Schooooool’s out… for… writing!

Alice Cooper (and the Muppets) capture an important sentiment: YESSSSSS!!!!!!!!!! The academic year can feel exhausting at the very end, and now that we’ve hit summer there’s a usual, and totally necessary, impulse to celebrate, then relax and unwind. I know I plan to do just that.

At the same time, summer is also the time when many of us count on the time away from teaching and meetings to get some of our most serious research and writing done. And that’s where we run smack dab into a familiar irony: we can often be our least productive when we have the most unstructured time. Faced both with the perennial “there’s so much… where do I start?” problem and the aforementioned impulse to chillax, we can perceive the expanse of unstructured free time ahead of us, observe, “that’s OK, I’ve got plenty of time,” and then hit the beach, the bookstore, or the Netflix binge.

…and then it’s mid-August, and the next academic year looms. Oops.

Facing this condition right now (spring grades were turned in yesterday, YESSSSSS!!!!!!!!!!), I happily came across this piece by Indiana University’s Kelly Hanson in Inside Higher Ed‘s GradHacker blog (which is a great resource you should check out, even if your grad student days are behind you).  It’s a good reminder of some concrete steps we can take to keep our writing moving forward by adding some structure and intentionality to our summer free time.


May 27, 2014 – 8:28pm

Photo of empty classroomKelly Hanson is a PhD candidate in the Department of English at Indiana University, Bloomington. She loves grad school because even though she gets older, her dissertation just stays the same age. You can follow her on Twitter at@krh121910.

Summer is upon us here in Southern Indiana, and in between barbeques and long weekend bike rides, I have some epic plans for my dissertation this summer. The trouble? The lack of semesterly structure makes me feel like I am untethered. Summer, for me, is one of the most difficult times to write. My summer productivity has been hit or miss in the past. But this summer, I am ready to get this chapter done.

During the semester, I have found the most effective way to get writing done is to create a daily schedule with scheduled and measurable goals. In the summer, this is even more important for me because when my schedule is so open I feel like I can just always write later. Creating a summer calendar to match my goals is the only way I can get writing done during the summer. We’ve written before about the transition between summer and the semester, but today, I offer some techniques for transferring your writing projects from the regimented time of the semester to the amorphous and unscheduled expanses of summer break.

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Pass this post to a friend who doesn’t read this blog.


In the wake of Memorial Day, my spring grades are in, I’ve bid some of my favorite students farewell as they collected their diploma, and I’m now happily sliding into summer. For many of us in higher education, while summer is certainly a time of rest and recharging, is it also often a time for reflection, professional development, and maybe some experimentation.

This June I’m teaching an immersive learning community and my first ever online course (I’ll blog more on that at a later date). Later this summer I will do some research writing, and prepare for a new position this fall — beginning with my fall sabbatical, I will transition into a new position as the Director of the Center for Faculty Enrichment at Augustana College.

So, a big part of my summer and fall will involve reading and thinking about faculty development opportunities: what my colleagues and I need, in what ways we can learn and grow as academic professionals… and how to encourage folks to actually come out and take advantage of the resources and ideas available. It’s a daunting and humbling prospect, I don’t mind telling you.

So when Maryellen Weimer from The Teaching Professor posted these thoughts on Faculty Focus, I appreciated the opportunity to share them — to encourage all of us to reflect on our work as teachers, scholars and campus citizens this summer, to look for opportunities for continuing development… and maybe to start a conversation.

I’m hoping to crowdsource, now: If you could have any sort of faculty development program during the next academic year, what would you like? Any especially desirable topics? Formats? Special events or programs? Please share in the comments at the end of this post… I need all the help I can get.

Making the Most of Professional Development Days

By Maryellen Weimer, PhD

I am on my way to speak at another professional development day at a college. I do these events with misgivings—frequently persuading myself on the way home that I really shouldn’t be doing them.

Some time ago, a colleague and I reviewed the literature on interventions to improve instruction. If I were to do that paper again, I would pay special attention to those changes that improved student learning. The research we looked at then did not give workshops very high marks. If teachers changed, they did so right after the event, but soon reverted to their old ways of doing things.

