Teaching Tip: Fire Management

I’ve been trying to put together a teaching tip for the past two weeks, but every time I think I might have time to do it, I get interrupted.  Students who need help, faculty who have a great idea to share, friends and family with important news.  How am I supposed to focus with all these interruptions?  And “just say no” is not an option – these are all GOOD interruptions; I want to be involved with all these things and people.  While searching through my emails for inspiration, I came across this Tom Robbins quote in an article by productivity guru David Allen:   “True stability results when presumed order and presumed disorder are balanced. A truly stable system expects the unexpected, is prepared to be disrupted, waits to be transformed.”  Wow, doesn’t that sound like an awesome state of being?  Allen offers up the fire department as an example of an organization that by its very nature has to achieve this kind of stability, since it must maintain order and organization but be able to drop everything immediately to perform its most important duty.   I think faculty are more like park rangers dealing with forest fires – a controlled burn is healthy for the ecosystem while both raging forest fires and complete fire suppression turn out to be unhealthy.

So, I’ve been trying to think about how we can maintain that true stability Robbins describes, or at least get closer to it.  In my personal quest, I’ve experimented with just about every type of productivity enhancing gimmick and gizmo out there.  Some work for me, some others may work for you.  If you want some specific ideas, I’m happy to share them.  But mostly what I come back to is an attitude adjustment – this IS our work.  Our job is to help students grow and develop as learners and as people.  We are the park rangers; balance is what we do.

So what are some ways that we can balance more effectively? In the classroom I find that pre-planning course activities very thoroughly and having backups for the times when the technology fails or an activity bombs gives me the confidence to try something new that might not work.  I know if the fire gets out of control, I have resources to bring it back under control.   But if I get too attached to my plan or my syllabus, then I don’t take advantage of those learning opportunities that arise unexpectedly, no spark gets lit, and my class becomes rigid, dull and overgrown with weeds.  Stopping, asking questions, listening closely to students and reading their nonverbal behaviors can tell you if they are lighting up or not.

Outside of class, maintaining a good balance between order and disorder for me means trying to find technology that makes my life easier, like using Gmail labels and stars, saving files in Dropbox so I can access them from anywhere, and using an online to do list (I use Toodledo, despite the stupid name).  It’s doing a regular “mind dump” of every single thing I am supposed to be working on and then identifying what actions need to be taken when.  It’s building in Friday afternoon reflection time to tie up the loose ends, update the list for next week, and then allowing myself some down time.  We all have different ways of maintaining balance. Some people only check their email at certain times each day.  Others prepare a week’s worth of food on the weekend and live on the leftovers.  None of these strategies always works but at least we’re acknowledging the issue and trying to figure it out.  The important part again, is not getting so rigidly organized that your life goes up in flames when a student or a colleague or a family member suddenly needs more time than you expected.  If you have systems in place, you can quickly figure out what’s most important and bookmark the rest so you can get back to it when the crisis is over.   And you can share your strategies with your students too, as you help them figure out how to structure and prepare for your course.

Sometimes though, the fire just gets out of control.  Then we often ignore, rationalize and intellectualize the situation to avoid that anxious feeling of being overwhelmed.  When students do this, we shake our heads in disbelief.  How could they not have anticipated this problem?  Didn’t they see the smoke? Then we go and do the same.   But most of them have a lot less life experience than most of us do, so why do we expect that they will know what to do?  What helps you when you’re in an overload situation?  Could that same strategy help your students?

So how is this post a “teaching tip”?  Good question.  As I write I think the message I’m getting from that big teaching tip generator in the sky is that we should have more compassion for ourselves AND our students as we juggle the demands of 21st century living.  Faculty and students alike try, succeed for awhile, get behind and then have to recover.  We hope it’s an upward spiral but it’s certainly a lifelong learning process. Could it be that one of the most important things we need to help our students learn is how to balance order and disorder in their lives? Especially for freshmen, helping students develop better life management skills is critical if they are to succeed in their classes, at the University and for life.  Some people will undoubtedly think that this should not be our problem.  Students should have learned this already, they shouldn’t need us to “hold their hands” or teach them things we learned on their own.  All I can say is – our students are where they are.  If this is what will help them learn more effectively, that’s what they need.  We have to deal with the fire in front of us, not the well-tended garden we think we ought to have.

According to Allen, “your ability to deal with surprise, elegantly and proactively, is your personal and organizational competitive edge. You just need to ensure that your systems can keep things under control from any angle, with appropriate distinctions between what’s movable and what’s not. Then turning on a dime is an effortless spin instead of a clumsy crash and burn.”

How did you develop life management skills yourself?  How can we help students develop theirs?


