Going Big, Online (Pt 1 of series)

Large college classroom, full of studentsSo you taught a large face-to-face class (150+ students) and you now find yourself having to redesign it for an online environment, perhaps permanently. First—I can empathize with you. While I never went completely online with my classes of 275+ (what my institution called a “supersection”), all but the class meetings and some office hours were in an online environment. And I prepared most of my class meetings for online delivery just in case it was every needed.

I taught these supersections of Introduction to Sociology every semester for a decade. I’ve probably made every mistake—interactional, technological, about classroom management—that someone could make. I’ll share some of them in the next few weeks and also some of the techniques that worked well for me and for others I know who have taught large sections online.

Zoom screen with 25 people participatingSo in a series of posts, I will offer some suggestions if you didn’t make the transition during the spring but now find yourself faced with a fall large class. Let’s start the series with some questions:

-How familiar are you with the course management system offered by your institution? Can you get more training now—preferably before the course begins, if you don’t feel very comfortable with it?

-What other software can you use for your course, which is supported by your institution’s IT staff? (You really don’t want to be using software not supported during this kind of transition, with several hundred students, trust me on this. Been there, done it, lots of tears!)

-How familiar are your intended students with the course management system? Other software you want to use? Or are your students likely to be new to all or some of them? I usually taught first-year students, so they were new to our course management system and many had not used anything similar in high school. Some had a steep learning curve.

-Will you have any pedagogical help? A graduate student assistant? An embedded undergraduate peer tutor? Academic coaches? Beg and plead for all the assistance you can.

-Does your institution have an Academic Support Center? An Instructional Technology Support Center? Online Library staff? What hours will they be open during the term you are teaching? How can you and your students interact with these crucial staff members?

-Do you have required pedagogical experiences such as laboratories, service-learning, or observations in the face-to-face class? Will you transition all of those experiences in some way to the online experience?

-To the best that you can know it now, what is your institution’s plan for reopening? Are there policies being created about, for example, you being able to meet with small groups from class, in an open area, or could you reserve a smaller classroom? Will you be allowed to have in-person office hours as well as online office hours, if you wished to do so?

-Is there a chance that you could be told to deliver face-to-face AND online content for the same large section, with students choosing which content delivery they want to have on any given day, based on their health status and other choices?

-What is your institution’s plan if you get sick (and not necessarily just from Covid-19!) and are teaching online (especially important if you have no assistance)?

-What instructional materials will you use?

-Open educational resources? If so, have you read through them all? Do you have the ability to add notes/make changes to any which might conflict with how you teach the material? [I have found that students struggle mightily when what I am sharing is contradicted or even slightly different than what the text says. The last online text I used allowed me to line through any text I didn’t want them to read and insert a “text bubble” with what I wanted instead. It really helped!]

-What online resources do you have available? Does the text have online exercises or applications or visuals which you can assign? Again, have you looked at them all/watched the ones you are likely to assign?

-Are all the visual materials chosen accessible? (This will be the topic of a post in this series, so if you are not sure – I’ll help.)

-Have you looked at your selected resources on screens/monitors of several sizes? Think from a large, gaming monitor, to a standard monitor, to a phone—students should comfortably be able to access your educational materials using any of these technologies.

-How likely is it that most of your students will be enrolled in online-only courses? There can be an increasing amount of “screen fatigue” with more classes taught that way (it can happen to you, too!). Think about that as you contemplate the amount of work you are assigning.

Text says: "Make the plan, execute the plan, expect the plant to go off the rails, throw away the plan"And of course, other than knowing what CV-19 is going to do in your area, the biggest set of questions is: What is your institution’s plan for the fall? When will it be decided? And how flexible is it/will it have to be?

Here’s how I see the series unfolding, but if people suggest other topics, it could change. Some of these might be longer than usual, but to make the series useful, making it be over too many weeks won’t help much. If people would like me to do the series at a faster rate, just let me know in the comments, I can do that too!:

Week 1:  Some questions to think about

Week 2:  Designing for and with accessibility

Week 3:  Backwards designing your class, for its content and the changed circumstances of Fall 2020

Week 4:  Assessments that engage them (and you!)

Week 5:  Communication: tone, honesty, and humor

Week 6:  What classes might look like come fall and building student engagement for different options

Week 7:  I can’t believe I did that–but I did–please learn from my failures  (I might choose to weave these through each post, again, in an effort to share my pedagogical tips out quickly.)

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

COVID-19, Transitioning to Online Learning, and Emotions: Yours and Your Students’

I had planned on this week’s post being about how a leader can help build a community of teaching practice. But current events have made me rethink that topic and I’ll shift it to a future post. Sorry for the length – I hope these thoughts can help.

Image of COVID-19 virus; image from CDCThe coronavirus is shaping—at least for the near future—higher education. Many schools are canceling face-to-face classes and shifting them online. For those faculty who have taught online before, this can be stressful, but for those who never have, it must be unnerving, frightening, and overwhelming. There are lots of resources if you are in that situation (I’ll put some of them at the end of this post) but what I want to talk about is the emotions of shifting classes online—for you, the faculty member, and for your students.

