Departmental Politics: How to be a good “senior colleague”

Bed, with white linens. Red rose petals spread all over itLife in an academic department is not always a “bed of roses.” In fact, sometimes it can be downright fraught with tension and backbiting. In that sense, academe is like every other worksite—humans interact there, and humans don’t always get along well.

I want to write a series of blog posts about departmental politics—several readers asked me to consider the topic and I found the request intriguing. I’ve decided to start with the role of senior faculty colleagues, because I know it best. Next week I’ll talk about “newer” faculty. Then I’ll turn to department heads/chairs, and lastly, I’ll talk about how to get help if you feel you are in a situation that is unmanageable.

If you are a senior faculty member (but not the chair/department head), are there things you can do (and not do) to try and lessen tension? I think that there are.

Blue circle in white square. It says "Breathe... & count to 10..."Don’t reply immediately to a new idea with criticism (especially if it comes from a junior faculty member). Even if you can see lots of potential problems should the idea be implemented, let the idea “sit.” Listen to what others have to say, first. I found this to be a very useful strategy during the last five years before I retired, even before I had officially announced my retirement date—I knew it was coming and I wanted to be a good departmental citizen. So I made a commitment to myself to pull back a bit from programmatic conversations, because ultimately, many of them wouldn’t involve me, long-term. I chose to only raise concerns if I knew or if I was worried that the idea (or more often, the implementation of the idea) might violate university or system policies or procedures. Then I would raise the issue, but I’d suggest—if possible—ways to implement the idea, just within the existing policies or help draft a request for a waiver.

Refrain from constantly referring to “when I started out teaching.” Some newer colleagues might not have been born when you started teaching—let that sink in and help you to self-edit. Your colleagues could choose to tune out if you keep harking back to “the good old days when….” The profession of teaching has changed in the thirty-some years I was a part of it—use of technology, class size, funding, availability of tenure-track positions v. number of adjunct positions, publishing requirements, and I could go on. So comparisons to “back in my day” often alienate instead of unify.

Quote about communication: "A lot of problems would disappear if we talk to each other instead of about each other"Communicate with your colleagues. Not to talk with them is a sign of disrespect. I had a colleague who would attend every meeting of our program faculty, but would never say a word. But then the faculty member would vote—often differently than the other faculty—and wouldn’t offer explanations or clarifications afterwards. It was hard to feel that that senior colleague was “one of us” when we never learned what was on his mind about the curriculum, the program, or the relationships between all of us in the program.

Don't be a jerkDon’t be a jerk. Understand that as a more senior faculty member, you have privilege, be it seniority/tenure, or likely a higher salary due to rank, a better office, and so on. Use your privilege if you see sexism, racism, classism, homophobia, etc. Don’t make newer colleagues have to do it—especially if they are the victim.

Students come first!Put the students’ needs first, then the needs of the program, unless there are extenuating circumstances. I understand that parents might need to start their teaching day later or end it earlier than those of us who do not have children to drop off or pick up from school. I taught an 8 AM section for years because I loved that hour and wanted to help out my colleagues and our program. But I never liked having senior colleagues (and not just them) who would just issue edicts, about, for example, the classes they wanted to teach next semester and were intransient about negotiating, even if it meant that required courses had to be taught at the same time, thus increasing students’ time to graduation.

And the cardinal rule to follow is,

White older female with glasses, holding finger to mouth as if "shushing" studentsDon’t denigrate students, even behind their backs. I realize we all can have a bad day and share something that happened in class as a way to vent—I get that. But if day after day, all a senior faculty member does is talk bad about students to other colleagues, it sets a bad example and can poison the learning environment for all.

How do you think senior faculty should act, in terms of departmental politics? Share in the comments.

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

You Mean You Don’t See My Paper Like I Do? . . . That Explains Everything!

