Thoughts on Teaching – The Bane of Summer Productivity – 8/3/2016

The summer is almost over.  I am a little over halfway through my summer classes, and I feel like I have not done even a quarter of the things that I had planned to do.  This is common for everyone that I see who has a long break like this.  We all have big plans and then get so little of those things done.  I think it’s the dilemma of high expectations.  We expect so much of ourselves in a break, but we fail to take into account the reality of how much time just normal day-to-day stuff takes.

I was asked by a friend how my summer was going, and all I could say is that it was busy.  Just taking this week as an example, I have two boys doing summer band each day from 7:30-4, I have another daughter in an all week summer camp, the other daughter is in summer Montessori three days a week and has yoga one night of the week, and I’m teaching this week and going away to a conference in San Antonio this weekend.  And that’s just one week.  I feel like I have just been running around making sure I get done what needs to get done, while also getting my work done and getting the necessary relaxation for the summer as well.

And that’s where the summer has gone. I had grand plans.  Now, with what time is left, my main goal is to finish out my summer classes and be prepared for starting the fall semester. If I had set that as my goal from the beginning, I would have been very happy, as that would have been a very reasonable and achievable goal.  As it stands now, I am frustrated at how little I have gotten done.  Maybe we should all just not be so hard on ourselves and set more realistic goals and expectations.  If I can just start back in with the fall semester being ready for everything and being reasonably relaxed and clear of mind, that should be enough.

I’m going to keep telling myself that it is enough.  Can you repeat that mantra with me?  Reasonable expectations are good enough!

Thoughts on Teaching – Summer School – 7/14/2016

I have started up my summer session as of yesterday.  Summers are low impact overall, with 50 students in two online sections for the next 5 1/2 weeks here, and the first two days here have largely matched the low-key aspect so far.

As I think about it, I see a lot of value to the summer session for both professors and students.

For students at the community college level, a full load of classes can be quite challenging, as they tend to have at least one job, take care of family members, and have many commitments outside of school that traditional, four-year students do not have.  As well, many are coming in with academic deficiencies that need remediation and many struggle financially to pay for college, books, housing, and transportation.  Many students taking 12 to 15 hours in a long semester struggle with these problems, and yet their reliance on financial aid makes ties them to a full-time schedule.  As well, many students really do not have an idea of what it means to be a full-time college student, as opposed to a high school student, and this shows in their struggles, especially in the fall semester.  In the summer, students can take a maximum of two classes in a summer session, and most just take one.  This allows them to concentrate in on one course and do the best they can in it.  I will say that my grade distribution, the quality of work, and the number of students successfully completing the course are much higher in the summer than in a long semester.  I find students to be generally more focused and able to work around other commitments better with the lower pressure from fewer classes.

From the professor side, as well, the smaller number of classes and students (as an example, in a long semester, I generally teach six sections and have around 200 students) can be a nice break and time for recovery.  The long semesters can wear down even the most dedicated instructors, whereas the summers allow for a more relaxed teaching and grading pace.  Because I have required office hours in the summer (10 hours on campus per week in the summer), I am almost forced to get things done in a way that can easily be left behind in more unstructured summer time.  I plan on preparing my fall semester and reworking some of the material while also catching up on my own professional development reading that I never seem to have time for otherwise.  I can feel productive without feeling overwhelmed, which is something that is hard to achieve otherwise.

What do you think?  Are you or have you ever taken a summer course?  Do you teach in the summer if you are in the profession?

Thoughts on Life – Summer Balance -6/22/2016

I have been trying to ease back into working toward material to do with work as the summer continues to move on.  I have an 8-week break this summer, as I am not teaching again until the second summer session.  What that means is that I have a number of weeks to take off completely, which is largely what I have been doing to this point, but now it is starting to be time to think about academic work again.

I can’t say I have done a whole lot to this point, but I have made a few starts.  For one, I completed a textbook chapter review yesterday, which was something on my agenda for the early part of the summer.  I have also participated in a few activities with McGraw-Hill as part of my role as a Digital Faculty Consultant with them.  And, in the past week or so, I have been trying to catch up on some of the blogs and e-newsletters that I read, as well as dabbling with some of the academic podcasts I listen to.  Shortly, I will start working on my summer class, although I still have about a 3-week window before starting.  I am not planning any major changes from last summer, so it will really just be a case of changing up the dates and making sure everything is in there.  There are a few changes that I made last semester, including adding screencast videos for the online class, so those will need to be created for the summer session.  Otherwise, summer prep is not too bad.

