Archive for the ‘Tracking the Transition’ Category

-Longer days

-Warmer temperatures

-Decreased class attendance

-Increased difficulty of obtaining a quorum at faculty meetings

Signs of spring are apparently shared between my current and former institutions.

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Tenured Radical’s latest post states:

The other day I read a comment on Facebook to the effect that, after changing jobs, many academics experience a moment of intense regret. The author of the comment timed this moment of regret at about six months into the new job, when the losses and the difficulty of the transition becomes truly apparent.

Like her, I am not experiencing regret, but it have been noticing certain differences as I get settled in. In some cases, such as mentoring, these differences have given me an even greater appreciation for my former colleagues.

It is not that my new colleagues are particularly bad at mentoring, but one particular colleague at my former institution regularly went out of her way to ensure that I knew what was going on. Unlike mentoring undergraduates or graduate students, at the faculty level I think that successful mentoring is mostly about keeping new colleagues in your thoughts so that you can tell them when you have to do something that a new faculty member might not know about. An example of this is submitting final grades. When the end of the semester nears, a good faculty mentor will not only think, “I need to submit my final grades,” but also, “John might not know how grade submission works here, so I should stop by his office and show him.”

As faculty members it is easy to get caught up in our own grading, students, and deadlines. I think that successful mentoring of other faculty members requires an external focus that our daily work does not. Hopefully I will remember this if I ever get the chance to mentor a new faculty member myself.

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When starting my first job as an assistant professor, there were a lot of things I didn’t know about how the institution operated, like how tenure-track professors were reviewed, how service was assigned, and how advising worked. I have found, however, that starting my second job as an assistant professor is even worse in this regard because I not only don’t know how these things are done at my new institution, I do know how they were done at my previous institution. This makes the way things are done at my new institution seem weird because they are not what I am used to.

At my previous institution, for example, faculty turned in annual binders recording performance in various areas and all tenure-track faculty were observed at least once per semester by their department chairs. At my new institution observations are not officially required until the second year and I still have no idea if I need to turn in some sort of annual review. It seems that I don’t, but after doing one for so many years it feels wrong not to.

Service is also assigned differently. At my previous institution, each faculty member turned in a list of preferences and was typically assigned to one of his or her preferred committees. Furthermore, elections were held for certain committees based on who nominated themselves or accepted the nomination of a colleague. At my new institution, we also submit some preferences, but those preferences are likely to be ignored in favor of other factors like balanced divisional and gender composition. Elections are also composed of people who have been assigned by a committee to run for a particular position. Saying no is apparently not an option.

There is nothing necessarily wrong with any of these policies. I’m sure that if this was my first job I would learn the ropes and come to see them as normal. Having gotten used to things being done differently, however, makes it more difficult to accept a different system. On top of this, I haven’t even touched on departmental differences in course selection and I still don’t know how advisees are assigned. At least I have six months before I have to worry about that!

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With a new school comes a new student evaluation form. Having taught in various capacities at four institutions, I have now experienced evaluations on four different forms, the most recent of which I got back after the fall semester. As I’ve said in the past, I don’t know if these forms measure what some administrators think they measure, but they do provide some insight into student satisfaction with our courses. Like my previous institutional transition, where the evaluations went from questioning the quality of class discussions to questioning whether I tried to have students discuss things, this new evaluation form demonstrates some of the things that an institutional committee agreed might be important while also showing how flawed this system is.

At my current institution, the evaluations measure things like students’ rating of me, the course, my grading, my assignments, and my course materials, indicating that all of these things are important. (My all-time favorite evaluation question was how close my course came to a student’s perceived “ideal college course” – talk about a high bar!) These items are measured on a five-point scale ranging from “poor” to “excellent.” The problem is that the scale is unbalanced, meaning that “poor” is really the only negative option and the other four are varying degrees of good. I suppose that this might allow administrators who look at my evaluations to see how positively students viewed my courses, but it also means that a rating like “acceptable” that falls in the middle of the scale looks like “neutral-to-bad” to administrators.

