Thursday, October 27, 2011

The lost ink pen

A student walked into class last week and did not have a pen for the exam. I mentally rolled my eyes and began the internal dialogue, "How do you come to class without a pen? I would never go to class unprepared. Why, I remember my time at Purdue and..." I think we have all experienced a similar moment of comparison and slight frustration.

The pen versus the keypad?
Later, I went to a meeting, grabbing my trusty iPad. This semester (I got my university-issued iPad in late June), you can find me in any meeting diligently typing notes, emailing action items, and feeling very proud of my productivity with this new device. I photo-scan the documents for the meeting or save them in my dropbox and so carrying files has become unnecessary. I felt very prepared for the meeting and very on-top of the agenda. In fact, I rather smirked at the paper copies of a handout and wondered when we would all use the technology that had improved my life so much. Quite pleased with my efforts during a busy term, I sat anticipating the start of the meeting. When the sign in sheet came to me I paused awkwardly and had to ask the person next to me for a pen! I had everything I needed in my iPad and forgot a writing utensil. I felt myself blush and hurriedly scribble my name.
My new companion to every meeting

Then, I (mentally) apologized to that student (who had received a mental eye-roll) earlier in the week. How can I become frustrated for something for which I am now equally guilty? 

I love technology. I love the accessibility it gives my students and the way it eases my workload so I can communicate and contribute from a distance. It makes me more productive (generally).  And it is changing the way we do many things in higher education. While many of us are expecting these big changes to continue to wash over us, we may not be on the lookout for the small changes in our students and ourselves.

In class yesterday, I said "refer to the textbook" and prepared for the onslaught of, "but I don't have my text!" I was pleasantly surprised to see many of the students pull out mobile devices, tablets, laptops, netbooks and pull up the e-book. It was a great moment. Of course, I then tweeted about it.

So before we judge the student for texting, let's reflect on the last meeting we sat through and how many professors had out their mobile phones, took a call, took notes on it, texted, or emailed. 

So often we (professors) are concerned about the distractions of our students' technology items (status updates, IM-ing, texting, and generally not paying attention) and are reminiscing about the way things used to be that we can easily forget two things: 1) the things we may get frustrated about are likely the same things we are starting to do, and 2) there are many benefits of those same devices on our classroom environment.

Yes, we should still use technology politely and attentively when in a meeting or classroom. But, honestly, I can take notes faster on my iPad or Blackberry, email them or save them, and accomplish work faster during the meeting that would otherwise suck all of my time once the meeting ended. Should I fault my students for doing the same thing? They are using their e-calendars, their reminder-apps, their e-books, and yes, on occasion updating their social media. But before we suggest that students "put away the phones" we might want to consider the role those devices play in our learning environment--especially for our younger students who may feel more natural touching a key pad than holding an ink pen.

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Friday, October 21, 2011

Tech tools to avoid the midterm slump

You walk into a classroom to see students huddled over stacks of papers, note cards, and graded quizzes with either a coffee cup or a wad of tissues in their hands. They are in various stages of preparation and dress--from pajamas and crumpled pages of notes to meticulous dress with color-coded flash cards. As you enter the classroom on exam day, they look up at you with equal expressions of wariness. Based on your excellent deductive skills you know it must be midterm season. Why else would they give you such a look as they sniffle their way through another cup of coffee?

Photo by Lora Helvie-Mason, edited using

There are a few things we can do to ease the midterm season for ourselves and for our students. These are minor actions, but they may guide us to better manage the mid-semester slump.

Check out some technology that can assist your grading (see previous entry "Grading Gadgets"). Such tools often help students to track their progress and receive more detailed feedback. There are many opportunities these days and, to update the nearly 1-year old "Gadget's" entry, there are more grading tech options than ever, including:
You might consider the free trial options for some of these programs OR explore the rubrics in your LMS, if you have one. Technologically adapted rubrics can provide easy grading and opportunities to insert more comments than you would if your hand is cramping up on the sixtieth time you write "restructure for clarity" or "unclear thesis" on an outline or paper. Using the LMS rubrics can need some clarification -- it is easy to seek the Help features, but I also love to search for a video explanation/demonstration -- these are often on YouTube or Vimeo and provided by the companies themselves OR by users who can answer the exact practical questions I might have. (Example: Blackboard Rubrics Explained video).

Though some options cost, there are also many free resources for educators, the trick is finding one that works appropriately for your needs and that you feel comfortable with. Start with your LMS, but don't feel locked into their system. Go explore! Consider sharing your ideas of what works best (and what to avoid) with a comment or suggestions.

Best wishes for a productive midterm season! 

