Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Getting hands-on

There are times in this faculty life where the students simply inspire you to get out of bed and face another day. This usually happens after we stumble to our coffee cups, mentally start ticking through the tasks of the week/day, and realize we are overwhelmed. The crushing sense of panic begins: the research deadlines have been screaming at you, there may be un-analyzed data collecting dust, emails from students must be answered, there are meetings that require your participation, collaborative projects insist on your time. In short, faculty-life creeps like a fog over all of your life, becoming part of your thoughts, and your focus is never fully shifted elsewhere...

Until those amazing students come snap you out of it with their energy, ideas, and dedication.

I take strength from my students' presence. I know they are worth every effort and yesterday they buoyed me up as I face those (insane) September deadlines. As the faculty advisor for a student club, I am constantly rewarded by students and their desire to work. Yesterday the officers of our club met and I was reminded, again, how important it is to give students true trust and work---they can handle it! They are clamoring for hands-on activities and willing to push their learning beyond the campus.

As faculty, we should not only encourage this, but also facilitate it! It doesn't take much time to help students find a forum for all of that energy. It might be a regional or national research project, or a simple undergraduate research day (see previous blogs, "renewed by student research" and "undergrad research during fiscal cuts" ), or you can go further and embrace a community event or competition. We host a lot of community outreach activities and the students learn about their majors, their communities, and themselves with hands-on efforts. Whether it is a spoken word poetry event in town, a 5k charity walk or competing for the College Television Awards, I push my students to go beyond the college classroom.

One competition that I am encouraging all of my students to explore is the Adobe Imagination Challenge. This is a student-friendly contest with several deadlines (the first opened last week and continues through 9/3 while others are:9/4-9/17, 9/18-10/1, and 10/2-10/15.

What do they have to do? Simple! They embrace their creative side and use the Adobe Creative Suite 5.5 Student and Teacher Edition to craft a project which Adobe says should "take our breath away." What incentive do your students have? There are 5 chances to win $10,000 and 36 chances to win $550. Let your students, regardless of their discipline, take time to work hands-on in this great challenge. Plus they can vote, visit the galleries, and get inspired by other students. What a great way to expand the walls of your classroom while fostering hands-on experience for students!

Are your students missing out on Adobe products? Then try out the free 30-day trial on Priemier Pro, Photoshop, Firewroks, and Illustrator or encourage your students to take advantage of the awesome student discount.

Let's see what they can create when given Adobe's CS5.5 tools and a little faculty encouragement.

Good luck!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The first week: revisited

There's something wonderful about the first days of class. The students are energized, the environment seems exciting, and faculty are engaging. Wouldn't it be nice if we could bottle it all up and store it for those other times in the semester (midterms, finals) when the energy level starts to drain?! I've had two beautiful days in the first week of this new term, and I can already tell my students are going to make it a great semester. Isn't it comforting to see the students bring ALL of themselves to the class? To see students go beyond "checking in" to a class and push to really be involved and a part of the class...it is magical.