Teaching Tip: April is the cruellest month (academic version)

This week, I was reading an email newsletter from Gina Hiatt, who runs online Academic Writing Clubs, and her opening line really struck me:  “It’s the time of flagging will power for every academic in the Northern Hemisphere.”  Her article goes on to talk about ways to manage the struggle to get things done as the spring semester starts to accelerate to its exhausting close. While she focuses on academic writing tasks, I think her message extends to all of our work here in academia.

What are some strategies you can use to get through the next few weeks of teaching, grading papers, keeping up with your scholarly and committee commitments, and trying to have some kind of life?

Make a master list.
Some people turn up their noses at lists, but I believe when used well, they can be a time and stress saver. Use whatever media that suits you – paper and pen, Google tasks, stand alone apps like Remember the Milk or ToodleDo.  Record every single thing you need to do between now and the end of the semester (well, not brushing your teeth).  Think of it as backing up your brain – once you have everything down on paper you won’t need to worry about forgetting something. The reason lists are sometimes less effective than they could be is that they must be complete if you’re going to get the full benefit of not worrying that you’ve forgotten something or left it off the list.   The minute you think of something new, add it to your lists.  Some people have home and work lists; I prefer one big list so I can see everything all together.  Just get it all down.

Prioritize and organize. Is there anything on your list that could possibly wait until the semester is over?  If so, put it off.  Is there anything on it that someone else could do?  Maybe you could hire a temporary helper for tasks that really don’t require your level of expertise.  For everything that’s left, establish a next step and a final due date.  Some things come with built-in due dates e.g. reports due or tests that need to be ready by test day.  For the other things, establish a reasonable due date and then order your list by dates.  If you have a big project with a due date, determine the next step, and give it a due date.  Then keep breaking down the project until you have it spread out however you would like it.  It’s completely up to you how you do this – for example a lot of experts believe strongly in daily writing, but it if doesn’t work for you, schedule it as a marathon.  Now take a deep breath, read it over and (I hope) find out that while there’s a lot of work, you know what to tackle first, and can skip the time-wasting fussing about the rest.

Lots of people don’t want to go through this process because in itself it takes some time.  But I bet you can do it in no more than an hour, and I bet it will save at least that amount of aggravation, worrying, forgetting and being late.

Monitor your progress. Once you’ve written the list, USE it.  Check it every time you have a few minutes to see if there’s something you could knock off in that time.  Sometimes this is where the process breaks down.  Perhaps you write your lists and two days later you’re not following it.  Why not?  There are several possibilities:

  • Life happens. A child got sick (or you did), the car broke down.  All you can do in these situations is regroup and reorganize your list.  Maybe look to see if there’s some way to move a few deadlines back. Just don’t throw the entire list away and go back to panic mode.
  • All work and no play. Please include at least a few minutes of down time for yourself, and try not to cut into your sleep if at all possible.  Tired, cranky people are not only unpleasant to be with, they make more mistakes and are less time efficient.  Allow yourself breaks without guilt.  Otherwise you are more likely to take a break by procrastinating but you won’t enjoy it. You’ll just Facebook your way into despair.
  • Inaccurate time estimates.  You thought you would finish grading in two hours but it took five. This is a learning experience for the future, but also look at your process to see if you can make it more efficient.  Were there a lot of breaks during that five hours?  Try the Pomodoro technique for tasks that require sustained effort like grading and writing (link).  It can help you focus your attention and has breaks built in.  It also helps you estimate how long tasks really take.
  • Fear. Procrastination often reflects a sort of performance anxiety.  If you find yourself putting off  things on your list that are important and really need to be done, ask yourself whether you are worried about somehow risking failure.  Perhaps your writing won’t be as good as you hoped, and you wonder if anyone will think you have something worth saying. Or maybe your students’ papers will be bad and you wonder if you’re really in the right profession.  We often avoid confronting unpleasant feelings by busying ourselves with soothing routines – cleaning, organizing and computer games come to mind.  So, you don’t feel the negative feelings, but they still exert a powerful influence on your behavior.  Becoming aware of this pattern can help you figure out how to handle it.

Find some support. Gina Hiatt leads writing groups for faculty who are trying to complete scholarly tasks (and by the way, MU will have a writing fellows program this summer – check the CTE website for details).  Support systems during the last weeks of the semester may include spouses and family members who take a larger share of household duties, paid help when possible and colleagues who share their grading tips or their latest jokes.  External accountability is really helpful – exchange lists with a colleague and check-in on each other’s progress.

One last thought — You might want to discuss end-of-semester crunch strategies with your students, who undoubtedly are just as snowed under as you are!