As I expected, my evaluations took a hit upon changing institutions. This is the aspect of the experience that led me to realize the ways that we reify student evaluations. By the last few semesters at my previous institution, evaluations for one difficult course were almost universally positive. The evaluations at my new institution for largely the same course were not nearly as positive. Why? Because I had responded to years of student feedback on a few particular areas of the course at my previous institution and then the instrument used to measure that feedback changed. Now I will begin the process over again, responding to feedback in new areas that will help me hone my course into one that students don’t have as much to complain about on course evaluations. This doesn’t mean that my new course will be “better,” just that it will better reflect the areas that my new institution deems worthy of student evaluation.

The thing is, if I hadn’t changed institutions again I might have forgotten the degree to which I’ve been effectively teaching to the evaluations over the past five years and simply accepted that I had become a master teacher. Even recognizing this, there isn’t much that I can do about it since these are the measures that will contribute to determining my future. As a new faculty member, it is comforting to think that lower evaluations are not only about me. The trick is to remember this fact as the evaluations rise over time.

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I’ve cautioned against asking “what are the students like?” in the past, but upon changing institutions it seems broad enough to use as a starting point for comparisons. The short answer is “not that different,” though this perception is influenced by the courses I’ve taught so far and the students in them. With that caveat, below are some initial thoughts:

There were fewer very weak students but not many more very strong students. Grading assignments and exams for last semester’s courses sometimes seemed like wading through a sea of mediocrity. Most students didn’t fail at anything but there were very few solid As. Instead, there were a lot of students between B- and B+.

Writing skills were better. This may seem counterintuitive given the above point, but my students last semester were much better writers overall than those at my previous institution. As a result, I was more able to focus on their ideas in my feedback, which was nice, even if their…

Ideas were not better. Despite the ability to string together coherent sentences, these sentences did not typically contain ideas or insights that were any better than those at my previous institution.

Ability to follow directions was still lacking. Whether using ASA format or including all of the required parts of each assignment, many students made relatively simple mistakes in following directions.

Students still need time to put things together. Exam grades last semester were typically about 10-12% higher than those for the same course at my previous institution, but they followed the same pattern. One student even admitted that she did not study for the first exam. Nevertheless, most students did well on the final exam and most who had poor midterm grades were able to improve.

Together, the above factors suggest that the bottom of the distribution may have been cut off, but college students are still college students. This also supports the “an excellent student here would be an excellent student anywhere” adage. The generally-better writing skills were the most noticeable change, though their combination with some of the other factors above led to the best-written C paper I’ve ever read.
It is far too early to get a sense of my students this semester, but it will be interesting to see if these patterns hold over time.

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In my tenth year of teaching college students, I am largely past the big changes in course policies from one semester to the next that characterized my early teaching. Traditionally, I have accepted late assignments with a reduction of one letter grade for each day that they are late. Looking at the syllabi of my new colleagues before the start of the fall semester, however, I saw that many of them would comment on late assignments but would not grade them, combining this with one or two exceptions per student, so I decided to change my policy. This was a big change.

This change was so big, in fact, that I had a very hard time enforcing it. Even though I had a very lenient policy for granting extensions (essentially: ask and you shall receive), a zero seemed like a very harsh penalty for an assignment that was a few hours, or even a day, late. For the spring, then, I’m returning to my old policy. I’ve considered limiting the number of extensions that students can ask for but I would rather have them learn to be proactive about recognizing when their schedule is going to be too busy to give something their best effort than imposing some sort of arbitrary cut-off for doing so.

I guess that in my tenth year of teaching I finally realized that if a class policy makes me uncomfortable, it probably isn’t best for me or my students.