A lot of workshops (mine included) have a kind of revival service feel to them. The faculty who are there care deeply about teaching; those who need to be revived don’t usually show up. So, the audience isn’t all that difficult to convert. If you’ve got an idea they think might be good, especially if it addresses a problem that concerns them, they write it down or key it in, often nodding with gusto and then following up with questions on the details. Give them five or six concrete ideas and they become true believers, whole new teachers who leave the session determined to lead new and better lives in the classroom. But it’s the staying power of workshop experiences that give me pause.

Even so, I’m still doing professional development days and here’s what I tell myself about why I should.

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“Check your privilege” applies to professors, too

I located this image as I was surfing for blog elements — as I always do, to provide a humorous and ingratiating hook for the stuff I’m sharing. I was looking for a meme that connects with the content in the piece I’m reblogging below. This one seemed great: it references the now-familiar “cool professor” persona described by Washington State University at Pullman critical/cultural scholar David Leonard.

But after I downloaded it, the meme struck me as relevant in another way as well — it blithely appropriates the identity of a prominent African American rapper and music industry mogul. It does so ironically: the professor is not only white, but presumably much older than the typical hip hop fan, and he’s on a skateboard, a signifier of skater culture not generally associated with Jay-Z’s music. The point seems to be that this guy is doubly cool, in that he is able to seamlessly appropriate divergent threads of pop culture as part of a larger, admirable character. This prof is privileged indeed.

I found Leonard’s post in Vitae provocative and helpful. Unless I am explicitly discussing matters of race, gender, class or culture, I rarely consider my privileged status in the classroom. But this kind of self-reflexivity is important, not just for the benefit of our students but also for the careers of our talented colleagues who do not benefit from the existential privilege of a straight, white male identity. As our current moment finds calls to “check your privilege” as a source of intense cultural debate, this piece is worth your time.


My Life in the Classroom, Where Race Always Matters


May 20, 2014

When you walk into a classroom, what’s your demeanor? Are you approachable, even casual? Or do you favor authority and formality?

Ever since Katrina Gulliver, a professor at University of New South Wales, lamented a “culture of familiarity” in the lecture hall, I’ve been reading professors’ reflections on these questions. Reflections from professors like Will Miller, who pushed back against Gulliver: “I have been known to occasionally teach in clothes that I could mow the lawn in,” he wrote, “and apparently a student or two have at some point said I was cool. That’s not my goal, however.”

I’m a casual dresser, too, but that’s not what struck me about Miller’s essay. What stood out was this line: I may be a white male, but this has nothing to do with why I am comfortable in a classroom.

There’s a lot to digest here. But let me start with this: I am a white male, and that has everything to do with why I am comfortable in a classroom, why I am respected, and how I’m read by students and others. That is my story, and the story of my career within academe.

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How should your students study? Not by re-reading!

For those of you already past final exams for the year, kudos!  For others of us on the home stretch, we have a few remaining opportunities to counsel our students on how best to study for exams (thereby potentially inoculating against crappy final exam outcomes we have to grade???).

boymeetsworldfreakoutLet’s face it — many of our students really don’t know how to study effectively, because they’ve never really been taught. And, sadly, they often take the path of least resistance, thinking that learning happens when it’s easy. While we have an opportunity, let’s give them some helpful tips, shall we?

Maryellen Weimer of The Teaching Professor Blog wrote the following for Faculty Focus (have you subscribed to their free pedagogical advice updates yet? you should!). Might be common sense to some of us, but it will be news to — and potentially welcome advice for — our students stressing out over the home stretch.


Is Rereading the Material a Good Study Strategy?

By:  in Teaching Professor Blog

Lots of good writing on the science of learning is coming out now and it’s needed. For too long we have known too little about learning—I won’t digress into the reasons why. We need to take advantage of this opportunity to learn more about this science.

