Guest Post: Teaching while dissertating

Today’s guest post is by NeuroPostDoc, a recent Ph.D. moving cross-country to continue her research on human cognition using neuroimaging. 

When the email went out with TA assignments for Spring 2015, my first response was “uh-oh.” I had been assigned to research methods, a writing intensive course known to have the highest workload of all TA assignments in my department. This was a problem because I was already in the midst of my own “writing intensive” – writing my dissertation, with my defense scheduled for finals week. I had the same feeling reading that email as I imagined the captain of the Titanic had when he first saw the iceberg (dissertating also made me a tad dramatic).

I was only TAing during my last year because I needed the health insurance coverage for my husband. I had sworn up and down to my chair and graduate director that I could balance the workload (normally 5th years in my department are supported by a research-only fellowship, which comes with lesser health insurance). So, I wanted to make a good faith effort to work with my assignment before requesting a new one or trying to trade with another grad student. Here are the steps I took that made the situation workable, which I hope will be helpful to anyone struggling with teaching load, whether it’s teaching while dissertating like me, managing teaching while under grant deadlines, or adding an extra class as an adjunct when you know it will be a stretch.

DISCLAIMER: I was only able to pull all this off for a few reasons: I have a good amount of experience teaching this particular course, and I’m also really good at improvising lectures (thanks in part to my theater geekery in high school). I can also do a sort of party trick where I am able to skim text at a pace beyond speed reading with about 80% comprehension (relevant to how I graded assignments). Your mileage may vary.

  1. Clarify expectations beforehand:  I had never worked with the professor in charge of the lecture portion of my assigned lab section, so I met with her to assess her expectations. It turned out that since the class was an online hybrid, most assignments would be turned in online and graded by course software. My job as TA of the weekly lab would be to supervise the planning and execution of final research projects for 25 students, helping them develop methods to design and distribute a survey, analyze and interpret their data, and write a report on the results. I asked if I could optimize the efficiency of this process by having them do research in teams (rather than supervising 25 original projects), and she agreed, and I thought “ok maybe this is doable.”
  1. Get student buy-in: I do this every semester but I think it was especially important this time around: I spend the first lab or two explaining why research is relevant to careers in psychology. Psychology is the largest undergraduate major at my university, and as a result some students get minimal one-on-one advising time. Many of them graduate not knowing much about their grad school options, so I usually start the semester with a sort of cliff notes career counseling session in which I emphasize the importance of internships and hands on research experience in order to be competitive for both the job market and grad school. This also (hopefully) motivates them to take the class seriously because they know the skills they’re learning are relevant to their career goals. And these classes require minimal planning because most of it is just discussing stuff I know well like how to apply to grad school, M.A. vs. Ph.D. vs. Psy.D. programs, etc.
  1. Minimize grading: My students needed to do weekly homework as part of their lab grade but I didn’t have more than 20 minutes a week to spend on grading. My main trick was to assign work with a format that made it really easy to grade, such as a fill-in-the-blank worksheet where I could basically memorize the 15 correct answers and skim each worksheet within 30 seconds or so. For final papers, I made a checklist of the requirements for each paper section and awarded points based on how well these requirements were met. For example, their introduction section required discussion of 10 journal articles, so I would count up the number of unique citations to make sure it reached 10, then I’d go back and skim the content to make sure it made sense, and assign the points for that requirement accordingly. I kept section comments very minimal and simple such as “quote less, paraphrase more.” Each 10 page paper took about 5 minutes to grade using this technique (my speed reading party trick certainly helped here).
  1. Assign group work as much as possible: My typical class structure was to lecture or do a tutorial demonstration for 20-45 minutes on topics such as generating and testing hypotheses, conducting a literature review, or performing correlation analysis. Then, I’d assign an independent exercise (mostly ones I’d used during past semesters) designed to test comprehension of the lecture or demonstration, done either individually or in groups (10-40 minutes). Once we got to the research design phase, about a month into the semester, the students broke into 3 groups based on research topics, and that group became their “team” for the rest of the semester.  I encouraged students to ask their teammates for help first on the independent assignments, and to only bring me problems the group and/or google wasn’t able to solve. During this portion of lab I would sometimes get some grading done, read research articles, or edit sections of my dissertation in between answering student questions. This would be followed by a discussion of the exercise and Q&A (10 minutes) and then sometimes an additional research team task like brainstorming survey questions (20-30 minutes).
  1. Pare the syllabus down to the essentials: When I TA’d research  methods under other professors, they had students design and complete an actual (simple) experiment as well as a correlational study (via a survey). With permission from the professor, I had them conduct a survey only, which was far simpler and less time consuming. To compensate, in lab we did exercises comparing and contrasting correlational and experimental research. We discussed topics such as “what survey questions could be used to measure relationships between variables like sleep quality and grades? How would you measure the effect of sleep quality on grades using an experiment?” These thought exercises still gave the students exposure to both methodologies in a format that was less time consuming and logistically complicated for me.
  1. Be forgiving, so you are in turn are forgiven: Here is the part where some of you are going to cringe. I normally pride myself on having clear, set in stone, high standards for my classes, like not accepting late assignments or giving exam re-takes. But it became clear within a few weeks that insisting assignments be handed in exactly on time, no exceptions, and then taking 3 weeks to grade them  (because I was swamped doing data collection) was not going to endear me to my students. In my experience, students can smell hypocrisy and unfairness from a mile away and it kills their trust in you. So, I relaxed my standards for them a bit in tandem with relaxing them for myself. I accepted late homework in exchange for partial credit. I gave credit (either full or none) for homework rather than assigning points based on percent correct, and pointed out errors in comments rather than by deducting from their grades. When I forgot to distribute formal requirements for an assignment, and only the students who took good notes were able to complete it 100%, I changed it to be extra credit rather than required. I usually am judgemental of professors who use these tactics just to get positive evaluations, but this was an emergency situation of sorts (my defense date was inflexible for various reasons) and being more accommodating than usual smoothed over the bumps in the semester.