Text with two errors circled in red; one is a typo/misspelling and other error is a word repeated twiceDuring the semester, students usually hated getting graded papers back from me (or so they said*). Largely this was because I noticed everything, grammatically-speaking. I would comment on where their writing was strong, to be sure, but I also commented on repetitive errors. I’d use bright colored ink and write with my calligraphy pen (until I started grading online and then I used Word’s comment function to write on their papers). Not infrequently I heard a student comment that “she bled” all over the returned paper (even though I never used red ink).

I know that there is a debate amongst those who teaching writing about how many grammar errors to call attention to, and over time, I found myself making fewer comments on students’ papers. I’d circle consistent errors and then write a note about them at the end of the paper. I also always started with one or two compliments, before talking about how their writing could be improved. After grading all the assignments, I would usually write a letter to the class with links to websites and the style guide manual which could show them how to correct writing errors that were made most frequently.

Students in class, workingI came to rely on “peer writing workshop days,” scheduled into classes where I was requiring a significant writing project from students (individually or as a group project). These workshop days strengthened their papers, pre-grading. I’d require a “polished rough draft” be turned in—without any names—from each student or group, as the case may be. We’d then work to create a “look for these things” list and put them on the whiteboard in one column, so that all students had access to it. We’d put examples of “the error” and “the correction” in two more columns. Many of our examples were about the American Sociological Association’s citation style (ASA), which our program required students to use and with which they often struggled mightily. We’d also make a list of helpful versus less-than-helpful comments to use when they got to reading the other student’s paper. My favorite “less-than-helpful” comment shared by a student was “Never say ‘why in the (expletive) did you choose this topic?—when the paper is due in four days.’” I think that’s good advice, don’t you?

After our list was created, I would redistribute the “polished drafts” to each member of the class. We used an honor code—if students got their own paper or one they’d read before, they were to tell me and I’d give them another. The room would get quiet, as students settled in to read and comment on the paper before them. I would respond to questions, like, “I think this is wrong ASA style but wanted your opinion before I wrote it down—is it?”

It was during one of these workshop days in my Sociological Theory course when I learned that my brain works differently than most other people’s. A student walked up and joined a line of about five other students waiting to talk to me. He was about six feet from me. He held up the paper he was reviewing for me to see. I looked up just for a second and said to him, “Did you notice all the spelling errors on that page?” He just stared at me; then he blurted out, “How do you know there are spelling errors? You’re too far away to read it yet!!!”

The word "synesthesia," with each letter in a different color fontBut the thing is—I could see the typos very easily. They were in a different (red) font versus the rest of the paper being in black font. Only…they weren’t really in red; that’s just how my brain processed the page. When I said to the student, “oh, that’s a typo, it’s in red font” he just looked at me. They all stared at me like I was crazy. I said, “don’t you see the page that way too?” I had just assumed…and was wrong. I went home that night and discovered that I have a neurological condition called synesthesia. It’s not just typos which are in color. Spacing errors (too many or too few) appear to my brain to be highlighted in neon green. Other kinds of errors are highlighted in grey-ish blocks. I have to pay more attention to those to figure out what kind of writing or grammar errors they are, but I know that there’s something wrong.

This was a real learning moment for the class and for me. They were astounded that my brain was wired so differently than theirs were—but only about writing issues. As one student said, “Well, this explains everything about how you grade our papers, Dr. L!” Actually, I was taken aback, too. I had long suspected that there had to be a reason why I was so good at noticing writing errors, but I had never articulated how I see words on paper before to anyone else. Saying the words, “typos are in red font” and seeing that others didn’t perceive the text the same way, made things real for me in a way that they’d not been before.

My synesthesia has been a blessing. I didn’t have a choice—this is how my brain has worked, likely from birth. But my brain’s uniqueness has shaped how I have lived out my status as professor and now, as an editor. I can assure clients that they can be confident that grammar errors will be “caught,” due to my synesthesia. I just can’t return a manuscript until I have fixed all the errors which my brain shows me are there.