Here’s a case in point. Most students (about 80% according to survey data) “study” textbooks and other assigned reading materials by rereading them. Yes, I know. It’s a huge struggle to get some students to do any reading. We have addressed that problem here previously and you’ll find another good way to get students reading in the June/July issue of The Teaching Professor newsletter. But for this post, let’s consider those students who’ve done the reading and are now “studying” it to prepare for an exam. Most students do that by simply rereading the material.

“Rereading has three strikes against it. It is time consuming. It doesn’t result in durable memory. And it often involves a kind of unwitting self-deception, as growing familiarity with the text comes to feel like mastery of the material.” (p. 10) I was a bit taken back when I first read that. But part of the argument made sense immediately. I remembered all those earnest students who’d done poorly on an exam and were upset because they’d spent so much time studying. They’d open their texts and the extensive (often glowing) highlighting bore witness to the fact they had read and reread the material. But their exam scores told another story: they did not understand what they’d read.

I also recalled that when I asked students how they planned to study, most announced that they’d “go over” their notes.” I glibly suggested that “getting into” notes might be a more productive approach. Students want studying to be easy. As one writer noted, they think they’re doing the reading if their eyes touch the words in their books or notes, repeatedly touching eyes and words, means they’re really studying hard.

Cognitive scientists say that rereading isn’t a particularly good study strategy if it doesn’t involve retrieval, what they call the testing effect. “We’ve long known that the act of retrieving knowledge from memory has the effect of making that knowledge easier to call up again in the future.” (p. 28) Scores of studies document that if students read material and then take a test on it, they recall way more on the second test than students who prepare by simply rereading the material.

So, instead of rereading the material, students need to be testing themselves on it. Can you imagine the enthusiasm that would greet that recommendation? I wish those writing about the testing effect would come up with a different name. For students, tests are high-stakes, high-stress assessments, and the last thing they want is more of them. But the kind of retrieval that enhances long-term memory and understanding involves asking questions and coming up with answers. Think flashcards with a question that must be answered before checking the back of the card. Yes, answers to flashcards can be memorized and yet still not understood. But testing for understanding can come with more questions: And why is this answer important? What does it relate to? How does this answer connect with what I already know? Can I elaborate this answer? Can I illustrate it with an example?

You can see why a touch-and-go reread is the preferred option for students. Interrogating the text to test for understanding is hard work. It takes effort and persistence. “We’re easily seduced into believing that learning is better when it’s easier, but the research shows the opposite: when the mind has to work, learning sticks better. The greater the effort to retrieve learning, provided that you succeed, the more that learning is strengthened by retrieval.” (p. 43)

I expect disavowing students of the rereading strategy will not be easy. But do most students study effectively? If they don’t, we need to start asking questions and suggesting alternatives.

Reference: Here’s another new, well written book on the science of learning—great for summer reading. It makes the case against rereading in chapters one and two.

Brown, P. C., Roediger III, H. L., and McDaniel, M. A. Making it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014.

© Magna Publications. All Rights Reserved.

Giving a Damn When it Counts

Two weeks from now I will once again don my academic regalia (which, for some reason, is almost always donned in the humid heat of late August and late May) and prepare to celebrate my students who will graduate from college. Some will actively avoid me. Some will have forgotten about me. Some will embrace and thank me. Some will keep in touch, while others I will bid farewell for the last time.

Of course, some of them I will be glad to see go. Some (sadly, more than I would prefer) I will have forgotten. And some I will remember fondly and miss genuinely. Inevitably there will be some with whom I will miss an opportunity to congratulate and say goodbye… which bothers me for a bit. But I remember that the day is not about me — it is about them, and what they have accomplished (or will, after those elusive few make-up credits). My experiences with them are certainly varied. Some were an intellectual and emotional joy to work with over the months and years. Others I recall for that one ten-week term they tried my patience and raised my ire. Still, what they have accomplished is worthy of celebration, and at these times I mourn as well the kids who, for whatever reason, weren’t able to successfully get this far.

