Academic Kindness

Not gonna lie.  I’m angry.  As I reflect upon the presidential election and the troubling ripples it continues to cast I am angry.  And fearful.  I have tried in the short-term to productively channel these emotions by calling my congresspeople and making donations to various organizations.

But in the longer term I have concerns about my anger.  I think it is okay to be angry, but generally speaking I am aware that my anger and fear have made me impatient and short-tempered in my daily interactions with colleagues and students.  And this worries me.  While I think anger can be an inspiring emotion–it can motivate us to take action and fight back–it is ultimately, in my experience, an exhausting and unproductive emotion if you inhabit it for too long.  So inspired by a terrific Tumblr account and the Twitter hashtag #AcademicKindness, I’m determined to find ways to insert more of this into the culture of my campus and my broader professional communities.  And before you accuse me of being a Pollyanna and just trying to paper over real problems with sunshine and flowers, I also want to offer some insights as to why such an approach has merit beyond temporarily assuaging unpleasant feelings.

Being truly present for my students.  Over and over again the evidence about retention and student satisfaction demonstrates that one of the most significant factors is the sense of connectedness that students form with their professors.  In his book, Small Teaching, James Lang highlights small, easy things we can do to reach out to our students.  For example, arrive a few minutes early for class and make a point, over the course of the semester, to chat with each student–not just the ones in the front few rows.  The twenty-first century university has, in my opinion, become too enamored of shiny software fixes.  Yes, that clever online advising system does make a difference, but so does something deceptively simple: human relationships.

Such an approach doesn’t just make students happier, it can also impact student learning.  In their book How College Works, Dan Chambliss and Christopher Takacs have demonstrated that student motivation increases when they sense this kind of investment and attention from their professors.  If we can engage students at this level, then we can leverage that motivation and enthusiasm in other ways that promote their learning.

But then it occurs to me, why would we limit such an approach to our students?  Surely we want to retain good faculty and colleagues and promote their job satisfaction, too, right?  Surely, we want to motivate them to do their best work.  What might this look like in practice?

Create community among our colleagues.  And no, I don’t mean department meetings.  I never cease to be amazed at the power of a shared meal or cup of coffee and conversation.  When I was a department chair I instituted a weekly opportunity for faculty to gather, imbibe some caffeine, and share a snack.  It cost next to nothing and it fostered tremendous good will.  Some of the conversations inspired new initiatives and projects.  We could replicate this practice or variations on it across various categories enacting it at the departmental level, as a way to foster interdisciplinary conversations, or to bring colleagues together to discuss teaching and pedagogy.

Recognize good work.  Let people know when they’ve done something you appreciate or find valuable.  In these short-tempered days I am very quick to complain about the colleagues who annoy me.  But this it to ignore the ones who unfailingly meet deadlines, produce great work, or otherwise are just easy and pleasant to work with.  And here, too, the lessons from student motivation and learning have something to tell us.  Much of what drives faculty is the reward system of tenure and promotion–in other words, they are extrinsically motivated.  Staff motivation is often built upon a parallel rewards system of merit pay and the like.

But in these difficult times I believe it is all the more important to help connect the people we work with to intrinsic motivation, something bigger than themselves and beyond the quotidian tasks at hand. Research has demonstrated that the more specific we are in our praise of students and the more we connect it to their development of skills or a larger purpose, the more it resonates with them and motivates them to improve or continue to perform at high levels.  So rather than simply thanking a staff member for helping a student, what if it went something like: “thank you so much for taking the time to work with that student.  Connecting her to that important resource is going to help with her graduate school application.”  And for the faculty colleague: “I really appreciate your hard work on that report.  Your thoroughness is going to make it much easier for me to argue with the dean for new positions.”

Finally, practice some academic kindness on yourself.  I know it’s a busy time of the semester/quarter/term.  But this week commit to carving out 20-30 minutes in your schedule for something that is pure joy for you: reading for pleasure, going for a run, watching an episode of your favorite sit-com, taking your dog for a walk, enjoying a meal and conversation with your partner or a friend, or maybe, just maybe sitting still and doing nothing.

