Beginnings

Each year we welcome new faculty to campus. Some are beginning the tenure process, some are visiting (including postdocs, adjuncts and folks on sabbatical) while others are making a mid-career transition. Hopefully when you arrive, orientation helps you understand the culture of the place. The topics tell you what is important to the institution. Hopefully you can start to get a sense of what is expected of you by many different constituencies – the administration, the faculty, your department (and chair), the staff, your students (both in courses and those whose research you supervise) and your advisees.   Orientation also can help you understand what kind of support you can expect from these same people.

So what do you do if your institution does not have support structures in place that you think you might find helpful? Most institutions have someone designated to mentor faculty development.   It could be a vice-provost, dean, associate dean or head of a teaching and learning center. It might make sense to check in with this person and ask what is possible. Would you like a mentor outside your department? Would you like to set up weekly lunches with a group of junior faculty? Would you like to have a writing group that helps keep each other on task and productive?

Here are a couple of suggestions to start the teaching year, especially for those on the job market or tenure-track: (1) set up some peer observations and (2) make plans for formative assessment.

At most institutions, your research productivity will impact your degree of success. But in many institutions your teaching record is just as important (or more so).   Teaching evaluations are funny things. We often administer them at the end of the semester when students are weary and don’t yet know how that final exam went. They can’t know whether what we taught them will stick, or how it might be of value to them in the future.   Therefore it can be helpful to gather other kinds of information about how your teaching is going.

Formative assessment of teaching and learning (which happens during the semester) can be incredibly valuable. Your students can give you feedback while there is some time to make use of it, through homework questions, journals, exit tickets at the end of class or a group conversation. You might want to give a pretest/posttest so that students can see how much they have learned. You can ask students whether they want you to make changes midway through the course that you might be inclined to make anyway. If the students like the idea of a change, you have an opportunity to provide evidence of your responsiveness to feedback. You can also show students distributions of responses (say about pace) so that each student can see if their perspective lies in the middle of the pack or if their response is an outlier. If there is little consensus, seeing the data can build students’ empathy with you about the difficulty of pleasing everyone. Just be sure not to ask for preferences unless you are prepared to make some changes.

Whether or not your institution has a peer observation program in place, it can be very helpful to have other people observe your teaching. You might want to pick someone from inside your department as well as someone from another field to visit your class a couple of times. Junior faculty can set up these visits with each other, but it can also be important for more senior people to observe so that when it is time for people to write letters they have something to discuss.

I don’t know how you feel about it, but despite the fact that I have won teaching awards, I am still regularly mortified when people watch me teach, or I see myself on video. Nevertheless, I learn a tremendous amount every time I am willing to subject myself to this particular form of trauma. It has been particularly helpful to take the observer out to lunch off campus, where we can have a frank discussion. I feel lucky that early on, when I was sitting in on a beloved senior professor’s class, that professor asked me to have lunch and share observations.   It helped me recognize the culture of peer observation in my institution at all stages of our profession.

Here are some suggestions to make observations work for you.   First, think ahead of time about what you might want to focus on as you teach. If you give the visitor specific things to look for, it can help focus their attention on matters that you really care about. It also gives you a little control (and the ability to prepare). For example, maybe you want them to note how much your students interact with you and with each other, and who is doing the talking. If you call on people, are you doing it in a gender-balanced way? Who “holds the pen” and who dominates conversation during group work at the board?

Setting up your plans for formative assessment and peer observation early in the semester/quarter is a good idea, because the time will fly.

Finally, if you are new (and maybe if you are not), cut yourself some slack. You are getting used to your job and the many levels of expectations. When students know you are new, they might challenge you a bit. And in a small school you might be seen as “not the professor I expected.”   Building rapport with your students, making your expectations clear, showing your responsiveness to reasonable student requests, and sharing your excitement and energy will go a long way to carry you over the “new faculty” hump.

What support structures at your institution helped you when you were new? What support do you wish you had that might not yet be in place? Peer observation can be challenging if your observer is not supportive. What insights or challenges have arisen from peer observation? Have you experimented with formative assessment? Anyone up for giving these ideas a try?

10 Ways that Academia Has Made Me a Better Athlete

I’m an academic with a serious time (and money)-consuming hobby – I like to run and bike and swim. I like to obsess about workout schedules and how fast I can bike 25 miles and how that changes depending on hills, road surface, and how my legs – and lungs – feel today. I like to do races, and this summer I have been training for a triathlon*, which means I’ve had a lot of time to think while running and biking and swimming, and what I keep coming back to is this: Academia has made me a better endurance athlete**.

There is a lot written about life lessons from running; and what-I-learned-about-X-from-sports. But my experience is the opposite – I’m not a natural athlete***, I have medical issues I need to constantly deal with in order to work out consistently, and I didn’t train for anything athletic until I was a postdoc. instead of learning about life from running, many of the lessons and strategies that have made me a better, tougher scientist are things that apply equally well to endurance events.