One interesting discovery I have made is the Student Caring project (studentcaring.com).  I was turned onto the project from either a Chronicle of Higher Education or Inside Higher Ed blog about podcasts that we should be listening to.  I came to this site through the podcast, and I will certainly make it part of what I am going to be looking at in the near future as I get back into thinking about my own job.  The project is designed to help professors with all of the issues that we face in an environment that is aimed at helping us teach better, live better, and think better.  I have only dabbled in it so far, although I have probably listened to about 15 of their podcast episodes so far.  The general professor part of the site has both curated and guest posts on issues related to teaching in higher education.  The podcasts (which are what I have accessed so far), are aimed at talking through issues on teaching in higher education.  I have thoroughly enjoyed them so far and would recommend them to anyone teaching at a college or university.  I am currently in the middle of the series titled, “What Your Students Probably Don’t Know,” which has been interesting and already given me a couple of ideas for my own classes, especially in formulating syllabi and course outlines for our students.  I accessed the podcasts through iTunes, but I am sure they are available in multiple places.

Otherwise, I am just starting to do some thinking on my classes for the fall.  I already do a hybrid American history class, and I am thinking of moving it to be even more thematic in approach so that the ideas hold together even better than I think they already do right now.  I am teaching both halves of the American history survey this fall, and I am thinking of reworking the second half one.  I already have a general set of themes, but not everything fits in with those themes right now.  I am considering using a race/ethnicity/immigration theme, as over 1/3 of what I already have works with that theme, and I would have two writing assignments already ready to go to aim at that theme.  It would help me feel more focused in what I am doing in the class and make it more apparent for the students how everything fits together.  So, that is what I am thinking about.

Anyway, I just wanted to hop in here for a few minutes and update.  I’ll be back for more later.

Thoughts on Life – Work-Life Balance – 6/14/2016

So, hello again.  Yes.  I know.  I have not been on here in a while.  In fact, if you look back at the posting history on this blog, I have not been posting regularly since the fall of 2014.  Here it is, the summer of 2016.  So, what happened?

Life.

We had our fourth kid in the fall of 2012, and by the time I stopped posting regularly, she was up and running around the house.  In fact, if I look back at my extracurricular work (blogging, Coursera courses, and the like), a lot of it stopped around that time.  I was able to keep going through the first couple of years until she was very mobile and demanding on time.  I can’t say it was a conscious decision, but it was something that my wife and I had conversations about.  We discussed the constant pressure that I felt to be on all the time in my job.  With a teaching load that is at least half online, there is pressure to be doing work 24/7, and, to a certain extent, I was.  However, since that point, I have tried to incorporate more family time and more free time into what I do, so that I am not constantly expected to be working.  I am not saying I was constantly working, but I was always work-aware, checking email, looking at my courses, and trying to fill my free time with relevant activities.  That all changed around the spring of 2015, when I changed how I balance my work and my life to be biased more toward life.  And, this blogging has been one of the things that has dropped off.

Another decision that affected the blogging came straight from this decision.  I had always had Sunday evening online office hours, even though few students ever attended them.  I took two hours out of every Sunday and sat in front of the computer in my office on a video-conferencing program to be available to my students.  That was an ideal time to also sit down and write a blog entry, as I had to be in front of the computer doing work for that time.  Of course, since almost no students ever came on, I had the time for blogging as well.  After the fall of 2014, I dropped these hours because they were so poorly attended and because they were more of an inconvenience that a help to my own work-life balance.  While occasionally productive, it brought work home even more directly than I do now, and it was something that became harder and harder as the toddler got more mobile.  Dropping those hours is not something I regret, and it has again moved me more toward the life side of the work-life balance, but it has had an impact as well.

In looking back on it, I have mixed feelings about the change.  I miss blogging regularly, and I feel more disconnected from my work at times.  It also has made my actual work time more stressful, as there is more pressure to get things done in the time I am working.  As well, when work does poke into life, as it did in the last semester because of a committee I was chairing, it is that much more stressful as well.  However, the overall effect has been good.  I do spend more time with my family than before, I think, and I am not as tied into work as I used to be while at home.  As well, I have been reading more than I used to, especially of fiction, which I love.  I have been using Goodreads to keep track of the books that I read, and during the last school year (September-May), I read 39 books.  I consider that a success as well.

Lately, however, I have been feeling the need to get back into pushing myself more academically.  I need to find a balance, and I have not yet figured out how to hit that balance.  I do not necessarily think that I have leaned too far toward life at this point, but I do think that I have not committed myself to as much of the extracurricular work activity that I should be doing, such as keeping up this blog.  I would like to take more continuing education-type courses.  I would like to read more in my field (yes, of those 39 books, not a single one was a history book).  I would like to work on course redesign, lecture rewriting, and new teaching methods.  And, I want to do all of this without disrupting the balance too much.  So, we shall see how it goes.

I guess you will see this result directly.  If I am regularly posting on here, then you can see that I am working more outside of just teaching.  So, keep me honest and let me know when I fall behind.  Also, do you have any thoughts on this?

