Monday, January 31, 2011

The tenure tally

My desk, a normally pristine area of functionality from which I derive much comfort, is currently covered in sticky notes and piles of manila folders. I feel a sense of exhaustion and frustration as the landscape of my brain is spilled out before me in brightly colored notes with exclamation points at the end of each reminder insisting I give it immediate attention: "IRB submission!" "Record 210.01 scores!" and "Follow-up emails after the conference!" I am struggling to conquer these tasks and they are, in fact, conquering me and my work space. I cannot recall a time when my work area looked this unorganized, nor can I ever think of a time when my semester was not thoroughly and diligently planned in advance.

This semester, however, I have been given an over-load course and have been placed on several hard-working accreditation committees. These duties have led to a somewhat frantic mental pace as the semester got under way. I normally can reign this in nicely with my slightly obsessive-compulsive excel spreadsheets, my day planner, and e-calendar alerts. This Monday my workspace has revolted and spilled outside of the carefully drawn excel grid lines resulting in a mess of bright pink, orange, and yellow stickies with thick black marker phrases that appear to be angrily shouting for my attention. They won't be pushed aside. Everything seems urgent.

So I am taking the next half an hour and doing a "tenure tally" for the semester ahead. This trick helped me in previous semesters (usually done before a term begins, it is certainly better implemented later than never or else I might forget what color my desk actually is under the obnoxiously boisterous notes). What is the tenure tally? It is a simple organizational activity that allows me to take stock of my To Do list, to determine what is a MUST item and what item can/should be pushed further down the list. How do I conduct a tenure tally? Well, at my institution it is straight forward. I use the faculty handbook section on tenure and points and use this as a way to examine which items deserve to stay on the list and in what order. If I can see that research is X points and I have a lighter publication output for the academic year, then perhaps I need to push up the research/data section of my list. If, however, I notice I have maxed out my conference points, then I should cut a conference and focus on research (or grant writing, etc.).

These are tough decisions, but let's face it...the life of a faculty member involves many duties and they will simply not all be done by one person if each item is deemed essential. Instead, we have to tally up our duties, structure them carefully around the goals we want to achieve, and learn to let some things go.

The hardest lesson is admitting I cannot do everything and forgiving myself for not attending to each screaming sticky note, but in the end it is a an on-going lesson and I am continuing to try and master it as I navigate the pre-tenure waters.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The lingering student

The class has drawn to a close and our minds are switching from teacher-mode to the meeting in five minutes across campus and to the journal submission deadline when we look up to realize that there's still one student who is lingering. Slowly packing his/her bag, hanging back from the gaggle of students leaving the classroom, this student is always the last student to leave. It is the Lingering Student. He/She will use the time to listen to all of the other student-teacher discussion and then might walk with you, ask you questions, or just wait until you say something to him/her. How do I know about this lingering student? I was one.

I lingered to ALL of my professors in graduate school. I waited until they were alone to ask my questions or to get clarification at the end of the class. I sought out the time AFTER all of the other students left to address the teacher. I made excuses to be in the classroom long enough to be the last to leave. I was a Lingering Student (LS)!

As a teacher, I realize how easy it is to become impatient (and sometimes frustrated) with the lingering students of the world. Sometimes, I have to do a mental check and remind myself that the lingering student is simply engaging in a different comfort level when it comes to communication. After all, I was that LS once upon a time.

For example, as a LS, I wanted to ask for clarification when other students weren't around because I was embarrassed to NEED clarification. I did not want anyone thinking I didn't "get it" and so I would wait and ambush the teacher after class by slowly and painstakingly packing up binders, pens, and paper. Additionally, I felt awkward speaking a question in front of the larger class. I simply prefer one-on-one communication so I could ask follow up questions. Lastly, and perhaps the best part of the LS life, I could get a direct response from the professor -- one that was individually tailored to my specific project/paper. I wanted the time after the class to casually, but still educationally, engage with the teacher. I was a LS. In fact, just this moment I realize that I still tend to do this at some meetings, on some committees, and even at the gym after yoga class! It is my "comfort zone" for communication interactions and it looks like it hasn't changed much.

As our semester begins and we learn who our students are, how they engage, and most importantly how they choose to interact with us, I have uncovered I have several that are LS-prone again this term. I am making a special effort to extend communication that is meaningful in those few moments where the student is slowly packing up or hanging back from the rest of the group. This morning, the goal was to avoid waiting for the student to ask me a question. Instead, as the classroom emptied, I turned and made a comment about how the content we discussed would relate well to the State of the Union speech tomorrow and gently provided a way for the LS to launch the questions stored in her mind all class period long. It worked wonderfully.

The LS is not an inconvenience and is not an annoyance--it is an opportunity! Reaching the students in multiple ways -- both during and AFTER class is simply part of the job. From one former Lingering Student to the professors of the world out there: please take the time to engage with us. It can make a powerful difference.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Practicing and preparing for a new term

How do you prepare for a new term? I'm not referencing the syllabus revisions or the text book reviews--I mean the mental preparation for the time you spend in front of your student audience. Do you have rituals or practices you follow to begin teaching successfully each term?

