An Academic Foster Child: Life as a Visiting Assistant Professor

18 Mar

3debe0880801c8b6746f251554a2d651Like many recent PhDs, the process of getting a tenure track job was not what I thought it would be. While working my way through grad school, I watched newly minted PhDs ahead of me move from grad school into their “forever” jobs. Naturally, I assumed that if I played my cards right (network, publish etc.), I’d follow the same track. But I happened to finish up the year after the economy tanked– just in time for budgets to be slashed and positions cut. The number of positions plummeted. After two years on the market, applying for dozens of positions, and I ended up in a VAP.

And I’m lucky that it was a great VAP. I had healthcare, a travel budget, and I wasn’t paid slave adjunct wages. My colleagues were nice and my teaching load was reasonable (2/2). It was the ideal place to spend a couple years learning how to teach, learning that I loved teaching (I didn’t do much teaching in grad school), and getting acclimated to post-PhD. But I also hated the professional limbo of VAP-hood. I had to keep applying for jobs, finally revamping my application materials to reflect someone no longer a student. And I hated having that “visiting” label tagged onto my email signature and business cards.

I received lots of advice about being a VAP from mentors near and far. They told me to keep working for my next job, not to spend time serving a college that hasn’t made a commitment to me.  Not to settle into the area too much (hard to do when it happens to be your home state). That I should always keep one foot out the door, using whatever resources are available there for my career. But, then others would tell me that if I wanted a shot at a TT job there, I should ingratiate myself with them– attend student and faculty functions, work closely with students, develop the courses they need etc. Don’t be invisible. Make it hard for them to imagine life without you, I was told. But, if you’re the inside candidate for a TT job there, things will be awkward to say the least. They’ll believe in you– that you can be successful, but not there. Someplace else. In face, one piece of advice that really stuck with me, although I tried to pretend it wasn’t always the case, was that:

[VAP] hiring is often decided based on personal relationships, but tenure track hiring almost never is. Tenure track hiring is absolutely cutthroat, and is dominated by an ethos of “desire for the unattainable.” This means that the unknown, who promises seemingly limitless possibility for achievement and contribution, will almost always prevail over the known.


In short, the tenure track search is about making THEM want YOU. If you pander to them, cater to them, overtly appeal to them, and try to play off of pre-existing personal relationships and your ethos of “giving” to the department, you are defining yourself as, fundamentally, NOT TENURE TRACK MATERIAL.

So I was there, but temporarily. I kept one foot out the door– genuinely enjoying my students and teaching, and continuously applying for other jobs. All while I tried to ingratiate myself and be what they needed, just in case that coveted TT line opened up in my area.Because in spite of all the advice I received to the contrary, I planned and plotted to make them want to keep me forever. I liked the area, and didn’t want to go through the hassle of moving again. But all along, I knew that even pandering to their needs might actually work against me. I tried my best to balance on that undefined line in that liminal space of VAP-hood for 2 years.

In reality, I was only an academic foster child. They paid/fed me, sheltered me, and welcomed me into their fold, to a degree. But, I was, by very definition, temporary.

I didn’t see that for what it was until recently, now that I’m settled into my shiny new, completely wonderful “forever” TT job. A job where they wanted me— and would love to have me stay and build my career there permanently. The differences are startling. I have the space, freedom, and encouragement to develop my own teaching, scholarship and service. Having that support and encouragement actually makes me more productive as a writer and researcher. Instead of living year, to year, job app to job app, I can shift my plans to real short term and long-term goals. I’m a nester. I can settle in and organize my time around what I want to write and where I want to go with my research. I can begin to think about developing courses that I want to teach that fulfill area requirements at my school. I can contribute to shaping something larger than myself. It’s fantastic not to be a foster kid any more!

I recently asked my mentor why she thought I needed that VAP for two years. Yes, the VAP shielded me from the bad job market and gave me teaching experience. But what was the larger point of all that living in limbo? She answered: “So that you would appreciate what you have now.”


Current Goal: To Be Deliberate, and Afraid of Nothing.

12 Jan

31243791135917738_KrKqVNZ1Right now I don’t even feel like I know what my research is about. God forbid someone ask me. Well, not really. I mean sure, I do know what my research is about. But sometimes I don’t feel like I have a reign on it– I over think it, or I spend some days away from it trying to get prepped for the semester that begins Monday. Monday? Yikes! Since I’ve worked every single day (other than Christmas and New Year’s) since the break started, I’m not even going to count this as a break.