One of the valuable things about being in this job for a while is the unique opportunity to observe something of the lives of our students over time. Rationally, we realize that our students are complex human beings with often unpredictable, messy lives. Still, there is much about their lives we are not privy to observing, and these sometimes crucial moments of anxiety or struggle can be easy to forget. Such a moment finds me today, as I prepare to grade a stack of students work, some of which will make me smile, and some of which will make me grimace and swear.

Sam Bell of Johnson County Community College wrote a piece for a recent Chronicle of Higher Education blog that provides a helpful reality check as some of us push through the final days and weeks of grading student work from our limited frame of reference as our students’ classroom teacher. It is important for us to be mindful of the human lives that define them apart from our role in it, and to be capable of the compassion and concern for their learning that brought us to this profession in the first place.


Why Professors Should Give a Damn

The spring semester is coming to a close. That means students are trying to pull up their grades, professors are finishing projects and committee work, and almost everyone is running low on patience. On social media, I’ve seen an uptick in professors’ complaints about their students. Recently, I read a thread on a social-media site that minimized a student’s struggles because she had asked for an extension on a deadline. Faculty members castigated her and welcomed her to “the real world.” One suggested how to avoid dealing with her. Are we serious? If we don’t understand students’ real-world dilemmas, what are we doing teaching?

[more reality check after the break!]

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Who doesn’t love free books?

At the end of the academic year, we all get overwhelmed with grading final exams and papers, scrambling to finish projects, and trying to make plans for the summer. Once the hullabaloo is finished, who doesn’t like to stretch out on the porch or the beach on a sunny day and read something you actually want to read?

While the purpose of this blog isn’t unsolicited advertising, you know I love free. And this is a great offer.

During the month of May, Routledge is offering “free to view” monograph research books via their Routledge Library Channel. I’ve got my eye on a book about the origins of visual American icons –looks neat!

Here are the subject areas they’re offering — check it out, and read something interesting after your final grades are turned in!

Don’t check out yet; check in… with yourself.

I know, it’s close to the end, you’re ready for the beach. I get it.  This late in the academic year, with finals looming (or, for some of you, finals completed! you people can shut up now), it’s easy to check out and get some well-deserved rest.

But my colleague David Gooblar at Augustana College, blogger for Pedagogy Unbound (featured in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Vitae career website) suggests that the investment of just a little time at the conclusion of a course can reap serious benefits for your formative assessment and self-improvement as a teacher (as well as for more effective learning outcomes for your future students). This kind of self-reflection is also handy to form a basis for an eventual self-reflection report that may be part of a faculty review in your future.

Following his short piece below are reflection prompts from the self-evaluation form he references.

Best of luck to all of us at the end!


The Semester’s Just About Over! Now Grade Your Own Teaching. 

It’s been a long semester. We’ve all worked hard, tried out new things, adapted on the fly, managed to keep our heads above an ocean of work while still being present for our students. We’ve made it through the mid-semester doldrums. Depending on how much grading we’ve got left, we’re now within sight of the end. If you’re anything like me, to say that you’re looking forward to the end is an understatement. Does anyone else visualize entering that last grade, closing your folder of class notes, and then throwing that folder into the sea?

Today I’d like to suggest that you not be so quick to move on from this term, no matter how desperately you long for a summer away from teaching.

I learn a lot every semester: Trying out ideas in the crucible of the classroom is really the only way to improve as a teacher. I always feel better about my pedagogy at the end of the term than I do at the beginning. Curiously, though, these gains don’t always carry over from semester to semester. By the time that next semester rolls around—particularly if it’s the fall term—the lessons I’ve learned have been mostly forgotten. Did that new approach to a familiar text produce the results I’d hoped for? How did that new topic go over with the students? Was the multi-part assignment too much of a headache, or was it worth it? A few months later, it can all get kind of hazy.

Of course, some of you may have better recall than I do. But I think it’s valuable to take note of the semester’s gains and losses while they are still fresh in our minds. I’m suggesting giving yourself a course evaluation at the end of every term.

[details after the jump!]

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