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In my previous post about GoodNotes 4 for the iPad, I discussed several changes that would improve the program (sorry, I mean “app”) for academics. One of these was to set the level of zoom used by the zoom box (this is probably not its official name). The rest of my proposed changes stand, but on this point I was an idiot.

It turns out that the zoom box can be easily resized, either by dragging the bottom-right corner of the box that appears over the regular-sized text or by using the same pinch-to-zoom gestures that are used for documents and all over iOS and other mobile operating systems within the zoom box. For a comparison, note the size of the zoom box in this image from last week’s post and then look at the image below:


In this image you can see the size of my writing at various levels of zoom. More importantly, you can see the effects of different levels of zoom on the clarity of my handwriting. Last week I said that I was concerned about my ability to use the iPad for grading because it was difficult to write legibly. For some reason, using the higher zoom settings best approximates my pen-on-paper handwriting, even though the zoom box requires me to write much larger than I would on paper. (The resulting size of the text is probably pretty close to the size of my normal handwriting.) After recognizing this, the legibility of my journal article annotations increased dramatically.

I don’t completely understand the technology used in the screens of iPads and other devices, but from my experience with trying to apply my pen-on-paper writing style to stylus-on-glass, it is clear that there are major differences. Some of this is likely the result of software, since these devices are optimized for inputs from fingers. Nevertheless, using the higher levels of zoom solves nearly all of the problems I initially had and makes me confident in my ability to grade student work electronically, as you can see in the areas highlighted with green that I added to my image from last week:

IMG_0019This doesn’t mean that my other suggestions wouldn’t improve my experience, but after some additional time I can confidently say that GoodNotes 4 does allow me to do the basic things I want to do in order to digitize my workload.

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The other day I wrote about my initial thoughts on the iPad Air 2, which I recently purchased with my start-up funds in the hopes of digitizing my workload, including grading assignments, reading journal articles, and taking (and storing) notes on meetings and presentations. The list of apps that can be used to do these things is a bit overwhelming and includes GoodReader, Notability, and the app I ended up trying, GoodNotes 4. It is hard to say how GoodNotes compares to the other options, but I liked that it seemed designed to allow me to do all of the things I wanted and, if nothing else, it is only $5.99 so there wasn’t a big financial risk involved. This post by Polina at Helpful Scribbles was also, um, helpful (see her list of brief reviews here).

In my limited time so far, it has worked fairly well for what I want. It is easy, for example, to set up folders for different types of notes and import files, including Word documents and PDFs, from various cloud storage options. (Unfortunately, Word documents are reformatted to better fit the iPad screen, so it is likely that you will need to convert them to PDF before uploading in order to ensure that they retain the characteristics of the original documents when commenting.) GoodNotes also automatically backs up your changes to the cloud storage platform of your choice. For sharing with others, you can export your files to PDF so that others (such as students) can read them. You can also print files, but that is less relevant for me since my goal is to avoid printing. In the images below, I demonstrate some of features that are most relevant for annotating journal articles and commenting on student papers:


Above is the default view with a paper from the most recent issue of the American Sociological Review. You can see that the options are fairly simple, which could be good or bad depending on your perspective. Included, from left, are the Category menu, a zoomed-out view of the article’s pages, the zoom window, an option to clean up the shapes that you draw, the text box, pen options, highlighter options, the eraser, a selection tool for your writing (but, unfortunately, not writing from the document), a “no writing” tool to prevent inadvertent marking, undo, redo, and the file options. By default, GoodNotes shows the entire page, but you can use your fingers to zoom the image. An option to fit the image to the screen horizontally or vertically, like those in Adobe Acrobat, would make this a lot easier.