Your Own Emotional Work

Text: Be scared and do it anywayIt is okay to feel overwhelmed with teaching online. It can feel that way when one chooses to shift to online classes; being forced to might only amplify the emotion. This suddenness only complicates the situation. Recognize that you are not alone in feeling overwhelmed. I also understand that at this moment, knowing others are feeling the same way doesn’t help all that much, necessarily. What you likely feel you need right now is a technological elf who will come and set up your classes, not just solidarity with others who are feeling stressed! So know yourself—what do you need to minimize feeling overwhelmed and begin to shift to making forward progress on the transition? Within reason, give yourself what you need to begin to work through this.

If you are wondering if your students’ learning experience will be different now, the answer is “yes.” But different does not necessarily mean “worse.” You might end up liking the fact that students will have to do more “conversing” in online discussion groups than they would have done in class (where conversations are often dominated by a few individuals). So don’t deny your concerns but also don’t let them get in the way of brainstorming creative ways to finish the academic term.

LMS imageIf you have not taught online before nor played around in your institution’s learning management system (LMS), it’s time to start. If you need to create an account, do so immediately. Most schools are ramping up IT support, so call if you need help. Remember, you will not be the only person asking for help and it’s okay to seek out experts. Your goal is to get online quickly and “correctly” (i.e., in ways that students who have used the LMS before will be expecting), so don’t be worried about bothering them. And by the way—write down your institution’s IT numbers and your LMS’ help hotline numbers, so that you have them handy.

For me, feeling comfortable would entail making several “to do” lists (one for each class and a master list). While not everyone feels the same way, I feel less overwhelmed when I write down tasks that need to be done. What might be on the master list? All tasks that I will need to double-check for every class (e.g., did I create dates for the beginning and ending of all assessments?; did I post the revised syllabus in several places online for each class?, did I post a notice about how grading might change due to the coronavirus, etc.).

Everyone will be different—are you someone who would like to do the same task for every class before you move on to the next task? Or do you want to finish one class before moving on to the next one you have to get online? You might have to redefine what “finish” means, however, depending on your particular institution’s timeline for shifting to online classes. “Finish” might mean setting short-term goals (e.g., have content for the next two weeks of classes for all classes posted) versus working on one class’ content, when that class may extend for six or eight more weeks.

Everyone will be stressed—your students, university staff tasked with helping make these transitions to online teaching and learning, university administration, and you. So be kind. Rethink the pedagogical necessity of every assignment. Give yourself permission to eliminate some, given how the virus has changed the social context of learning.


Communication Anxieties

Three thought bubbles with words, "Frequently Asked Questions"Consider writing your class a letter and “pin” it to the opening of your class. The tone of the letter should be “we’re in this and we’ll get through it, together.” Let them know you understand that many are worried about their own families, their economic status, their health and that of their loved ones, and how this shift to online learning will impact their grades. Let them know that you’ll be around more—answering questions, reading discussion threads, and so on. If you want to create a “Frequently Asked Questions” discussion board (something I would encourage you to do now and which I did in every hybrid classes I taught), link directly to it in your letter. Tell the class that you will try to log into that FAQ at least twice a day and you’ll respond to questions and clarify any misinformation which might have been posted. Let students ask anything they want and let other students respond—but once a day, post your answers/clarifications. That way you don’t have to respond to each student’s posting. But I would encourage you to reply directly to any post which does have incorrect information, either about institutional responses to the coronavirus or to your specific class. Be gentle as you correct information, don’t be overly aggressive with the student.

Many students might worry about how to communicate with you privately. While it will be easier on you if you ask them to contact you only within the learning management system (LMS), recognize that many will not, either because they forgot or that they may not know how to send an email within the LMS. So check your campus email frequently as well as the email within the LMS. Be gentle in your replies to those using your campus email—don’t snap at them (even if you might feel it every now and then). You might consider adding an email signature that explains how to write an email in the LMS or add an attached slide showing how to do it.

Chalkboard-like image that says, "Announcements"Some students will want to know everything about the changes to the course—right now, if not yesterday. And while you might share their concerns, you might well not have all the answers. I suggest you be transparent—share what you know officially as soon as you know it. That might mean that you use the “Announcement” tool which most LMSs have as your mechanism to share “official updates.” If it is easier, just copy and paste all news that is meant to be shared with students right there. The tool will send it out to all students or will show it when the students next log on to the LMS. Be sure to include the date and maybe even the time when you posted the content—things are moving fast in terms of the virus and how institutions are coping with it, so it will help to identify when the information was posted.

Recognize that some students will struggle with your answering their questions with “I don’t know that yet either.” They might feel the need to have firm answers to their process questions in order to be able to settle in, concentrate, and learn. So expect a few students to keep reaching out to you. Again, be kind with your replies—they are trying to cope in ways that make sense to them about an event where there are so many unknowns.