Even with these rules in place, there were some panicked Wednesday nights when I realized I had no idea what I was going to do in lab the next morning. Some (ok many) lesson plans I “designed” on the 20 minute train ride to campus. Teaching a course involving my strongest areas (research design and statistics) was a big help here; if I had been teaching something outside my subfield, like social psychology or personality psychology that would require active review of topics before lab, it would have never worked.  I did have moments where I wondered if my students knew just how much I was making up on the fly, but one of my evaluations actually noted that I “talked very calmly” so I guess all that improv training didn’t go to waste.

Here is how all of this worked out timewise (approximated based on average week):

  • Grading: 20 min
  • Class prep: 15 min
  • Lab: 90 minutes
  • Misc (answering email, uploading grades): 40 minutes
  • TOTAL: 2-3 hours/week

What amazed me most was that after all my cut corners, when it came to final projects my students did about the same as ever – a fairly normal distribution of a few Ds and Fs, a lot of B’s and C’s, and a smattering of A’s. I generally believe that if most of an introductory level class fails, at least in my discipline, that means the professor also failed (to teach to an appropriate level for the course, or to manage expectations about course difficulty early enough to weed out those not up to the task). Similarly, if everyone gets an A or a B it suggests the students may not have been challenged properly. A proper grade distribution is my sanity check, and by that metric it was a successful semester.

In the end, teaching during the most intense semester of my academic career thus far taught me several things: to let go, completely, of the idea of perfection; to accept myself as a flawed person with many impossible demands on my time; and to embrace the humbling position of looking like a slacker sometimes (my stack of ungraded assignments grew almost as large as my guilty conscience throughout the semester). This provided me with insight and empathy for my students, many of whom are first generation college students, often working one or more jobs while going to school. Some are caring for children or elderly relatives on top of all that. It used to be easy to look back on my college career, the two internships plus a part time job I juggled while double majoring, and say “if I could handle THAT they should at least be able to turn their homework in on time.”

