APhoto of cornucopia, fruit, and pumpkin pieLooking back at the past two years, there have been lots of changes in my life. Both of us retired from our university teaching jobs; we have had a house built; moved from one state to another; and are settling into the new house. Both of us have had, for the most part, good health, and we’re well aware many friends and family have not. Retirement has been both a long time coming and feels like it happened very fast.

birthday candlesThanksgiving also is the start of another year for me—I was born on the holiday, so it is a time of reflection and goal-setting.

Hands on top of each other, in pileBoth our families have supported the changes in our lives and encouraged us to enjoy this next phase of our lives. They’ve read about more house decisions than they probably ever wanted to, and yet never told me to stop sharing. We know they love us—and hopefully will come visit soon!

I’m exploring how to stay in touch with friends back in Valdosta—when their lives and mine no longer have the same patterns as we used to do. I’m thankful for technology which allows us to connect and keep the relationships strong and meaningful.

Graduates throwing mortar boards at graduation (in shadow)I realize how lucky I was to have good friends who were also colleagues at work. They were there when I needed to someone to listen about a worry I had about a student; they were there to celebrate at graduation when we saw a student we’d had and maybe even counseled not to drop out, actually walk across the stage and graduate. They were there over the difficult Thanksgiving holiday when a student (who happened to be in my class, among others) was murdered on campus. Mostly they would drop in on my out-of-the way office (both of them!) just to say “hi” and connect.

I have had students, who, for the most part, worked very hard to complete assessments, studied for tests, and engaged with the sociological content of our class together. They were honest, strived to do their best, and shared with me their complicated lives. They supported me when I had to return to Seattle when my father died; many trusted me with their personal stories of loss, joy, pain, and trauma.

Two older hands, holding each other in caring mannerAnd most of all, I’m thankful for my husband. He keeps me laughing, even when the stresses of house-building and moving increased. He’s my tech guru, my partner in life, exercise, and finding our way in a community where we knew no one. He’s the one I know I can yell to “hurry up, the sunset is incredible” and he’ll come running, sometimes with camera, and we’ll hold each other, full of thankfulness for years we’ve had together and we hope—the many more on top of our beautiful mountain.

Happy Thanksgiving to all. May you be with people you love, who love you, and who make you laugh.

But for those doing AcWriMo with me and so many other scholars – hang on—the month is almost over!

Please visit the Pedagogical Thoughts website to contact me about institutional or individual consulting, dissertation editing, or coaching about writing.





A Few More Things: Reflections on Mintz’s IHE Column, “The 8 Steps Institutions Need to Take to Improve Student Success”

On November 14, 2019, Steve Mintz published this article in I read it Monday morning. It stayed with me throughout the day and I realized that I feel strongly that he “missed” several important points, especially from a faculty member’s perspective.

So here are my additions to his list.

Text says "Jargon" and then the red circle with line through it to symbolize "No jargon"h9) If an institution wants to encourage student success, one of the first things its faculty and staff need to do is reduce or eliminate the use of academic argot or jargon. Why must institutions “onboard” new students (his point #1)? How about just “welcome them” and “assist them in getting settled” into their new college routines? Academic argot builds separation, not feelings of belonging—just the opposite of what the data on student success argues.

10) Don’t use data selectively about student success (his points #3 and somewhat #8). Many faculty are tired of hearing “data support X” administrative proposal, but when faculty either ask for or point out data  which challenge assumptions of the school’s leaders about that proposal, data either are ignored or not able to be shared. For example, if the goal is student success, then articulation agreements with 2-year institutions which are signed by 4-year schools might need to be statistically analyzed. When a department is clear that there is a pattern, showing low student success in a major or in a second-year course from one particular transfer school’s students—don’t blow that data off. Listen to those faculty and department heads—perhaps there’s a modification of the articulation agreement which needs to be made or difficult conversations between departments and upper administrators at both schools need to be had. But using statistics selectively isn’t a good look and can damage student success as well as morale among those who work at the institution.

 Corollary to Step 10: Data are not just owned by the administration—they should be freely shared to all on campus who want the data (students included). Often faculty experience difficulty obtaining data about their program alumni, their currently enrolled students, or students who recently left the program. There are times when some but not all of the data asked for is received—which makes it difficult for programs to conduct their own analysis.