Stay in touch with students, more than you might otherwise. Let them know that you are “out there” and are wanting to know how they are feeling and how things are going. Open that communicative “door” often. Those who reach back are many of those who need you the most, at that moment. Be there for them.

Desk with computer and phone on it; text says "Online office hours"Consider having more online office hours than you might have had in-person ones, not fewer ones. I used my LMS’ Chat tool for a ‘live” experience or tell students you will be in an “online office hour discussion board” during the following hours. Tell them any question is okay—that you’ll answer what you can and crowdsource some tech questions which you might not know how to answer. Then send those questions to your IT staff for answers! Know that you might sometimes be alone, but having the hours will mean a lot to students, even if they don’t use them.

Technology Anxieties

Expect that students—especially those who have not enrolled in hybrid or online classes before—might struggle with understanding the in’s and out’s of your institution’s LMS. Hopefully your institution will offer a “quick introduction” for these students. But have the URL ready to send to any student who might need it. You might even consider adding it as a part of your email signature. Or consider creating a few “pertinent links” which you include at the start of every communication you have with students. That way students can easily find what they need to locate, thanks to you.

Be generous with your deadlines and your procedures for students turning in assessments. Yes, students should upload a written document via the Assessment tool, but many might not understand how to do that. Please, this is not a time to believe all the hype that this generation is hyper-connected and therefore should know everything about technology. Take the time to explain each step (PowerPoint or other presentation slides can be a lifesaver for this kind of knowledge-sharing). But in case someone doesn’t do it correctly, give students an “out.” Perhaps tell them that you require them to upload assessments via the assessment tool but you will also allow for a grace period (determine how long you want it to be and put it in the directions of the assessment) where a student could send the assessment to you via LMS email. Yes, it will likely mean that some students send it to you twice, but if it calms their anxiety, it will be worth it.

Consider what content you decide to “open” to students and when. Students new to the software may not think to look for due dates, so consider guiding them by only opening the content which is only needed during the first week of online teaching and learning. As students get more comfortable with the software, you could always open more content for those who might want to work ahead.

Consider a “technology bonus.” What do I mean? Think about giving all students in the class bonus points (maybe even a substantial one) for coping with new technological ways of having to learn. Yes, this could be an artificial ‘bump’ in grades, but so what? These are unusual times and offering this makes you seem humane and understanding of their concerns.

A few additional technological pieces of advice: 1) Think in small bites of information. What might have worked for your 75 minute in-class slide presentation/talk will need to be posted in sections, once you start adding in audio and text. Best practices say to think in 5-15 minute sections, with 10 minutes being ideal; 2) Caption everything. It’s the law. But especially if you are having to create content at home, with a less-than-stellar microphone, you will want to caption the content in case the audio is not that great. And realize that students who might be stuck in dorms or their homes might have to listen to your content when others are around, so they might need the volume to be lower than they’d like. Having content captioned will help everyone to master the content you want them to learn. Be sure you explain to students or show them how to turn on the captioning though – different technologies do it differently.

Learning Anxieties

Stressed studentMany students will be worried about how their learning (and your teaching) will be impacted by the shift to online teaching. Talk with them about this in your letter to them and your posts. Some students who are very verbal in class might be worried that they are not strong writers and therefore might do less well on discussion board assessments which you might be creating. One way to minimize their worries is to post a few examples of strong, good, and weak discussion posts written by you, so that all students can see exactly what level of detail, engagement with texts, and length of response will earn what kind of grade. Be encouraging with all students, especially on the first discussion assessment you create. Gently guide but let them know you are proud that they made the transition and are trying to show their learning in this (potentially) new way.

Conversely, other students might be excited to be able to write their thoughts versus having to talk in class. So expect that some students will blossom in online discussions. One tip: don’t say to such a student, “Why didn’t you share these kinds of insights in class?” You’ll be exhausted during this transition and these kinds of comments may come to you—so set your internal filter a bit higher, so that you don’t post them. Don’t beat yourself up for having such thoughts, if you do, but please police your public comments to students.

Beware of the Emotional Rollercoaster:  The Invisibles, the Not There So Much Students, and Other Worries

One of the worries shared by every faculty member who teaches online is that some students just never log on or others start well but then over time their engagement falls off precipitously. When you also see that same student in a face-to-face class, it’s easy to pull him or her aside and say “Hey, what’s happening?” But that’s nearly impossible online, for one specific reason—no matter how many check-up messages you send the student, if the student isn’t logging on, then the disconnect will continue. Here’s where you might want to ask your institution a strategic question about pedagogy: Will they have anyone (working remotely) whose job will be to contact students in other ways (likely via phone or text messaging) to assess what is happening with the student and perhaps coach the student through whatever technological or personal blocks might be happening to keep the student from doing better in the course? And if your institution does have this as part of its plan, how should you as a faculty member share information about a student who is concerning you?