We don’t often think about the skills we learn in academia as applicable to much else (although it does and we should emphasize these transferable skills more), so here is a top 10 list of how academia made me a better athlete. Continue reading

Welcome to Tenure, She Wrote’s new bloggers!

In our most recent call for regular contributors Tenure, She Wrote received many amazing applications, and it was hard to select just five new women.  We selected new members who will increase the diversity of voices represented here at Tenure, She Wrote, and we can’t wait to see what they have to say. Here they are:

CaptainTenure is an associate professor at a small private institution.  In addition to her teaching, research and service duties, she is responsible for faculty development at her college.   She has been a big fan of Tenure She Wrote since the beginning and is honored to join the team.   She tweets at @CaptainTenure.

Dr__Klotz is a tenure-track faculty member in English at a community college in Northern California.  She is interested in social justice, community literacy education, and digital pedagogy. Aside from settling into a new full-time teaching load, she spends her days hiking, reading science fiction, and drinking California wine. She tweets at @Dr__Klotz.

QTChimie is a smiley genderfluffy queer who loves science enough to make it a day job, interested generally in human disease. Q spent a few years working in the real world after undergrad and is now running back to academia for a PhD. They are also an artist and maker in media ranging from pencil to steel to cloth. They enjoy dismantling the patriarchy by being confusingly sweet, educating folks about healthy relationship dynamics, and taking really cute photos of their pet rats.

PunkeeProf teaches literature and writing at a small liberal arts university in Iowa. She likes it when she makes food that people enjoy, when laughter is the dominant noise in a room, and when students exceed her expectations. She hates very little, but it’s almost always warranted. You can follow her @ThePunkee.

Sciencella is a postdoc at a large public university, working in a social science field that combines experimental work with fieldwork. She has lived in 4 different countries on 3 different continents in the last 10 years. When she is not working, she enjoys watching trashy TV shows, drinking beer, and cooking. She tweets at @DrSciencella.

Reflections on blogging for TSW

As one of the founding members of Tenure, She Wrote, it’s been a little over two years since my first post and I find myself reflecting on what blogging for TSW has meant to me. This is my first foray into blogging and so when I started, I was fairly uncertain about what the experience would be like.  Over the past few years, I have used the blog as a way to work through various challenges that came up in my life–both the good and the bad.  (See here for a full list of my previous posts.)  TSW started up in my first year as a faculty member…a fortuitous time since I was experiencing a lot of new things and had a lot to process!  I was able to use the writing process to provide clarity about the issues that had previously been bouncing around my brain. It was terrifying at first to expose my thoughts to the world*, but also liberating because it reminded me that I am not alone in this experience.  Over the past few years, I have learned that if I am having an issue, then often many other people are too.

But blogging is not without its own set of stresses.   Continue reading

No access to travel funding: does this make cent$?

As a later-stage graduate student, I’ve been trying to make sure that I attend a few conferences per year. There are lots of reasons to go to conferences, some of which we’ve discussed here before, including meeting people who do similar work, becoming inspired by others’ work, learning about new ideas in your field, networking for future job opportunities/grant collaborators, and more.

But after coming back from a conference earlier this summer, I’ve been thinking about the costs. Not the direct costs per se, although there are great reads written by others on the high price of attending conferences these days. That’s not even considering the carbon footprint of academics jetsetting all over the planet. No, rather I’ve been thinking about how much graduate students in my lab group pay to attend conferences, while the PI pays nothing. Continue reading

Foregone conclusions, redux

July 2007 (Vintage SciWo

I will not be a foregone conclusion.

Sometimes I get depressed when I read the blogs of other women scientists – particularly when the topic of children vs. an academic career is the topic du jour. The short version is that many of us seem to think we have two choices: (1) Have a career and no children, or children we never see; or (2) Give up our plans for t-t/research academia in order to raise a family. That we can’t be both academic researchers and fantastic parents seems to be a foregone conclusion.

Well, I refuse to be a foregone conclusion. Continue reading

The troll down the hall: what do academic comment sections reveal about our colleagues?

If you spend twenty minutes on the internet doing anything besides looking at videos of baby sloths getting baths, it’s almost impossible not to discover some kind of abuse, and odds are it’s going to be in a comments section. We know not to “feed the trolls” (a philosophy I actually find really unhelpful, because trolls are like asexual autotrophic amoebas that don’t need chum to reproduce). We remind ourselves and each other not to read the comments– to NEVER, EVER read the comments (and then we always do anyway). Because comments sections are cesspools where discussion and nuance and respect go to die, buried under a mountain of abuse and inanity. Continue reading