Anyway, here’s what do I need to do to “take back” my research agenda:

  • Get back to writing every day. The “break”, visits from friends and family (which was so wonderful and needed), prepping for new classes etc. has gotten me out of the habit.
  • Ease into that by finishing up a blog post related to my research.
  • Order some books from the library related to my current research and devour them. There’s nothing like a stack of books and a bunch of notes to get me all excited (yes, I’m a dork) and remind me of why I do what I do.
  • Review my job application material, and finish my retention essay on my research agenda.

I love starting a new semester. Even if I’m not buying new school supplies anymore, there’s so much newness— new students, new classes, fresh starts, new goals. So far my semester goals are:

  1. Finish up my retention package and hand that in next week.
  2. Review new literature and finish a draft of Article #1. I’m trying to fit it into a slightly newish sub-field for me, so I have to figure out what kind of contribution it’s going to make to that sub-field.
  3. Work on Article #2. Decide which journal it is best suited for. Bring in new data that I started analyzing last semester.
  4. Write a short piece for the highly accessible magazine-like journal in my field.
  5. Import my data into Dedoose and learn how to use it. I don’t anticipate much of a learning curve, though. I’m official giving up on NVivo. Good riddance.

And I have a few general teaching goals:

  1. No paper. I’ve set up my courses in Schoology and will stop accepting paper assignments.
  2. Not to let grading get the best of me.
  3. To actually stay a week ahead of my students in terms of readings. Posting discussion questions for each reading will force me to do this.
  4. To give my students (and myself) a daily sense of where we are in the class, what’s next, and how things fit into the larger picture. Last semester I felt like I was flying by the seat of my pants (maybe because I was?), and I don’t like that feeling.

All in all, I think those are reasonable goals. My very astute partner just pointed out that I shouldn’t be too hard on myself about the time it takes me to adapt. We’ve done 2 very large moves in 2 years, and I’ve had to adjust to two different jobs, schools, colleagues, students, commutes, grocery stores, etc. And adjusting takes time and energy.

This semester my one goal is that I am going to be deliberate. And afraid of nothing.

Rethinking Taken-for-Granted Teaching Practices I

5 Jan

As it turns out, our semester starts a week from Monday! Yikes! Where did the break go?

I need to finish one new syllabus, and rework one for a class I taught last semester (I’m using a new book for that one, so I have to rework the readings as well). I woke up in the middle of the night thinking that maybe I’m taking some parts of my teaching style for granted, and not interrogating whether or not they’re worth it or meet a useful goal.

Online posting, for example.

I’ve used for the last few semesters as a place to organize course material, share links with my students, and require online discussion posts. It’s been revolutionary in the classroom, but the more they change the interface, the less I like it.

What I like about online discussions:

  • Students who never/rarely speak in class get to show what they’re thinking about. Some students really excel in this.
  • Students can post links to videos and articles that contribute to the course.
  • I can share links with students that I can’t assign for reading and don’t have time to use in the classroom.
  • Online literacy is important. Participating professionally in an online space is a necessary skill.
  • Organizing the course someone other than the syllabus (a piece of paper some students obviously misplace) is helpful.
  • Online paper submission. I really want to ONLY deal with electronic papers this semester. I can’t stand (a) having some emailed papers, some online papers, and a bunch of paper papers, and (b) piles of papers all over my desk.

What I’m not sure about:

  • Required posting each week gives students 1 more thing to have to do. Unless I link it more to class, or make the requirements easier for students, it’s a pain for them. 
  • Using Lore has been a pain this semester– they changed what was a simple interface and made it needlessly complicated. Toward the end of the semester, they made some changes to bring back the simplicity, but my students were already thrown.
  • Using Lore (or something similar) is a learning curve for students. It takes time to teach them, and I probably need to spend more time in the classroom doing so. I suppose they already know Blackboard, but I hate it, and they generally hate it as well.
  • If I am only going to accept papers online this semester, I need an easy way for students to submit them. Lore has been needlessly complicated, and I’m thinking dropbox submission, or Google Docs, might be the way to go for simplicity’s sake (and learning either is a good job skill).
  • If I go with a different website, like Schoology, then I have to learn it. This coming week. But the nice thing about Schoology is it’s like before they made it too complicated, and it integrates with Dropbox and Google Docs.
  • Or I could try to embrace Blackboard. But I already know I hate it, and I know it’s needlessly complicated for my purposes.

