Monday, November 28, 2011

Saving the problematic assignment...

Around this time of year, we start to see the end of another long semester. We can pat ourselves on the backs and note with appreciation that our planning and organization led to another successful semester...or we may find that we hold our heads in our hands as we lament the assignment that did NOT work.

Every semester I try something new. I have to, I teach multiple sections of the same course year after year with a small smattering of new courses. I have to jazz up the course for myself and for my students. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. This semester I had an assignment that was slightly modified from last semester when it was VERY successfully received and accomplished by my summer classes. This semester, the assignment bombed in half of my sections. It tanked, it stunk, it was the bane of my students' existences.

I am certain this has happened to every reflective professor at some point in his or her career. You try a new assignment or branch an old assignment into new territory (technology) only to find something did not work out. You suffer through a mountain of emails, student confusion, complaints, grumblings, and find you are working way too hard for their assignment. It is time to reflect...that assignment did NOT work.

1. Own it.  Generally, an assignment bombs because of US. Yes, we need to own our role in the flopped feature of the course. It isn't always student procrastination or student disinterest, sometimes it is a flawed assessment. We somehow did not plan effectively or appropriately. In many cases, we were vague about our expectations (leading to student questions/stress) or about the grading. An easy fix is to revisit the assignment description and see what might be clarified for the future. Don't discard that assignment yet! It is, most likely, able to be saved.

2. Ask your students to comment on the assignment. Ask them what worked, what didn't, what they would change. You don't have to take all of their advise, but you can retain the integrity of the assignment and modify to allow the assignment to be clearer or more understandable/approachable from the students' perspective. [In the case of my bombed assignment, changing it to a GROUP project was a huge reason it was problematic]

3. Revisit the INTENT of the assignment. Did you veer off course by putting it online? By adding an oral presentation element? By somehow enhancing the older, more functional version of the assignment? This activity also helps you clarify the goals/objectives of the assignment (which should be quite clear). Perhaps you have the RIGHT idea, but the WRONG forum. [Again, for this semester, I shifted the WAY the assignment would work by making it a group project without revising the intent/goals to reflect the group perspective. This led to confusion for the students and a lot of headaches for all of us. If I had modified my goals/objectives clearly, this issue could have been managed much better.]

4. Ask for feedback from other professors. Seek a read-through from others in your discipline. This way you can easily gain another perspective on what you were TRYING to say/do in the assignment description and explore the students results.

5. Be fair. If the assignment has gotten derailed in some way, then work with the students (modify a timeline, change from small groups to a class-based project, offer alternatives) to find a fair way to address the confusion or concern during the current semester. Again, you can maintain the rigor without penalizing the students for an unclear assignment or for reaching beyond the scope of the semester.

6. Consider outside influences. Yes, sometimes we constructed the assignment goals appropriately, the students worked diligently, and some other factor took the entire assignment off course. [Again, in my example, I forgot to address the fact that during the Summer we met every single day and group work was easily worked into each course session, students were easier to track down, and fewer students "drifted" away from the course. When I energetically took the assignment to this Fall term (and groups), I did not account for any of the issues of student attrition and group meeting time when I have the students 2 or 3 days a week (instead of 5 like the summer).]

7. Compile all of this new information and revisit the assignment. Start with the goals, work through the forum (online, in person, paper, project, video, etc.) and the contributors (individual, small groups, or class), and don't forget to re-examine everything for clarity.

Maybe, just maybe, you can re-make that problematic assignment into one that you and the students are excited about.

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Monday, November 21, 2011

Costs of tenure in higher education

Welcome to guest blogger. Elaine Hirsch! She joins us today to explore the costs of tenure in higher education. 