What I discounted was that when I was in college my time was devoted to my passions. I wasn’t working an exhausting retail job to help my family cover rent, or waking up in the middle of the night to feed an infant, or missing group study sessions to drive an ailing elderly relative to doctor’s appointments. My overscheduled college life was my choice, one I was privileged to be able to make. Working two jobs and/or caring for family is a necessity, not a choice, for many of my students. And I began to understand why they sometimes had so little attention left for my lab, or why some would sit in the back and doze off.  I was writing seven days a week and waking in the middle of the night from nightmares about my defense going badly. My life felt like a trap even though I knew it was a choice. I’m sure that choosing to go to college while juggling family and work demands doesn’t feel like an easy choice for my students either, but we share the conviction that it’s necessary for our futures. And now I also knew what it felt like to fall down on the job sometimes. It was humbling and mortifying in the true sense of “being made mortal.”

My post-doc will provide a reprieve from teaching, but I am grateful to know that if I eventually manage to get a coveted faculty job, I will have a game plan for balancing teaching with scholarship when things seem overwhelming.

Guest Post: Every Student Uses Your Access Statement

Today’s guest post is by Sandy Olson, a scientist, disability activist, and freelance writer.

Accessibility is important to create a welcoming environment for learning for all people. While aimed primarily at people with disabilities, accessibility options can benefit everyone. They can help students who do not, for whatever reason, identify as disabled. They can also help create a more comfortable atmosphere for discussion and learning. To learn more about accessibility, and accessibility statements (AS) in particular, I interviewed a number of teachers and students in the US and Canada.

Who qualifies for accommodations?

In order to get accommodations for disabilities at colleges and universities, many students need documentation from a medical doctor. Seeking documentation adds a burden on students with disabilities, who are already expending more time and energy just to attend school. Some students may not have easy access to medical care, or may have an uneasy relationship with doctors. Seeing a doctor may present a burden on finances, time, energy, and emotions. Some illnesses and disabilities are not taken seriously by the medical community, or can be difficult to diagnose, but can easily be addressed by simple accommodations in the classroom. For example, people with dysgraphia may have trouble writing longhand but have an easier time typing on a laptop.

More than one person said that working with the disability services office can be difficult. Patty, the parent of a college student with a disability, said, “it is clear that whoever is at the helm of disability services can influence services [my son] receives. Several of his teachers this semester (who already knew him) allowed him some accommodations he had had in the past but were denied [by the disability services office] this past semester.” In this way, professors and teachers can directly help students who are facing obstacles with the disability services office. Having disability services deny Patty’s son accommodations “added a layer of incredible stress for him and then us.” She notes that the institution also requires documentation in a specific format, often from an medical doctor, who is not best qualified to address issues of accommodations.

A., an undergrad at a research institution, had this to say about her disability services office: “There is one person in charge of accommodations, who can refuse them at will… The professors essentially have veto power over accommodations; if the professor says something isn’t appropriate, there is nothing a student can do to get said accommodation. The person in charge of disability services will, in my experience, always support the professor rather than the student.”

Hadassah pointed out that having a visible disability helped her get accommodations, but that being a woman, an immigrant, and disabled meant that she had to see three different people in the office of “access and diversity” at her school. Alyssa also noted that privilege matters, saying that the disability office is friendly to sier*, but “I’m white, I’m in STEM, and I do well in my classes, sometimes even without the accommodations.”

Kate, a deaf graduate student, asked for CART (live captioning) as an accommodation and had this to say: “Initially the department was hesitant but then worked with [the disability services office] and gave me a person. However, this person was not very good and couldn’t keep up. At the end of my first semester, I asked for another person and explained why. I found out later that my chair complained about this and told other faculty that he thought I didn’t need services because my grades were high. He also told them he thought I was ‘too picky and needed therapy.’! I pushed back and was eventually given a different CART person. This woman was terrific and stayed with me for the next four years.”

