Listen to Ringo! Turn to your friends.

One of the truly irritating things about a career in academia is that it is invariably performed by human beings. Well, perhaps nearly  invariably — we all know that certain bionic colleague who seems to be able to do it all effortlessly, leaving the rest of us breathless and in awe.

No, that’s bunk — even the Six Million Dollar Faculty experience the same occasional crisis moments and more common feelings of fatigue, overwhelm, and panic. The job demands much, sometimes too much, and we’re just regular people with limits and limitations. And these moments of — what? inevitable humanity? — happen at every stage of the academic career, and never at an opportune moment. Usually at the worst moments, right? The days after midterms and finals with a stack of work to assess and students expecting grades. The looming deadline for a manuscript submission. The weeks of preparing for a tenure or promotion review. And then there’s the all-too-mundane yet all-too-human inevitabilities: illness, family concerns, conflicting obligations… you know, life stuff.

Where can we turn for the answer? Of course, you reply: Ringo Starr, and his friends.

Sometimes, the answer to the most complex personal problems can be as simple (and yet as profound) as the simplest pop song lyrics:

What do I do when my love is away
Does it worry you to be alone?
How do I feel by the end of the day
Are you sad because you’re on your own?

No, I get by with a little help from my friends…

Of course, in academia, this approach assumes that the friends are there — that you’ve taken the time and effort to cultivate collegial connections with the folks in your department and elsewhere. When you’re a new faculty member, of course, this requires reaching out for help making these connections: to department chairs, a faculty mentor, other senior faculty, more-senior junior faculty, the faculty development staff at your institution.

Even with the groundwork laid by a network of familiar and dependable colleagues, though, it still takes a certain strength to admit the need to reach out. The life of an academic can feel like a solitary one so much of the time; it can seem presumptuous, even inappropriate, to ask someone to cover your classes, shoulder some of your work, or even just take time from their own frenetic schedule to listen to you vent. But Nate Kreuter from Western Carolina University reminds us in Inside Higher Ed that we need to give ourselves permission to channel our inner Ringo, and seek the help we need.

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October 1, 2014

Sometimes we are overwhelmed. The forces of life converge, place us in a bind, and restrict our ability to do our jobs. We’ve all watched it happen to a friend or colleague. Perhaps many of us have experienced it for ourselves. In these moments, our work life can become secondary, and probably should become secondary in many cases.

We need, during these moments, to ask for help.

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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.

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My Life in the Classroom, Where Race Always Matters

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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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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.

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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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Are we helping introvert students succeed?

I’ve always been an introvert. It’s not that I don’t like having friends, or having fun socially — it’s simply that I often tend to find more comfort in turning inward, and find situations requiring some social risk uncomfortable. I hate schmoozing (because I’m terrible at it), and I get nervous meeting new people. However, when it came to school, these tendencies were mitigated by a contrary force: a Type A personality when it came to learning, academic success, and involvement in activities that interested and stimulated me. Hence, high school debate and choir, college theatre and radio… and a career in higher education that involves teaching and high-profile service with faculty colleagues.

I bet many of us have similar stories. Academia tends to attract introverts — which can make our parties particularly fascinating. But it usually attracts introverts who are predisposed to putting ourselves out there in ways that help us achieve our primary loves: the pursuit and sharing of knowledge in a community of learning.

Introversion shouldn’t be confused with shyness, though the two may correspond.  And many are arguing recently (most prominent among them Susan Cain in her Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking) that introverts possess important dispositions and capacities that can be formulas for success that extroverts might emulate. In any event, it is important for those of us in higher education to remember that not all young introverts share our contrary impulse to pursue our personal self-interests through engaged involvement in school.

My colleague Mark Salisbury, Director of Institutional Research and Assessment at Augustana College (and blogger at Delicious Ambiguity, which you should follow — he communicates institutional higher ed research with a clarity and accessibility this humanistic teacher can appreciate!), recently had a blog piece picked up in Inside Higher EdMark discusses some research on the relationship between comfort with social interaction and active student engagement with faculty, student organizations, and a sense of belonging on campus. Has the move toward encouraging active learning i higher education put these students at a disadvantage? Check out Mark’s thoughts below. You might also want to check out suggestions from George Brown College’s Nicki Monahan for helping introverts in your active learning classroom.

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May 1, 2014

Over the past couple of decades, researchers have uncovered all sorts of ways in which certain types of students experience college differently.  Racial and ethnic minority, international, LGBTQ, first-generation, lower SES, and even politically conservative students encounter marginalizing experiences that can undercut the quality of their education.

Interestingly, researchers examining systemic differences in the ways that students experience college have spent most of their energy parsing differences between students’ demographic traits.  By contrast, far fewer studies have explored whether certain personality traits might disadvantage specific groups of students, or from the perspective of improving the quality of a college experience, if the way that a college experience is constructed advantages certain personality traits.  As a small residential liberal arts college that prides itself on the quality of its student-faculty and student-staff interactions, my institution has a vested interest in such questions.

Over the past several years, we have built a series of student surveys that allow us to track and link data from students over the course of their college career. During the freshman year, we give a pre-college survey that asks students about dispositions that might affect their initial success, a midyear survey that asks freshmen about their academic and social acclimation, and an end-of-the-year survey that focuses on first-year learning and growth.

Two items in the midyear freshman survey address key aspects of academic and social acclimation.  One question asks, “How many of your professors did you talk to outside of class about how to best succeed in their course?” The other question asks students if they have “begun participating in at least one student organization” that interests them. National research and our own data have shown that both of these behaviors are important for our students’ success.

[Find out what Mark found out after the jump!]

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Political speech, our students, and the interwebs: Potential nightmare?

All of us have opinions. Many of those opinions are political. A fair number of those opinions clash with those of our students, not to mention numerous people within and outside of our institutions. And nearly all of us use e-communication to connect with our students as part of the daily course of business. Are these converging fronts that can threaten a perfect storm?

Striking a balance between academic freedom and the need to challenge our students with uncomfortable ideas is already tough enough to balance with our obligation to students to provide a welcoming and safe learning environment — as well as our obligation to serve our employers rather than throw them under the bus. When we are reminded that e-mail and social media — indeed, even in-class communication that can be recorded — is potentially available to a global audience despite our claims of privacy rights, it is a chilling storm front indeed.

So, I offer today’s gloom and doom: a story in today’s online Chronicle by Peter Schmidt that offers serious food for thought, an opportunity for debate (PLEASE! replies and dialogue welcome below!), and some implicit suggestions for how we might strike a better (though by no means foolproof) balance.

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One Email, Much Outrage

How a seemingly simple message 
to students brought digital-age disaster for a Wisconsin professor

By Peter Schmidt

Rachel Slocum’s problems began with an email she sent at the end of long day.

It was Tuesday, October 1, and the federal government had partially shut down as a result of a budget impasse. The U.S. Census Bureau and Education Department websites were out of commission, leaving the students in her introductory geography class without access to data for an assignment.

“Hi everyone,” she wrote to the 18 students in the online course. “Some of the data gathering assignment will be impossible to complete until the Republican/Tea Party controlled House of Representatives agrees to fund the government.”

She urged her students to do whatever work they could. The rest, she wrote, “will have to wait until Congress decides we actually need a government.”

At 10:23 p.m., she hit send.

Without knowing it, she had just put herself on a political battle’s front lines.

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