A blogging dilemma

I’m using this blog to reflect on my experiences as I begin to develop and refine my faculty identity. Role identity development is an intriguing topic, one worthy of its own series of blog posts. For now, I’ll stay focused on my blogging dilemma.

This week we received student evaluations from the classes we taught in Fall. The dilemma is: how much do I share about my reaction to those evaluations? Well, I decided to forge ahead and be honest about my reaction, response, and reflection on the comments.

All the feedback is so very helpful as I refine the courses especially since I’ll teach this class again next Fall. This makes it easy to review their suggestions & ideas, note those I’ve already incorporated, and make decisions about other comments. In Fall 2011 I taught two sections of the same course with about the same number of students in each section (11 in the Stockton section, 12 in the Hanford section). Students’ grades on projects were about the same throughout; course grades were also about the same with about the same distribution (i.e., number of A’s, number of B’s, number of C’s). Their evaluations are roughly similar on most items with most students agreeing/strongly agreeing with the positively worded items, though for the first time I had a student “strongly disagree” with an item. Though our eyes (and minds) often go to the negative response, I tried to stay focused on the entire picture. What is striking about the student feedback is the difference in the qualitative feedback. Students in one group were generally positive in the comments, most indicating that the course was well organized, assignments were clear, environment was conducive to learning, etc. The other group, however, was decidedly less positive in their comments. The group was split with about half of the comments mirroring the comments of the first group and about half the group quite unhappy about the assignments. Several students mentioned they felt assignments were not clear, were often confusing, and that efforts to clarify assignments often led to more confusion.

One student noted that points on assignments should reflect the amount of effort required for the assignment. I completely agree with this observation and had actually made a note of that for next semester even before I received the evaluations. So, it’s helpful to see that my perceptions of things that could be improved match at least one student’s observation.

The comments about the assignments, though, left me confused and vexed. Yes, vexed. Like any other contradictory data, it was hard to make sense of this. Some students thought assignments were clear, others didn’t (in total about a 66/33 split among all evaluations). Of those who felt assignments were confusing, some suggested that I provide examples of model assignments, that I use a rubric, that I use a template, etc. I started thinking about why I don’t do these things. I do provide guidelines for assignments but don’t typically provide “model answers” — why is this? In talking with other colleagues they indicated that they had also received similar feedback from students and, like me, don’t typically provide rubrics or model assignments. This led to some interesting conversations among us about the nature of doctoral studies and that due to varieties in research questions, topics, and methods, there is no model answer for most assignments. We also agreed that we resist providing models not due to a lack of good examples, but because we don’t want students to imitate others’ work. Instead, we want them to be original in their work.

The middle ground here may be that I can provide examples of work others have done with caveats. I could explain that this is what this student did, this is how the student organized it, and here’s how I assessed it. The caveat being that this is not necessarily what your work will look like. My sense is that students are nervous about “getting it right” and if they see an example from someone who got it right, they’ll have a better idea of what “right” looks like. The teaching dilemma is that we want students to risk being wrong. We don’t want students to take the safe path and just copy from others who have gone before. We want them to carve out their own path, create their own learning. And, with that, comes discomfort. The desire to remain comfortable tempts one to mimic what others have done, while being uncomfortable means finding our own voice.

While my colleagues and I share this approach to teaching we also agreed that we need to work on making this more evident to students. We want to lay this out for students the first night of class. One colleague described how she has integrated these expectations and values into her first-class conversation with students and also into her syllabus. For me, I also want to acknowledge students’ efforts when they do take an unexpected path, when they risk being wrong & end up surprising themselves by how things turned out. I also want to share with students that doctoral studies require curiosity, a tolerance for ambiguity, and a willingness to discover their own model answers. As teachers we can equip them with the tools and support they need to take the necessary risks.

