Goodbye 2019…

Crystal ball dropping in NYC, 2019Last December, I vowed to write 52 blog posts in 2019—one a week. It’s been a year of changes for me—moving from where we’d lived for 34 years, the joys and tensions of building a house, and then of course, the big move into the house, which was delayed for 3 months, while we lived in rented cabins. We’re just beginning to find a new community in our new location—trying to find ways to meet people at concerts, a nearby university, political activities, and potlucks. At times it has been lonely and other times so busy it was hard to keep up with everything the 2 of us were doing. It has been a very good year, overall.

I’ve written 56 posts, for when things in higher education news struck me, I replied with an extra post. I’ve reposted one—the “letter to parents as you drop your child off at college for the first time” at the start of the academic year, because many people asked me to do so (I tweak that one, but will continue to post it every August because so many professors and parents have found it useful).

I’ve shared pedagogical ideas, tips on writing and working with a journal editor, self care, how moving made me reconsider my teaching style, just to name a few things.

Text is "2020" and fireworks exploding in skySo I’m ending 2019 with this post, but I’ll be back in 2020 with more pedagogical thoughts.

Thank you to all who have read these blogs, shared them, liked them, and commented on them. I’d love to have even more conversations in 2020. Let’s do this.

Happy holidays. Happy New Year.


November AcWriMo Has Come and Gone…

AcWriMo image AcWriMo* is over. Thank goodness (you could choose even a stronger word!). I struggled to fulfill my pledge to write every day. I did it though, with only one day of not meeting my goal of a minimum of 500 words. Most—though not all of my struggles—were about getting ready to write, not the writing itself. I came to realize it was because I have too much unstructured time on my hands in retirement—time that I am still learning how to fill productively.

Picture of blue knit baby blanketMy work with clients has slowed down as it neared the end of the academic term, so I was not doing as much editing as normal. We are mostly unpacked from our move, so no longer was it dawn till dusk unpacking boxes and putting things away. The steady pace of tradespersons slowed during November, with just a few electricians and carpenters visiting. Even the knitting projects I pursued went quickly and only took a few hours over one week to complete.

No, the struggle to write was almost all internal: how to motivate myself to sit down and get some work done when I don’t have a deadline from a publisher, I don’t have students anxious to have their assessment returned, nor do I have a due date to an administrator looming in front of me. I would put off writing because I knew I was still working ideas out in my head. But AcWriMo 2019 taught me that I can (and should) write in order to work out those ideas. Putting words to paper (or rather, on a screen) helped to clarify my thoughts and create a better outline for the monograph.

I learned that I can—all too easily—disappoint myself but I am loath to let down someone else who is depending on me (oddly, I only knew one person in the AcWriMo group, but that feeling of relationship triumphed over other feelings). So I would often end up writing in the last few moments of the morning before heading out to run errands instead of the promise that writing would be the very first thing I would do in the morning.

Blank monthly chore chartAnd it’s not just how and when to schedule my writing, it’s life right now. I’m struggling—not with the meaning of my life now that I am retired, but with how to structure my days. Just this weekend we talked about needing a timetable for household chores—that we haven’t established a workable routine in our new house.

Poster that says "Accountability is the glue that ties commitment to results"I don’t think my struggles are unique. Research often encourages individuals to routinize common tasks as one way to increase productivity. Some ways to routinize behaviors are to add them to one’s calendar, to conduct a weekly review of activities in order to assess how well one’s plan was implemented, and to work with an accountability partner. AcWriMo’s genius is that it is structured to address at least two of these techniques—write daily, and usually, share your intentions and your progress with others, via a shared spreadsheet or some other means of accountability. Many AcWriMo leaders encourage at least once a week those who are participating, offering writing advice and urging people who fell short one week to do better next week.

As someone who has been both a leader/participant of a campus AcWriMo program and just a participant the last two years, what I have realized is that planning and accountability are necessary but not sufficient for (my) writing productivity. Successful individuals routinize the behaviors (writing, reviewing their activity, and accountability) because they are motivated to do so. And the person’s motivation to write has to be stronger than other motivations—including inertia.

David McCullough quote: "To write is to thinkThat’s where ultimately, everything comes down to the individual writer-to-be. What external motivators (e.g., tenure, promotion, more financial security, wanting to move, etc.) impact your ability to (want to) write productively? Can you leverage them in a way that helps you to sit down and write instead of letting them paralyze you? Are there routines that you can implement (here is mine) which can move you into your personal “writing zone?” Sometimes that means creating new ways to process the mounds of grading you must do or to cut down on committee service in favor of making time to write. So be it.

But there are also internal motivators which can help or hinder each of our writing. What insights can you and only you share with readers, based on your academic training? Are you afraid to share your thoughts? Or paralyzed by the possible judgement of your readers, and so would rather not write at all than let your thoughts go into the public square? What motivation do you need to overcome your inertia (be in binge-watching your favorite show or impeachment-mania or the need to always read “just one more thing” before you start writing, etc.)?