Picture of wad of money with a belt around the middle of the stack. Belt being pulled very tight11) Experiential learning, exposure to career planning, and robust first-year experiences are labor- and fiscally-intensive (his steps #2, 4, and 5). Many schools talk a lot about these academic endeavors, but then frequently do not follow up with the faculty, staff, time, and money needed for them to work, long-term. Don’t fund them for one or two years in order to show other administrators signs of student success and then let them die of financial starvation when other pedagogical ideas have become more popular. Living and working on a shoestring budget might play in the movies, but not in the realities of higher education as it stands now. Even worse—don’t berate those same programs when—likely inevitably—administrators cut or freeze them for not accomplishing ever increasing student success.

12) Teaching—good teaching—matters. Supporting faculty who have high standards, should matter for student success. In fact, the key mission of every institution of higher education should be—is—its teaching mission. Yet Dr. Mintz never specifically addressed teaching at all as related to student success, except to say, somewhat tangentially, that “…identification of courses with very high DFW classes can prompt course design.”

13) Institutions of higher education need (to begin) to hold students accountable for their individual behavior. Sometimes a student fails a course because the student chose to fail the course, by the student’s actions or non-actions. I am not arguing that there shouldn’t be limited “forgiveness policies” about grades or “curving the first test” in a class of first-year students if most of the class does poorly. Some institutions, however, carry this too far and ultimately could be harming student success by excusing a student’s counter-productive behavior. As students progress in their college career, they need to become more responsible for their choices. Holding them to account when necessary is not a bad thing, but is key to success in college—and in life.

Chalkboard graphic: stick figure human climbing steps; on top step is a mortarboard signifying graduationStudent success is something we all want–parents, students, faculty, staff, and administrators. But to ignore the role of teaching, the decreasing fiscal certainties of modern higher education, and student responsibility, to me, is to have a too narrow view of what student success entails.

And readers, how is AcWriMo going? Are you writing? Remember, you are not alone. Hang on, there’s only one more week to go.

Please visit the Pedagogical Thoughts website to contact me about institutional or individual consulting, dissertation editing, or coaching about writing.




The Power of Being There

Student leaning against wall, distressed-looking, word "HELP" on wallWhether it is talking with a student about his or her grade, or when you notice that a student is just hanging out around your office, not quite coming in, but clearly wanting to get your attention, or when an advisee calls to say that “I just need to talk to you” – we have all had those moments when students need us as a human being, not just in our status as professor.

They need us to be there with their frustration, their hurtness, sometimes even their joy. It might be as a witness to their truth or an advocate for their pain or a sounding board for their anger.

This kind of “being there” is not always—ever?—in our job descriptions as faculty members or staff members; rather it is part of our responsibility as a human interacting with another human being.

Two adults sitting on bench, talkingSometimes “being there” means sitting with a student as the certainty of a poor grade sinks in—waiting for the student to cycle between anger at you, at him or herself, to worrying about what parents will say, to wondering how this might impact financial aid, and even more emotions. It’s letting that happen (for a while) without intervening, even when the anger is directed at you. It can mean being empathetic—nodding one’s head, leaning forward to listen more closely as the student’s voice drops off in despair. But mostly, it is waiting—waiting until the student wants to bring you in as a dialogue partner, waiting until the student is open to thinking about realistic alternatives.

Being there isn’t verbally cutting off the student with an “it happened to me too and look how I dealt with it” story (even if true), or telling the student that “this isn’t my job, you need to go see someone else”—it is taking a moment to interact with the real person before you.

I know that most faculty are not trained to be counselors and I support the division between faculty, other staff, and counselors on campus—all are valued, skilled members of the campus community. But sometimes students need a person who will be there in the moment as they face the hard stuff life can throw at us all…a person who can help them to get to a place where they can pick up the phone to call for professional help. Often that person is someone they feel they know or who at least is a routinized part of their lives, and faculty are that for many students.

I’ve sat with students as they practiced coming out to their parents, parents they knew would disown them (and did). Those students felt they had to tell their truth to their family no matter the consequences, but needed an adult to listen to how they framed their truth. I’ve been with students who had visible injuries from domestic violence incidents as they cycled between “how could he do this to me?” to “he must be so wounded emotionally himself” to “I have to protect my kids” and back again. I took a walk around the campus with a student so scared after being robbed at work the night before. She literally was unable to sit still for more than a few seconds; she felt safer out in the open than in my small office, similar to one where she was robbed. And I have been with a student at the county Health Department, waiting for the student to be called back to receive the results of an AIDS test. Those moments of waiting seemed to last forever, but the moment when the student walked out of the office, after receiving the results, and walked over to me, seemed even longer.