But facing that group of desks can sometimes be a challenge. Over the years, I have found a few easy steps help to foster that exciting energy in the classroom during the first week of class. These are easy, no-cost ways to start the semester off with a bit of zest and a little zing:
  • Be prepared. Have all of your materials in order before the first day. Students can easily find the items (online or on campus) and see that you have a detailed plan for the semester.
  • Spice it up a bit. The first week can be tedious for students as they wander from class to class hearing lists of requirements read verbatim from the syllabus. Add examples, dynamic questions, or sample situations that help students visualize what you want from them while providing information. Consider student activities where they move around, meet one another, and begin with the course content. Activity idea: The first day of class I collect the common note card full of student contact information. I add to it the prompt: "List one unique factor about yourself" -- then I take that information and make a sort of BINGO sheet using the unique factors as squares. Students on the second day of class go around trying to find the person who matches the factor...and try to find enough in a row to make a BINGO. I have pens/pencils/mini-staplers/sticky notes that I buy at super discounted prices as a prize option to keep it interesting.
  • Variety. The first day should involve a little burst of what students will see from YOU this term. So, engage them accordingly. Activity idea: I do this by showing my energy for the topic, providing a brief narrative, and then turning it around to the students so THEY tell ME what they will get out of the class. It is a great way to foster student buy-in and allow them to think through the needs of the course. I divide students by major, then have them work out why EACH major would benefit from the class. Basically, I say "Social Work majors...why are YOU all here today?" and they craft a response that already has them thinking about the benefits of my course, meeting others in their major, and committing to public speaking. They also see that I value their voice and I believe in a co-constructed learning environment.
  • Put yourself in their shoes. What will a student need to know the first week? What could they struggle with? What might be a comfort to them? What might they need to challenge them? Think through these questions as you craft your plan for the first week of instruction. Activity idea; Be the student: In my introductory public speaking course, I always share my example of nerves and shyness where, as a student, I threw up in front of a public speaking class because I was so anxious. This helps us all understand the path we are on and it breaks the ice. Share your student stories (or just reflect on them) to help remember the first week from the students' perspective.
  • Make it enjoyable. You can make class interesting and fun without losing any of the content. Show the students the first day that you are in the front of the classroom because you ENJOY what you do. This can go a long way for both YOU and the STUDENT to see the semester ahead as a journey. It doesn't have to be an easy journey, the challenging parts help us all learn, but you can make it an enjoyable journey. Seek student feedback often so you can improve this element of your teaching. Incorporate current events, popular culture, campus issues, and what you know about the students (even if you ONLY know they are all sophomores) into your approach to tailor the information and improve the relevance of your dialogue.
  • Model what you want the students to do. Be on time, be organized, be accurate. They will respect this and you can note you expect the same from them.  So often we've 'done all of this before' and don't realize that we can sound mechanical, rote, or even (gasp!) boring on the first day. Try to zest it up by planning ahead with the steps above or share your ideas for more ways to help students see the way your class will unfold during the semester.
These are few simple approaches that can open your classroom up for students and allow them to see the possibility of your course during those important first days of the semester.

Good luck and best wishes for a GREAT term ahead!

I had a few emails about the class bingo idea. Here's what the bingo sheet looks like (used this week for a class). I hand it out and then the students wander around meeting one another and initialing the box that matches their "unique fact" -- it is fun as I award 3-5 "bingo prizes" so there is a fun sense of urgency and competition and it only takes a few moments! Let me know if you give it a try and how you found it to work. Thanks for all of the interest!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

New semester perks: A few sites to explore

One way to build up energy for a new semester is to try something new. Whether inside the classroom or not, this little technique of simply trying something new can add a spark of excitement to the pre-semester preparations. Here are a few sites and ideas that might help you perk up with new possibilities:

In-class options:
1. Wordle. I love this tool for my classes and even club activities on campus. Create a word cloud to help students explore word choice, meaning, power of words, appropriateness to audience, or to just have fun analyzing different texts. More frequently used words are made larger, bolder, and less frequently used words are minimized -- pictorially interesting, my students love doing this. Here's a wordle created using the words from the Communication & Higher Education blog:
Wordle: Higher Ed and Communication

2. Bubbl.us allows you to detail how mind mapping can work. This is great for classes requiring students to brainstorm and constructively organize any topic for a larger project. It is fairly intuitive to use and students can learn about coordinating and subordinating ideas easily. Here is a sample:

3. Using audio or video feedback for students. I prefer Audacity for my audio comments. It is intuitive to use and free. Simply use a microphone (built in to most laptops or buy an external mic) and record messages for your students. I love doing this for my online course announcements periodically throughout the semester and it always gets rave reviews in the end-of-semester evaluations. (Read my earlier discussion of Audacity). This works for student projects, wikis, etc. too. They love incorporating their own voices.

4. Usher in the Social Media. Not a surprise for those who regularly read this blog, the use of Social Media in class activities can really help engage students. Use a class wiki (our LMS, BlackBoard has a tool built right in for this, but you can also use WikiSpaces or other free options). Send them on a Twitter-hunt or have students analyze media messages from different companies/organizations/celebrities/politicians or explore "trending" topics for discussion in class. Engage their understanding of characters by developing mock Facebook or LinkedIn pages, use Skype to meet up with guest speakers or for online students, have submissions of assignments shared via YouTube or set up and use a  Vimeo group. Have students craft and share a Diigo site housing information on a project. Use GoogleSites to help students craft portfolio pages. Enhance group or individual presentations with Prezi. Consider options for easy communication tools so students find you accessible and your work-load is easy to manage (I use Yahoo IM as a virtual option for office hours). Here's the best part: Most of these are FREE.