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Monday, October 17, 2011

Faculty and first names

This past summer was a busy one for me. I was on a lot of committees, working on a few grants, and trying to revamp courses with a new text. I was rushing across campus from one meeting to another and hear, "Dr. Lora, wait!" and "Dr. Lora, can I ask you a question?" Another faculty member laughed and said, "Oh Dr. Mason, I didn't realize when students asked for Dr. Lora's classes they meant you! I assumed they had a wrong name or were misinformed." In fact, MOST of my students tend to address me with my title and first name. This was not something I initially encouraged, as I had read articles about younger-appearing faculty (and females) and issues of authority, I wanted that hard-earned "Dr." to be articulated. When I joined the rank of faculty member, the closest faculty member to my age at the time was 18 years older than I.

But after several weeks here in the South, I started to feel like the name thing was a losing battle. Many of my colleagues immediately dropped the hyphen in my last name and most of my students began calling me "Ms. Lora" the first day of my first semester. I encouraged them to be more formal and, somehow, we ended up with a hybrid of "Dr. Lora." I don't believe this was a sign of disrespect, but it got me thinking about the forms of faculty address, perceptions of authority, perceptions of approachability, and the relationship between students and faculty. This was especially true after an older male began in our College and was, to my knowledge, never addressed by his first name. Then a male younger than myself arrived and, again, was not addressed by his first name. As we shared offices in tiny FEMA buildings post-Katrina, I feel confident in saying that the students did not address either by a first name (with or without a title before a first name).
Image from

Was the use of a title determined by age, sex, or other characteristics (such as teaching style and perceived approachability)? Rubin (1981) found that "female professors, especially those in the 26–33 age group, were addressed by first names more often than their male colleagues." Despite introducing myself as "Dr. Helvie-Mason," students immediately went for the first name.

After a few semesters, I laughingly tell my students, "I don't care what you call me as long as it has a Dr. in front of it and you could say it to your mother or minister." I let go of trying to change the way I was addressed as it seemed to be a waste of energy when there was no damage to the class environment...indeed, I often wondered if it helped. In the end, I let the students decide and answer to "Dr. Lora" or "Dr. Helvie" or "Dr. Mason" or the rarely used, but entirely correct "Dr. Helvie-Mason."

I do get disgruntled about the last name, on occasion, as I have been told by colleagues and staff (somewhat regularly that "You can't be "half married" so why would you split your name?" or "Oh, you're one of those women" with a look that I cannot possibly understand), but since my transition from the Midwest to the South, I have been known by the majority of my students as "Dr. Lora" and I have been honored with classrooms full of engaged, dedicated students. However, I am uncomfortable when a student addresses me by solely my first name--it is too personal, too informal and so I redirect the students whenever that happens.

Looking into this naming pattern has been interesting. There are a few points of research out there that might inform our understanding of the students' and professors' views of titles and their uses in academia.

Exploring graduate students and professor titles, McDowell and Westman (2005) wrote, "Students rated faculty members addressed by first name as warmer and more approachable and as valuing and respecting the students more than faculty addressed by formal title. Being on a first name basis made a difference for the emotional tone, but it did not make a difference in the professional aspects of the relationship, such as respect for the faculty member, perceived objectivity in faculty's grading, or student motivation to achieve." Interesting!

So, perhaps we return to Shakespeare and ponder, "What's in a name..."  as we continue to explore the implications of faculty address.


Kuh, G. O. (1995). The other curriculum: Out-of-class experiences associated with student learning and personal development. Journal of Higher Education, 66, 123-155.

McDowell, J. E., & Westman, A. S. (2005). Exploring the use of first name to address faculty members in graduate programs. College Student Journal, 39(2).

Rubin, R. B. (1981). Ideal traits and terms of address for male and female college professors. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 41(5), 966-974. 

Takiff, H. A., Sanchez, D. T., & Stewart, T. L. (2001). What’s in a name? The status implications of students’ terms of address for male and female professors. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 25, 134-144.

Related Communication & Higher Education entries: Gen X women at work in the academy

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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Faculty job descriptions

Wanted: For immediate opening, 1 person to guide 130+ learners through 4+ courses each semester while participating in 4+ committees, writing 2+ research journals, writing 1+ grant, and presenting original research at 2+ conferences each year. Applicants should be energetic, eager to embrace continuing education, willing to advise student organizations, collegial (and willing to work for several years before ever knowing if your work is of the quality to achieve tenure).

Some days this type of paragraph may describe faculty life! I love the variability of faculty job descriptions, the ability to denote specific time to certain projects, the way we can switch from one area of tasks to another when we are tired or need a boost. Sometimes, though, it can be overwhelming.

Image created using
My advice after a VERY hectic couple of days: set your own priorities and avoid adding others' jobs to your description if/when you can help it.