Don’t assume these students “don’t care” about your class. That is usually not even true in a normal academic term, but this is far from a normal term. A student might have deliberately chosen face-to-face classes because of limited internet access, only to now have every class moved online. There might be economic or health or family pressures (or some combination) that have overwhelmed the student. Remember, some work-study students or those with campus jobs might now be scrambling to find work, while campuses are closed. They may not be able to prioritize online learning right now.

Female student, sitting on bed, looking morose, surrounded by books, notebooks, and phoneFor other students, the loneliness of having no social interaction with peers might engulf them and they might not have coping skills to manage the transition to online courses in addition to everything else going on in their lives. [An aside: you might want to find out if your institution will be offering online counseling services during the campus shutdown. If it is, always include the information on how to access that in all communication with your students.] If or when (hopefully, it is when!) a student returns to your online environment, again, be gentle and see if there are ways to adjust the schedule to help the student to succeed in learning your course content. Normally I am pretty firm about deadlines, but these are not normal times and kindness needs to outweigh steadfastness to norms.

If you can, check-in with seniors who are about to graduate whom you know, whether they are in your classes or not. They most of all might be on edge—worried about if the term might be canceled and they won’t be graduating, and/or worried about the worsening economy as the virus not only decimates people’s lives but our economy as well. Take the minute or two to write an e-mail, if you can—they will appreciate it. If you have advisees, try a mass e-mail to all and more detailed emails to those who have particular curricular issues that may be impacted by this health/educational situation. Let them know that you are thinking about them and that you will be ready to help once the coronavirus situation has been resolved.

Text: Be kind to others, be kind to yourselfMy overall guidance—be kind, be gentle…to yourself, to your students, to teaching and learning staff and instructional technology staff, and to your support system. While in one way you are figuring all this out for your classes, there are thousands of faculty just like you, making the same decisions, dealing with the same “What now?” feelings. Reach out–help is close by. Don’t go it alone. I am happy to help anyone, either sharing what I know or helping to connect you to others who know more than I do. Just reach out in the comments. Good luck.

Here are some resources which might help you. Thanks to all the scholars who are sharing, not hoarding, information.

Google Document put together by Teaching and Learning Centers across the country. Links can be accessed for help.

Google Document on Teaching in the context of COVID-19 (lots of useful links)

Google Document: Resources for Online Meetings, Classes, and Events by Facilitators for Pandemic Response Group and other collaborators

Barbara Smith’s Twitter thread: https://twitter.com/nanaslugdiva/status/1236005712020426752

Mapping Access’ Accessible Teaching in the Time of Covid-19 by Aimi Hamraie

Online Learning’s article by Saltz and Heckman on “Using Structured Pair Activities in a Distributed Online Breakout Room”

The Chronicle of Higher Education’s “Going Online in a Hurry: What to Do and Where to Start” by Michelle D. Miller

Dr. Paige Harden’s Twitter thread: https://twitter.com/kph3k/status/1237383704311476224

The Teaching Professor article by Molly Barnet and Linda A, PhD on YouTube and Creating Videos

Katie Linder’s free online community, “Keep Teaching: Resources for Higher Ed” to share knowledge about academic continuity (will require registration)

Online Teaching with the Most Basic of Tools—Email” – post on the Explorations in The Ed Tech World blog by Dr. Tannis Morgan

Sean Michael Morris’ Twitter thread: https://twitter.com/slamteacher/status/1236036921488367616

Some Resources for Online Teaching from the Wabash Center Resource Collection

InsideHigherEd article: So You Want to Temporarily Teach Online by Stephanie Moore and Charles B. Hodges

Some video captioning links:

University of Washington accessibility tips on captioning

Social Media Examiner blog

Google on how to caption YouTube videos

TechSmith blog on how to caption


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?


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.









So You Heard Back from the Journal Editor: Now What?

I’ve been on both sides of the author-editor relationship. I was an editor of the American Sociological Association’s sole pedagogical journal, Teaching Sociology, from 2010-2014. In those five years, I wrote over a thousand decision letters; I struggled with each one. How to encourage realistically some, let others down gently but honestly, and celebrate with those who were to be published. And while I have had many articles and several books published, I have also felt the sting of what I felt were unfair editorial decisions. I’ve had my share of “Reviewer 2’s” inappropriate or off-topic comments. I want to share some thoughts–especially for newer authors—about how to navigate the next steps after your receive an editor’s decision letter.

Icon of email, with notification of 1 unopened emailYou know that moment—the one when you receive the “decision email” from the editor of a journal where you’ve submitted a manuscript. My congratulations—at least you have heard back! [For purposes of this blog post, I’ll be assuming it was not rejected shortly after submission, but instead was sent out for review.]

Receiving the email does not mean you have to open it immediately. How’s your day going? Are you headed off to class or a meeting or to pick kids up at their schools? Then perhaps this isn’t the best time to open the email. Wait until you have more time and are less stressed to open it—but don’t let it sit for more than 72 hours. If you do that, your anxiety might build so much that you might never open the email!

So read it—no more than three times, I suggest. Feel whatever emotions you feel, for a few days. But then it’s time to get to work.