Academic, Know Thyself

So as you’ll know from my last post, this has been a busy few months.  And if there is anything good that has come out of feeling constantly frazzled, behind, and discombobulated, it is a reassessment of how I work.  At first I was frustrated by the need to do this.  I’ve been in the academy for a long time–why I haven’t I figured this out more effectively?  Am I just a slow learner?  But then I realized that my life in the academy has constantly changed: from faculty member to department chair to full-time administrator (who tries, desperately, to keep a research agenda going).  I have also recently said yes to several big projects within the profession and these have definitely added complexity to my work life.

And so, I find myself taking stock and trying to make the chaos more manageable.  And one general observation I’ve made is that I need an inventory of what works–and what doesn’t–in the ways that I order my life and tasks.  Good academic that I am, I have read and researched, and I follow the blogs and commentary of other academics who are trying to do the same.  But in the end, as with so many things, it comes down to what works for YOU.  In other words, know yourself in all of your messy glory and work back from there.

I got lucky and stumbled upon some preliminary answers as I mulled this over for the past few weeks, but to avoid it being a random, undirected process, I would recommend asking yourself the following questions:

  1.  Where do you get stuck in your work?  Is there a particular task or time of day that routinely hangs you up?  What can you do to change or manage that?
  2. What are some small fixes that you can make in the short term while you figure out the big picture?
  3. What energizes you and helps provide the momentum to keep you going?

As some food for thought, here are a few things I’ve begun doing that resulted from trying to do a better job of figuring myself out.

Manage Your Bad Habits: In the long term you can work on breaking your bad habits, but in the short term, you need coping mechanisms.  Take my relationship with emails: if I can find a way to put off writing a difficult or complicated email, I will.  Now for the future should I work on a better system of managing my email?  Yes.  Absolutely.  But in the short term, there are emails that need to be written and business that needs to get taken care of.  So here’s what I’ve tried:

  • Tee it up: there are emails that I know I will eventually need to send, but I’m just waiting for a few details to fall into place.  I have started writing those emails in advance and letting them sit in my drafts folder.  Then, once the details are available, I just drop them in, and I’m done!
  • My inability to work on emails is symptomatic of a larger issue with procrastination.  There is a rich literature on why we procrastinate, but in the short term what helps me is to Just Start It.  Whether it’s an email or some other project that’s nagging at me, I set a timer for fifteen minutes and begin working.  The point here is not to go all Nike and Just Do It, because frankly that’s too overwhelming, and I never will.  But if I Just Start It I typically realize it isn’t so awful and I do have a handle on it.  Or maybe I don’t and it is awful, but at least then I’ve begun to figure out what I need to do to finish it.

Finally, digging deep and trying to assess what makes my work life tick has revealed that I need to Make Time for the Good Stuff.  I know this is often easier said than done, but try to identify what makes you happy and then endeavor to do it as often as possible.  Last week I was in a miserable mood when suddenly it occurred to me that two things that typically make me very happy–going for a run and taking time out to write–had both been markedly absent from my week.  I know that these things make me happy, but I don’t always do a good job of making time for them.  Like everything else that needs to get done–meetings, teaching, etc–I need to put these things on my schedule.  I went for a run yesterday, and yesterday I started this blog post.  And already I really do feel more like myself.

Do I hope that I will break my procrastinating habits?  Yes.  I also hope that I’ll get better about eating more vegetables.  But in the meantime, I need to find ways to make my bad habits manageable and to identify what energizes me and do more of it.

How would your work life look different if you dug deep and tried to know yourself a bit better?

Lessons from an Impossibly Busy Month

There’s a reason I haven’t posted in over a month.  September was a hellishly busy.  I got to do some great things, spent time with great people, and work on some very cool projects, but  still.  I was the busiest I’ve been since I was working on getting tenure.  I was in transit or out of town for half of the month and felt perpetually frazzled and behind.  But ever one to try to learn from my mistakes, I offer here some lessons from that impossibly busy month.