Maybe the solution is to:

  1. To use Schoology this semester. Try it out this week, and spend time teaching it to my classes this semester.
  2. Instead of mandatory free posts (i.e. the requirement that they have to post once a week, anything related to course material), I could given them a directed post/discussion question each week to respond to. They are also free to post anything else related to the course, but they have more direction in terms of what is required from them.
  3. Only take electronic papers from students submitted through Dropbox or Google Docs. No exceptions. Hopefully this will help the paper load.
  4. Use online posts more in the classroom.

No matter how it appears, these are not New Year’s Resolutions

1 Jan

I made no resolutions for the New Year.  The habit of making plans, of criticizing, sanctioning and molding my life, is too much of a daily event for me.  ~Anaïs Nin

I used to make long lists of New Year’s resolutions, carefully thinking of what I want to start fresh with in the New Year. I stopped making them a few years ago. From what I’ve read, most New Year’s resolutions (weight loss, exercise, etc.) are doomed even before the new year begins. Nowadays, I find myself making more “semester resolutions” than New Year’s ones, making plans and adjustments to how I work from semester to semester. I still appreciate the passage of time into a new calendar year, though, and the possibilities and potential for the new year ahead. And since this year was one of such transition for us (moving, new job) I’m looking forward to what will hopefully be a bit of a stable, settled year.

For the past few weeks I’ve been thinking of a few “resolutions.” Maybe they’re for the New Year. Maybe they’re just for the upcoming semester, which is bound to be one of less adjustment than last semester, the first at my new TT job. So now that the serious acclimation period is over, I can work on some new habits– to bring in more of what I love into life.

New Year’s Goals:

536236_464644663595931_2024911457_nRead more fiction: I got some fantastic books for Christmas, and I still have digital and physical stacks of assorted fiction (lots of Scandinavian mysteries) to read. I would love to start reading again before bed for at least 20 minutes.

Read more non-fiction: I want to make time to read more literature in my field (not just related to teaching or what I happen to be writing at the moment). And I would love to read more non-fiction more broadly. More biographies and history books.

More running: I run pretty regularly now, but I think it’s time to start pushing myself a little more. Upping my mileage (I don’t really care about speed). Maybe a half marathon in the fall would be a good goal.

Frequent goals and progress reports:  I’d like to start having weekly meetings with myself, going over my schedule, goals and to-do lists. I love Anaïs Nin’s quote about making plans as a daily event. And I might start to post those weekly to-do lists and progress reports here.

That’s it! Nothing major. Now I think I’ll enjoy the rest of the day and get some reading done!

Academic Life Summed Up in One Image

7 Dec

27992_10200214960521597_78591186_nAnd this is the life of an academic. Some brilliant person on the internets has summed it up in one nice image.

It’s hilarious because it is so true.

One of the biggest struggles, for me anyway, is to figure out how to balance having a million ongoing tasks, none of which ever seem complete. You finish one pile of grading just before your class hands in another assignment. You finish one draft of an article, get feedback from your writing group, and go back and rip it apart. You clean out your email inbox one day, and then watch another deluge come through the next morning.

Yes, I guess there are accomplishments– points when things are actually done. Finished. Complete. There is some level of completeness when you publish an article. Although you really ought to have another already drafted… so the cycle continues. Maybe it’s when you publish a book? But by the time you see it in print, you’ve got other research going on. It’s a ongoing cycle of grading, writing, research etc.

So we have to make our own completion points, and feel a sense of accomplishment whenever we can. Hey, I taught two clases yesterday and went to two meetings, so when I got home, I celebrated by doing nothing. I’m about to clean out my inbox for the night, and will celebrate my brief moment of “caught-up” by watching a movie.

In short, we have to take “caught up” wherever we can find it.

It’s Mid November? Notes from 2+ Months on the Tenure Track

17 Nov

Suddenly it’s mid-November? I don’t know what happened to October. The month was lost in a flurry of emails, teaching, grading, meetings, and trying to get my car to pass emissions inspection. Now it’s nearly Thanksgiving, and I’m starting to reflect on the semester as a whole, while I struggle to get done everything that needs to be done. So many times during the last couple months I’ve thought “oh, I need to blog about this” and then never have the time. The closest I came to “blogging” was a long and overdue “catching up” email to my advisor. Maybe I should just cut/paste that here.