Personally, it is very easy for me to fall into the "helping" mode where I offer to help with items: I review a student's application before she submits it for a new job, I offer to do a task item to help a committee member, I note I could teach a mini-session for faculty on a technology issue, I perk up at an idea and offer to spearhead a task, eagerly, I state that I would happily help write, research, edit, etc...because I'm excited by the work or because I feel obligated (pressured).

It is also easy for junior faculty members like myself to be pushed into that helping mode...Less nicely stated, it is very easy for work to go to the junior faculty members. Perhaps the people around us want us to get more experience. Perhaps they simply don't want to do the work. Perhaps we are the most qualified for a certain task. I get "nominated" or "drafted" an awful lot for a variety of tasks that ultimately make me feel like I am doing the work of three people. 

Maybe it just feels that way because what we do covers so many different (and sometimes competing) types of work.

Whatever the reason, it is easy for your job description to quickly feel like it includes the jobs of others.

For junior faculty, we may not always have the choice or the ability to speak up and use that all-powerful "no" word. But, we can work to manage our tasks, prioritize, and focus on a well-rounded packet come tenure time. I am a sucker for all things organizational. From calendars to apps, I embrace prioritized task lists and scheduling to help with the overwhelming feelings that can come up in these pre-tenure years. Institutions vary in expectations, but here are a few resources to explore your workload, your tasks, and your ability to cope:

REMEMBER: Visit your faculty handbook and institutional documents noting expectations for faculty members, workload, and policies.

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Friday, October 7, 2011

Online public speaking classs!? YouSeeU to the rescue!

Don't stop me in the hallway, I'm likely to bend your ear for a while about benefits of online learning or some technology to use in the classroom. I'm notorious for bringing up tech-based ideas in meetings ("why not use a GoogleDoc?"). I can't help it. I love teaching and I love technology. I have designed and taught online courses for over five years. I have taken many courses, sessions, and workshops on effective online teaching. I bring a passion to online learning. I believe in the increased accessibility, convenience, and new pedagogical promise of an online environment. I embrace the collaborative tools and exciting techniques we can use to engage our online students. But there can still many challenges to online learning.

I designed and teach our institution's fully online public speaking course (and yes, at this point most scholars turn to one another and ask how you can teach public speaking online...). Over the past five years, I have modified, enhanced, tweaked, and altered the course. My vision was a course that mirrored not only the rigor, but also the feel (sense of community) and opportunity for growth students can find in the on-campus public speaking course. There are a few things I will never change about the online course. One: the students must deliver their speeches in front of a live audience (and record them). Two: the students must be able to see classmates' videos.

These requirements can lead to student stress. They must plan ahead to accomplish their speeches--but I require the online course to have the same "public" speaking feel and focus as the on-campus class and a webcam head shot video where students speak to computer screens won't cut it, in my opinion. Students work with a live audience found from their co-workers, neighbors, colleagues, church attendees, etc. They then record and post their presentations for their classmates to view.

There are a plethora of privacy concerns when it comes to student work and the web. I have laboriously crafted several techniques using private groups with password-protected video rights that are then embedded in our (password-protected) LMS, but that is a huge headache. I've been looking for an easier option. This semester I found it.

YouSeeU is a site tailor-made for my course. I have enjoyed using it as it can easily work within the LMS and it has excellent support for students (and for me!). YouSeeU is a place to exchange and view video presentations securely. It works well for collegiate classes since students can add slides, work in groups, complete oral exams, and get grades/comments in one secure location.

My students can upload speeches from their cell phones, web cams, camcorders. They literally only have to click twice to submit their work. EASY.
Assignment list and options (professor view)

Student view
When I created my YouSeeU course, I got an ID that the students use to log in. The directions to course creation and assignment creation were clear and the site is helpful. I have a list of assignments (see picture) and can modify the due date, closing date, points, etc. Students simply select from an upload or record option once I make an assignment available. If the due date passes, they can't upload. Once they submit, they can't remove it--so the work is officially in my hands just like the traditional speaking class (you can also do a one-time take with the "oral exam" feature on YouSeeU so students can't record their speeches multiple times trying to get it "just right" -- a situation they would not have in a traditional, on-campus classroom). The classmates can easily view the speeches and leave comments, rate, and engage with one another.

Copy of part of my rubric for the Informative speech
As a professor, I particularly value the rubrics (click and grade...a huge time saver) which can be created for each assignment and has tons of room for a variety of constructs to be measured. It does not take much time to set up and the ability to click-and-grade while viewing saves me a mountain of time in the large online course. The students can see the feedback easily.