  • I need a better system of task and deadline management.  It’s not that I don’t have a to-do list, it’s that I have too many to-do lists, scribbled on multiple scraps of paper and scattered across multiple locations.  And then there are the calendars.  Like the lists, I have too many of them.  I am seriously thinking about merging my calendar and to-do lists into a paper system and am very intrigued by the idea of an Everything Notebook.  My old systems of organization have been outstripped by a more complex schedule and life.  Time to create some new systems for workflow–I’ve got some ideas and will write on this in a future post.  And, please, if you have ideas or strategies, please share them in the comments section below.

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  • The timer is my friend.  I’ve written before about jump starting a hard task or shaking off procrastination by setting a timer for 15-20 minutes to force yourself to do something.  In a busy month, setting a timer allowed me to chip away at tasks that otherwise would have seemed insurmountably overwhelming in the fog of my general busy-ness.
  • Even when ridiculously busy, it is possible to keep some larger goals on track.  I almost abandoned the prospect of running my first half-marathon because I thought I was too busy to keep training amidst the busy travel schedule.  But I stuck it out.  And guess what?  Last Sunday I finished my first half-marathon (I’ll resist the temptation to show you a picture of my finisher’s medal).  So don’t give up on goals or projects or tasks that are important to you even when a crazy schedule might tempt you into doing so.

 

 

 

 

Back to School, Administrator-Style

I confess: the first day of fall term always gets me.  I love the shiny new-ness of it all.  The term and the academic year lie in front of you–anything is possible!

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But I will also confess that as an administrator, a little bit of that fall luster is lacking. When I was a full-time faculty member, I usually had been away from campus for big chunks of the summer.  I’d also been in a different kind of headspace: doing research, taking time to think, and with any luck, do some writing.  I would return to campus with renewed resolve.  I was all about the bouquet of newly sharpened pencils that Tom Hanks describes in “You’ve Got Mail.”  This would be the year that I would get all my lecture notes organized!  This would be the year I would stay current with the journals in my field! (we will put aside, for now, whether or not I achieved these things.  I suspect you know the answer).

But as an administrator, I work on a 12-month contract.  Sure, I take vacation in the summer, but I don’t really get long breaks from campus.  And yes, I try to carve out a little bit of time for my research, but it usually takes a back seat to more pressing administrative projects.  There’s a continuity to my work life now that means fall doesn’t feel like the dramatic shift that it used to when I had been away geographically and cognitively during the summer.

Administrative work, in addition to its continuity, can also easily become drudgery. Reports, meetings, spreadsheets, and other bits of administrivia can wear down even the best and most enthusiastic administrators.

So rather than get mired in my meh-ness or let my 12-month contract define me, I’d like to propose some strategies for recapturing some of the fresh start-ness of fall term.  Consider this a back to school primer of sorts, for administrators (though faculty may find some useful tips here as well!).

  1.  Identify something about your administrative work that brings you joy.  It can be big or small, but you need to find it and make time for it.  Maybe it’s helping faculty connect with grant opportunities.  Maybe it’s developing new curriculum.  Maybe it’s finding a new way to make a cumbersome university process more streamlined.  Use the start of a new year to reconnect with the part(s) of your job that you enjoy and let that provide a jump start for the next twelve months.
  2. Identify something that you could be better at.  If you’re like me, graduate school didn’t prepare you for administration, so the learning curve can be steep.  For example, when I started in administration, I was AWFUL at Excel and spreadsheets.  I have worked on cultivating this skill.  Embrace the start of a new school year to say that this will be the year that you learn how to do a certain task or figure out a certain problem.  It’s okay to be bad at something.  It’s not okay to continue to be bad at it if it’s essential to your work.
  3. Pay it forward.  If you’ve made it into the ranks of administration you probably have some seniority at your institution.  One thing that can restore a sense of resolve and purpose to the start of the new year is reconnecting with your faculty colleagues and helping those individuals thrive.  So reach out to those junior to you and be a mentor or an ally.
  4. Find a way to teach or interact with students.  I have strong feelings about why administrators should teach (which I will save for a future blog post), but for now, I will just say that much of what is missing in higher ed administration could be remedied by administrators reconnecting with the classroom and students.  And it’s good for you, too.  Nothing helps me transcend administrivia and spreadsheets better than the unscripted and unvarnished perspective of students.  So maybe you don’t have time to teach an entire course.  What if you guest-lectured for a colleague in your disciplinary area?  What if you sponsored a co-curricular activity that gave students the opportunity to meet and provide feedback to the dean/associate dean/provost?
  5. Vow to do one thing that is about taking care of you.  Maybe it’s getting regular exercise, or drinking more water, or taking time for a hobby that makes you happy.  Whatever it is, take advantage of this time of fresh starts to make it a priority.