A few years ago, a student asked me for permission to keep her phone on, in order to receive a text concerning her father who was gravely ill. During the next class, I saw that she received a text and then left class. Since it was only about 3 minutes before class would have ended anyway, I didn’t send anyone after her but quickly left the classroom to try to catch up with her. I walked to the Student Union (across the street from my classroom) and saw her outside, on a bench, crying. I sat down on the bench and just said “I’m here.” After a few minutes, I found some Kleenex in my backpack and passed them to her. We sat there in silence—yet feeling connected—for nearly thirty minutes. Then she said, “He died—my world is gone.” I said I was very sorry, and just listened. For close to an hour, at breakneck speed, she spoke of all the times her dad supported her, challenged her, and made her feel loved. Finally, she took some deep breaths and said, “What do I do about classes?” With that, we walked back to my office and I talked about how we could alert one campus office and they’d reach out to all her professors and explain her absence. She did that from my office and then we talked about her options in my class. When she returned in a week, she gave me a thank you card. It said, “You just being with me on that bench, knowing why I was upset but not asking me to talk, meant everything to me. Just sitting with me—together—helped.”

Being there with a student in emotional distress takes its toll on all individuals involved. But remember, ultimately, it isn’t about you, but you do need to notice how you are doing in that moment. Each of us has internal wounds, some visible, many invisible, which can shape a person’s responses to the distress of others. It means that we need to be sure, in those moments of being there with a student, that if the conversation shifts to brainstorming solutions, that we help students to see all their options, not just the options we might choose.

That often means we will need to involve campus partners—sometimes that might be the Title IX Coordinator or law enforcement, the Counseling Center, the campus tutoring center, and most definitely, the student’s academic counselor and often, a financial aid counselor as well. Every campus will have official policies about how a faculty and staff must report certain kind of discussions (e.g., crimes, etc.)—we have to follow those policies obviously.

Graphic of human-like figures holding handsSometimes the student is so distressed that she or he feels unable to take that next step. Don’t take it for the student without the student’s permission—that reduces the student’s agency—but I have offered to dial the phone, for example, to the Counseling Center and to get past the first layer of triage. I would do that in front of the student, so that he or she heard exactly what I said and could respond if I framed the need incorrectly. But then I would hand the phone over to the student and, unless previously told to stay by the student, I’d leave my office for a while so that the student could have privacy.

These are not comfortable moments, necessarily, but they are human ones that we all have had. And ultimately, I always tried to be a human first, a faculty member second. I tried to interact as I would want someone to do for me. I know I failed at that sometimes, but in those moments of “being there” I tried my best.

Readers, how have you been there for your students, in those moments of pain, anger, sadness, or shock—in moments of sharing humanity?

And readers, how is AcWriMo going? Are you writing? Remember, you are not alone!

Please visit the Pedagogical Thoughts website to contact me about institutional or individual consulting, dissertation editing, or coaching about writing.













The Math Talk—Make Time for It, Often

With each passing day, the end of the academic term looms closer. And that means final grades will soon be due. That means that it is time for…the math talk.

Picture of white male, staring at laptop, head in handI’ve found that many students do not understand how their final grade will be calculated, no matter how I designed the grading scale. I tried it out of 100 points, or a percentage scale; one time I even tried having total 10,000 points. But I still would have many students who could not calculate their current standing in class nor what their likely final grade would be.

So if your students are like mine, it’s time to discuss final grades. Take some class time to show how the final grades will be calculated and how to calculate students’ current standing in the class. One tip though: don’t just choose as an example an “A” student’s point total. Show the math for a “C” student and what he or she might need to keep a final grade of “C” or to raise the grade to a “B.” Sometimes if you only use a strong student’s grade as your example, the students you most want to understand the math and do the calculations, might “tune out.”

I would write up a Word or PowerPoint version of this “grade calculation talk” and I’d send it to every student through the learning management system’s email. I also posted it as an LMS announcement and on our class’ Facebook page. I wanted to blanket all likely communication channels with this information.

I also offered to help any student who was struggling to understand the math involved in their current or possible final grade or who wanted me to “check” out their math. I held longer office hours for three weeks and made sure that I had food and drink for all students who visited. I also made sure that the graduate assistants and undergraduate peer tutor (while not having access to the online grades) knew how to calculate these statistics if students brought in their calculation attempts.