Thoughts on Education – “The Advancement Problem” – July 13, 2015

I have been far behind in my reading on educational issues for a while.  In fact, when I started this second summer session, I went and deleted almost 4 months of emails about articles from The Chronicle and Inside Higher Ed.  I always plan to read over what has been said in those articles, but they go into a specific email folder, and, when I don’t have time, those emails become the lowest priority.  And, of course, once I fall behind, it is hard to get up the energy to go back and review them for things I might want to read.  I am always amazed at people like my wife who have 8-10,000 unread emails in their inbox, but I can see how, once you get a certain level behind, it is almost too much to catch up.

The other thing I am behind on is my whole “Thoughts on Education” series, where I talk about issues in education.  So, I am also restarting that here, with the hope of doing these types of posts more often as well.

The article that got me thinking again was posted last month in Inside Higher Ed.  It came from the blog series Confessions of a Community College Dean, and it was called “The Advancement Problem.”  In the post he highlights an issue that has been bugging me for a while, what happens after you have hit most major academic milestones.  I have looked forward in my own career, and I am not sure what it will bring.  This coming year will be my tenth year teaching at my current community college.  I have been here through a two presidents so far, and have moved from being one of the young ones to being a veteran in the department, as most of those older than me have either retired or are on the verge of retiring.  When I arrived in 2006, I was the youngest in my department by almost 30 years.  Now, I am in the middle of the pack in age and one of the longest in tenure.  Of course, at my community college, there is no actual tenure, as we are all on renewable, one-year contracts.  Yet, after the first couple of years, we all essentially have tenure, as few people are ever dismissed where I am, outside of program closings and far outlying academic performances.

We do have titles, but they are largely meaningless and completely ignored by the college and administration.  There was a push for titles, but it is run by faculty and has no recognition officially and comes with no compensation.  They are largely so that we do not have to just call ourselves Instructors on our business cards.  I am an Assistant Professor, although I might be an Associate by now.  There is so little need for the titles, that I have not even calculated to see if I might be able to move up.  I know others care deeply about these titles, but they provide little incentive for me.  The largest things you can do to go up in rank is to gain an additional degree or stay an additional year, as most other things count very little.  I have no desire to get an additional degree, so I am basically going to move up when I have stayed here long enough.

And, that is the issue that the article got me thinking about.  My future in teaching is to stay teaching at my community college, teach for several more decades, and then retire.  I might become department chair one day, if I haven’t burned too many bridges by then, but I am really not sure what else there is.  And, since I am teaching at a community college, that means that, for the next several decades, I keep teaching the same thing – the two halves of the American history survey.  Over and over.  If I stay thirty more years, I will be about 70, having worked here for forty years.  I will make more money than I do now, although we do not have step pay.  We are dependent on raises being passed in the budget years, but, as long as those raises keep coming, I will make more money each year.  And, I will continue to teach the same classes.

Unlike other disciplines here, we cannot really make classes outside of the American history survey.  We teach one section each of the two halves of western civilization, but I am only qualified to teach the second one, so I will never get to participate in that survey line.  We have tried to offer state history, but that has not ever made here.  And, the other history classes that are open to us to teach are all electives that would have a very small audience at best.  Then, to take someone out of a survey class that will fill and put them in an elective history class that might or might not make is not really a viable option anyway.  So, my best option is to try teaching the surveys in different ways.  I have taught them as traditional lecture courses, online, and hybrid formats.  To keep my interest in teaching the same things over and over, I will keep changing, adapting, and updating what I do.  But I sometimes wonder if that will be enough.

I have even already been chosen for the two biggest awards that a faculty member can receive at my community college, leaving even recognition out of things unless I wait another decade or so to see if it happens again.  This is what I see as the “Advancement Problem.”  Do I want the biggest thing to be said about me when I do retire that I taught the same classes at the same institution for decades on end?  Certainly, many people do, and they are celebrated when they retire.  And, the truth is, it is a good job, with good pay, good benefits, and good hours.  I have a steady job that I am not likely to be fired from, which is more than many people can say.  But what I worry about is burnout.  I have felt that off and on for the past couple of years, and involvement in nasty office politics has left me hesitant to pursue one of the routes that is available to do something different — moving into administration in some form, even if it is just as a department chair.  However, that does appear to be the only “different” thing to do.

What I don’t have are any solutions.  I have recently joined professional organizations and would love to go to conferences and be more active in professional life.  But I have both a large family that is hard to leave and a college that cuts our travel budgets every year.  So, that is, unfortunately, largely out of the question unless the conferences are close.  I try to read and keep up with changes and developments, and I hope that will be enough.

Any ideas out there for other things to look at in approaching this problem?