Here’s a smattering of observations and experiences from the last semester:

  • Being tenure track is awesome. It’s just as awesome as I always thought it would be. I feel welcomed at my new school. I feel like I have dozens of new mentors. It’s really fantastic. Actually, yesterday, I felt so much warmth toward my new school, that I almost went into the bookstore and bought a school sweatshirt. I’ve never owned a college sweatshirt (I only own a t-shirt from where I went to grad school) so this seems strangely significant to me.
  • Another part of my new school that’s fantastic is the diversity of the campus. I really, really, appreciate that students, staff and faculty come from so many different backgrounds and experiences. The diversity in my classroom contributes to what we’re able to discuss and learn together.
  • Teaching has been an adjustment, but not a terribly difficult one. Thank goodness that the workshops I attended before classes began helped me get ready for the classroom. I’ve had to rework what I do during class time. I almost spend less time prepping outside of class, and more time listening to my students and thinking in the classroom. My classes are much more interactive, and I’m always thinking on my feet about what I can do differently or use as an example to make a concept clearer. Yes, there are new struggles in terms of getting students to do reading, and make it to class (busy work schedules and long commutes) but they are realistic problems and I’m figuring out how not to let that distract from what we can learn in the classroom.
  • We’ve had some obstacles this semester. The most obvious has been a lost week+ of class time due to Hurricane Sandy. I’ve had to be even more flexible with my syllabus, with deadlines, and have had to make some painful cuts to readings. But, we’ve also been able to have some great discussions about the unequal impact of the hurricane on different areas and segments of the population.
  • After the hurricane we lost power for a week. Thank goodness we live in an apartment with a gas stove and gas hot water heater, so we didn’t suffer too much, although being without internet was difficult to say the least. I couldn’t get to all of my academic books on campus, so instead I read the pile of academic advice books I had here at home (it was either that or get hopelessly lost in a bunch of mysteries). By the light of my headlamp, I ended up reading:
    • Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom by John Bean. I got this one at the writing workshop this summer, but hadn’t had a chance to read it yet. It’s definitely going to be the only teaching book sitting on my desk for a while. Engaging Ideas is chock full of practical, writing-focused teaching ideas. Using it, I drafted some grading rubrics, and constructed a peer evaluation worksheet that we used in class last week.
    • Preparing for Promotion, Tenure, and Annual Review: A Faculty Guide by Robert Diamond. This one was included in the tenure materials given to my by my new school, so it seemed to be an important read. It’s actually quite useful, and I made a ton of notes on what I can include in my retention packet, and prepare for my future tenure dossier.
    • The Teaching Portfolio: A Practical Guide to Improved Performance and Promotion/Tenure Decisions by Seldin, Miller, and Seldin. Another one that my school gave me when I started. This book has lots of concrete examples and will be very helpful when putting together my teaching materials. I also appreciated the focus on being up to date on pedagogy for your discipline– definitely something that I enjoy, and that matters to the school.
    • Finally, I got around to reading Professors as Writers: A Self-Help Guide to Productive Writing by Robert Boice. Boice is the author of Advice for New Faculty, a book which was so revolutionary for me when I read it in grad school that I still keep it by the side of my bed (not kidding). I consider to be sort of a bible for my academic career. Professors as Writers is less philosophical than Advice for New Faculty and very action-oriented. I’m now toying with the idea of waking up a little earlier to do some writing first thing every morning instead of trying to fit it in during the day. While I am not, and will never be, a morning runner (that’s for the evening), I could write for a while with coffee in my PJs. Maybe even before checking my email or Facebook. More on this in another post!
  • It’s a good thing I read all that stuff on retention and promotion during The Great Blackout of 2012, because it turns out I have my first retention packet due in early January! It’s been described to me as “another job application” in terms of professional content (but not in the sense that they don’t keep us– they very much want to work to keep each of us). Thankfully, colleagues have already offered to read drafts of personal statements, and to loan me their retention packets to look at. Here’s what I’m working on for the three areas (weighed equally at my school):
      1. Scholarship: Since we just started, they don’t expect a lot here. I have an article I am planning to send out before the end of the semester. I’m also working on a book review, and a submission for a national conference. Additionally, the contributions I make to a well-known blog count as scholarship. And my participation in the interdisciplinary faculty writing group counts as ongoing commitment to scholarship.
      2. Service: First year faculty are technically exempt from serving on committees, but I was asked to serve on the GLBT Advisory Board and happily accepted. I’m serving as a mentor to an at-risk student on campus. I am also the social media guru for a national organization, which counts as service to a wider community.
      3. Teaching: In our first semester they definitely want to make sure we’re doing well in the classroom and adjusting to new teaching challenges. In this section I expect to talk a lot about the adjustments I’ve already made and what I plan to change in the future. Mid-semester evaluations show that my students are happy with my classes, and the fact they’re asking me what I am teaching next semester leads me to believe I’m doing well. We also do regular peer teaching evaluations. I completed one for an adjunct, and I’ve had 3 colleagues observe my courses. The feedback has been incredibly positive and helpful. I love the fact that the goal is really for all of us to help each other succeed as teachers, and as scholars.