What next? Here's the process I use. Look at your assignments--really look at them. Can they be updated or enhanced by adding something new? (Remember, don't just add it to add it...make sure any addition is purposeful and enhances the pedagogy). My activity for "topic analysis" in the basic public speaking course may include a link to Bubbl.us, my assignment on "ethos" will involve a Twitter exploration of students' favorite musicians, actors, politicians and examples of how that person may create and lose ethos with a diverse audience by analyzing Tweets, my study session will have an option to IM or Tweet any questions, my exploration of persuasive fallacies will have video examples from movies and politicians, my class wiki project will require us of audio and video components. Ask others for input (and ask your students!) if you get stuck in a rut with activities.

General options to perk up your energy (outside of the classroom):
1. Google help: Explore cleaning up email and planning for its effective use, YouTube, and general daily use of Google-related items in this article.

2. Scan and save documents on an external hard drive (keep in a secure location) and then shred/toss old files. This is a great tip for those feeling overwhelmed by papers, or piles of files.

3. Organize it! I use a daily task list and calendar that helps me to prioritize my tasks and work through big projects. Lately, this means I check in with large projects regularly and update the tasks to stay on time. This keeps me from feeling overwhelmed. I create a project chart (in excel) to help me each semester. Here is my grid from this past Spring semester:
My "semester grid" that focuses my work and goals

After a semester ends (and periodically throughout the semester), I work on the next term's grid of activities to constantly keep forward motion and see balance of research/teaching/grants so I know what I need to emphasize in future terms.  This also helps me to realize which projects I tend to push on the "back burner" and which ones rise to the front. I notice I plan better each semester and each semester I learn something about myself. My calendar and task list are drawn from this grid so large projects (should) get tackled on time. This doesn't always work (as you can see, our SACS visit and QEP requirements (I served on several committees related to these endeavors that involved extensive meetings and time), derailed a few projects in Spring. Those items were moved to Summer and/or Fall and the process begins again.

Hopefully, your semester is an exciting one. If you are feeling the energy depleting, though, consider a few tools and techniques to help both in and out of the classroom.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Bright eyed, bushy tailed

Last year, I wrote about the excitement I have for the first week of a new semester (see Fall Frenzy from August 2010). Year after year, I leave a hectic summer of teaching with no energy. I often find myself reviewing the Fall publication/research/grant/course preparation items (neatly located on an excel spreadsheet chronologically organized, of course) with an inner groan. "I only had two weeks--and they were spent doing XYZ item!" I internally bemoan my inability to "get ahead" before another term begins. I feel under-prepared to start and wonder if I can "get it all together" in time.

But then, equally regular in its yearly ritual, a glorious thing happens every semester...none of those feelings matter! They simply fade away as I see the first students in line at registration, meet former students milling about on campus, and watch as campus comes alive. My grandmother would say I was "bright eyed and bushy tailed" again. You know what I mean, that revitalization, that renewed energy, that sparkle in your eye and zest in your step that cannot be held down. It is a beautiful surge of emotion and it can serve as the driving fuel for my semester. Just like those bright eyed, bushy tailed squirrels running around, I become increasingly active. I pop my head in on colleagues, check up on policies and issues on campus, scamper around turning in paperwork and picking up items, shake a zillion hands and, my favorite, answer questions for first-time students wandering around campus. I begin my pre-semester rituals. I solicit advice on new activities for tough class topics. I find myself imagining the dynamics of each new class ("I wonder if such-and-such class will be like last semester? Will there be a class prankster? A challenging student? A 'lingering student' (see previous post Lingering Student)? Will we easily develop that classroom camaraderie?"). 

The new semester is an exciting time. And, no matter how often we experience it from the faculty standpoint we should remember the newness of it for our students. Despite the wearying summer term, the veritable mountain of tasks, and the stress of another academic semester beginning (with a new text book leading to massive class revisions...), it will be hard to keep the spring out of this squirrel's...oops! I mean...girl's step!

Best wishes for a productive and successful Fall 2011 semester!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Faculty life follow-up

After posting about the benefits of self-reflection and the struggles of balancing faculty life (see previous entry #FacultyLife below), I wanted to link readers to the recent Wall Street Journal article on the challenges of academic careers. Additionally, we can extend the discussion of "balance" by exploring university resources, such as Virginia Tech's page to promote "Faculty work/life balance" with links to guide faculty through resources.