This has also helped me to re-remember that every one of us is unique. Many students might make errors—in following directions, in submitting assessments on time online, in creating presentations, etc.—because they process information differently than I do, than other students do. Talking with students before grading assessments that seemed very different than what I was expecting often helped me to discover information about the student—if the student chose to share information with me—that helped me better understand why the assessment was the way that it was. That didn’t always mean I would grade it differently, but it did mean that the student and I could strategize to see if there were ways to the student to manage assessments in my class. For example, one student consistently “read” my directions very differently than I meant them. So we made a pledge to meet the day after the student started to work on the assessment, to talk through what she thought I wanted, so that if it was different than what I did want, she had time to adjust her work. When these meetings proved to be successful, I immediately offered them to the entire class: “come talk with me about how you understand the assessment, before you begin it, in order to increase the likelihood of your success.”

Text says, "Your perception may not be my reality."Perceptions matter—be they based on brain functioning or any other reason. Help your students to understand how their perceptions are shaping their behavior and own your perceptions too. Once I knew I “saw” papers differently than my students did, I told them about it during the first few days of the term and shared with them that it meant I was likely to notice all their typos and spacing errors, perhaps more than any other professor had. They better accepted those comments and understood where they came from.

So what’s your “power” (I hesitate to call it a “superpower”—that would be overstating my students’ view of my synesthesia)? Do you share it with your students? How does it impact your teaching? Your professional life as an academic?

*Usually, I received 5 or more emails every semester from graduates thanking me for “making” them learn to write better. Many said that it took several years to realize how much they had grown as writers after taking my courses. Often they’d contact me after a boss congratulated them on how they wrote a report or a judge complimented them on how they wrote up a case.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SWAT-ting

I distinctly recall the first time someone told me to “SWAT”—sit, write, and think. I thought, how crazy. Who writes before thinking? That seemed just backwards. I was wrong. Very wrong. Very, very wrong. Oh so wrong.

I’ve learned that—contrary to what I used to believe—doing the writing can help me to overcome writer’s block. Writing frees me, letting me map out an argument I want to make or plot out the story which I want to tell. Even more importantly, writing helps me to overcome the fear of writing.

Woman, head down on blank notebook, holding pen--writer's blockNow don’t get me wrong, when I am in the midst of a writer’s block (better labeled, at least for me, a ‘procrastination binge’), the writing that I do isn’t usually my best—but I have come to respect it. The writing is often raw, jumbled, confused—but they are words on paper and that’s infinitely better than no words on paper. SWAT writing shows me where I have competing trains of thought that need some attention in order for me to sort which is the better one to follow.

SWAT-ting takes away one other excuse I make for not writing-that I need blocks of time in order to do any productive writing. I can SWAT in a coffee shop waiting for my order to arrive or while sitting in a physician’s office waiting my turn to speak with the receptionist. As long as I have a notebook and pen, I have everything I need to write something.

So what kinds of things have I written-in-order-think?

-Chapter outlines of monograph I am starting

-Section headings within a chapter

-Chapter “descriptions” which briefly summarize what the chapter will be and key examples I want to use in it

-Draft of section of report due to the administration

-Bullet points for a new class presentation

-Thoughts toward a professional presentation later in the year

-Emotions about writing projects—fear, exhilaration, uncertainty

-A wish list—what I’d love to write, “if only…”

For many, a new academic term is about to start (or already has). How can you utilize SWAT-ting over the next few months? Be sure that you have the tools which work best for your lifestyle. Are you someone who, perhaps because of teaching at several schools or doing a lot of waiting in line with your children, could use a recording app on your phone to capture your thoughts?

Or do you need to see your words flow out onto paper in order to feel like you are actually writing? Then figure out what kind of a notebook would work best for you. While I love Circa products, I found that the sheets could too easily come out in the massive book bag which I carry. So I went back to a more traditional, bound notebook. And while I love lined paper, lately I have found that a graphing notebook works best for me, especially when I am  creating lists of ideas.

Don’t get me started on what pen to use! While I am a fountain pen aficionado, I have had too many documents destroyed from leaks while in my book bag, so that I stopped using them anywhere but in my home office. But if you need a gel-type pen while out and about, then I’m your person. Teaching a large class meant that several students (and often more than several) borrowed writing implements before every class. I learned to carry about 30 pens with me at all times. Even now—retired—when I use my book bag, it still contains a fabric case with about 20 gel pens. I want to be ready when free time, strikes. Notice I didn’t say when “inspiration” strikes—just time to write. The thinking and analysis, will come. I promise.