All in all, it’s been a great semester so far. Provided I can make it through all the grading ahead, prep a new syllabus for a spring class, and put together a good retention packet, I should be just fine. I appreciate that a mid-year retention packet helps me think through where I’m at, and goals for the upcoming months.

Really, though, my big goal right now is just to land an office with a window!

Bringing More Writing into the Classroom & Making My Job Easier!

1 Sep

Life has been too busy for blogging! I’ve spent the last two weeks at orientations and workshops at my new institution. I can’t accurately describe how impressed I am with this particular institution’s commitment to teaching, writing, critical thinking, social justice and public education. I met a lot of new colleagues, had wonderful conversations, found lots of like-minded people, and have already learned a ton. It’s truly inspiring and I can’t wait to start teaching this coming week.

The first workshop I attended was an intensive 3 day Writing Across the Curriculum workshop, and the second was a Diversity and Social Justice workshop. Both were fantastic, and I’ll talk about the WAC workshop in this post.

Even though I firmly believe writing is a great way for students to both think through issues, and learn to express themselves clearly, I’ve only ever used formal writing assignments in my classes. I’ve never actually had students “free write” or write short thought pieces that wouldn’t be graded. I’ve never just started a class by having students write down their thoughts and questions– and what a wonderful way to generate discussion! It seems so obvious, why didn’t I do it before?

And I’ve always had issues with grading. Yes, I’m confessing that I’ve always *hated* grading. I avoid it. I assign too much writing to begin with. When I do grade papers, once the guilt has gotten to be too much, I love reading students’ thoughts and helping them develop ideas, but I’m always overwhelmed with what kind of, and how much, feedback to give. I either give too many comments, or too few. And since I’m not a firm believer in letter grades, giving a letter grade always ends up feeling arbitrary. I end up thinking I am too harsh in giving comments, and too easy a grader. Why? Well, part of this struggle comes from never being taught how to grade! We’re not really taught to teach in grad school (at least not in my PhD program), and we’re definitely not taught how to give written feedback.

Now all that’s changed. In just 3 days I feel empowered to have students write, and I have direction when it comes to grading!

Here are the major takeaway points I took from the workshop:

  • The difference between writing to learn and writing to communicate. Duh! This one should be so obvious, but it was a revelation for me. I can work writing to learn exercises into my daily classes (to get students to think about the readings before discussion, to get students to tell me the key points, or questions they have etc.). Writing to learn doesn’t get the same feedback as writing to communicate. I can collect it and count it as completed, or not collect it at all. More learning, and less time giving feedback!
  • Free writing in class can be structured in the sense that it can walk students through good practices. Like how to form a good paragraph, how to make an argument, how to think through both sides of an issue, or how to evaluate evidence versus opinion. Structured free writing can also have students walk through Bloom’s Taxonomy for a certain concept or word. And, it doesn’t have to be graded! Students self-evaluate in class!
  • Graded assignments are the writing to communicate part (although, of course all writing is writing to learn). Assignments need to be both very simple to follow and very clear about expectations. Define terms like “thesis statement,” “compare and contrast,” “analyze,” etc. either in the assignment or in class.
  • Rubrics aren’t bad. I always dismissed rubrics because I didn’t love the idea of assigning set points to various criteria. Grading is more holistic than that for me. But, now I realize I can have a rubric of √+, √ and √- and not worry about attaching points that influence the final grade. Huzzah!
  • The grading advice was the most mind blowing part of the workshop. You don’t have to comment on/correct everything that’s wrong with a paper! In fact, if you do, it will take you an hour to do it and the student will probably cry. Instead, we learned from the education professor in the class how she used to grade 4th graders. Pick 1-2 issues per paper to comment on and work with the student on. Only 1 or 2 issues per paper! So, things like clarity, organization, run-on sentences, thesis statement, argument etc. And when a student has serious issues, or something that might be hard to explain in comments, just ask to meet with them! Going over things in person is sometimes so much faster and easier.