I hope these strategies or any others you might identify will help you reconnect with the newness of the fall term.  May it be a year of sharp pencils, well-written reports, and easily comprehended spreadsheets!

 

Why Are We Still Having This Debate?

A recent article in The Atlantic on the place of the lecture in the college classroom sparked a familiar debate. A little too familiar, in fact. It left those who direct college teaching centers and who work on the scholarship of teaching and learning scratching their heads in exasperation. While no one would say that you should never lecture, the stunningly clear conclusion that you can draw from extensive research on the efficacy of lecturing is that it doesn’t work well when it is the sole pedagogical method.

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Continuous lecturing is not consistent with what we now know about how the brain processes and comprehends material. When we listen to a lecture we don’t simply record it as a continuous stream of information that we can call up at some later date. Instead, we group or categorize information as we take it in, linking it to previous knowledge or creating new categories. This means that a lecture that goes on for more than about fifteen or twenty minutes becomes increasingly ineffective. Our brains simply can’t process it all effectively. In fact, we are more likely to better remember the beginning of a long lecture than the part we heard most recently. Even more troubling still, the research also demonstrates that lecturing is a particularly ineffective teaching method for minority, poor, and first-generation students. As Annie Paul has noted in her New York Times piece “Are Lectures Unfair,” “poor and minority students are disproportionately likely to have attended low-performing schools and to have missed out on the rich academic and extracurricular offerings familiar to their wealthier white classmates, thus arriving on campus with less background knowledge. This is a problem, since research has demonstrated that we learn new material by anchoring it to knowledge we already possess.”

If the evidence for the limitations of lecturing as a pedagogical choice is so overwhelming, then why do we keep having this debate? Why are some of our colleagues reluctant to abandon an over-reliance on “continuous exposition” (this phrase comes from Derek Bruff’s great piece, “In Defense of Continuous Exposition by the Teacher“) and why do we keep seeing defenses of the lecture in high profile publications like the New York Times and The Atlantic?

[And please note: I write all of this as someone who does lecture and sees a place for it in most of my classes].

To begin with, lecturing is a comfortable and familiar strategy that lets us control the classroom.

Lecturing is a relatively accessible pedagogical method. You can definitely be bad or good at it, but as a method, it is not complicated. Many (most?) of us did not receive pedagogical training as part of our PhD programs (though this is something that organizations like the American Historical Association are beginning to address). There are a myriad of excellent and proven active learning strategies that provide terrific counterweights to a reliance on lectures, but if we haven’t studied these and been equipped to deploy them, it is not terribly surprising that we would gravitate towards a fairly passive and straightforward pedagogical style.

A corollary to this is that lecturing provides control. Many active learning strategies put (quite rightly) more control in the hands of students. Suddenly, the students are directing the conversation and momentum of the class. This can be scary if you’re not used to it. Lectures provide a comfortable script. You walk into class and know that you have fifty or so minutes to get to the end of the outline/notes. Moving away from solely lecturing thus also requires readjusting our notions of how to impart information, communicate our expertise, and help students acquire higher-order thinking skills. We don’t call the lecturing style of pedagogy “the sage on the stage” for nothing. We need to understand that employing active learning strategies doesn’t discount our sagacity; it just asks us to adapt it to different pedagogical methods.