It is important to note that many people and many professions struggle with work/life balance. The issues of work/life balance isn't limited to academia, it isn't limited to only tenure track, it isn't limited to those with children, and it isn't limited to just women. It is an issue for everyone in our society. Much of the literature I explore is, of course, rooted in academia. It also deals with women along the tenure track as I am personally invested in this topic and it shares my research interests considering communication and higher education culture. But there are many resources out there--and I encourage everyone to avail themselves of the resources offered by your organization and those similar to your organizations.

So many of us struggle with this issue. If you're undertaking personal reflection on work/life and that precarious (unattainable?) balancing act, you may want to consider these additional resources:

  • Baker, B. (2011). Having a life in science. BioScience, 61(6), 429-433.
  • Beauregard, T. A., & Henry, L. C. (2008). Managing the link between work-life balance practices and organizational performance. Human Resource Management Review, 19(1), 9-22.
  • Caproni, P. J. (2004). Work/life balance: You can't get there from here. Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 40(2), 208-218.
  • Gappa, J. M., & Austin, A. E. (2010). Rethinking academic traditions for twenty-first century faculty. AAUP Journal of Academic Freedom, 1, 1-20.
  • Gappa, J. M., Austin, A. E., & Trice, A. G. (2007). Rethinking Faculty Work: Higher Education’s Strategic Imperative. San Francisco: John Wiley and Sons.
  • Lang, J. M. (2005). Life on the tenure-track: Lessons from the first year. Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins' University Press.
  • Lang, J. M. (n.d.). Surviving the fourth dimension. Retrieved August 10, 2011 from Successful Academic site http://www.successfulacademic.com/articles/James_Lang_Collegiality.htm

Monday, August 8, 2011


I spent a glorious week away from academic work. [Well, not technically "away" as most of us know the work seems to somehow seep into our lives and brains no matter where we are, particularly in these pre-tenure years.] This past week I spent most of my time hanging out with my 7-year old nephew and realized two things: 1) I am getting too old to sleep in forts made from sofa cushions and sheets, and (slightly more relevant) 2) I am beginning to find a better balance with this faculty life thing.

Sofa cushion fort (and nephew)
How do I know the balance is improving? I am less frantic, better able to shuffle tasks to  maximize productivity, and I don't panic quite as much as before. I attribute these improvements to self-reflection.

As long-time readers know, we've had many discussions in this blog centering on the pre-tenure precariousness that can drain energies and bubble over into home life. I have spent my time as a pre-tenure faculty member seeking a balance (side notes: does this balance exist? is it it a self-created dichotomy between work/faculty life?). In part, this blog began to better explore concerns about balance and the surrounding feelings/issues that creep into faculty life. Because of this blog, I have learned a lot about myself through self-reflection and reader emails/comments. Perhaps the biggest reflective nugget: I am an educator first. This is no surprise, but upon reflection this knowledge informed the ways in which I work. As I see myself as an educator first (and researcher second), I tend to work on my teaching/courses with first priority. Then, I feel comfortable to move on to my research/grants. Knowing this self-perception helps me to plan for my workload and manage my tasks during busy times of the semester (for example, I don't schedule/accept research deadlines during the students' biggest speech of the semester as I know student meetings/emails/etc. will come first and the deadline will go unmet or I'll have extra stress to meet that deadline).

I am continually seeking new avenues to manage faculty life (and the stress that sometimes goes along with it) as I embark on my (hopefully) last "pre-tenure year" before going up for tenure review in August 2012. I thought it would be helpful to begin exploring more about this balance as I move into this last (we hope!), and all-important, year of my pre-tenure life. Today I tweeted, "Juggling publication deadlines and a new edition of this text (which means a revamping of my entire course. No vacation here! #facultylife" I think I will begin to put a few more thoughts on Twitter to aid self-reflection (and shamelessly solicit others' advice, experiences, and coping mechanisms) this year using the tag:  #facultylife. Are you on Twitter? Consider joining in and by adding your thoughts using #facultylife in your tweets. I think it could be a fun way to hear what others think about the sometimes roller-coaster-like journey that can make up this faculty life.

You can follow me on Twitter: @lhelviemason.

Image for #facultylife created by Lora Helvie-Mason using Picnik.com. Picture of sofa-cushion fort courtesy of Lora Helvie-Mason (and her nephew's fort-building skills).