What are your end of semester survival strategies?

Teaching Tip: Balancing Flexibility and Fairness through Course Design

This week’s teaching tip is a guest post from Mark Potter, Center for Faculty Development at Metropolitan State College of Denver. http://www.mscd.edu/cfd/

●     “Prof. Smith, I won’t be able to make it to class tonight because unfortunately my flight back from vacation has been delayed by an hour and now I won’t make it back to Denver in time for class.  Is there supposed to be a quiz today and if so is there any way I can make it up?”

●     “Hey Professor, I am terribly sorry, but I am unable to attend class this evening due to familial issues. I am writing in an attempt to ascertain what precisely we went over tonight, and what I need to review in order to not fall behind my peers.”

●     “I will not be able to make it to class today due to a conflict with work but I have attached my re-write of the last paper and will get the notes from someone who was in class. Please let me know if there are any important announcements I will miss.”

We have probably all seen emails from students like the ones above, and in fact these are probably fairly mild examples; I have received far more outrageous–and inappropriate–student emails than these.  It is understandable if we react viscerally to them.  We may want to yell at the computer, reply with a snarky email, or, more to the point, penalize the student for missing class and/or assignment deadlines.  Students should just follow the rules and then, “problem solved,” right?

Well, sort of.

Perhaps there is a place for empathy and compassion toward the student whose work schedule changes abruptly, who has (even an unspecified) family emergency, or whose family travel plans become derailed in the middle of the semester.  Like it or not, student demographics are changing as are students’ priorities and work habits (Higher Education Research Institute, 2010).  More students work to cover costs while in college, more students attend college with specific job-skills development in mind, and the range of aptitudes, study skills, and college preparedness continues to widen.  Maryellen Weimer (2006) encourages instructors to put themselves in their students’ shoes by taking a college course outside their field of expertise every few years in order to experience all the aspects of learning, including balancing course deadlines with work deadlines, figuring out what the professor “wants,” and adhering to the rules and expectations that are particular to that course alone–all of which are juggling acts that our students must do constantly.  Still, while compassion and empathy may be warranted, we want to avoid granting special treatment to individual students, and it is important for the sake of our own workload and our own time management to hold students to reasonable standards, or “lines in the sand” (Robertson, 2003)

Learner-centered course design can help us to balance these competing demands between compassion and fairness.  Learner-centeredness shifts responsibility for learning to students while granting them more opportunities, control, and options over how they demonstrate their learning (Weimer, 2002).  We can use course design both to hold students responsible and to provide allowances for when life “interrupts” their studies, all while preserving our lines in the sand and our sanity.

Some course design ideas that accomplish this include:

●     Carrots that incentivize on-time submission of assignments.  I accept late papers (up to three days late) from my students, but only those students who submit their work on time have the option to rewrite their papers and to incorporate my feedback for an improved grade.

●     Bounded flexibility.  Alternatively, a colleague at Metropolitan State College gives his students a “syllabus quiz” in the first week of the semester.  Every student who passes earns 5 credits toward turning in work late (1 credit = 1 day).  Students can cash in all of their credits at once with one assignment, or they can split them across assignments at different times in the semester.

●     Cooperative/collaborative learning.  If students have to miss a class session in a course that incorporates group learning, they have a resource–their fellow students–on whom to rely to try to catch up, rather than coming right away to the instructor to find out what they “missed.”

●     Technology.  Web-based tools, including the course Learning Management System (for example Moodle or Blackboard), Wikis (for example PBWiki), and Google Docs can reinforce cooperative learning and the sense of community within a course.  If students find unexpectedly that they need to miss a class meeting, they can turn to these online resources where they might find threaded discussions designed to supplement in-class learning or examples of student work/reflections completed in class and posted to a Wiki.  Students may also be able to use the online tool to contact their “group” for help.

Of course, students need to know that the interactions and engagement that occur in class are not replicable and that missing class means missing out on an opportunity to learn.  Still, the premise of this essay is that life sometimes gets in the way of the best of intentions, and providing some opportunity for students to learn–an opportunity that does not rely on the instructor delivering instruction twice over–is preferable to penalizing the student by doing nothing.

Additional Resources:

Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA. “A Snapshot of the First Year Experience.  Accessed on July 15, 2010 at http://www.heri.ucla.edu/PDFs/pubs/briefs/HERI_ResearchBrief_OL_2009_YFCY_02_04.pdf

Robertson, D. (2003). Making Time, Making Change: Avoiding Overload in College Teaching. Stillwater, OK: New Forums Press.

Weimer, M. (2002). Learner-Centered Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Weimer, M. (2006). Enhancing Scholarly Work on Teaching and Learning: Professional Literature That Makes a Difference. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.