Further, I think we delight in the “sage on the stage” model because we have a nostalgic attachment to lecturing as an iconic representation of what college is supposed to be like: large lecture halls filled with rapt students hanging on the every word of a dynamic professor. I queried a group of friends and colleagues about examples of movies or television shows that enshrine the model of the “sage on the stage.” The responses came very quickly—we all have a ready picture in our heads of what this looks like. But the gulf between those representations and reality is, of course, huge. I don’t know about you, but I’ve experienced exactly one professor who could lecture that eloquently and charismatically. And I’ve been in the academy for over twenty years.

That said, I was really struck by some of the most popular examples that were offered. John Houseman in “The Paper Chase.” Except here’s the thing: he doesn’t lecture continuously. While we might object to his bullying style, he actually employs the Socratic method—a questioning give and take with his students, designed to guide them to the right answer. Robin Williams in “Dead Poet’s Society” (putting aside the fact that it’s set in a prep school and not college). Except here’s the thing: he doesn’t lecture continuously, either. He lectures for a few minutes, then calls on the students, has them read passages of poetry aloud, compose and read their own poems aloud, etc. Barbara Streisand in “The Mirror Has Two Faces.” In this case, she does lecture fairly continuously, but she embodies the best that lecturing has to offer: good storytelling in the service of the broader communication of important ideas and concepts. And, not incidentally, she does pepper her lecture with questions posed to the students. So even our presumably iconic examples are not really examples of continuous exposition. And thus I suspect many of you who will read this and defend your use of lecture, actually do more of what’s described in these three examples: you engage in good storytelling, you break up your lectures with other activities, you engage the students actively in the flow of the lecture itself.

But what these iconic examples also instruct us to do then, is to embrace other pedagogical methods. To do so we will need to move away from what we know best, what comes perhaps easiest, and what feels comfortable and controlled.

But it should not be too hard to do so if we avoid seeing this as an either/or proposition. It is not a question of lecturing or employing active learning strategies. It is, however, a question of choosing appropriate strategies and limiting or breaking up the amount of time we spend lecturing. And, yes, as the recent piece in The Atlantic argues, if we are going to lecture we could probably get better at it. But that same piece also implicitly argues that simply training professors to be better lecturers would somehow obviate the research that demonstrates the inefficacy of relying mostly on lecturing. That research is based in the kind of cognitive science cited in the beginning of this piece. Simply lecturing better will not erase the fact that our brains do not process long lectures efficiently. By the same token, we do not need to demonize the lecture in order to promote the adoption of active learning strategies. Both have their place.

Which brings me to my final point. We need to stop devaluing and ignoring the work of cognitive science and the scholarship of teaching and learning. It is strange that a profession that values research would ignore research on how we learn and teach. A colleague offered a good explanation for this: we bifurcate research and teaching. For too many, research is that thing we do when we’re not teaching, making teaching a separate category, oddly immune to the impact of research. And yet there is tremendous, important, and persuasive work being done in cognitive science which explicates what was once mysterious: how we learn and acquire knowledge and comprehension. And this work is in turn being applied by astute colleagues who work in the scholarship of teaching and learning to help us make smart choices about which pedagogical models to use when. Why would we fail to employ pedagogies that have been proven to promote student learning? Why would we cling to methods that do not work well under certain circumstances? To ignore this work is to do our students and ourselves a profound disservice.

 

 

 

 

Slow Down, You Move Too Fast

Reaching back into the archives (I’ve been blogging long enough to have archives!) and offering this as semesters and terms begin to wind down.

Tales Told Out of School

I am waiting.  I am waiting hopefully and patiently for the pendulum to swing in the other direction.  I am waiting for a cultural shift that will stop glorifying busy and that will stop measuring our worth by our ability to multitask, work long hours, and turn our smartphones into near-permanent appendages.

(And rest assured, I am guilty of all these things).

For now, however, I know that this means tilting at windmills.  So instead, I will write in defense of sabbaticals–both big and small.  At its most literal sabbatical comes from the Hebrew word “shabbat” or sabbath and means ceasing or taking a time of rest–typically, ceasing from work, so that attentions can be devoted elsewhere.  In the academy, of course, it is a break from teaching and other quotidian responsibilities, so that you can take time to do research, travel to archives, work in the lab, develop new…

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Mentoring 2.0

By all accounts, having a mentor is a good thing. A mentor is there to provide advice and guidance.   The most common model in the academy is for junior faculty to be assigned a senior faculty mentor. The senior person helps steer the junior person through the first few years of teaching, figuring out the requirements for tenure, and generally negotiating the landscape of a new institution. The research on mentoring demonstrates its key role in recruiting and retaining good faculty.