Some students may not even think to go to the disability services office because they do not identify as disabled, or because of stigma associated with the label, or simply out of ignorance. RHD said, “It never occurred to me to ask for accommodations when I was diagnosed with first one and then another chronic illness that hampered my ability to do my work in grad school. I never went to the disability services office. I should have. My therapist and doctor, at the university health centre, never suggested it either”. A student with a temporary problem such as a broken leg might not consider his problem a disability, even though he has trouble with the stairs and icy sidewalks, and elevators are difficult to locate, causing him to be late for class and may need different seating. Furthermore, pregnancy is not a disability, but pregnant students and those with infants can benefit from more accessible classrooms.

Accessibility statements

Given these difficulties, many students who could benefit from increased accessibility in classrooms may not have official accommodations through the disability services office. To help these students succeed teachers could increase accessibility in their classrooms, starting with creating a thoughtful, welcoming accessibility statement on their syllabi. Many institutions have a “boilerplate” statement that teachers are encouraged or required to use, but some of the people I interviewed expanded upon required language to create wonderful and welcoming AS on their syllabi. Ashley Shew said: “I usually put something about religious observances that might need accommodation” and “learning styles or unusual needs even if they are not documented with Services for Students with Disabilities.”

Dr. Alexis Lothian’s excellent AS for LGBTQ studies is available online.  It states in part

I believe in the principles of universal design, which state that maximizing accessibility for participants with disabilities improves learning environments for everyone. I try to minimize barriers posed by course structures and materials, and I will do my best to work with any student who requires specific accommodations for a disability.

Here is an example of a well-thought out disability statement, submitted by Teacher RHD (I have edited it slightly for length).

We all require accommodations to make our class space accessible, because we all learn in different ways. Please feel free to manage your classroom experience in the way that is best for you. You may make audio recordings of lectures, take pictures of the board, sit wherever you like in the classroom, use a laptop or other device, bring in food or beverages, leave the classroom when necessary, etc. The [disability services office] website has resources and technologies to help you manage your learning environment. If you believe that I should know about your disability status, please feel free to discuss it with me. I will notify you in advance if any of our assigned course readings/viewings contain images or discussion of sexual assault or graphic violence. Students who want transcripts for audio/visual material should let me know asap so that I can make them. If there is something I can do to create a more comfortable learning environment for you, please never hesitate to ask (eg, “can you speak slower/louder/more clearly?” or “can you make the image brighter/more high-contrast?” or “can you ask Jack to wear less cologne in class?”), even if you’re not registered with [the disability services office]. Please be respectful of your fellow students. Avoid interrupting your classmates, bringing strong smells or common allergens into the classroom, and blocking the aisles or doorway.

Having an accessibility statement and policies can also benefit the teacher. RHD said “It makes me aware and reminds me that students don’t all come to my class with the same history, abilities, sets of tools, or standards of behaviour, and that helps me shift my response to what would traditionally be called “problem” students (students who interrupt, who aren’t aware of how much space they take up in class discussion, who don’t focus on the assigned work, etc.) from annoyance to a recognition that the classroom environment isn’t currently giving them what they need.”

Accessibility options in classrooms

Professors and teachers can make their own classrooms more accessible using fairly simple methods. As I have found in doing access work, the most important aspect is attitude. Are you willing to at least try and accommodate people’s requests? Most people have to screw up their courage to ask for something like a change in seating, an extension, or to ask to record a lecture. As noted above, disability services offices can be unhelpful or even hostile places. If a teacher establishes herself as a friendly, accommodating person, this barrier to asking will be lowered, and more students will end up succeeding in the classroom.

Two teachers noted that the one accommodation they struggle to provide was captions or transcripts. RHD said, “It’s a lot of work to make subtitles for every audio/video clip I play, since I like using contemporary, up-to-date pop-culture-y references to help introduce or explain a given lesson, and thus have to make them a lot.”

I would argue that this is something that should be institutionalized or paid for by the university. Disability laws already require that creators of source material include captions; unfortunately there are no teeth to these laws. This remains a problem in need of greater advocacy and activism.