Although I received a ton of good advice at the workshop, both from the facilitators and from colleagues, these are the things that immediately changed the way I will teach this semester. More writing to learn, less time spent grading stuff that will overwhelm the students anyway.

And we all got a copy of a fantastic book, Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom by John C. Bean. I’ve already devoured it, and highly recommend it.

Back to School: Dreaming of Cardigan Weather

19 Aug

I’m probably not the only academic that loves back to school. I look forward to seeing the school supplies in stores. And I love late summer when the nights start to get slightly cooler. I start to dream of cardigan weather.

When I was a kid, I chose my school supplies with a tremendous amount of thought and care, and then I organized them thoroughly in my new book bag, ready for the first day. I developed my own system of organizing early on– color coding notebooks, folders, and binders for each subject. I labeled everything. I was probably the only kid to arrive at college with a three hole punch (that I still have), hole protectors, a full sized stapler, and colored hanging file folders.

Now, I don’t buy anything for back to school. There isn’t a need to do so. I don’t use notebooks, or binders, or paper. Everything is electronic– on my macbook or ipad. I use the same shoulder bag. I get pens from the department. Instead I organize digitally for the new school year. And it sort of feels the same, I guess. Minus the smell of new notebooks and freshly sharpened pencils.

Here’s what I’ve been busy doing to get ready for the new school year (in addition to creating the syllabi):

  • I created a Dropbox folder for the semester (Fall 2012), and a subfolder for each course.
  • I create shortcuts for those folders and stash them in my mac’s sidebar, and on the desktop of both computers.
  • Within each folder, I create subfolders: (1) Lectures (each lecture document and keynote presentation is dated– like 1104.doc and 1104.key), (2) Images (even though this is less needed now that I organize all my images into Pinterest), (3) Readings, (4) Assignments, (5) Resources, and (6) Handouts.
  • I go through my Evernote library for related material for each course, and either assign them as readings, or add them to my Resources or Handouts folders (documentaries, class activities etc.).
  • I search for videos related to my courses on Youtube, and save them to the Youtube playlists I have set up for each course.
  • I search for images related to my courses, and save them to the appropriate Pinboards on Pinterest.
  • I set up for each course– complete with assignments, calendar, and resources.
  • Once I have a set roster (which doesn’t happen until the second week), I set up each class in Gradebook Pro on my ipad. If I have student photos, I’ll add those. It’s the easiest way for me to learn names and take attendance each day.
  • I do create a physical folder for each class. Just a plain old manilla folder. In it goes the roster, and a copy of the syllabi. And reading material for each class. That’s all I carry with me each day.

Once I’ve done all that, I feel ready to dive into the daily grind of the semester! While there may not be a place for color coding any more, at least I have everything organized digitally before I even begin the semester.

You might notice that a lot of my prep is public. I readily share images for my classes on Pinterest, and I create public lists of videos I use in Youtube. Why? Because my teaching benefits from collective know online, and I feel good about contributing to that collective knowledge myself.

Teaching: What’s Worked and What Hasn’t.

16 Aug

At the end of last semester I began to write a bit about things I would like to do differently in the classroom. Now that I’m working on my syllabi for the upcoming semester, I’m thinking about what I want to do differently this time around, and also remembering what worked really well.

In the future, I should write notes about what worked and what didn’t for each course in that course’s folder, so that when I teach it again, I have those notes. Ideally, I could jot down notes after every class (or at least every week) about what went well and what didn’t go well. That way courses can evolve over time, without having to try to remember all those details!