Professors can archive videos and use them again (I have sought permission from a few students to do this with their videos in upcoming terms so I have examples readily available for the students). There are many tools for professors to use today in online courses, but I haven't seen such a perfect fit for my courses in a long time. You can view a comparison chart on the site to explore what YouSeeU offers that may be different from the tool your class may currently utilize.

A few notes: 
Use the great resource from YouSeeU that provides pre-written student directions for logging in and using the site. I just pasted this information into Blackboard (our LMS) and added my class identification number. Very simple.  

Clear directions and helpful links throughout the site
Students should record with a lot of light (good for any video) to help keep the quality of their presentation high.

The uploading time can be variable depending on file size and internet connection. Most of my students struggle with a consistent internet connection at home and use mobile devices that appear to take slightly longer to upload.  

The rubrics are worth exploring! At first I thought I did not need to look into them since I have a detailed evaluation sheet for each speech, but they are very easy to use and I have been able to add my (lengthy and detailed) public speaking evaluation sheets easily. Grading is now a few clicks and the scores are totaled for me. I can also leave comments (or even use pre-set standardized comments that I submit and then easily use with my rubric).

Ask for a demonstration or view the videos and resources on the YouSeeU page. It is targeted for educators and students (no random commercials or videos of kittens here), directions are easy to follow and processes are intuitive for both professors and students.

This semester, YouSeeU has been a great addition to my online course and one that I will continue to use as long as I am responsible for the online communication courses at my institution. YouSeeU makes it much easier to answer that question, "How do you teach public speaking online?!"

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Monday, October 3, 2011

Embracing student feedback with word clouds

There are many ways you want to start your day. Hearing students rapid-fire complaints about an upcoming assignment isn't generally one of them. I started many days last semester where several students relentlessly complained about an assignment in the course. They didn't do the work, they didn't like the assignment, they didn't see how it fit the course, they did not want to do it. None of these complaints are new, but they can be incredibly frustrating. I felt defensive and tired of it. In fact, the instinct to roll my eyes had to be heavily fought. When we finally finished the project though, most students loved it.

I saw one of my former students who lead this complaint-brigade the other day on campus. She stopped me and said, "I'm so glad we had to do that assignment. It was so helpful for my major!" I asked her why she spent every day complaining about it during her semester in class and she said, "I thought it sounded stupid. I didn't get it at first." 

It was a big lesson for me. While I can still sense the (slight) desire to roll my eyes and tell the student to trust me as the professor when they express concerns like this, there is a grain of truth to the students' comments. Why not put the ego aside and embrace the student feedback? Let's use such comments to clarify and redirect future projects, and (the new lesson for me) rename, repackage, or re-present an assignment that led students to whine/complain the previous term.

In short, we need to market our assignments to help EXCITE students about a project while explaining what is expected and how it will be assessed.

One way to determine if your assignment falls into the "students will whine about it" category is to put it into a word cloud. In the past, I have mentioned the usefulness of Wordle, a word-cloud tool and I used it again after the summer term to help re-package a few of my assignments. Word clouds show which words most prominently feature in a speech or other written text. The most repeated words are larger in size. Wordle is great for speech analysis. I have also used it to analyze my syllabus. Seeing which words come up most frequently helped me to see the assignment from a new perspective. My wiki class assignment (the one the students were moaning about last semester) is one I am currently repackaging to have better student appeal (and therefore cause less need for class time to explain, justify, and address student issues). Here is the Wordle of the wiki project last semester:
Before restructuring

 The most prominent words before I restructured did not apporpriately identify or explain the actual assignment--which might explain why some students did not realize the importance or impact of the assignment. Of course the assignment seemed clear to me (from my insider-pedagogical vantage), but something was obviously leading to student distress. I reflected on the mission and intent of the wiki assignment. I re-wrote the assignment description and information after seeking student input. Then I put it into a word cloud. Here is the result:

After restructuring
The students can now see that this is a wiki project, a group project, with digital information, links, content, and application of chapters (by pulling out the most prominent words). Even further, they can see some of the expectations and assessment options--items that don't show up nearly as well in the earlier word cloud. This semester I have had MUCH less confusion, complaining, and discontent over the assignment. My concerted effort to repackage the assignment from the student vantage has seemed to reduce the stress and uncertainty of the students. The result? Better informed students who buy into a class project/assignment and a professor who does not feel she has to repeatedly justify an assignment (while avoiding eye rolling).

Why not give it a try? Explore how your assignments reflect your goals...and try a word cloud to help you "see" what the students may see.

[Eager for more? Try to put your student evaluations into a similar format for review...see what characteristics, assignments, etc. the students write about most frequently. Use the student feedback to guide your work and the purposeful, pedagogical changes you make in your instruction/course.] 

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