Teaching Tip: Have a PEACEful holiday

Feeling stressed out?  Not happy with the balance between your teaching, scholarship, service  and – well – life?  You’re not alone.  Research suggests that university faculty experience higher levels of job stress than the general population, so it’s particularly important for us to be pro-active in dealing with stress and strain.  And Adjunct faculty are certainly not exempt — balancing primary employment with teaching commitments and home life.  In her Monday Motivator email this week, Kerry Ann Rockquemore uses the acronym PEACE to help readers think about ways to plan and implement changes that will help them thrive.  I’ve condensed and commented on her remarks.  You may not read this until after finals are in, but I hope you’ll come back to this idea and find some ways to make next semester more peaceful and productive.

What do you want?  How can you get it, or make progress toward getting it?  What’s MOST important and are you really putting your time where your priorities are?  In CrazyBusy, Edward Hallowell talks about leeches and lilies.  Leeches are projects, activities, beliefs, attitudes and/or people who drag us down, suck the life out of us and waste our time and our attention.  Lilies energize us, excite us and help us feel happy and fulfilled. They keep us going.  Hallowell advocates systematically analyzing your time and effort in order to use them effectively to maximize your lilies and reduce your leeches to the minimum. The book is short and interesting (although I find all his made-up terms a little silly).  If you want a more interactive planning structure, Kerry Ann Rockquemore is offering a free semester planning workshop on January 12th, 2011 for the first 500 people who sign up.  Her primary focus is new faculty but a little planning never hurt any of us!

Experiment (with tested strategies)
You don’t ignore prior research findings when you plan a scholarly project, so why would you do it when it comes to making changes in your life?  There are models for time management, increasing writing productivity, reducing stress and more that have proven effective.  If you don’t know what they are, the CTE is happy to help you find out.  For starters, check out these Inside Higher Ed columns, also by Kerry Ann Rockquemore:  1) The Sunday Meeting, 2) a daily writing practice, 3) tracking your time, and 4) holding yourself accountable on a regular basis.   CrazyBusy is another good choice, as is The Pomodoro Technique (best for writing projects)  and David Allen’s Getting Things Done.

Pick an approach, try it for a month and check to see if it’s helping.  If it is, GREAT.  If not, you may need to re-examine your goals (Is this REALLY my top priority or is it what I think I’m supposed to want?), or your methods (Was it totally unrealistic to commit to two hours of writing a day?).  This step is often overlooked.  If something doesn’t work, we tend to shrug it off as a useless approach without digging a little deeper into the “why”.

We all have beliefs and attitudes that hold us back or empower us — leeches and lilies again.  You read about an approach to time management and immediately decide it can’t work for you.  You just know you don’t have time to exercise or join a book group or start a new research project.  Challenge your knee-jerk reactions and examine them.  Whose voice are you hearing?  Is the belief you have left-over from another part of your life?  Are there things you could let go of that you don’t because of some old script in your head?  Changing beliefs or attitudes, or actions isn’t always easy, but if you’re unhappy now, choosing not to change will pretty much guarantee continued unhappiness.  Waiting around for others to change or for “the situation” to change usually isn’t too effective either, unless your unhappiness is caused by a temporary condition that’s out of your control.  That’s why it’s so important to be sure the goals you are setting are truly your highest priority.  Are they worth working hard for?

Establish (a community)
Achieving work-life balance is hard enough – don’t go it alone.  It can be online or face-to-face, weekly, monthly or ad hoc, at Marymount or somewhere else, but find a community.  One of the most common comments I hear at CTE events is “it was so great to talk to other people about this issue…we should do this more often.”  And I totally agree.  Next semester we will be sponsoring a lunchtime journaling group and we hope to have a writing group as well.  And if you’re interested in forming another type of community, the CTE would be happy to try to help.  Whatever type of community or group you join or create, it’s the collective wisdom and support that matters.  Sometimes people feel that group events take up time they don’t have, but I notice that those who make time generally are more efficient and productive  in other ways as well.  You can add to our community right now by commenting on this post!

“Out of clutter, find simplicity. From discord, find harmony. In the middle of difficulty, lies opportunity.” -Albert Einstein

You can sign up for the Monday Motivator or explore all of Kerry Ann Rockquemore’s resources at her website, the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity.

This will be the last Teaching Tip until classes start again in January.  Best wishes for a happy holiday and a joyous 2011!


Teaching Tip: Muse? What muse?

