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.

Do Not Glorify Busy: Friends

This post is revised, but provides a timely reminder. Our lives are not about competing with one another about how busy we are. No one wins the busy olympics. Do not glorify busy. Do not proudly say, “I am triple booked.” One-upping does not make you more important. We are all busy.

My mantra for 2013 was: I will not glorify busy. This mantra deserves its own post, but I will speak to something more specific here. I continue to not glorify busy, since I know that everyone is busy and it’s relative to our lives. I will not make myself more busy than I need to and pass on social situations that I have to “phone in.”  This does not include work meetings or commitments, as that is different since I have to attend these meetings. I had a loved one in my family go through a major health crisis a few years ago and it was a wake-up call for better life balance and here I am thinking about things. I am better at taking time off. I have not perfected it, but I am getting better. One of the things that I am more cognizant of that is extremely important that I take care of myself. I am not talking about the basics: food and shelter. No, I’m referring to a more nuanced way of taking care of myself. If I have better balance in my life, my family benefits. If my family benefits, so do my friends, and then my co-workers and students. When my family was in crisis, I saw which friends were available and offered help and more importantly I also saw who I wanted to spend time with during my down time or me time.

I want to surround myself with people who are good friends. I want to spend time with people who are not vampires–you know the ones. You might refer to them as emotional vampires. Now, that I am trying to take better care of myself, I am more careful with my free time. Friendships are important and I am surrounded by some wonderful people in my life. But, I took stock during the last nine months and have forged some stronger friendships with some friends and have walked away from some other more shallow friendships. Surround yourself with people who have your back! This post is germane given that I am off to BlogHer and will surround myself with like-minded people. My hope it to make some new friends and finally meet some “old” ones in real life.

This post is reposted with a few things added. Overall, the sentiment is germane. Do not glorify busy. You will not get a gold medal or cookie for being busy. Take care of yourself!

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The Academic Interview: Visit, Talks, and Politics 

  The last time I had a job interview for a tenure-track job, I was successful and got the job. I had spent 2/3 of my academic career as contingent faculty and felt like I caught the golden snitch. Now, that I am several years past the job interview I am thinking more about the process. I have some points to share based on my experience as the job candidate and sitting on numerous hiring committees between two universities. 

You can never be over-prepared. Do your research about the university and the department. You need to speak to the classes you can teach and how you can add to the teaching, learning, research, and overall community in the department. Practice your job talk and teaching talks with friends, who can offer you advice about your presentation and “working” the room. Choose what you’re going to wear for the trip with special care. Be prepared for a jam packed day or days at the campus. You will be scheduled from dusk to dawn to meet everyone on campus. 

You likely will meet with students in the department. Make sure that you give them the attention that they deserve. They might not have a vote on your position, but these are the students who you might work with come the next term. Have questions for the students. Some of the student are really invested in who you are and are likely interested in who will join the department. 

When you are done with the process, send the department chair a thank you note for the opportunity. 

Odd things that happened to me during my last interview process:

1. A student came up to me and let me know that he supported my candidacy, but the student course union did not. I smiled and reminded him that the course union does not have a vote. However, I will say this. The student leaders with their closed arms during my talk was something that I remembered for the next school year, and then let go. When some of them later approached me for letters of reference, I was surprised. Their behavior was rude. 

2. Hiring brings out the best and worst in the hiring committee and you have little control over this. There is often different factions in a department and this is not about you, but perhaps your supervisor or old arguments in the department. 

3. If you work at the campus where you’re interviewing, you will see the other candidates getting escorted around campus, at lunch, and elsewhere. Roll with it. 

4. If someone falls asleep during your job talk, do not take it personally. I have seen this happen and was surprised, and felt terrible for the job candidate. If you do something silly, recover. I recall one job applicant coughing out his mint. He recovered well. I don’t remember his name, but I remember how smooth he was with the issue. 

5. Be prepared for things you cannot control, people coming to your presentation late, texting during it, and making sour faces after you answer a question. While this behavior is uncollegial, at times it is really not about you. 

Related to the five brief points: be gracious. If you get an interview, you will feel like you won the lottery. Do not lose the ticket, and prepare for the interview. 

Good Luck! 

This is the first of a few posts related to the interview process. 

Reflections: No Glares

Now that another term has almost ended, I can look over my shoulder at the previous school year and think reflect. Each year I reflect and try to learn from the previous year and then resolve to make some changes in the next year in the classroom, for my professional development or my ongoing efforts to mentor/coach students and peers. What did I do differently last year in the classroom, office hours or other interactions with my students? I resolved for more honesty. I was blunt. I was diplomatic, but more so, I was blunt. I am helpful and professional; however, I refuse to waste my students’ time with circular conversations. I do them no favors if I try to sugar-coat conversations.

What were the repercussions for me, if any? I heard more of these comments:
Thank you for being honest. I’ve never heard this before. Why am I almost done and no one has told me this? I didn’t know that this was plagiarism. Thank you for your time.

I did not have any incidents where someone stormed out of my office or a conversation escalated. If anything, I had meaningful conversations about assignments, interactions, writing, grad school, and other issues. As I have noted on numerous occasions, part of my job means that I have the good fortune to work with young people in the classroom or in my office. I love it. I would not trade this job for another as I get to teach, mentor, coach, and lead.

This last year I also thought more about my time. I strategically chose to focus my time differently. Part of it is that I had to, given a job change, but that is cause for a different post. I was not as available for extended office hours and the world did not fall apart. I expected a few day’s notice for extra appointments. What I am saying is that I established better boundaries for office houring and mentoring students. I had to protect my time thanks to the job change and I was working more. I managed my time effectively and accomplished more. And, at the same time I did not field complaints from my students. If anything, the change was better, as they commanded my full attention at times that were not pressed between meetings and I could listen.

My writing prompt for this post comes from a Swedish Proverb, “Fear less, hope more; whine less, breathe more; talk less, say more; hate less love more; and all good things are yours.” This last school year was filled with so much good and change. I welcome the change with a big smile and an open mind. The 2015-16 school year is half way through and I am in a great place. And, I’ll add that my little Grumpy Cat agrees and has her head on the desk!

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! 

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.