Attaining tenure as a professor usually takes seven years at most American universities. During these seven years, the individual reaches levels of increased responsibility and higher rank as specified objectives are met. These objectives include teaching, publication, receipt of grant funding and significant research contributions to the world of knowledge of that particular field of study. Commonly, these position titles begin with the level of instructor or lecturer, followed by assistant professor, associate professor and once tenure is reached, professor. At the end of the specified period of time, the individual seeking tenure is reviewed by a committee and tenure is either awarded or not. Pay during the seven years leading to the awarding of tenure is usually nominal and not much more than that of a high school teacher or community college teacher, who are not required to have doctoral degrees and not required to apply for and receive grant funding or publish research. If the individual is not awarded tenure, he is usually asked to resign from his position, explains the Bureau of Labor Statistics website.

Additional Requirements for Tenure
Some educational institutions require additional activities beyond the usual research, publication and teaching demands for obtaining tenure. Tenured professors usually have at least a master's degree in their field of study. Medical schools such as the University of North Carolina School of Medicine require tenure track professors at the medical school to complete community and state service such as volunteer medical work, as well as evaluation by patients, undergraduate and graduate students and assistants, colleagues and university administrators. The hours spent meeting these requirements can detract from time that could otherwise be spent earning income, but could lead to a higher income in later years if tenure is awarded.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average earnings per year was $108,749 for professors, $76,147 for associate professors, $63,827 for assistant professors, $45,977 for university instructors, and $52,436 for college lecturers. Based on this information, tenured professors earn more than twice as much in yearly salary than untenured professors just beginning on the tenure track. However, untenured and tenured professors can expect to earn more at privately run independent universities and less at public universities.

An interesting point brought up in The Atlantic was the risk involved with hiring a tenured professor. The article brings up the fact that hiring a professor on contract only holds the contract terms' liability, while hiring a professor on tenure holds unlimited downside, given the professor holds onto the position for their entire time as a teacher. Furthermore, hiring contracted professors provide universities with the option to downsize given a financial downturn (which is very relevant in today's educational landscape). With the higher risk involved with tenured professors, however, comes greater potential benefits. Providing tenure to a successful professor will allow the program to continue to reap the benefits of employing a valuable teacher without worrying about the professor leaving. Financially, the university will be able to reap dividends from a tenured professor if they continue to perform at a high level.

Tenure Track Employment
The proportion of tenured professors at a given university varies by field of study. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that universities are offering fewer tenured professorships as the need for flexibility of instructors increases and the university budgets decrease due to decreases in government funding. Untenured professors may have more flexibility in moving to different colleges and universities, while tenured professors are allotted more academic and professional freedom; most universities stipulate in the tenure contract that employment is thereby guaranteed for life with rare exceptions of abhorrent or scandalous behavior. Untenured professors may have difficulty maintaining employment at desirable high levels of pay, but may have less difficulty in obtaining lower ranked positions such as that of instructor or lecturer.

Meeting the requirements for tenure is not an easy or quick process. However, the professional rewards of tenure are many and include a generous salary and professional freedom not available outside of academia. Untenured professors, while earning lower salaries, have greater flexibility and work-life balance.

Elaine Hirsch is kind of a jack-of-all-interests, from education and history to medicine and video games. This makes it difficult to choose just one life path, so she is currently working as a writer for various education-related sites and writing about all these things instead.

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Friday, November 18, 2011

The last business card of the day...

You know you are having a good conference when you dig into the STACK of business cards only to find that you are down to your last card... There were so many interesting panels, ideas, products, and people, that you went through the stack without realizing it. That happens a lot at Communication conferences, but especially here at NCA ( So far, I have heard amazing talks about first-generation college students, online student identities, new technologies, teaching ideas, conflict management, and mentoring. My brain is doing that blissfully full spin that tends to happen at these events...where new ideas, new people, and new applications merge together to make a Communication Nerd like myself VERY excited about the courses and future of the discipline. Today I got to introduce my undergraduates to their first National Conference, and again find myself excited as I talked to a few undergrads considering their futures as new opportunities opened right in front of them. I was proud to see how they handled themselves, how they spoke, and how they supported one another. It was enough to reinvigorate me for the rest of the semester! (and I certainly needed that after the last hectic weeks...) I love the way a conference can re-awaken passions and boost energy levels. I love the way they can make us re-think how we are teaching. But mostly I love the ability to connect (and re-connect) with others in my discipline. I can't wait to start the post-conference follow-ups with all of the reciprocated business cards gathered after interesting talks today, cards which are now tucked carefully in my bag and full of potential. There are some interesting collaborations, projects, technologies, and discussions on the horizon!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Great Ideas for Integrating Adobe Products in Higher Education Mini-Contest!