Neil Simpkins said that having a accessibility options “has helped me understand the lives of my students–disabled and not–in a very different way. With the extension policy, for example, I’ve had more than one student say, ‘You’re the only instructor I’ve had who openly offered extensions, and since I had a huge Actuarial Science exam the day before the paper was due (or something like this) it really helped me do my best work.’”

When I asked people where they had learned about accessibility, Neil mentioned the work of disability scholar Margaret Price, specifically the book “Mad at School”. Alexis Lothian also cited Dr. Price and credited WisCon, a feminist science fiction convention that she and I both attend. She said, “I changed the name of it from “disability” to “accessibility” and started adding my own language after attending the feminist science fiction convention WisCon a few times. Disability access is central to every part of the way WisCon is organized, and seeing how that worked – how making room for members’ diverse access needs created a space that was more welcoming and open to difference than any I had encountered before. I wanted to bring some of that openness into my classroom, and I wanted my students to feel that their participation was welcome regardless of their particular needs or learning styles.”

I had the opportunity to hear Margaret Price speak at the Society for Disability Studies conference in 2014. She uses an accessibility statement in her talks that encourages people to do whatever they need to do in order to make themselves comfortable and able to concentrate: this can include stimming, playing games on a laptop, moving around, etc. It was amazing to hear this, even at a disability conference. I feel strongly socialized not to do such things while listening to a talk; we are culturally expected to sit still and quiet, even if that makes our symptoms worse. At SDS I felt more comfortable to do things like move a chair in front of me as a foot rest, and wear sunglasses to guard against fluorescent lights, but it is amazing to hear such a statement spoken aloud from the speaker you are listening to. Some of the people interviewed pointed out that it is best to cover the accessibility statement during class, so that students are sure to notice it.

Some professors and teachers may worry that students will take undue advantage of generous accessibility policies; however, this skeptical attitude towards students has led to a generally unfriendly and even hostile feeling towards disabled students, who are told that they have to prove they are disabled in order to get accommodations that they need, and even then, may not get them anyway. RHD says, “I have encountered many professors who believe that students with disabilities are just being lazy, or aren’t trying hard enough, or deserve to be reprimanded or yelled at.”

It is actually radical to believe people when they say that they need something or can’t do something. If a teacher feels that students are taking undue advantage of accessibility policies, I suggest that be managed on a case-by-case basis.

I encourage professors or teachers to adopt accessibility statements and access-friendly attitudes in their classrooms and workplaces. If you would like to share your own accessibility statement, or a story about how more accessible policies have benefitted you, please do so in the comments. You can learn more about accessibility at the Geek Feminism Wiki or by contacting me (sandphin at gmail dot com).


*“sie/sier/siers” are Alyssa’s pronouns.

 Thank you to everyone who agreed to be interviewed for this article, and thank you to @TheoriesofMinds, Mellivora, and Jesse the K for help with editing.

Academic Job Hunting for Aliens

or Academic Job search for non-resident* foreign nationals in the US

In which @scitrigrrl discover one way that academics are like fashion models

DISCLAIMER: I am not an immigration lawyer, Tenure She Wrote does not have an immigration lawyer as a consultant, and what I have written here about visas is only the most cursory of notes about common things. If you have questions, concerns, worries about your immigration status, talk you the international center at your university (if you’re in the US), the International Center at your prospective institution, contact a US Consulate, or look at the USCIS website.

When @TenureSheWrote asked for reader questions, one that came up was this:

As a foreigner in US academia, there are some interesting challenges that are not always obvious to US-nationals, and some of these can be surprising as a foreigner even after over a decade in the US, particularly at transition points along the career trajectory, such as applying for faculty positions** in the US. Continue reading

Overcoming My Impostor Syndrome

For most of the time since I started on my academic career path, I’ve been dealing with the feeling that no matter what I was doing, it was somehow never going to be either “good enough” or “real enough” to the point where I would one day be a Real Scientist. I’ve had impostor syndrome for quite a long time, although I’ve recently been discovering that it’s been deeply lessened within just the past couple of years somewhat by accident. Continue reading