What’s worked well:

  • Weekly themes and organization. My students like an organized syllabus. I like an organized syllabus. Each week and class session has a theme (i.e. a learning goal or topic) and assigned reading. I don’t leave anything unplanned. If I need to change (cut readings, shift due dates) I reserve the right to do that later on. Otherwise, students get a complete syllabus, and they can go online and see the complete calendar for the course, complete with links to readings and related resources, which brings me to my next point…
  • I was incredibly fortunate to be able to betatest (then called Coursekit) when it was in development last Fall. The application is free and just keeps getting better and better. I loath Blackboard– I find that the space does nothing to foster interaction between students, discourages students from posting related material, and is technologically stuck in 2003. I require my students to write one well-thought out free post and to comment at least once on a fellow students’ post each week. The online discussion has become a vital part of the class and of the classroom itself. Students continue interesting conversations on Lore. Fruitful tangents that we didn’t have time for in class are explored and debated. Shy students really shine online. Students I never hear from in the classroom make up for it in their interactions online. And I get to post all the related articles, blog posts and web resources for students to see– even if they aren’t required, students who are excited about a topic read and comment on. This summer I taught an entire class on Lore and it worked wonderfully. I’ll write in more detail about it soon!
  • Showing lots of images and videos in class. I rarely teach without Powerpoint so that I can include videos and images in my lectures and discussions. A lot of my teaching prep is spent searching for related videos (clips of documentaries, advertisements, comedians, news broadcasts etc.) and I finally started created playlists of these in Youtube so that I can remember what I’ve used before.
  • Hands-on, practical classroom activities and projects. I like students to dig into real-life data and real-life stories, and so I organize classroom activities around these (like looking up the cost of living vs. minimum wage for each state) and projects around these (updating a wikipedia page). Learning is not abstract and I try to make each lesson as related to their every day lives as possible.
  • Mid-semester, informal evaluations. I have students basically do their own short version of this list, anonymously on a note card. What works in the class? What could be improved? I go over the responses with the class and address any specific issues.
  • Grading electronically. I used Lore for paper submission and grading last semester and it worked wonderfully. I wasn’t carrying around armloads of papers– dreading the stack on my desk. Instead, I downloaded an entire folder of papers for each class, read them on my ipad, wrote comments, and posted comments and grades to Lore. I read faster on the computer now, and typing comments definitely takes about a tenth of the time it takes me to do write by hand. And I have a digital trail of each students comments over the semester.

Where I want to improve:

  • Less is more. I’ve been working on this one and it’s something I still need to work on. It isn’t necessary for a class to read every key work in a given subject matter. And even if there are 3 fantastic, easily accessible and readable pieces on a topic, I really only need to pick one. Yes, they need to read and read thoroughly, but overwhelming them with readings, no matter how interesting, only means most won’t do any at all.
  • Using readings more in the classroom. This is a big one for me. I often find that my assigned readings feel disconnected from the classroom. This could be because I haven’t been able to teach a course twice yet (so I’m flying by the seat of my pants for most classes!), but I also think it is a matter of figuring out a way to really dig into a reading in the classroom. What is the author’s argument? How do they make it? What evidence do they use? All of those questions need a space in my classroom, and I need to work them into my lecture and goals for each class.
  • More peer review of papers. Given the fact that I’m transitioning to a school where there might be some variation in writing skills, this is important. I want to work in structured in-class peer review for each substantial paper. And I might want to encourage students to peer view online with Google Docs (or Google Drive) or something similar.
  • Daily/weekly “what have you learned” cards. This is something I’ve always wanted to do to check in with students. At the end of classes, I want to hand out notecards and have students either write one thing they’ve learned in the class, or one major lingering question they have. Another way to check in with students on a regular basis.
  • Go over graded papers and exams in class. This one might seem obvious, but I failed to schedule time to go over papers and exams in class after I handed them back. There were overall areas that could be addressed briefly in the classroom, and would clear up any questions about key concepts and ideas before moving onto the next exam or assignment.
  • Develop a Digital Etiquette Policy. I have always been incredibly lax about students’ use of technology in the classroom. I figure– it’s their education, so if they’re going to goof off, it’s their choice, their adults. But, I do want to spend some time at the beginning of the semester talking about appropriate use of technology in the class, and talking about the myth of multitasking etc. And I want to have some “no technology” times in the classroom– discussions and student presentations where students have to close laptops and turn off their ipads.