After exploring the new Creative Suite 5.5 from Adobe, it is impossible not to see the exciting ways we can integrate the CS options into our classrooms. In fact, today marks the beginning of a the "Great Ideas for Teaching with Adobe Products" Mini-Contest here at Communication and Higher Education blog as part of an exciting collaborative partnership with the blog, "A Millennial Professor's View of Higher Education" ( 
"Great Ideas for Integrating Adobe Products in Higher Education" Mini-Contest. 

Faculty, Staff, and Students are encouraged to submit an idea! We encourage ideas focused on (but not limited to) the following:
- Classroom Ideas (Face-to-Face or Hybrid)
- Student Activities/Student Affairs
- Student Organizations
- Admissions and Recruitment
- Campus-Wide Events
- Supplemental Instruction
- Learning Communities
- Online Instruction/E-Training

Voting Period
The readers will vote on the best entries from Monday, December 5th to Friday, December 9th. The WINNER of the contest will receive a copy of the CS5.5 Master Collection!

Good luck everyone and HAPPY CREATING!

See the submission form below!

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Monday, November 14, 2011

What does your signature say about you?

There's no in-depth handwriting analysis here, just a curious post about what your e-signature says about you. Many of us take a few moments with our email accounts to set up our "options" -- including a signature automatically added to every out-going email.

But have you wondered why you put certain information in your signature? In higher education, it is important to explore the ways we communicate (and how that communication might be interpreted).

I hadn't really considered this issue of e-signatures until I ran across a faculty member from across campus who I rarely see, but often email due to committee responsibilities. This person noted last week, "I am impressed at how available you are to faculty and students--you put it all right in your email." I didn't realize how much we might glean from an email signature.

Can you tell if a person is helpful,  available, pretentious, cooperative, flexible, technologically-up-to-date, willing to work, etc.? I'm not sure that you can get all of that from a simple e-signature, but these were terms that entered the conversation last week as we discussed what people choose to put as their signature. Laughingly, the person who noted my "availability" caught up another colleague in the conversation by saying, "You can Skype her or email or Tweeter her." After gently correcting the "Tweeter" term, I noted that I do prefer to give a lot of contact options--the same options are on my business card and syllabus. What is the use of these social channels and amazing technology if no one knows you are on them?

But there are many online opinions. In fact, most say the shorter the signature the better (name and phone number only) and others note a title, name, and phone number are important. And Wagner noted, "the longer your email signature, the lower down the food chain you are." Which, we might note by my example above, makes me an easy lunch. He also claimed the most important folks didn't seem to have a signature after reviewing his personal in-box. I'm hesitant to embrace a minimalist mentality when it comes to contacting me. I do have slightly different signatures for my different email accounts, which can be a good practice for those who want to avoid over-personalizing their workplace signature (with quotes and cute sayings or clip art).

Is there such thing as "too much contact information?" I really don't think so, though my signature may be a bit lengthy, it does allow people to reach me through a variety of options and has allowed me to connect with people via IM, Skype and Twitter that seemed faster and more appropriate than email. I met people at a conference over the summer (each living more than a thousand miles away from me) and we Skyped our way into a collaborative project.

There is a challenge to these multiple channels of accessibility: managing work-life balance. When you are available and always "on" for those around you at work, it can prove challenging to separate out the personal/home time and the "working" time. In fact, I often feel that I am always working, since I am always available and responding to inquiries from students, colleagues, etc.