In a class last summer I used the Iditarod race as a metaphor to illustrate to students that they were about to embark on a journey they’ve never been on before. When I asked them how they would prepare if they were joining the Iditarod for the first time they said they would need to study the route; they would need good support systems; they would need good equipment; they would need resilience, stamina, and a sense of wonder. They also said they would need to take some risks, be willing to fail, and be willing to get back up and keep on going. While the students in that summer class were about to embark on their dissertation journey, the metaphor holds up quite nicely for describing the doctoral journey. There’s a beginning, middle, and end with checkpoints along the way. Sometimes we think we’ll never make it, other days just seem to fly by. And we do it all with roadmaps, guides, and partners but with the understanding that each journey will be a little bit different…and that while there’s a common route, there’s no one right way to navigate that route.

Starting Week 3

The semester is off to a good start. I’m teaching two sections of the same course and both sections are quite different … The Wednesday class has 17 students, 5 of whom are master’s level rather than doctoral level students. The Saturday class is actually a “hybrid” class that combines in-person/face-to-face learning with on-line learning. Nine students are enrolled in that class — all are doctoral level students. The Wednesday group is intriguing in that the students in the class mirror today’s workforce in many ways: they span a variety of age groups (Gen Y (perhaps even a couple on the cusp of Gen Z), Gen X, and possibly even a Boomer or two — or perhaps that just wishful thinking so I don’t feel so old!). consequently, the students have a variety of work experiences & perspectives on the workplace. I like that we combine the idealism of young professionals with the perspective of mid-career professionals. We’re getting to know it each other. I used an activity to create introductions called the “Where I’m From” poem. It’s an interesting way to write about oneself and helps us share more than a standard introduction might. When one of the students mentioned a connection to Manzanar, not everyone may have understood the significance of this. We have a lot to teach one another across experiences & generations. During a later discussion when another student mentioned that she didn’t see male privilege (or lack of female privilege) evident in the workplace, others had an opportunity to share their perspectives. What I appreciated was that the conversation was respectful, even if the perspectives were different.

In the Saturday class (a group that I would guess is mostly Gen X) we’ve been having our conversation about privilege on-line. Although this dramatically changes the nature of the conversation, those who are contributing are really thinking about the concepts of privilege, structural systems that maintain privilege, and how when we benefit from privilege we’re often blind to it. I have enjoyed reading students’ posts as we begin our work on this topic.

Next week we’ll be talking about generations in the workplace and I’m interested in talking about the parallels between the workplace and the microcosm of our classes. It should be quite intriguing as we look at the realities of the 21st century workplace (or as I called in on Wednesday, “Why won’t those Boomers retire so the Gen Xers can get promoted?”).

Last semester I spent time working on my class syllabi to make sure that I kept any revisions to a minimum. This effort was the result of previous student evaluations where students described their appreciation of a flexible syllabus but concern that too much flexibility often led to confusion. I’m continuing to pay attention to this in the current semester and am also working on another issue students have mentioned in evaluations … again, something that has been perceived as positive, yet frustrating. What students have observed (and I concur) is that I may a lot of time on an issue in an effort to be sure everyone “gets it” before we move on. Sometimes this leads to spending too much time on one topic at the expense of other topics. I noticed that last Saturday when I met with the class in Hanford that I did that … again … sigh … But in reflecting on it and talking about it with Bill, I could see a pattern emerge. By seeing the pattern retrospectively, I began to get a sense of how to better manage these conversations in the future. One step will be to move forward in the class session with a commitment to return to the issue at the end of class to address lingering questions. This will allow me to cover other material that we’ve planned for and also allow students some time to reflect on the issue. We can then do a check in at the end of class (“check for understanding”) and I can also offer to spend time one-on-one with students for additional conversation. One reason that I hesitated to move off the topic last weekend was that it was about our  logistics for the on-line sessions. Given that it was crucial that everyone understand the requirements I was reluctant to move on. I felt like we did end up doing some good “check for understanding” activities, but I also left the class discouraged that we didn’t get to other material I had planned. Having some tools in place to better manage conversations will benefit the entire class and lead us to robust discussions. I’ll be vigilant and will watch for this pattern (because I know it will come up again) and look forward to writing about how I respond.

