A Few Things I’ve Learned

When I first started teaching, I was too nice. I had to establish better boundaries for deadlines, protecting my time, and protecting the learning environment of the classroom. Then, I swung to hard to the opposite side and was too strict and demanding. I’ve taught at four institutions and they spanned the gamut of a community college, comprehensive, and research one institution. What happened?

1. I caught a cheating ring in a class. All of the students submitted the same paper, but had moved some paragraphs around throughout the paper. They all earned a 0 on the assignment. One of the guilty students saw me in the library a few weeks later and bellowed at me, “You’re the reason I am not staring law school in September.” I knew most of the libraian staff and some came closer. While my heart was racing, I looked over and said, “You’re the reason you’re not going to law school in the Fall.” I walked away. This student was the only one who tried to deny that he cheated. The others dropped quickly and admitted it. Occasionally, I wondered if he did get into law school and if he’s a practicing lawyer. What I can say, he was a cretin. He was terrible to me and if I got treated this way today, things would play out differently.

2. I accepted any excuse for late work and was surpised to bump into deathly ill students in the campus pub, staffing a table, or at the gym. I soon realized that I needed to have a late policy that was more firm. But, I also didn’t like this “gotcha” culture with late work. I had to work almost full-time throughout my university experience and I’m sympathetic to work/life balance. Now, I rarely ask for proof. It’s just not worth my time or my students. The wording in my syllabus is firm, but in reality, I just want them to be successful and I don’t need them to go spend $25 on a doctor’s note.

3. I dress up for work and class. The first time I wore jeans to class at one institution a few of my students talked loudly about how I had jeans on and it was not professional. I had a nice blouse and blazer on and ignored their banter and started class. Fast foward almost twenty years and I still tend to dress up for class. But, if I could relive that time, I think I would have asked the two students to stay after class and chat about their comments. I wore jeans again, but in a more defiant way. I belonged in that classroom and in that institution even if there weren’t many who looked like me.

4. When I was pregnant and teaching, this opened up my eyes to the way in which my body was viewed as public property everywhere and how my body excited some and repulsed others. While lecturing the Cletus the Fetus moved its arm, and through the shirt the students could see an elbow and I thought a few students were going to pass out. Their eyes opened huge and they looked startled. It was quite funny to me. What I didn’t like, was the touching. I announced to the class that I did not want anyone touching my pregnant belly. It was uncomfortable. Imagine my surprise, when the chair of the Women’s Studies Department emailed me during the Western that a student had complained about this. The Chair supported me, but I still smirk that a student contacted the Chair and argued that it should be OK for her to touch my pregnant belly. It’s comical.

None of these scenarios took place at my current institution, but they all impacted me during those first five years of teaching. The biggest takeaway for me is that I am not here to police the students, to weed them out, to punish them or belittle them. I am here to ensure that they learn about the subject matter and during this time they’ll get a feel for the learning environment that I am in charge of and get a chance to think, write, and interact. This is simplistic, but this is one of several posts about what I’ve learned in two decades of teaching in Political Science, Women’s Studies, and Technology and Society.

On the Fly

Innovation requires that you are willing to fail. I am not willing to always do what is easiest in the classroom. Occasionally my assignments include working with a non-profit or another entity and then reflecting on this work or having students do podcasts or vidcasts. I find that there are some students who are most comfortable with papers and exams.

The students need to trust me with the assignment. How do you support non-paper and exam assignments?

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.