.
  3. Try to follow up with the new connections that you’ve made. This might be via an email or liking/sharing something that they’ve said on a social media platform.
  4. See if you can meet new people! At some conferences, work colleagues will congregate and the conference is the perfect opportunity to build your networks. You can meet new people and introduce them to others, who you know at the conference.
  5. Learn. Go to sessions that you’re interested in and be open to learning about new topics.

Regroup after the conference and think about how you can share what you have learned with your colleagues.

The Way You Work: Revisited

Academic work requires so much solitary work and this makes it flexible and at times impossible. Work always beckons and the to do list can become burdensome. We are at the start of Summer term at the campus where I work, and it is the perfect time to think about how you can re-focus on the way you work. What works for you?
Right about now academics are thinking about the long list of things to accomplish during the Summer. Honestly, though, how do you work?

I find that I need some white noise when I am doing certain tasks and other tasks requires quiet or music at a low volume. At the day’s end when I am completely alone this is the time that I listen to music set high. I like to chunk out as many tasks as I can during these evenings alone at work. My job requires lots of meetings and this means that I have to catch up from the meetings. I am an early riser and tend to get lots completed before anyone else in my family wakes up.

I have blogged previously about the importance of having good work and life balance and boundaries. I know that this is extremely important, but the reality of work is that some months are more busy than others. I am also trying to think about the way I work and what keeps me organized and able to get things done. I love coffee and the entire process of making and savoring it. This ritual is part of my morning and reading the papers. I also realize that the caffeine is necessary most days.

I need desk time to plan and think, and I need to walk around and will find myself in walking meetings. <They are awesome!>  . I will talk into my phone and dictate notes from a meeting or send myself emails to update. I also use this time to clear my head and plan for the next meeting, task, or day. I need some alone time to organize my day. I use Todoist to organize my tasks and I have found this tool works well for me. While this is not a feminist rant, I was thinking about this quote and feel it fits.

Aragon Rant_Twitter


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.