PS. I’m glad Wikipedia is back — sure is handy when writing a blog!

Countdown to Spring 2012

I have been having a lot of fun putting together my classes for Spring 2012 — two sections of the same course, Seminar on Personnel Issues. As I considered the many ways I could teach this class, I decided to organize it as a professional development type of experience for students. We’ll use two textbooks, Privilege, Power, and Difference by Allan G. Johnson and Getting to Yes by Roger Fisher, William Ury, and Bruce Patton. In addition to the books, students will read articles (some that I select, some that they select), compose blogs, and engage with different e-learning tools (such as Sakai, wikis, and maybe even some social media). The general topics will include privilege, power, and difference; building community in the workplace; collaboration; selecting and hiring new employees; retaining employees; unlawful discrimination in the workplace; collective bargaining; and resolving difficult issues.

The last time I taught this course (Spring 2010), I used a textbook about human resources and found the book focused on the administrative aspects of personnel. I prefer to focus on the more personal aspects of personnel. Most people in the classes won’t be HR administrators, but they will be supervising people; recruiting, interviewing, and hiring new employees; and working to develop positive work environments. So I want the course to focus on their individual interests and allow them to use the time to explore aspects of “personnel issues” that intrigue (or mystify) them. While I’ll direct most of the content, I also want to encourage individual exploration and reflection. Consequently the classes will be much more practiced-based rather than theoretical. I hope their blogs will give them the opportunity to reflect on key issues relevant to their professional work, allow them to identify their strengths, and areas they might want to develop.

I look forward to creating the space for people to think about their philosophy of supervision as opposed to broader organizational leadership … and I hope to be able to incorporate a chapter I recently wrote about doing just that! In addition, my goal is to create conversations that challenge our collective thinking about personnel issues, including the policies and procedures, the ways we interact with one another, how we bring people into our organizations, and the ways we help them be their best.

This sounds like a lot to pack into 15 weeks, doesn’t it?

What I’m Learning as I Learn to Crochet

Here’s another list … yes, right after the last one, but I wanted to publish this then move on to writing about Spring 2012 classes … During this semester break I thought it might be fun to learn something new. Something, in fact, that I had attempted a couple of years ago then freaked out when it seemed too complex. But this year I was determined to give it more of a try and asked my sister-in-law for help learning to crochet. She patiently taught me two initial stitches: a chain stitch (the basis for most projects) and the double stitch. She carefully explained that fingers need to go here, go there, and go another place until I was sure I was running out of fingers. I finally managed to put together some rows over the course of the afternoon. Here’s the result:

Not pretty, no, but it did provide good lessons about learning … Lessons I share here (in no particular order other than this is how they popped into my head):

1. Don’t hold on too tight.

2. Balance tension with flexibility.

3. Perfection is over-rated.

4. Focus

5. It’s okay to un-do your work … and it’s also okay to just let it be as it is.

6. Give yourself enough yarn to keep moving forward.

7. Allow the first project to fail and love it all the more.

8. Sometimes things don’t turn out quite as we had anticipated/planned/expected/envisioned.

9. If you’re not relaxed, you’re probably working too hard.

10. One stitch at a time suddenly turns into several rows.

11. When you’re really good at something, it can be hard to explain to others how to do it … but a good teacher tries nonetheless.

Since that first day, I’ve come back and added to my project. A little at a time, un-doing a row or two when necessary and just simply moving on. I had no expectations about the outcome or my proficieny and have found, to my surprise, that my fingers are figuring out what to do, I’m loosening my grip on the crochet hook, and I’m actually getting the hang of this.

January 25 … adding #12 to the list

12. Sometimes you’ve worked a long time on something and someone else comes along, gets all playful with it, and creates a little mayhem.

He even managed to un-do a few rows. He was having a grand time with all the yarn.