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Yet there are at least two shortcomings with the current way that mentoring happens on campuses. First, despite its clear benefits to institutions and individuals, we are far from a universal culture of mentoring in higher ed. My non-scientific research on the subject suggests that in the case of junior faculty some institutions assign mentors, some don’t (perhaps due to department size) but do provide broad mentoring support, and some do not have any system, formal or informal, of mentoring. Models for mentoring contingent faculty are few and far between and make the mentoring of junior faculty look positively robust.

Second, where it does exist, the model of one-on-one mentoring is not adequate. What do you do when confronted with a difficult work situation that because of power dynamics can’t be addressed entirely or adequately by your mentor relationship? Let me ground this in a specific example: a junior female faculty member receives a very critical peer evaluation of her teaching from a senior male colleague. Her attempts to discuss the evaluation with her colleague are rebuffed. But this individual is also a close friend of her mentor and has repeatedly sung his praises to her. What recourse does she have? The scenario could even be less dire. Even with the best intentions and careful selection, mentoring matchups don’t always work. What if you have a mentor assigned to you and that person isn’t a good fit (for whatever reason)?

The remedy for both of these shortcomings rest with senior faculty and administrators. We need to commit to and create a culture of mentoring on our campuses. This is an admittedly broad and amorphous goal.   Simply saying that an institution has a commitment to mentoring, will not be adequate. Once it’s been said, though, there are ways to build it into the culture of the place.

Don’t wait or hope for mentoring relationships to be constructed. Obviously, the particulars will vary according to the size and other circumstances at each institution, but make mentoring the responsibility of someone at the vice provost or dean level. That person can certainly delegate the specifics down to the department or division level, but the mentoring buck needs to stop with someone. Otherwise, it’s all too easy to assume that someone else will make it happen. Make the provision of mentoring a part of what’s discussed in campus interviews—we tell job candidates about parking and healthcare, why not let them know that mentoring will be part of their experience? Build the expectation of mentoring into letters of hire. Create a community of mentors on campus, who through face-to-face meetings, and some sort of online platform, can talk to each other about challenges and best practices. And do not limit mentoring to tenure-track faculty. We all know the demographics. If we are neglecting to mentor contingent faculty we are doing them and our institutions a disservice. And what about mid-career faculty? Faculty who need support to make the jump from Associate Professor to Professor rank? Or tenured faculty who are beginning to move into campus administrative roles? Wherever and however possible, weave mentoring into the fabric of campus life.

But as you do, be attentive to the limitations of the one-on-one model described above. What about instead assigning groups of faculty mentors to groups of mentored faculty? In other words, what if we imagined mentoring on the model of networks? This is more consistent with how we conduct much of our academic lives these days anyway on Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms that connect us to multiple people at once. The existence of a network would give the mentored faculty options in seeking guidance and resolution to problems. It would also give them an immediate community on campus. Rather than isolated meetings with one mentor, the network could meet at least once a semester and the mentored faculty would meet not just mentors, but other new faculty as well. Meaningful one-on-one relationships might grow out of these networks, and that would be an added bonus. But it would be an outgrowth of a broader network and would be more flexible than simply hoping that one-on-one assignments were a good fit.

Certainly, the network model comes with complications. What if, for example, the members of the network offer conflicting advice? Some conflicts like this could be avoided, though, if the mentors worked together, compared notes, and got to know the mentored faculty as well as possible. Rather than a barrier, then, the need for this kind of mini culture of mentoring within the network of mentors would bolster the overall institutional culture of mentoring.