So readers, what projects could benefit from you SWAT-ting this week?

SOME RESOURCES

A compilation of voice recording apps (free and paid versions, iOS and Android): https://www.pcmag.com/feature/346474/9-voice-recorder-apps-that-won-t-miss-a-second

Circa paper/organizational products:  https://www.levenger.com/circa-326/circa-notebooks-339.aspx

Less expensive alternatives to Circa, reviewed here: https://juliebestry.com/2014/04/01/customizable-notebooks-have-it-your-way-sorta/

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tips for Writing Successful Letters of Reference for Graduate School

Woman standing on road with two branches - one shows a career path and other, graduate schoolLast week I wrote about ways to reduce the time needed to write a letter of reference for an undergraduate student applying for a job. This week I want to build on that by sharing how I would write a letter of reference for a student applying for graduate school, medical school, law school, or social work (by far the type of program that I wrote for the most).

I used a version of the Word document which I would send to the student who was requesting the letter from me. Here’s what it would include (italics are unique to the request for a graduate school reference letter):

    • Full name and student identification # (please alert me if name changed for any reason—marriage, transitioning, etc.)
    • Major and minor
    • What classes they took from me (course number and name) and grade received (I shared that I would verify with my own records/official transcript)
    • When they took classes
    • Were they an advisee, also? If so, when?
    • Were they ever a peer tutor who worked for me? For anyone else?
    • Research paper topics if they wrote any – please give lots of details about a senior thesis or major research paper on topic in discipline applying for
    • How the student felt s/he performed in my class(es) and why (give me details). I would tell students that one didn’t have to be talkative for me to consider them a leader in class, etc.
    • Any work experience that fits with desired discipline of the graduate program (before, during, or after college)
    • Any volunteer/community experience that fits with the graduate program’s discipline (before, during, or after college)
    • Any academic or personal issues they had (e.g., illnesses, family troubles, etc.) that might have impacted academic performance (i.e., “please remind me if I already knew it”) and I asked if I had permission to mention any issues in the letter (a “yes” or “no” box on the form)
    • What kind of a time management skills do you have, given school (if in it) or work, personal life, relationships, etc.? How do you feel adding graduate school to the mix would change your ability to manage your time? 
    • How well did the student do on the best standardized test for the program the student wants? (i.e., GMAT, MAT, GRE, LSAT, etc.)       
    • Evidence of intellectual curiosity in the last 6-12 months (could be non-required nonfiction books have read; podcasts listen to regularly; learning new language, etc.) This is especially important to me if student been out of college for a while.
    • How well do you work in groups? Many people believe that to be successful in graduate school requires a person to find a group of like-minded student peers to study with, etc. That’s not to say one cannot be successful in graduate school “solo,” but it can be more difficult.
    • Brief statement about why student wants this particular degree, at this particular graduate school (especially if there is something in the degree program that appeals to the student, like a rural focus, etc.). How and why did the student choose this degree path? This is useful if the graduate program is not very closely related to the student’s undergraduate degree.
    • If student has a master’s degree and is applying for a doctoral program, I also ask
        • Why a doctoral degree? Why now? What do you feel the doctoral degree will allow you to do that a master’s degree would not (i.e., work advancement, etc.)
        • What kind of writer have you become during your master’s degree? Do you have a reading-writing process that allows you to read much material, process it, and analyze it? If not, what plan do you have to create such a process?
        • Have you thought about the financial obligations of graduate school and how they might impact your life and your relationships? 
        • Are you planning to apply for any and all scholarships offered?