There are a lot of resources about what "should" and "should not" go into your e-signature:
CBS "What should your email signature look like" 
"Food Chain" and signatures, by Mitch Wagner.
Signature blocks
"What to put in your signature"

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Monday, November 7, 2011

More effective meetings

Ever feel lost in a cycle of meetings? For most of us (both junior and more senior tenure-track faculty members) are running through a huge cycle of meetings. We may spend our days rushing from one committee to another, to a department or college meeting, then to a sub-committee meeting...not to mention classes and office hours! One of my biggest pet peeves (aside from when presenters read word-for-word from a PowerPoint presentation...I am, after all, a communication professor), is the pointless meeting.

You know them well. You see them often. In such meetings, people become flustered, get off topic, take out the frustration (of a pointless or directionless meeting) on one another, and feel the little time they have in the day slowly sucked away.

My years of studying communication (thank goodness for those awesome Organizational Communication classes!) creeps in and tells me that meetings don't have to be slow, laborious, or dreaded. In fact, we can have highly effective, highly productive meetings. It isn't too difficult-- why, then, are so many meetings seen as a waste of time or unnecessary by the attendees? Try a few of these easy ideas in your area to avoid eliciting a groan every time you call a meeting (some of these ideas also work well for class preparation!).
  • Meet ONLY when you need to meet. If an item can be addressed without meeting, then take care of the item without meeting. This helps everyone avoid meeting "fatigue" and can perk up faculty members' or committee members' attitudes.
  • Have a clear agenda (which is manageable in time and scope)...then stay on task. Plan carefully! If you have a hot topic item, don't plan 5 minutes with 50 people. Think how you would like to see that item addressed, budget the time, and plan accordingly. This shows respect for everyone involved, allows voices to be heard on various issues, and helps your meeting to stay on time (and avoid the groans as you try to cram in 5 agenda items as people are streaming toward the doors).
  • For committees (especially) - have something prepared, due, or required for the meeting (make sure this is a significant contribution and not just busy work). Let the individual work happen outside of the meeting so that the collaborative time together can be maximized. 
  • Don't forget to have "action" items. What exactly is the purpose/desired outcome of the meeting? Plan that in advance, assign action items, and leave feeling productive and accomplished. Going in with a plan and a vision will make a meeting MUCH more productive! Also, those in attendance can see the purpose of the meeting and are less likely to begrudge attending.  Assign action items, or note what you (the meeting leader) will do with material generated in the meeting, so everyone knows that the project/task is moving forward and how it is moving forward. This also helps everyone maintain deadlines.
  • Set the next meeting date in advance (respect the schedules of others) or, at a minimum, set it before leaving the current meeting so everyone knows what to expect, when to complete tasks, and can clear their calendars to be present.
  • Finish a meeting by exploring what worked well and what needs to be continually addressed. This type of reflection can easily help foster improved progress, new ideas, and increased productivity. Be open to feedback and ideas from everyone (if you are leading the meeting). 
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Friday, November 4, 2011

Changing face of university housing

After recently converting to a residential campus (from our previous commuter-campus status), I have been intrigued by the role the dorms can play in both campus activities and campus identity. I was glad to explore the article, "10 Innovative Housing Trends in Higher Education" and to explore some of the broader changes happening.

I can also note, somewhat reminiscently, after seeing our relatively new dorms (apartment-style living), that the world of campus housing has changed! I wonder what (if any) potential student would settle for the communal restrooms at the end of the hall, tiny bunk beds, and clunky, heavy furniture that we enjoyed as undergrads just a few short years ago?! Oh, and the always-creepy laundry room in the basement, let us not forget that. Today's students likely don't have to worry about such issues. The wifi, four room, full kitchen living environment of  offers a very different student experience than I had.