When mentoring works, everyone wins. The mentored faculty receives guidance and advice that can only contribute to their job satisfaction. The mentors build strong ties with their colleagues. And the institution is stronger for this culture of support. That said, the old model of mentoring tenure-track faculty through the one-on-one model is inadequate. Mentoring needs to be woven into the fabric of an institution at all levels and should embrace a networking model of connecting mentors and mentored.

 

Email: Can’t Live With It…

It’s Monday morning and I just opened my work email.  Despite being armed with a ginormous cup of coffee, beginning to scroll through these messages is undoubtedly going to spark a cascade of negative emotions: frustration, anger, exasperation, exhaustion.  And then there will be that daily internal monologue about being behind on my correspondence and how overwhelmed I feel.

I’m sure I’m not the only one to have this reaction to email so what follows are some guidelines about how to engage–and occasionally not engage–with email.  Let’s start with the assumption that you’re smarter than your email inbox and that you can find a way to make sense of those hundreds of stockpiled messages.

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How to manage an overflowing inbox.  The upshot: you need a system of folders or task management.  Other folks, far more clever than me, have come up with great ideas.  There are some examples here.  And there are many more if you just Google, “manage your email.”  Because I don’t know about you, but just hoping for the best and saying that at some mythical time in the future I will be “caught up on email” isn’t working for me.

From there you need some rules and structure: all emails answered within 24 hours, setting aside blocks of time when you only work on email, etc.  I know that for me, simply scrolling through the new ones each morning, responding to the really urgent ones, and then forgetting about all the others is not a good system.  So I flag (literally, my email program lets me do this and then I can sort by flagged messages later) the ones I need to come back to that require some time and attention.  Beyond that I’m experimenting with setting aside two or three 15-minute blocks of time each day when I work through the flagged materials.  Setting a timer and saying that I will only work on email focuses me and reduces the temptation to just scroll through all the emails and be overwhelmed.  But choose a discipline that will work for you.  Don’t set yourself up for failure.

Once you do start responding, a different set of guidelines kicks in.  Let’s start with the email that makes you so mad you can barely see straight.  Go ahead, write the angry response.  Say everything you need to say.  Don’t hold back.  But then put it in your draft folder and DO NOT SEND IT.  Let it sit there for at least 24 hours.  Then go back to it and revise accordingly.  Having had the chance to vent will help, but 24 hours later your emotions (hopefully) won’t be running as hot, you can exercise some discretion, and send a measured response.

Let’s continue with that really important email you’re composing where you need to communicate some really critical information.  Don’t bury the lede.  Put the important stuff first.  Think about a list of bullet points, rather than embedding all the material in a series of prose paragraphs.  Highlight the meeting time, date, and place or the deadline you want everyone to adhere to–or put it in bold or italics.  Make it jump out.  If you really want people to pay attention and read the whole thing, keep the overall message as short as possible.  Remember how you don’t have time for your email?  Everyone you send an email to is in the same boat.  So make sure your emails get to the point quickly and don’t require a lot of reading.

And let’s not forget the basics.  Use “reply all” carefully.  Does the whole list of recipients need to see your RSVP for the meeting?  Probably not.  Does the whole list of recipients need to see your trenchant comments about a thorny issue that you were, in fact, invited to share with everyone?  Yes.  Don’t be that person who disrupts the group conversation by mistakenly replying only to the sender.

And finally, sometimes it’s okay to avoid email.  I have a rule that I am getting better at following and have talked about here before: I don’t do work email after 6pm.  No good can come it, unless you count not sleeping well as a good thing.

This is just a start.  What other rules or practices do you have for making email manageable and handling your responses?

Building Better Teachers

Add the Association of College and University Educators to the list of for-profit consulting firms that have arrived on the scene to save the day and help those of us in higher ed get it—in this case teaching—right.  Their consultants offer hour-long modules on a particular topic—increasing class participation in discussion, for example.  The website is slick and professional.  The modules seem (you can only access samples of their content without paying) to have a well-conceived structure that provides feedback, includes videotaped classroom presentations, and well-defined objectives.  The faculty that are listed on the site as experts represent a range of disciplines and come from all different kinds of institutions (public and private, community colleges and 4-year institutions, etc).  The materials on the website rightly incorporate some of the latest research and evidence from the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL).  But despite what seems to be a well-executed product, the model proposed by ACUE and its clients is deeply troubling for several reasons.