Complete information about graduate program and school applying to

    • Name of whom to write letter
    • Address
    • Complete name of graduate program (preferably send a URL for me to review)
    • Date letter of reference must be submitted
    • URL if to be submitted online

Obviously, I require the student requesting a letter of reference from me for graduate school admission to do a bit of work, in order for me to write the strongest letter I can on the student’s behalf. If the student was not an advisee or did not take my Senior Capstone class (where we spent a lot of time discussing graduate school, how to be successful in it, and reasons to go and not go), I usually request a conversation with the student (in person, or over the Internet) so that we can do that now. Most students said that my information form took about 15-30 minutes to complete. Several said that some of the questions they had not thought about before and helped them to better shape their statement about career goals that the application asked them to write.

I use a template to write the letter for the student. The first paragraph would talk about the student by name, the program to which the student was applying, and how long I had known the student and in what capacity (i.e., only as the student’s professor, advisor, employer, etc.).

Three sheets of paper, labeled "Test scores," "GPA," and "Extra curriculars"The next few paragraphs I spent trying to create a verbal description of the person as a student. So I would talk about the student’s cumulative GPA, the GPA in the major (if that was a statistic I thought would help out the student’s application), and my overall assessment of the student as an undergraduate, in particular about writing, academic focus, and group work, as well as how well I feel the student’s standardized test score reflects their graduate education potential. Is there something in the student’s academic background that could show how the student overcame a problem – say by going to the Writing Center or Tutoring Center – and achieved success? I try to answer in advance any academic worries the program might have about admitting this student.

Picture top half of a person, wearing glasses. Surrounding head are questions marks, as if drawn on a blackboardIn the next several paragraphs I would go into detail about the student’s academic history—how was he or she as a participant in classes they had with me? How was the student’s ability to read information, see similarities and differences, and then analyze them? Could the student do a wonderful analysis but then not be able to express it in an academic writing style? If so, do I believe that could that be a skill the student could improve on easily? Did the student show intellectual curiosity while in my classes – as evidenced by coming in and wanting to talk about the material more or asking about other books/blogs to read, or showing the ability to link course content with other courses the student had taken or was taking? What about since graduation—does the student talk about still being intellectually curious?

Then, I’d share how the student came to decide on that school and its program. I believe that programs like to know that students have not just applied everywhere and anywhere, but have thoughtfully considered the advantages of its program and chose to apply there with intentionality. I know when I was on graduate admission committees, too often it felt like  students weren’t even sure which program they’d applied to—and I hated that.

Wordle, terms all about professional ethicsIf the profession the student wants to enter post-graduate school requires fulfilling an ethical code (such as counseling, social work, etc.), do I feel the student has the ability to learn about and ultimately abide by that code? I often shared incidences where I saw the student resist peer pressure to cheat or who would lead a group study session versus studying on own, etc.

I would end the letter with a brief description of who I was—how long I had taught, been a faculty advisor, etc. I’d talk about the class sizes of classes the student was in, so that future employers could tell if I really had a chance to get to know the student. I’d sometimes end with a few of the teaching awards that I had won, to sort of round out my credibility.

My last paragraph always included a statement that I would be happy to answer questions the possible employer might have and included at least 2 ways to reach me (phone and email). I also wished the employer luck with the search. Again, we sometimes forget there’s another person, reading the letter, who just wants to finish the search, successfully!

So readers, how do you write a letter of reference for an undergraduate applying for post-graduate education? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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

 

Is It That Time of Year Again?: Writing Undergraduate Job Market Reference Letters

Happy 2020! My intention is to write 50-52 blog posts again this year. So let’s get started.

Wordle of key words involved in the writing of reference lettersFor a while, the requests for letters of reference were an “only in early spring term” phenomenon, but with more and more undergraduate students graduating at the end of fall term, it can seem like this is a year-round activity. I love writing reference letters for them, but to do them well can also be a bit of a time-suck, so here are some tips that can shorten your future labor. This post will be about writing letters of reference for jobs and next week’s will be about writing letters for graduate programs.

  1. Create a form (I used Word to create mine) to gather the information which you feel you need to write the best letter possible. Send it out to the student requester when you get an email asking for the letter. I told the student, in my email reply, that unless I got the form back, completed, in four working days, I won’t write the letter. This helped me to plan out my time more efficiently. It also meant that I didn’t get any “I need this tomorrow” kind of requests!