Decision: Revise and Resubmit

Text, with lots of handwritten notes and fountain penWhile journals may use other nomenclature, the editor is saying to you: “I am not accepting the manuscript now. But if you revised it along the lines I am telling you, I will look at it again.” How much work there is to do will be specified in the editor’s letter to you—or should be.

As an editor, I tried to identify “major concerns” and “less major” ones in my letter, but not all editors will construct the decision letter that way. So how should you—the author—respond to the editor’s and reviewers’ comments? I suggest you open a new document and make a table with three columns. In the first column, I would copy the gist of each and every editorial and reviewer comment. In the second column, I would summarize where in the revised document I responded to the editor’s/reviewer’s comment and, briefly, how I addressed the comment. If I chose to ignore a comment, I would also say that. In the third column, I would briefly write why I made the changes which I did.  (I always created the table in landscape mode, so that I had a bit more room to write.)

I also wrote the editor a cover letter to the revised manuscript. In that letter, I focused on any changes I chose not to make and offered more detail on changes which I did make. Aim to have the cover letter be about 2-3 pages long. The table was where I did most of the work of explaining my revision choices.

I tried to listen to the editor’s and reviewers’ comment but never gave up my own vision of and for the manuscript. Most of my revisions were successful; others, not so much.

Decision: Rejection  [Either by editor alone or after submitted to reviewers]

Stamper and stamp, in red, which says "Rejected"These hurt. I don’t think anyone who’s being truthful will say anything different. Expect it to take a while for the hurt to recede to a point where you can think about and work on the manuscript again. Usually after a few days, I was able to see even a few good ideas, despite the rejection. I could use those points to revise the manuscript a bit or a lot. I’d tried to take no more than a month to make some revisions and to spend time researching new journals for which the revised manuscript would be suitable. The “month as goal” was because of how hectic my schedule was. If yours is less so, try for 2 weeks or even a few days. My goal was to send the revised manuscript out to a new journal within six weeks. Sometimes it didn’t take that long. At least once I sent the original manuscript out the same day that I opened the “reject” email—and the 2nd journal accepted it, with limited edits.

Very rarely, I found trying to revise the manuscript became confusing and I walked away from that writing project. That’s only happened five times in my career, and three of them I ultimately came back to a few years later and started over. The other two times I simply realized that I was not the best author for that project. It hurt to walk away, absolutely, but for whatever reason, I couldn’t communicate what I thought I wanted to say. I kept these projects in my computer and in my filing cabinet for quite a while before I made peace with this decision. One project I gifted to a colleague who expressed interest when I posted on Facebook that I had all these books, notes, and drafts of an article about autobiographies of individuals with multiple personality disorder/dissociative identity disorder and asked if anyone wanted them or they would be recycled, when I was packing up to retire.

Decision: Conditional Accept or An Outright Accept

Computer keys which say "Conditional Acceptance"Congratulations! These rarely happen, if one looks at journal acceptance rates. So celebrate your success. But even these type of decision letters could still include requests for revisions, sometimes even substantial ones. Be careful about this—you will need to make all/most of the changes in order to actually get the manuscript published, in the timeline outlined in the editor’s letter.

Other Tips

-Please follow the timeline suggested by the editor. If possible, resubmit your edited manuscript early—editors love that! If you cannot meet the editor’s timeline, discuss it with the editor ASAP (email or over the phone). This is particularly important with conditional acceptances. Most likely the editor has already slotted it into a future edition, assuming that you can and will make the required edits. If that is not true, contact the editor quickly so that s/he can change the production schedule.

Angry woman holding phone and yelling into it-If you feel that a comment by the editor or a reviewer is unfair, biased, or unprofessional, contact the editor. If the comment is by a reviewer though, take a few minutes to reread what the editor wrote. Did she or he even include the comment in things you must respond to or was that comment ignored completely? Trust me, editors know when a reviewer is a jerk! But I never told an author to do anything with those comments or I told them clearly to ignore such comments and focus their revision on the comments of the other reviewers. Remember, most reviewers get a copy of the decision letter, so that reviewer would see that I either ignored it or told the author to forget about that comment. And I didn’t stop there—I would call or email that reviewer, explaining why I felt the comment was unprofessional or biased, and why I would never use that reviewer again. Not all authors realize that many journals require editors to send all reviewers’ comments to the author—that is to say, many editors do not have the power to withhold an unprofessional review from the author. I only had three reviewers who I decided to never use again; all because they wrote 2-line reviews.

Sign in 4 directions, which say, "Respect," "Ethics," Integrity," and "Honesty"-Depending on your research topic, you might need to include a statements about research ethics involved in your manuscript and perhaps if the Institutional Review Board for the Protection of Human Subjects (IRB) approved of the research methods in advance of data collection. As an editor of a social science journal which also was a pedagogically-oriented journal, where students were often research subjects, all published manuscripts had to address IRB issues (either in manuscript or in a footnote). If you are doing research involving animals, you might have to include a similar ethics statement about the protections used. So don’t forget that section—it might mean the difference between a “revise and resubmit” versus a “conditional acceptance.”