I can remember sitting with my back against one wall of the dorm and my roommate sitting the same way across from me and our feet touched easily in the middle of the floor. Very different from the list of amenities found on our campus housing site which notes,

  • The beautifully designed units are fully furnished and offer amenities such as a computer lab, a fitness room, an activity center, on-site postal service, shuttle service, and telephones.  The units are affordable and include the cost of utilities such as telephone, cable and internet.  Financial aid is available for those students who qualify.
  • Residents may select from a single bedroom, double bedroom, or four bedroom occupancy apartments. Each unit is equipped its own laundry room complete with a washer/dryer and a living room. Additionally every unit has:
    • Standard college furniture  such as bed, dresser, desk, chair, and sofa
    • Stove
    • Refrigerator
    • Dishwasher
It is worth exploring your campus housing, see what your students are working with and even see if there are meeting spaces or areas for club activities. You may not even realize just how much today's residence halls have changed!

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Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Data Monster

Image from site
The Data Monster awoke hungry and angry. She rose out of the dark, damp Cave of Quantitative Remorse and blinked her bleary eyes. She was searching for something, if only her sleep-slowed brain could remember what it was...oh yes, breakfast! With her new goal firmly affixed in her mind, her eyes scoured the plush lands of Qualitative Research World. Where would she find something to eat at this hour? Ah, Year5--a tiny neighborhood in the TenureTrack division of Qualitative Research World. Why should she go to Year5? Because it had the easiest people to eat! They were slow, groggy, focused with a delightfully distracted air, and they sometimes wandered too close to the Cave of Quantitative Remorse. 

The Data Monster turned her massive head slowly, her eyes becoming rapidly clear as she spied one lone researcher wandering too near the Quantitative realm. Why on earth would this pathetic figure attempt to navigate Quantitative landscape? She obviously belonged in Qualitative Research World...her excursion into the Data Monster's turf was not her first, but her survival skills were lacking, her knowledge incomplete. Without a doubt, breakfast was served. Data Monster swooped in and, in one swift movement, clasped a talon-filled claw around the poor Year5, who would soon be out of her misery.

Yes, despite my training in qualitative analysis, I have several projects that have emerged with quantitative data. While I have no objection to quantitative analysis, I most frequently employ qualitative analysis and have found myself rather rusty and (gasp) unclear on the quantitative maneuvers now required of me. I feel that there is a giant road block in the way -- blocking the END of several projects. I can see the end, I even know (roughly) how to get there, I just forget how to move over the terrain. Isn't that sad? Projects stalled by my own lack of ability...and in year 5 of the tenure-track I have absolutely no time for projects to be stalled or delayed.

Situations like this (I expect and in a sick way rather hope) have happened to others. I don't want to be alone in this silly move to switch from one area of comfort and knowledge to a less known, less comfortable area. Resolving such situations can be tricky. Do I seek assistance, tutoring, lessons and read every book from my long-past classes in statistics class? (CHECK!) Do I ask someone on campus in a more quantitatively inclined field? (CHECK!) Do I sit and bemoan my situation as I feel my research progress grind to a halt? (CHECK!) These efforts to overcome my inept ability have put me on the time lines of others, left me waiting with hope and commitments only to later be turned down, disappointed, and another week or two delayed as first one person, then another, tells me they can and will help only to later change their minds. Their choices are understandable. We are all busy. It doesn't make it any easier. Navigating the quantitative (or qualitative) realm after working so long in the qualitative (or quantitative) one can challenge any researcher. It is exciting to learn new skills and explore data in a new way, but it is also difficult during the middle of a busy semester.

I have employed the options above and now feel stuck, again, waiting and hoping for some grain of knowledge to magically appear as I re-read my stats text from ten years ago -- perhaps that knowledge will come, dressed as a shiny, silver Knight brandishing a sword (suspiciously shaped like an obscure statistics symbol) ferociously bellowing his presence to save me from the clutches of the Data Monster--who is at this time holding me hostage in the Cave of Quantitative Remorse.

Of course, I know I can and will, save myself. The question is, can I do it in time?

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