I attended a conference last October where a presenter noted taking a little time to physically practice her teaching by walking around spaces in her classroom and beginning the semester by examining clothing choices and appropriateness for the classroom. Presenter Dr. Ann Marie Coats from the University of South Florida reported on her research, "Strong and comfortable shoes: The role of appearance in the performance of the confident professor" and I was surprised to hear that some of my "nervous pre-semester have-to items" that I considered quirky are more common than I ever suspected. Some of us mentally rehearse while others of us use a form of physical practice that involves the space around us, but many of us do consider and plan for our time in front of students. I do several things before a new semester starts:

1 - I always visit each assigned classroom space and sit in several different seats,
2 - I check the white board use with several different colors of dry erase markers and remove those that appear too light or bright to be seen from the back of the room from my bag o' markers,
3 - I, like Dr. Coats, consider what to wear. I add layers (tank tops) under blouses that might reveal too much when I lean over a desk to help a student or I consider movement ("If I reach up to write on the board will this blouse/jacket/pants combo reveal anything?") and I am always on the search for shoes that are comfortable but "responsible" for my time in front of the class. I "test" this in front of a mirror,
4 - I mentally rehearse my time with the students by examining how I will open the first several classes, how I will remember student names (something I find is incredibly important for the connection I want to build the first few weeks of the course), and where/how I will move about the room
5 - I spend an evening reviewing some of my journals from my Freshman and Sophomore years at Purdue. This helps me remember that students are not always used to the higher education classroom and reminds me of what I used to enjoy/dislike about my 100- and 200-level professors and classmates while I was an undergraduate.

These little rituals always made me feel a bit insecure--as if I had to amp myself up to teach. After hearing Dr. Coats' research last Fall at the Organization for the Study of Communication, Language and Gender conference (, I realized that many of us do these (or similar) items to help us become the best educators we can be.

Ritualized preparation for a new term is more than just mentally settling, it allows a way to connect with the student perspective and, I believe, reinforce respect for our students and their educational journey. So what will you do as you embark on a new term?

Interested in learning more on the topic of attire and professors? Check out the following articles:
Carr, D. L., Lavin, A. M., & Davies, T. L. (2009). The impact of business faculty attire on student perceptions and engagement. Journal of College Teaching & Learning, 6(1) retrieved from
Morris, T. L., Gorham, J., Cohen, S. H., & Huffman, D. (1996). Fashion in the classroom: effects of attire on student perceptions of instructors in college classes. Communication Education, 45, retrieved from

Monday, January 3, 2011

The black sharpie

Post-it flags, sticky notes, color-coded ink pen systems, and digital reminders: the office supply and organizational gadget businesses have my money. They also have much of my time as my poor husband can attest: I spend at least an hour shopping for a new day planner each December. It is a nerdy pleasure. I pour over the layouts, the organization of days, the weekly versus monthly options. Eventually, the husband finds a nice floor sample of a piece of furniture and perches patiently while I mumble about hours broken down by the 15 or 30 minute intervals and binding options. For the past six years, I give up and order a calendar online that better fits my desires. This year was no different. After the futile trip to Office Depot, I placed my order online and waited impatiently for the new calendar to arrive. The simple joy of a well-structured week can emotionally uplift me, as I have noted before when discussing the struggle between balancing the researching, service and teaching sides of faculty life. For me, structure and scheduling provide a clear way to manage these competitors for my limited time. So, it was quite an exciting moment when my fresh calendar arrived today.

Fresh. That is the way I see the year ahead as I turn crisp day planner pages and ponder if I will use pencil or blue or black or green or purple ink this year, if I will mark off meetings and classes with arrows or boxes. Nerdy though it may be, I can't help it. I love the feel of the blank pages and the simple possibility of it all...

That is truly what the new calendar represents: possibility. I approach this 2011 day planner with reverence and with that wonderfully engaging mixture of opportunity and optimism that marks a new year.

...until the evil black sharpie, that is.

The permanence of the thick black line, the bleed through to the other pages, the impossibility of change: a black sharpie is trying to take over my day planner. There is a nagging voice in the back of my mind that is screaming "Protect your time! Tenure review is coming soon! Permanent black sharpie required!" And despite the plethora of ink options, the voice is screaming for research time to be outlined in black sharpie marker this semester. It urges a rapid reply to any committee meeting request that dances too close to the thick black lines to be, "I'm sorry, I cannot make the meeting."

Before thinking that you should call for some type of psychiatric assistance for this inner dialogue (for which I thank you but politely and of sound mind, decline), do know that my mental argument for the new calendar reflects the stress of an approaching semester: what projects are looming, what needs completed, what MUST be done. It is all a *hopefully* normal manifestation of my feeling that I did not get enough done last semester and that time is sliiiiiiipppppppping away.

Whether the black sharpie is used literally or figuratively (and let's just admit here that no way is a messy black sharpie darkening the pages of my fresh new day planner no matter how that inner voice rages), I am claiming the semester ahead as one full of optimism where my research time WILL BE a priority. I will embrace that time, I will respect that time, and I will maximize those hours. With that commitment in mind, I turn back to the blank, beautiful pages of the day planner and ponder the possibilities and opportunities ahead...perhaps I'll wait just one more day before I enter all of the classes, meetings and tasks for the upcoming term!