Next week’s blog I’ll answer some of the most common questions I was asked during my time as an editor. If you have some this week, post them in the comments and check back next week.

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

Setting the Tone: Communicating with Your Soon-to be Students Before the First Day of Class

Partial image of stop watch, with text tha says "The Time Is " It’s nearly that time—fall classes will begin soon. So let’s think about ways to communicate with your soon-to-be students. I liked to reach out early, setting the tone for our class and how we’ll interact and challenge each other. So if you’re like me, what do you want to accomplish with this early communication? Here were some of my goals (what follows is primarily how I communicated with my first-year new-to-college Intro Soc students:

Black and white image of outline of human body; text says "Let me introduce myself"-Briefly introduced myself. I shared my full name, the 2 names I wanted them to use when talking or writing me, a bit of my background, and how I fell in love with Sociology.

-Location, day, and time our class met. I embedded a section of the campus map which highlighted the easiest route from the residence halls to the classroom, so that students understood the distance and time it would take them to get there. I did the same from the main parking lot for students who might live off campus.

-Class requirements. I listed the full name and edition of the text and which text modalities they could use (i.e., e-book only, hardback only, e-book and hardback, or buying it in a spiral notebook). I shared the pro’s and con’s of each modality (e.g., price, ease of highlighting/taking notes, etc.). I also shared that each student would need a “clicker”/audience response system (I talked briefly about what clickers were, including a link to my school’s webpage about clickers and the pedagogy that supports their use, especially in large classes such as mine, which had up to 350 students enrolled), that in most cases, a used one would be fine [though were more likely to need a new battery during the academic term with a used one]. I talked about my institution’s learning management system, and how one could log into the LMS once classes started. I talked about how I can struggle with new technology—and I promised that I, my graduate assistants, and our embedded undergraduate peer tutor would be here to help them master all the technology. In fact, I scheduled a “tech day” (the 2nd Tuesday of the term) for us to go over together all the technology used in the class—the LMS, the e-book (which most purchased), and the online quizzes from the text which students had to take before every class).

-Information about Sociology. I shared that I believe humans are “amateur sociologists” just by living out our daily lives and interacting with others. A large part of the Introduction to Sociology course would be learning the formal vocabulary of the discipline. Our class would take that “lived ability” and test it against sociological concepts and theories. We’d see that what we think we know about people and how they “tick” is not accurate.

-First assignment. I would end my communication by giving each student something to do before our first class meets. Since this class would be all first-time college students, I tried to tailor the assignment to what they might be going through the last few weeks before the term started and the move-in experience. I made sure that we talked about half of these as icebreakers the first day of class and the rest on the second day, because I needed students to know that I could be trusted—that if I asked them to do something, we would discuss it soon after. Here are just a few of the ideas I used:

-Notice if you say “goodbye” differently to friends versus family. If you did, why might that be?

-Were there “elevator courtesy rules” during the move-in process? If so, what were they? Did they change once most students had moved in and classes began? [I knew that many of my students would be living in two residence halls that were 4 and 6 stories tall, so that elevators are crucial to life in the residence hall.]

-Were there dining hall courtesy rules which they noticed? For example, if one went alone versus with a group of people?

-How did you decide on what to wear for the first day of our class? Why did you decide on those clothes?

-What kinds of conversations have you had with your roommates/suitemates? Are there any topics you are trying to avoid in these early days of living together? Why?

-Why did they select the seat they did for each class?

Faculty who teach other disciplines could easily adapt this idea of assigning students a brief task to do before class begins. Each of our disciplines have concepts which fascinates or confounds students—use one of them. Your goal is to get them thinking in the ways needed for your course.

How did I communicate with my class? Some learning management systems allow faculty to set up a “preview page”—this could go there. But that involves one large assumption—that students know how to navigate the learning management system well enough to find your course. I am not sure that is a safe assumption. But my institution did not turn on that tool.

Traditional mailbox, red flag in "up" position; and envelope inside that says "You've Got Mail"I could have sent an email within the learning management system, but there again, it would require students to know how to log into the system and find our class. So I didn’t use that means of communication either.

But there were other available ways to contact students—I could have emailed the class via Banner (registration/registrar software). This was my chosen way of communicating with my soon-to-be student, but again, there was one problem: when to send the email. As we all know, registration ebbs and flows, sometimes considerably, in the few weeks before a term begins. I would keep a copy of the sent email and compare it to the class roster once a week before classes began. I would then send out another email, just to “new adds” from the week before. Even in a class as large as mine was, this took no more than half an hour, once a week. I was lucky though; changing enrollment was less problematic in my fall courses, because normally at least seventy-five percent of the students in my course were in learning communities with three required courses, one of which was Sociology. So these students were less likely to de-enroll in the course, because it would have meant changing 3 classes (or more), not just their Sociology course.

