Signs of autumn

-Shorter days

-Cooler temperatures

-The return of students to college campuses

-Endless calls for additional members from ASA sections trying to increase the number of sessions they get at next year’s annual meeting

Slightly larger bureaucracy*

When I arrived at my previous institution there was a miscommunication about my moving reimbursement that caused my check to be sent to the moving company instead of to me. Rather than waiting weeks or months for the check to come back from the moving company, I was able to arrange for the original check to be cancelled and a new check was made out to me, which I had in a matter of days. This was my first experience with the potential speed of a small bureaucracy after spending my grad school years at a huge public university where this sort of thing would have been impossible. (I thought I wrote about it at the time but after spending quite a while looking for the post I have to conclude that I didn’t.)

Since starting my new job this fall, I’ve noticed that more money leads to a slightly larger bureaucracy. The biggest difference so far is that there is more paperwork involved in financial reimbursements and it is examined in greater detail. For example, at ASA I split a number of meals with others and noted my portion on my travel receipts. After submitting my receipts for reimbursement I received an e-mail asking about a few receipts that looked like they could have been for more than one person.

In the past five years I had never been asked about my travel receipts, but from a few other conversations it seems like this level of attention is the norm here. I’m not sure if the school pays more careful attention to money because it has more of it coming in and going out or if the administrative assistants have the luxury of paying more careful attention because they aren’t spread as thin. I don’t necessarily mind the scrutiny, and it is definitely worth the increased financial stability of the institution as a whole, but it is interesting and something I’ll have to pay attention to.

*A.K.A. mo money, mo problems

Finding friendship

A Facebook friend recently asked for advice about how to make friends after grad school. Because this is something I’ve struggled with since starting my first job five years ago, I couldn’t respond with any sage advice. In the few weeks I’ve been at my new institution, however, I’ve noticed a number of differences that have led me to wonder if it is possible for institutions to do a better job of fostering these relationships among faculty and staff. So far, these are the differences I’ve noticed:

-I previously lived in a town with a college but my new location better fits the definition of a college town. The town is also much smaller, meaning that there are not that many places for faculty to go. At dinner the other night, for example, I saw two different groups of faculty getting drinks. I can’t remember any chance encounters like this in my previous city.

-My new town is not only smaller, it is also more isolated. There are still faculty members who live in other cities and commute, but there are a lot of faculty members who live in town. Institutional practices also make it easier for faculty members to live in town. A large number of faculty spouses and partners have also been hired in some capacity, whether as visiting faculty, adjuncts, or staff members.

-The institution also makes other efforts to promote interaction between faculty during business hours. One of the biggest is a course schedule with a common lunch hour, allowing faculty members time to have lunch together. There is also a faculty dining area, which my previous institution did not have.

-The final major difference I’ve noticed so far is in the composition of the new faculty cohort. At my previous institution, my cohort was fairly small and was also heterogeneous in terms of age and location. At my new institution, my cohort is quite a bit larger (the institution itself has about 1000 more students, leading to a larger number of incoming faculty members, but orientation also included new administrators and adjuncts) and the age of full-time faculty members is more homogenous, with more young-ish people who are interested in making friends in their new town.

Together, these factors have resulted in a completely different experience as a new faculty member. I am not exaggerating to say that I have done as much with colleagues off-campus in the past few weeks as I did in the previous five years at my former institution. Colleges and universities obviously can’t change their locations so that faculty members can more easily make friends, nor can they force faculty to live nearby or refuse to hire employees who aren’t in their early- to mid-thirties.

On the job market, these factors are largely influenced by luck. Institutions can, however, do things to encourage faculty and staff to engage with each other on campus through social gatherings and in faculty dining rooms. Unfortunately, social gatherings are probably among the first to go when schools face budget constraints since they don’t clearly contribute to the bottom line. Common lunch hours are probably also related to budgets, since schools with cramped facilities don’t have the luxury of leaving their classrooms unused for five or more hours per week.

So far, these changes have made me hopeful for my social life in this town. I have to remember, however, that finding and keeping friends still demands effort. Rather than sitting and waiting for people to contact me, I need to be proactive about inviting people to get lunch or coffee on campus and dinner or drinks off campus. We’ll see how it goes.

Life at a Lego R1

Lego recently launched a line of female scientists, and according to Slate, archaeologist Donna Yates bought a set and started the “Lego Academics” Twitter account to chronicle their adventures. It is nice to see depictions of female scientists experiencing the highs and lows of academic lives (unfortunately, the set is now sold out), but they must be at an R1 because as far as I can tell they never teach.

For the past few years I have been requiring students to answer discussion questions about the readings before coming to class. The purpose of these discussion questions is to make sure that students do the reading (obviously) but also to ensure that students think about the readings and their connections to other course topics. After a trial run in one course I have adopted the practice in nearly every course with small variations (in lower-level courses, for example, I provide the discussion questions while in upper-level courses I combine my own questions with those written by students). When preparing my syllabi for the fall, I again included discussion questions even though I wasn’t entirely sure what students at my new institution would be like. In the days after completing my syllabi, though, I began to feel uneasy.