So now it’s December…and I am still writing. Not always as much as I’d like, but AcWriMo helped me to realize that yes, I have something to say about the decline of civility in the US. Moreover, I’ve realized that I need to write it down and be willing to share it—with a publisher and eventually (I hope) with readers. I’ve learned that I don’t have to write the manuscript from word one to the last paragraph before the references—writing sections out of order is still writing. And that’s what’s important.

Graphic that says: "You can't think yourself out of a writing block; you write yourself out of a thinking block."Staring at a blank screen utterly frustrated me during November. I need to spill out my thoughts—unpolished as they are right now—as a way to work through my arguments. Having “mental debates” without actually writing what they are and how I resolved them, will never advance the book project. Any writing about the topic is better than no writing.

So while I am glad AcWriMo 2019 is over, it taught me a lot about myself and how I need to work. And that’s always a good thing. And the organizer of the AcWriMo group I participated in said she plans three more AcWriMo months in 2020. Count me in; see, I have something to say and I want to say it.

*AcWriMo is the international academic movement where scholars pledge to write every single day in the furtherance of one or more writing projects.

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

Endings Can Be Hard

White male's hands, with pen, writing on notebook paper, surrounded by booksI don’t do endings well. In my writing, the section of manuscripts editors most asked me to work on were my conclusions. They are the latest writing I did, so they had the least time for revision and polishing. But I am not sure that I did class endings a whole lot better.

For most college faculty, December brings an end to an academic term. Be it a semester or a quarter, time with students is rushing toward the academic stop sign—finals week and giving grades. Sometimes we can barely wait till a class is over and other times—when students have become enthralled with the content and are digging even deeper than required—when we wish time could slow down so that we could savor every moment.

Whiteboard covered with writing; white male faculty member stands in front of it. Text says: "Last day of classes...teaches completely new chapter"But time marches on. For a while, when I was just beginning to teach, I would cover new material up until the day of the final, providing no ending experience for students. I was exhibiting more of the “everything and the kitchen sink” type of teaching and felt that every second of class time should be spent on new material. I was wrong.

I came to understand that “less content is better” and significantly reduced the amount of concepts which I covered in my Introduction to Sociology course (see here for more about that decision). I planned “wrap-up sessions” before every test that would get students engaged with the material and with each other.

Squirrel, stretched out. Text says: "Must...make end of semester"But my final was optional—only those students who were within fifteen points from the next letter grade could take it and while it was a comprehensive, fifty point test, the most it could count would be fifteen points. Students had to make a C grade on it (35/50) and then every point above that could help them to raise their final grade. Students knew exactly how many points they needed and could decide if they wanted to take it or not. So on average, of my 300 student class, only 25 or so would choose to take it during the scheduled finals day.

Clock, showing 10,11,12 -- and in red font, "Time for Review"I wondered if a “last test review session” was really the best way to end the semester together. So I began to develop a “last day” session that would look back at our learning outcomes and how they would help each student in future careers and in daily life. So we talked about how every job has a work setting which they could analyze (e.g., its formal and informal norms, its vocabulary, its positive and negative sanctions, its social structure, etc.); how personal relationships mean that the individuals construct a shared social construction of reality; how race, class, gender, sexual orientation, age, disability and other statuses—some visible, some invisible—will shape, for better or worse, many interactions they have in the world, etc. We talked about how their socialization decisions, if they become parents, will not only impact their lives but the lives of their children, on into the future.

I also talked a bit about sociology as a major and a profession, in particular highlighting jobs in the business and health care fields; shared average salary and benefits for various jobs which recent sociology graduates held; and briefly gave an overview of the sociology programs at our school (both the major and the minor). And I thanked the graduate assistants and the undergraduate embedded peer tutor—they had helped me so much but they also were crucial to the success of the students. I often gave them gifts.

4 cell chart, offering tips for college student success: 1) use calendar; 2) use alarm clock; 3) put phone in airplane mode; etc.I also asked students to write some tips they would offer to the students who would be enrolled next semester—which I would then type up and post on a discussion board. By the time I retired, the tips numbered well into the hundreds (though many were repetitive) – because I wanted them to hear from those who had come before. These also gave me good insights into how students felt about assessments I was using, the text, and about my own teaching. I found their comments helpful; I agreed with over ninety-five percent of them.

Graduation mortar board hat, on top it says "That's all folks!"But I never felt like it was a satisfactory ending to the shared journey we’d taken. All too often the students were only focused on information about their points in class/final grade and if they were eligible for the optional final. I’d tweak what I shared and how I shared it, but nothing ever felt “right.”

Looking back, I have realized that the last days never felt “right” because I never wanted the classes—my relationships with those students—to end. So readers—how do you wrap up a class? Do you feel that how you end “works” for your students? For you? Share in the comments—let’s help to create a pedagogical culture about how to end a class well.

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