This week the Monday Motivator, a weekly email for new faculty from the Center for Faculty Development and Diversity (http://www.facultydiversity.org/?page=MondayMotivator), focused on the benefits of daily writing.  Evidence indicates that even brief daily writing sessions result in increased faculty scholarly productivity, but many professors resist establishing a daily writing practice.  Instead, they believe that it’s more effective to wait for inspiration (the “muse”) to strike and then write for extended periods of time.  Unfortunately the muse doesn’t always strike at convenient times, and junior faculty members using this method suddenly may realize that tenure is upon them and the muse has gone missing.

As I thought about why professors resist the idea of daily writing, I started to think about the similarities between ourselves and our students.  We bemoan the common student practice of waiting until the last minute to complete writing assignments, of not allowing sufficient time to write drafts and let them rest, of not breaking larger assignments down into pieces.  Yet, how many of us “binge” write?  If the “inspiration” for students is a looming deadline, isn’t that also true for us?  The assumption that writers have to wait for inspiration and then need big chunks of time to produce anything of value seems to be quite widespread (and seems related to the fantasy of the writer in his or her garret, oblivious to the world as the muse strikes).  In fact, most of the time when I read interviews with successful writers, they seem to have very organized schedules that involve regular daily writing.

I’ve certainly done my share of binge writing as a student and as a professor, and for a long time I thought it worked just fine.   I first began to think of binge writing as problematic while I was teaching the Senior Seminar in psychology, which involved a lengthy literature review and analysis.  We always had one class conversation about the process of writing a lengthy and complex paper.  Many students had never had to write something that could not be done in a single (long) sitting, and most of them never had done more than a single draft.  Trying to complete this task using binge techniques was a recipe for stress overload and disaster. Then I heard Tara Grey talk about becoming a prolific writer, and I read Robert Boice’s research on faculty who become productive scholars.  I started looking into various writing coaches’ philosophies.  I found the same thing over and over.  Daily writing matters.

So what’s so great about daily writing?  Well, one of the advantages is that you never quite forget what you’re doing  – you can work for half an hour, leave yourself a note about where you want to start tomorrow, and go off feeling good about having accomplished something.  The work stays fresher, and you may find that you keep thinking about it between daily sessions, so in that sense you may be getting more done.   And it’s a lot easier for most of us to squeeze in 30 minutes every day than it is to find a 3 or 4 hour block of uninterrupted time.    Contrast that with the article you started a few weeks ago (a month?  already?) and now you can’t follow your own train of thought or remember what you wanted to do with it.

OK, this is a teaching tip, so what does this have to do with teaching?  Well — what if we required students to write daily?  It would be an interesting experiment to see if students who were required to write a certain amount each day ended up with better quality work than those who did not write daily. If daily writing is as good as the research suggests that it is, we could be helping our students acquire a habit that would promote academic success and lifelong learning.  Will they like it?  Probably not.

How could we manage such a requirement?  Students could keep a journal or some kind of record of their writing process, and turn it in with their work (this does have the disadvantage of being easily falsifiable).  For students who have trouble concentrating, the Pomodoro technique might be a useful way to structure daily writing as well as track progress.  For those of you who have not heard of it, the Pomodoro technique is a time management tool created by an Italian university student named Francesco Cirillo.  Basically, you time yourself for 25 minutes using a kitchen timer that has a noticeable ticking sound and dings when it’s done (his was shaped like a tomato, hence the name).  Each 25 minute segment is one “pomodoro”.  A five minute break separates pomodoros during which you do not think about whatever you’re working on.  After four pomodoros, you take at least a half hour break.   Pomodoros are logged and can be used to help you understand how long a project really takes.  For example, the paper you thought would take two hours (four pomodoros) might actually take twice that long.  By monitoring your time, you can plan more efficiently.  You can do as many pomodoros in a day as you want to; if you only have time for one pomodoro per day of writing, no problem.  The process of timing and logging pomodoros helps many people concentrate and focus.  (This is a very simplistic explanation of the Pomodoro technique.  To learn more check out  http://www.pomodorotechnique.com/)   Another option is 750words.com which gives you a daily nudge and also tracks the number of days in a row that you have written.   You might also be able to use blogs or online journals as a way to track daily writing.  Note that I am NOT suggesting you read or grade all this writing.  The purpose is to make sure that daily writing is occurring, and the assumption is that it will help improve the final product.

Of course, if you’re a “muse-driven” writer yourself, you might not believe that daily writing will help.  Or maybe you think it would be good for students but not that helpful for you.  So, try it out on your students and see what you get – you might be inspired to try it on yourself.

Do you write daily?  Do you find it helpful?  How do you encourage students to do less “binge” writing?  If you are in a design field, do the same ideas relate to the design process?  Could you adapt daily writing to daily designing?