Some faculty share the course syllabus before the class begins. I often do that for upper division courses, but I feel that sharing it with first-year students can simply overwhelm them. I wanted to meet them, let them begin to see me as their cheerleader and a leader they can trust, before they see the complete syllabus. But that’s my choice; follow what you think is best for your incoming students.

What matters most is your tone. You want to communicate that your class will have a culture of inquiry, where questions are welcomed, and where intellectual curiosity is everyone’s responsibility, not just yours. Try not to focus on classroom rules–instead focus on what students will take from the class and why those are important concepts to be carried into their careers. So be open, friendly, and curious–about them and about your academic discipline.

So readers, do you communicate with your students before you actually meet them? If so, what are your goals? Let’s share pedagogical thoughts in the comments.

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




Student Reminders: When Is Enough?

Clip art of hand, with red string around index fingerFor the past fifteen years, I taught primarily first year college students—many in their first term at college. So part of my teaching job was to socialize them into college expectations. My class could be challenging to many, for a variety of reasons:

–Many students struggled academically because they were so socialized by popular culture to think psychologically, rather than the sociological explanations for behavior that I was introducing to them.

–The course made extensive use of technology, which for many students, involved learning new skills.

-We used audience response systems (“clickers”) every day but test days. I would ask  10 clicker questions—3 earned one point each and the other 7 were to elicit discussions, but earned no points.

Graphic: computer screen with LMS and person; surrounded by images of cell phone, clock, book, notes, target, and lightbulb-We used a learning management system (LMS), organized in weekly modules. Not only were the required assessments in the LMS but I also had many additional resources  available, in modules clearly labeled as “Additional Learning Tips” such as: notetaking tips; links to 2 colleagues’ YouTube classes which could offer more ways of understanding and listening to the material; and the discussion board which I created  which had all the suggestions from past students about how to be successful in our class.

-I required an interactive text, where students took pre-class “quizzes” which were  embedded in the text. Students could take the quiz until they received a score they  were satisfied with, but only in the 36 hours before class.

-There were post-class quizzes in the learning management system. These were auto-graded; each was worth 5 points and students had 26 hours after class ended, to take  the quiz.

-At the end of every class, each student handwrote an “exit question”—a question or comment about the material we covered that day and I would individually respond to each student. In addition, every Tuesday and Thursday evening (about 8 hours after class, after I had done all the commenting on the exit questions), I posted in a dedicated discussion board on the learning management system, the top five questions asked that day and I would answer each.

Yellow M&M character, with shoes on, saying, "Oh No! I forgot...something...but what?"Not infrequently, students forgot one or more of these frequent assessments. They wanted me to send out daily reminders. I did send out LMS email reminders or announced reminders in the class for the first two weeks, but then I stopped…deliberately.

A few students would beg me to do more reminders—on Twitter, the class’ Facebook page, and on the LMS. I refused…and while this was a constant stressor for me, I believe it was the right thing to do. Here’s why:

1) I had shown students how to send notifications to their phones from the LMS (which meant they would get reminders for all work due in the LMS) and I created a “How to use the tech in our class” PowerPoint presentation (and we took one complete class period to go over the tech requirements). That PPT was available to all students for the entire academic term.

2) I encouraged students to use a daily planner (preferably color coded by class) that listed all their assessments and when they had to be completed. We talked at length about how to keep track of all the assignments that they had.

3) The last page of the syllabus was a “here’s what to do every day of the week” guide (What To Do Every Day In Our SOCI 1101 Class). I urged students to print it out or to pin a PDF version of it to their computer screen, so that it was always available to remind them.

So I felt that students had the tools to stay (or learn to stay) organized. After week 2, the graduate assistants, the embedded undergraduate peer tutor, and I would offer to help any student who was struggling with the assessment schedule—but the student would now have to seek out the help.

About a week before major assessments were due, I would ask, near the end of a class, an open question, “Is anything due soon?” And then I’d let the class talk together to answer the question for each other (I wouldn’t answer the question). If a student was stuck, I would gently refer her or him to the syllabus for the answer, because I knew it was there. Over a third of the syllabus was a day-by-day schedule that listed all readings, what was due that day, etc. I wanted students to turn to the syllabus as a guide for succeeding in class and the more they had to read around in it, the more likely that would happen.

This amount of reminders felt “right” to me for a class that was almost entirely new first year students. We helped them with the first two weeks, so that they found the rhythms of our class and would repeatedly offer help if these rhythms were problematic, but we tried to help students to become less dependent on us (the graduate assistants, and the embedded peer tutor, and me) and more self-reliant. Cultivating these habits could help socialize them into successful academic habits.

Corkboard with paper pinned to it. Paper says, "No more excuses."Many wrote on the end-of-term student evaluations that they appreciated the detailed calendar, the “typical week” handout, and that I made them learn to check the class calendar frequently. A few made comments like, “You provided all the tools I needed to succeed—the online quizzes, the open discussion board for questions, the exit question where I could tell you where I was confused and get answers, plus the PPTs and your detailed class lectures and activities. I knew if I made it—I earned it. So thanks for making me learn how to do college.”