What information did I want to know from my undergraduate students?

    • Full name and student identification # (please alert me if name changed for any reason—marriage, transitioning, etc.)
    • Major and minor
    • What classes they took from me (course number and name) and  grade received (I told them I would verify with my records/official transcript)
    • What term(s) they took classes
    • Were they an advisee, also? If so, when?
    • Were they ever a peer tutor who worked for me?
    • Research paper topics if they wrote any
    • How the student felt s/he performed in my class(es) and why (give me details). I would tell students that one didn’t have to be talkative for me to consider them a leader in class, etc.
    •  Any work experience that fits with the job applying for
    •  Any volunteer/community experience that fits with the job applying for
    •  Any academic or personal issues they had (e.g., illnesses, family troubles, etc.) that might have impacted academic performance (i.e., “please remind me if I already knew it” or share now) and I asked if I had permission to mention any issues in the letter (a “yes” or “no” box on the form)
    • Complete information about job applying to
      • Name of whom to write letter
      • Address
      • Complete name of job (preferably send a URL for me)
      • Date letter of reference must be submitted
      • If the student’s experience does not seem to fit with the job, why are applying, so that my letter can reinforce the rationale, if possible

Three rows of words: Trust, Honesty, RespectI tell students that I will not lie. If I don’t believe I can write a strong and truthful letter, that I will let them know within 48 hours of their request, so that they can find another reference. There were a few students where I said ‘no’ – in particular, students who cheated in my class (twice!) and yet who asked me to be a letter of reference for them, and a work study student who repeatedly blew off hours and asked me to “fudge” the time sheet.

  1. I also created a template for the letter of reference, that allowed me to use the information from the student in a logical way. So, for instance, the first paragraph of the letter would always include the following information:
    • Full name of student
    • Job title to which student was applying
    • How long I had known the student and in what status(es): professor of (name of class[es]), advisor, work supervisor, etc.

Image of hand, holding ballpoint pen, having just written the word "Dear" on the paperThe next few paragraphs were about my recollections of the student in class, as an employee, or as an advisee, or several of these statuses. How strong was the student as a thinker? A writer? As a participant in discussions in class or online? As a leader in class? How was the student’s follow-through if had sought out advice? Did I see growth over time in their study skills, their time management skills, their abilities to balance multiple classes with the rest of their lives, if I had known them for a long period of time? These paragraphs were where I added a lot of the personal details about the student and why I felt they would be a strong new employee. I also tried to minimize, if I felt it was required, things like a not-so-stellar first two years of grades. I’d talk about how many students from my university had a “rocky” start academically. I’d calculate the student’s GPA once had settled on a major and showed how (inevitably for those I wrote for), the GPA had risen significantly and talked about how interest, determination and having a clear goal had let to a more focused student and how I felt that was a skill that would continue in a job, etc. If I knew, for example, that a student’s parent had died during one semester, and the student had given permission to mention that, I might say how that explained lower grades that term, etc. I would talk about how future academic terms showed the student’s resilience and focus.

  1. I would end the letter with a brief description of who I was—how long I had taught, been a faculty advisor, etc. I’d talk about the class sizes of classes the student was in, so that future employers could tell if I really had a chance to get to know the student. I’d sometimes end with a few of the teaching awards that I had won, to sort of round out my credibility.
  1. My last paragraph always included a statement that I would be happy to answer questions the possible employer might have and included at least 2 ways to reach me (phone and email). I also wished the employer luck with the search. Again, we sometimes forget there’s another person, reading the letter, who just wants to finish the search, successfully!

Usually my letters for undergraduates were from 2-3 pages in length (single spaced). I sent a copy to the student, so would know what I had said. I saved each letter using a file system of “Student’sLastNameJobTitleDate” so that it would be easy to create similar letters, should the student need one.

So readers, how do you write a letter of reference for an undergraduate going on the job market? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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