Science Careers: Now offering advice for privileged men from 30 years ago

On Friday, Science published an essay under the heading “Working Life.” The essay is a first-person account of one path to success in a research career. Problematically, the path that Science chose to feature is one that it is inaccessible to most people today – as I’ll discuss below. When Science showcases such paths, they demonstrate that they are either out of touch with or don’t care about the reality of the majority of young scientists who are not white, het-, cis-, able-bodied and slavishly devoted to their work. I’m sure that some people will argue that this first-person essay is not Science saying that this is the way to succeed in a career, it’s simply one author’s advice. But Science gave it the page space and ink, rather than choosing to print a more inclusive (and probably more useful) career section. Much like Nature’s “Womanspace” fail a few years ago, Science gave Diamandis’s dated, privileged, and out of touch essay its stamp approval when it published it in the magazine. Coming just a few weeks after Science published a column advising women scientists to put up with sexual harassment “with good humor”, it is starting to seem like the journal published by an association dedicated to the advancement of science would like to take science back to the Mad Men era. If that’s not the legacy Dr. Marcia McNutt (who is about to become head of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences) wants to leave from her tenure as Science’s editor-in-chief, I hope she’ll take a deep look at the sort of advice her Careers section keeps offering up. Continue reading

How to fail better (and even succeed!) in the academic job market

I’ve been on a few searches now, and observed a dozen or more hires across every stage in my academic career. There have been barrels of ink spilled on how to do better in today’s awful job market, and academic job consulting is now a thing (if you’re reading this, you’re probably familiar with The Professor is In).

So why write (another) post on the job search? Two reasons. First, I’ve been through both processes in the last few years, so I’ve got a recenlt perspective from both sides of the process. And secondly, I see a lot — a LOT — of really easy, fixable mistakes made by people vying for academic jobs. I was almost tempted to title this post, “If the job market sucks this much, why aren’t you trying harder?” because there have been a surprising number of times that I’ve had this thought as I’ve gone through terrible cover letters or struggled through painful interviews or downright awful job talks. But the fact is, the market sucks, and a lot of the search process is out of your control. Most people are probably trying about as hard as they can. They just may not realize what they’re doing wrong, because the process can be obtuse from the outside, and a lot of us don’t get the mentoring we need.

I’m not going to talk about what you can’t control in this post, because while that will account for a number of your specific rejections, it’s not going to be the systematic cause of failure over the long-term. If you’ve been trying for a long time and you just cannot reach the next level of the search process, it’s likely to be something you can fix.

So, your goal should be to fail better. Let me explain:  Continue reading

Guest Post: Tales from the “other”

Today’s guest blogger NotYourOther is a doctoral candidate at a large public university in the Midwest.

As a multiracial woman I have always been an “other”. From childhood on I have struggled with what box to check to identify my racial heritage. Then there was that ever annoying “other” option that further disenfranchised my developing racial identity. My racial ambiguity was never really an issue for me, but always seemed to perplex others, particularly my peers, who often asked the dreaded “so what are you?” question. It seemed as I moved into adulthood and started my career the focus on my race was slightly diminished. I consciously chose to work in agencies where people of color were not always the minority [in number] and my brown skin did not indicate an “otherness”. I contently existed in this fabricated environment for several years until I decided to return to school and pursue my PhD in Social Work.

I am the first to admit that I was desperately naïve in believing that my return to academia would be a utopian experience. I assumed that there would be a higher level of consciousness and self-actualization among faculty and peers. I mean we are social workers, right? Unfortunately that wasn’t the case. Early on feelings of “otherness” began and have resurfaced periodically since my first year in the program. I fight with all my self-esteem to keep them at bay and to pack away the subtle microagressions I encounter. I move forward by focusing on my goals and using self-affirmations to get me through the inevitable next set of “other” remarks. I have acquired these coping strategies to survive in an environment that sometimes does not feel ready for me. Such coping mechanisms also keep me guarded and distant from those whose “other” remarks have attempted to damage my spirit whether consciously or not. But eventually, each new encounter adds a little more weight to my load, making it too heavy and I succumb, self doubt creeping in. Continue reading