Thoughts on Teaching – Summer School – 7/9/2015

And so the summer session begins.  I am teaching the second of our two summer sessions, which means that I just finished up roughly 8 weeks off before starting teaching again.  I have never done that before, as I usually teach the first summer session, which means 3 weeks off, teach for 5 weeks, and then 5 weeks off.  I can’t say I got any more or less done in having the 8 weeks off together, but I will see how I feel at the end of this summer session on how that change affects me.

I have 44 total students in two online sections this summer.  We are on day 2 of the session, and 10 of those students have not yet logged into the classroom.  Of the 34 who have, things seem to be going well so far.  I have fielded some questions, and I have found one minor mistake in the material that I had prepared.  Otherwise, I would say that it has been a smooth start so far.  About 20-25 students have been at least somewhat active, starting to complete some assignments and interacting with the introductory materials.

The summer is always strange, as I pointed out to the students directly in one of my initial announcement posts.  As opposed to a traditional, long semester, the students have just 5 weeks to complete all of the material.  And, if you consider when I have to schedule exams (the school and Testing Center are only open Monday-Thursday over the summer), things get even more rushed.  The first half of the course will take a little less than two weeks, which is normally the first seven weeks of a long semester.  As I pointed out to the students, this means that each two days, they are covering a week’s worth of material.  I would have let it go a bit longer, but with the school schedule, I have the first exam running a Wednesday and Thursday, leaving only 13 days to cover the first half of the course before the exam opens.  Then, they will have about 2 1/2 weeks for the second half of the class, because I had to schedule my exams around the college’s schedule.  I understand the need to have shorter work weeks in the summer and the less need for long hours with a much smaller student presence in summer classes, but 4 days a week is limiting when compared to 6 days a week in the long semester.

I have made some suggestions to the students on how to complete the material in time.  I have the class set up with two major deadlines, one at the end of each unit.  I know that the temptation for the students will be to put it all off until the end of each unit, but I have warned them that there is more material to complete than can be done in a day or two.  My suggestion is that they take the class with the goal to complete each “week’s” worth of material from the long semesters every two days.  If they do that, they will be on a path to complete the course material with no problem.  I cannot, of course, force them to do this, but it is my suggestion.  Of course, I could actually force them to do it, by putting in intermediate deadlines, but I like the flexibility that the current format allows students to have.  The summers are always complicated, and I want to make this a process that works well for all of the students regardless of vacation and work schedules.

We shall see how the summer session progresses, but it has been a good start so far.

Thoughts at a Conference – Texas Distance Learning Association, Day 4 – 4/10/2015

The last day of the Texas Distance Learning Association conference today.  There are two morning sessions and then the closing lunch/meeting.

Getting the Band Together for Ongoing Course Development

Presenters – Beth Dolliver, Nirisha Garimella, and Francis Choy – Instructional Designers – Collin College

Looking at the major members that are necessary for course development – teachers, students, and technology

Course Design and Student Anxiety –

What is anxiety in an online course?  How can instructors tell if a student is anxious?  Are there strategies to share with students?

How to tell if students are anxious – ask a large number of questions; they seem to quit participating; they quit submitting assignments.

Purposeful Design –

Design toward the student learning outcomes – are you aimed at the goals you are trying to reach?  If you are trying to teach critical thinking, then multiple choice is not what you should be using.  You really have to decide that if you are going to emphasize critical thinking, you have to actually do it.  You can’t just pretend that something you were using before actually promotes critical thinking.  You need to think about real course design in terms of learning outcomes.  That is always one of the frustrating things I see, when we say we are going to test something or emphasize something and people change almost nothing and say they were already doing it.

Again, that fundamental issue came up – we don’t have instructional designers, which makes a lot of this difficult to deal with, as I have to do whatever I do on my own.

Getting student feedback –

One thing I could use is surveys (esp. SurveyMonkey to get anonymous responses) – get immediate responses and ability to change problems on the fly.

Some people use anonymous discussion forums in the course itself – so students can raise issues without putting their names out there.  We can see the names, and the students need to know that.  So, I don’t know about using this, but it is an interesting idea.  Of course, I don’t know if Moodle does this anyway.

Appy Hour: Share Your Favorite Educational Apps

Presenter – Anne Herndon – Fort Worth Museum of Science and History

  1. Scholly – database app to help students search for scholarships that separate by parameters and then give a list of scholarships to apply to.
  2. Wonderlist – creates lists of what you need to do and check them off as you do them.
  3. CloudConvert – will take pics of documents  or items and send it as different formats to people – allow students to turn in assignments without needing to have the apps.
  4. AudioBoo – for creating podcasts – 10 minutes free

And that’s the end of the conference.  Lunch and final meeting is next.  Thanks for reading.