Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Finding energy

There are many times in academia where we can find ourselves slowly overwhelmed and overrun by our seemingly endless to-do lists. At times, we need to reclaim our lost energy. One of the best resources for reclaiming lost energy comes from our students. Watching a spark of an idea transform to a completed project throughout a semester always gets me re-energized. Seeing students' progress as a term draws to a close allows me to leap the hurdle of fatigue to sprint to the finish of another semester. Are you looking for your lost energy -- especially if you have spent the past eight weeks teaching a frantic summer? Try a few of these ideas and share your own!

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  • Look for the rewards. As noted often in this blog, higher education is full of delayed gratification. Seek out rewards - if you are in an especially satisfied mood, examine the day, reflect, see what led to that mood. Then seek out those circumstances. For example, a chat with a colleague may help you emotionally arm yourself for a tough week. You might not realize it unless you reflect back on the day/week. Schedule a chat as often as you can and protect that time in your day planner.
  • Borrow emotional victories. Use the success of those around you. This is how I discovered my students' successes makes me feel really energized. When they were excited, I allowed myself to see experiences through their eyes and "borrow" their excitement, energy, and eagerness. Additionally, when a new colleague got a grant, I absorbed the excitement that the funding would mean for our department and allowed myself to wallow in and benefit from her success by thinking of all of the great opportunities our students and faculty would get from the funding.  
  • Write for FUN. Wait, we used to LIKE writing? Yes! Many academics, once upon a time, loved to write. It is only when faced with extreme deadlines and little time that we find the task becomes more onerous. Try to write something that is just for you or that is silly. For me, the journal is an endless resource. I also like to write letters and share with my family. This type of writing is a nice release and grounds me for other, more academic tasks. 
  • Read for FUN. Similar to our writing, too often our reading becomes so centralized around our research that we groan at the thought of reading at the end of the day. My rule is basic, no work-based reading before bed. Instead, I can read much loved biographies, science fiction, and mysteries that I adore. I protect that rule after years of falling asleep over my laptop in bed. Those moments right before sleep are now mine and if I only read two pages before drifting off then at least they were pages that did not lead me to tally up my to-do lists or projects right before dreaming. My sleep is more restful when I adhere to this easy policy.
  • Take a time out. Sometimes you need distance from a project or activity that is causing burnout/stress. Table it for a little while. Work on something completely unrelated, if possible, then dive back in. 
What re-energizes you? Is it a good science fiction novel? A day away from campus? The really bad poetry that you try to write in the margins of your journal? Time with family? A road trip with friends? A quiet afternoon in the garden? A walk at the park or a trip to the museum? Share what works!

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Monday, July 9, 2012

Class discussion: research and references

After just concluding a massive week of student research, speeches, and papers, I spend time with students reviewing their choice of references. We discuss what they used, what worked, what didn't and why. I want students to understand why they select a reference, to consider what purpose it serves, to analyze source credibility, and to consider the fit for the source with their research. I find our digital age can sometimes lead to less-than-careful consumers of knowledge.

Treading the digital domains for research can be somewhat tricky for students and professors alike. Some of us have to bridge a generational or technological gap to even communicate with one another about our sources.

I had some recent success the past few years by embracing a discussion with my students to help us all communicate our expectations before (and often instead of) noting something is "off limits" for their research. Instead of outright banning a type of reference (i.e. no Internet sources or no Wikipedia), we dialogue about research together. We reach the conclusion (again, together) that a variety of references from a variety of source types creates the strongest argument. I show the institutional library page, we do Google and Wikipedia searches, we dissect sources, we really engage with issues of accuracy, objectivity, and authority. While we explore all of this, we discuss and analyze. Different classes come to different conclusions about wikis and blogs, but the (often lively) discussions allow students to consider and explore digital references in a way that is open without simply banning some source with an off-handed comment. I found students did not know why professors banned certain sources or types of references. Many of our students today have only and always found sources on the Internet. We might need to reach out and explore together a variety of considerations with online sources while introducing and exploring a variety of research avenues with our students.

The class time it takes to do this is certainly repaid in the quality of research received in the projects the students submit.

When you introduce that big project or the term research paper, consider a few simple tactics. Ask your students what they use, why, and begin a discussion while introducing concepts about research, credibility, and audience. Open the door to discuss by avoiding an initial ban. Of course, you can always ban a single type of source at the end of the discussion if you so desire, but at least the students will understand why you are doing it and have other options and better research skills because of the discussion.

You might be surprised by what can happen when you listen to the students when exploring research, I know I have been.


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