Using discussion questions in a course I’ve taught a number of times does not contribute much to my workload outside of class. Since I know what lass discussions have focused on in the past I can be sure to include questions on those elements of the readings. For a new prep, however, writing discussion questions involves reading a week or more ahead to anticipate the direction of class discussions while allowing my students enough time to use the discussion questions to complete the readings. The more I thought about it, the less I looked forward to writing discussion questions in addition to preparing for one new course and one course with substantially-revised readings. Higher publication expectations were also a factor, since reading ahead to write questions, preparing for class, reviewing readings before class, and grading would have left me with little time for writing.

In the end, although my syllabi had already been posted to Blackboard, I decided in the interest of my sanity and productivity to delete the discussion question requirements before handing them out on the first day of class. This will also give me a chance to see how I might use discussion questions most effectively with my new students. My decision isn’t particularly groundbreaking since my students likely won’t even know what they’re missing, but ten years into teaching it is important to remember why I was advised not to try too much in my first semester of teaching: it is easy to get overwhelmed when starting something new.

“Like” Memoirs of a SLACer on Facebook to receive updates and links via your news feed. You should also appreciate a post about labor for Labor Day.

Ten years of teaching

Ten years ago I walked into a college classroom to teach for the first time. A few minutes after that, I walked out again because I had gone to the wrong classroom. Then I walked into the correct classroom and began my teaching career. If you had asked me a few days ago, I would have said that my teaching hasn’t changed that much in the past ten years, but looking back at the materials from my first semester the gradual evolution of my teaching became much clearer.

Looking at my first syllabus (which was only six pages – maybe syllabus bloat is a real problem), I am struck by how light the workload was (in my defense, I had 70 students and we were advised not to shoot for the moon in our first courses). Attendance and participation were each 10% of the final course grade and the remaining 80% was made up of the three exams. Students could also write three short “bonus” papers for up to 3% of their final grade, but these were the only writing assignments. About half of the students completed the first and about 60% completed the final one. I was apparently very lenient with these because most students received between .9 and 1 (out of 1). The average final course grade was a B.

Without looking at the roster, I can remember only three students’ names from that semester, one of whom I labeled “squirrely looking” on my roster (he earned an A), one of whom later died of cancer, and one of whom was friends with the student who later died of cancer. Even looking at the roster I can only picture a few more. What I do remember is walking across a stage at the front of the room every time I wanted to change the PowerPoint slide and then waiting for students to write down a definition that I had displayed (I didn’t use a textbook but had not yet discovered guided notes). I also remember feeling awkward when standing on the stage because I was so far above the students and feeling awkward when standing in front of the stage because I was so close to the students.

Although I felt fairly comfortable at the time, in retrospect I did a terrible job of getting students to participate in class discussions, which was noted on my evaluations. One student also noted that I seemed nervous a lot of the time. Another commented that by making them copy vocabulary words I was treating them like they were in seventh grade. The student then drew a frowny face, demonstrating that I may have been aiming at the right level after all!

Ten years later, preparing to start teaching at my fourth institution (including grad school and a small commuter college I taught at for a few semesters back then) it is nice to see that things have progressed. Given my emphasis on teaching as a grad student, I think that the biggest changes have been more about refining my approach than adapting to new institutional settings. At this point, I’m glad that my oscillations between different approaches for things like class participation and attendance have gotten much smaller. While small refinements may not seem as exciting as big changes from one semester to the next, it is nice to have gotten to a point with fewer glaring errors. I’m excited to see what changes the next ten years will bring.

ASA ended a week ago so I suppose it is time to post my 2014 ASA Scavenger Hunt results. Last year I set a personal best by completing 20 of the 30 items, but this year I could not attain that level again, ending up with 17 of 30 items. For those competing at home, I completed items 3, 7, 8, 11, 14, 15, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 29, and 30. I also left San Francisco with some good ideas for next year, including people sitting in the back row of an empty presentation room and “We’re going to use X as a proxy for Y.”

Regarding item number 14, I was fairly busy at ASA this year and may  have attended a record number of sessions and meetings, so I didn’t have time to check out all of the unisex restrooms. The ones that I did see, in the Hilton on the Ballroom Level were a textbook example of how not to designate unisex restrooms, and were even worse than those in the Hilton last year in New York. Although they appeared on the conference hotel map and signs were posted on the restroom doors indicating their unisex status, the door to each restroom was at the end of a 10-15 foot-long hallway, the end of which was marked for men or women and made no mention of unisex status. Thus the Hilton Union Square receives a 1 out of 10 for its unisex restrooms. Grading it felt like grading the student who puts absolutely no effort into an assignment. Hiltons of the world, you can do better!



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