That’s it, I think (although I have the nagging feeling I’m forgetting something…). What are some ways that you’d like to improve your teaching?

Collected Advice & A Plug for Evernote

15 Aug

For the last few years I’ve used the fantastic memory app Evernote for saving useful information (and recipes, so many recipes). Every time I get a useful bunch of info in an email– lists of documentaries, classroom activity ideas, book publishing advice, writing tips, course readings etc.– it goes into Evernote. Whenever I find an interesting blog post or newspaper article related to research, surviving academia, or teaching, I clip it to Evernote. Even if the original link to the article or post goes down, I have the text and images saved. If I need an article for classroom activity, I can quickly search Evernote for something useful, print it out, and head to class. I was using an app on my ipad for saving meeting and conference notes, but now I am transferring those over to Evernote as well. In short, Evernote is my brain. I’ve built up 900+ notes over 3 years (ok, some of those are recipes), and haven’t hit the limit of the free version yet. It’s an app I’d gladly pay monthly for, though, and that’s not something I typically do, so that’s saying a lot.

I’ve collected a bunch of tenure track advice over the years, and tonight I’m rereading and organizing what I have. Here are some highlights:

Advice for New Assistant Professors by Older Woman, Scatterplot

I particularly like tips #2 and #5. I want to make sure I integrate myself with the faculty and administration (and this is a much larger school than my last one), while also staying open and accessible to students. I have two workshops in the next couple weeks (one on writing and one on diversity in the classroom) that will help with the former. And making scheduled writing and research time is a priority, while I work on finding out more about the preferred balance of teaching/research/service is at the school.

I’m not sure about #8. I’ve never hated a job, and can’t imagine hating this one. Yes, it is good (as I learned during my visiting position) to keep myself mobile and not too attached to the institution if I want to go someplace else. But, I’m the sort the sort that stubbornly makes the best of everything. And I’m truly excited for this job.

Five Steps to Creating a Five-Year Plan to Achieve Tenure by Tanya Golash-Boza, Get a Life, PhD

I’ll need to adapt this for four years, but overall the advice is excellent, even if the goals seem rather large and daunting at the moment. I like the semester version of Tanya’s goal setting, as well, and plan to do that this semester as it worked well for me last last year.

How to Figure Out the Publication Expectations for Tenure by Tanya Golash-Boza, Get a Life, PhD.

Another fantastic post from Tanya. I especially the idea of checking out the CVs of those recently promoted at my institution, and making sure to share research and publishing plans with senior colleagues and mentors.

First Tips for Faculty by Mary McKinney, Successful Academic

This is a great collection of tips, even if it is slightly geared to those freshly out of grad school. I’m already more than familiar with the feeling of juggling waaaay too many balls in the air. Actually, I’m looking forward to that this semester (I’m crazy, right?). The tips that stand out here are: to find a support system (and hopefully writing group) of other junior faculty on campus (and at nearby institutions), finding mentors on campus, and avoiding potentially controversial committees and committees that meet frequently (no matter how interesting they sound). Also, this sounds all too familiar:

For many academics I’ve worked with, it is easier to get caught up in smaller projects with firm external deadlines – such as sending off abstracts for conference deadlines – than it is to work on papers that you wish to send to prestigious journals. Beware of getting wrapped up in projects that are relatively unimportant. Don’t be seduced by short-term commitments that are less anxiety provoking than your biggest chores.

Starting a Tenure Box by Anastasia Salter, ProfHacker

Perfect, practical advice! I’ll start a tenure Evernote file and secure folder in Dropbox (and I’ll back it up on an external HD because I’m nuts like that). I don’t need a document scanner, because I have my iPhone and JotNot Pro for that.

The Sunday Meeting by Kerry Ann Rockquemore, Inside Higher Ed

I really like the idea of sitting down weekly to plan the week out and write out goals. Whenever I do this, my week goes much better, and doing it regularly would be fantastic!

Collegiality: The Tenure Track’s Pandora’s Box by Mary McKinney, Successful Academic via Tomorrow’s Professor

There’s some really good advice here like “The rules of collegiality are similar to the rules of dating. A conversation has gone well when the other person has done most of the talking,” and “Find a likeable side of everyone,” and of course, “Don’t get angry, get tenure.”


All that advice just makes me more excited for the year to begin! If you have any sage advice of your own (or a link to something else), please feel free to share it in the comments!

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