classroom

The first reason is a fundamental question about the structure and process of teacher training.  ACUE is seeking to remedy ineffective teaching, which, it rightly notes “costs” institutions in terms of poor retention and graduation rates.  In its comments on its mission, ACUE has specifically stated that a PhD in a particular field is not necessarily evidence that the candidate is an effective teacher and that many graduate programs do not provide adequate training in teaching and pedagogy.  There is evidence, albeit not universal, for both of these assertions.  However, addressing this after faculty have already been hired and arrived on campus is wrongheaded.  Our efforts to create effective teachers should begin in graduate school.  And several disciplinary associations are working on exactly this.  The Executive Director of the American Historical Association, James Grossman, has issued apersuasive call for PhD programs in History to address this issue: “Teaching is an essential skill for every historian, whether in a secondary school, college classroom, museum, archive, historical site, or even the public square, presenting evidence persuasively to legislators and fellow citizens. Historians teach. Learning how to teach should be equal to and intertwined with learning to become a research scholar.”   The American Society for Microbiology has a Teaching Fellows Program.  And I’m certain there are other examples.  Who better than the disciplines to tackle this gap in preparation?

As a corollary to this, teacher training of this sort—a certification offered by a non-discipline-specific-for-profit company—risks divorcing research and scholarship from the practice of teaching.  While many graduate programs probably still need to work on strengthening the connection between the two as they train future faculty, this alternative model of credentialing could potentially devalue the PhD.

The second reason that this model is objectionable is because it ignores the resident knowledge and wisdom present on all campuses.  Most campuses have a teaching center.  These centers provide workshops, resources, and are run by individuals who are experts in the scholarship of teaching and learning.  All campuses have great teachers.  Further, a group like ACUE assumes a smoothing out of institutional differences and risks proposing a one size fits all approach.  I can already here the pushback from faculty who have to participate in these modules: “what you’re proposing won’t work with my students because they work long hours/they don’t have ready access to technology/our classrooms aren’t set up for what you’re proposing, etc”  And these centers and these faculty are already familiar with the institution and its students.  They know the local culture and are ready to jump in with ideas and solutions that will immediately suit the situation.  The ACUE model devalues existing faculty expertise and experience on every college and university campus.  Why would a college or university spend precious funds to hire an outside firm to provide something they already have at their fingertips?

The third reason to be troubled is the burden that this model puts on faculty.  ACUE places most of the onus for weak retention and graduation rates (and their website makes painfully clear to administrators what the financial cost of low rates is) on faculty teaching.  Adopting the remedy of improved teaching as the solution to low retention and graduation rates implicitly suggests that other factors—high school preparation, income disparities, other campus support systems, etc—are less important or relevant.  Effective teaching is absolutely essential to student success, but if faculty can be blamed for poor retention and graduation rates because bodies like ACUE have not credentialed their teaching, we are definitely in trouble.  Could retention and graduation rates become a metric for faculty performance?  And what is the impact of this on contingent faculty?  Will the absence of such credentials (presumably harder to attain if they do not have stable, long-term relationships with the institutions where they teach) risk further compromising their status within the profession?

The ACUE rightly identifies the importance of effective teaching.  The model it proposes, however, is one that faculty should push back against since it devalues their knowledge and experience and threatens to place undue burdens on them.  Administrators should also avoid this model because it is a bad investment.  They should invest instead in building up teaching and learning centers and leveraging the existing expertise of the successful teachers already on their campuses.

 

Selling the Liberal Arts

So three years ago to the day, before I even had a blog, I flexed my op-ed muscles for the first time and had the following piece appear on Cleveland.com

Given that the recent turmoil at Mount St. Mary’s (which I have already written about here) includes the president’s assertion that “liberal arts doesn’t sell,” it seemed worth posting again.

http://www.cleveland.com/opinion/index.ssf/2013/02/the_pope_and_the_liberal_arts.html

(Apologies–the link to the article is being weird.  You need to right-click it to open).