With upper division classes, I still created a detailed day-by-day syllabus which listed due dates, readings, and all assessments (I don’t know how to construct syllabi in any other way!). But I would do fewer in-class or online reminders. Every first class I would carefully go over the syllabus and the learning management system, so that students could identify where to find all the assessments.

But each term, as I wrote or revised syllabi for every course, I always debated whether I was “doing enough” reminders. Could more reminders lead to more student success or would more lead to less independent learners? So readers, how do you balance reminding versus encouraging students to become self-sufficient? Let’s talk in the comments.

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

Assistants Are Not The Answer for Teaching-Oriented Institutions: A Response to Cal Newport’s “Is Email Making Professors Stupid?”

Cartoon-like image of computer screen with bright color envelopes representing emails flying out of itIs Email Making Professors Stupid?” was a headline guaranteed to make many faculty members stop and read the article, as I am sure author Dr. Cal Newport and the editors of The Chronicle of Higher Education intended. I confess, it worked. I read the article, then reread it several more times. Each time, my frustration, indeed anger, increased.

Newport’s argument was that faculty need “deep thinking time” in order to accomplish the intellectual work required for research and pedagogy. The example which began his article was that of Donald Knuth, an emeritus computer scientist professor at Stanford University. He stopped using email in 1990; his assistant sorted letters he received, and gave them “to Knuth in batches, getting urgent correspondence to him quickly, and putting everything else into a ‘buffer’ that he reviews, on average, ‘one day every three months.’” For those of us not as fortunate to have such a supportive work environment, the copious amount of email we receive creates a “diminishment of ‘intellectual specialization,’” as we take on more administrative tasks, in part because they are a bit easier to accomplish with personal computers, but they reduce our capacity for intensive intellectual work.

Newport argued that higher education could be an early adopter of “deep work.” That would require “significant restructuring its work culture to provide professors more uninterrupted time for thinking and teaching, and require less time on email and administrative duties.” This would allow universities to “get better at their primary tasks of research and pedagogy” (Newport 2019). But intriguingly, for the rest of the article, Newport focused on faculty conducting research and doing university service – and the teaching mission fades from view.

As I read the article, I kept thinking that an assistant shared by a few faculty, who would answer emails, schedule meetings, and keep up with administration’s growing need for data and reports is an answer to a time and intellectual problem that likely only elite universities could afford to even try to implement, let alone to sustain. Eliminating email completely or in part would have little impact on the technological duties that come with pedagogy in many institutions of higher education.

The students in my large Introduction to Sociology course (on average 250-300 students) often sent me 30-75 emails a day or they post to the class “I’m lost, ask a question” discussion board. The number climbed even higher the week before a test. Should I ignore those opportunities to impact student learning for oh, say, three months? Even if faculty are fortunate enough to have a teaching assistant (and I was), there are many inquiries to which only the faculty member of record can and should reply. Who should do the grading for my class? Should that be outsourced to someone else too?

E-mail came from several sources. While I repeatedly asked my students to only use the learning management system, inevitably a few would write me at my school email address. Then there were emails from 40 advisees, often involving crises in classes they were taking that semester or in planning for next semester. Since I was involved in ten or more learning communities, I would often get 15-50 emails from my teaching partners or a student’s advisor a week. These emails had to be responded to rapidly, since they were part of our institution’s “early academic warning system.” Then add in the eight department, college, university, or system-wide committees to which I belonged – all expecting quick replies. Could an assistant learn how to prioritize which emails were the most important? Maybe, but I have to admit that often I wasn’t sure how to prioritize them! How could someone else do that for me?

Cartoon of person behind computer screen, trying to figure out how to prioritize 7 tasks (e.g., Schedule meeting, Send email to John)Moreover, should someone do that work for me or for any other faculty? Should faculty salaries be reduced if some of our workload is shifted to these assistants? Working with our students and with the staff whose mission is student success has to be central to fulfilling the mission of the academy – to graduate well-educated citizens. It is what faculty should do – especially in those universities and colleges less research-focused.

So while I agree that research and writing require uninterrupted time for rigorous intellectual work and that it is often in too short supply, and that there were times when outsourcing service work might have helped my work-life balance, I disagree that outsourcing pedagogical tasks would help non-elite colleges meet their primary mission or that it will ultimately help the faculty whose primary duties are teaching-related. Few non-elite schools would have the funds to hire a slew of assistants to take over the administrative tasks or would permit the funds to be used in this way. Can you imagine a state legislature’s response to hiring multiple assistants to read emails (even though that is what many legislative staff members actually do)? Was Newport writing only about schools such as his, which have a more research-intensive focus? If so, he needed to nuance his argument more carefully.

But Newport’s choice to minimize the impact on pedagogical mission of an institution of higher learning (at least in terms of what he expressed in this article) is disconcerting. It’s not enough to mention it once or twice in the article. How such a change in the duties of the professoriate must include an honest conversation about teaching duties. And his article missed that, either deliberately or accidentally.

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