I tried to do this when there was still time for most students to make an impact on their final grade. For how I constructed the course timeline, that usually meant the week or two before the second test and the two weeks after it. That left about one third of the points still to come—plenty of time to change significantly most students’ grades.

weight-average-sum-formulaBut I want to share for a moment, my concerns about how many students could not calculate the basic mathematics needed to find where they stood in the class. Calculating percentages frustrated, even confounded students. There’s no point discussing why this kind of mathematics was beyond their skill level, or at least their comfort level—what matters is that many of my students struggled with this skill. What I came to understand is for many of my students, their grade in class was almost a magical pronouncement from on high (i.e., me!), and they didn’t really see how the number came into being. If I wanted them to more actively engage with earning a solid grade, I had to create opportunities for students to engage with this math, but in low-stakes, non-threatening ways.

After the second week of class (with about ten percent of the total points completed), I would sometimes hand out to groups of students a list of grades and ask each group to calculate where that student would stand in class right then. We went over the steps several times so that students had a sense of what points should be the numerator and which should be the denominator. I’d repeat this exercise a few times during the semester, until more students reported that they “got it.”

Unfortunately, in a class of over 300 students, too many students still did not understand well how to calculate their own grade. I tried to use the online “grade tracker” in our campus’ learning management system, but it confused students even more, because it would report percentages on each major type of assessment (tests, online quizzes, etc.) but would score any which had not been taken with a zero which counted, so their scores were artificially low. Many felt that there was “no way I can improve my grade” when they would look at it in the LMS.

I ended up creating an Excel spreadsheet that listed every assessment (e.g., tests, written assignments, every online quiz, every day’s “clicker” points, etc.). It listed the total points possible per assessment and then had a column where they could enter what they earned. It would calculate their current average for them. I also had a second tab where they could go and “play” with how improving on future assignments could change the grade, etc.

This did require the student to make the effort to enter her or his grades. I suggested doing it once a week (we’d usually have 4-6 grades per week), so that they had an accurate understanding of where they stood at the start of each week. Unfortunately, less than 50% of the class ever opened the file, and at the end of the term, unsurprisingly, use of the file correlated positively with the student’s final grade in the course.

I would still use the spreadsheet several times in class, in part because I wanted to keep reminding students that it existed in the LMS; I’d fill it with fictive grades and we’d calculate where a student was now and how the grade could change if scores improved or if the student could be more consistent about taking online quizzes, etc.

Given that my class was a part of a three-class learning community, faculty were required to use the early alert system, which would trigger an alert to housing staff (if the student lived on campus), the professional advisor for the student, the other faculty members in the learning community, and our campus’ academic success center (the tutoring center). While we had to use it, there was no requirement about how many times we had to use it. I found that updating it every Friday afternoon worked best for me; team members knew that was my pattern and we’d often talk on Monday morning about students. They became partners in helping to reach out to students who were in a difficult place—helping them to work through the math of the student’s situation but also to talk through what were good options, such as finding a study group, going to the student success center/tutoring center, coming to see me or the graduate assistants during office hours, or even deciding that the best solution might be to withdraw from one class for that semester. They even provided a sounding board for students who wanted to complain about me (I encouraged that—as a sociologist, I recognize that learning is a complex dynamic). These partnerships with professional staff and other faculty, meant that we could reach students early and often. The interventions were by and large successful—first year students in learning communities were retained at a higher rate than those not in learning communities.

Graphic; lots of stylistic books, people climbing up them; on top is a graduation cap and a person standing on top of itHaving the math talk is a necessary first step to help students understand how they are doing in class. But if your students are like mine, don’t think that having “the talk” once will be enough. You’ll need to offer opportunities for them to practice the mathematical skills involved and to think about their academic options based on what their mathematical standing is. Having these talks isn’t always easy—particularly if it shows that, for a particular student, there is no way to earn a passing grade. But good pedagogy requires students to have all the resources they need to succeed—and understanding their standing in the course is one of those resources. So readers, what do you do to help your students to understand their standing in the course?

And readers, how is AcWriMo going? Are you writing? Remember, you are not alone!

Please visit the Pedagogical Thoughts website to contact me about institutional or individual consulting, dissertation editing, or coaching about writing.