IMG_0005Here you can see the two options for writing. You can write on the document as it appears, or you can open a zoom window (either by selecting the option from the toolbar or “long-tapping,” which brings up a menu of options that includes zoom). As you write, the edge of the zoom box turns blue. If you start writing in the blue area, the zoom box moves automatically across the document or, in this case, down to the next “line” so that you can continue writing without manually repositioning the box. You can also move the zoom box by dragging it around or using the options in the upper right of its window. One addition I would like is the ability to write horizontally in the zoom box for a selection that is perpendicular to the document. This would make annotating journal articles easier since there is little room in the margin to write horizontally. I would also like the option for the zoom box to appear automatically when long-tapping instead of having to select “zoom” from the resulting menu. Finally, options to set the level of zoom used by the zoom box would be nice. As noted in the addendum, it is possible to resize the zoom box, which greatly increases the legibility of my handwriting.

IMG_0006The image above shows the default zoom level when viewing an article in landscape orientation. IMG_0007

Manually zooming the document to the width of the screen (again, automatic zooming would be nice) in landscape orientation makes the margins slightly bigger than writing in portrait orientation, though you will need to spend more time scrolling since less of the document fits on the screen at once.  IMG_0008Although I always underline things when reading journal articles on paper, in GoodNotes the highlighter (shown above) is a better option. This is true because the use of a stylus makes it more difficult to underline without accidentally crossing out the text and because GoodNotes places the highlight behind the text rather than over the top of it (as Polina reports Notability does). You can also choose different colors and sizes for the highlighter.IMG_0009Similarly, GoodNotes also includes various pen sizes and colors (shown above), including custom colors if you need a particular shade of red for grading. Not shown is the ability to choose between “fountain” and “ball point” pen styles. These images use the default “fountain” style but I’ve found that the ball point style is a bit thinner, which makes my sloppy handwriting a bit more legible.IMG_0010As mentioned above, the second option from the left on the menu bar provides an overview of the document pages. Thanks to the sharpness of screens these days, this view allows you to quickly scan the pages looking for a particular section, table, note, etc., just like you would when flipping through the pages of a printed article. Again, though, the ability to control the zoom level of these thumbnails would be nice, especially when using PDFs made from books with two pages next to each other.

Because it would be a huge waste of time, I haven’t timed myself reading the same journal article on paper and on the iPad in order to compare, but my sense is that reading and annotating takes a bit longer on the iPad due to the need to change between pens and highlighters, zoom, and scroll. Saving paper and having these notes available anywhere I go, though, makes this a worthwhile tradeoff. I’ll follow up with a stylus comparison later, but for now I can say that writing with a stylus on glass magnifies the sloppiness of my handwriting. This is particularly an issue because my normal writing is both small and messy, neither of which work well for clarity on the iPad. This isn’t much of an issue when reading journal articles because I can typically decipher my own writing but I’m concerned about the implications of this for my ability to comment legibly on student papers. Changing the level of zoom, however, makes it much easier to write legibly.

Overall, GoodNotes allows me to do most of the things I want to do on my iPad (I’ll comment on the actual note-taking features in my upcoming stylus comparison), though, as you can see in my comments above, there are a number of features I would add if I were designing a program specifically for academics. Unfortunately, I have no programming skills, but if anybody out there does and wants help designing an app specifically for this purpose, let me know! In the meantime, I’ll just continue thinking “it would be great if…” while I’m working. For now, the tendency to compare what I’m able to do with what I’d like to do might be the biggest difference between reading an article on paper and reading an article on an iPad!

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It is hard to believe that it has been nearly five years since the original iPad was announced. Despite the promise I saw for students, I’ve also been fairly cynical over the years about the viability of tablets and e-readers for the work I do every day. On the day that the iPad was revealed (so long ago that I was still using two spaces after periods), I wrote:

Today, Apple unveiled what they surely hope will carry students further down that road, the iPad …  It seems somewhat pointless to criticize an Apple product (after all, the reveal was preceded by more hype than money can buy and Apple paid no money at all for it) but the hype may have worked against the iPad, resulting in a collective “a big iPod Touch?  That’s it?”  In 2015 I’ll probably look back at this post from my own iPad while my students complete the course readings and take class notes on their own iPads and laugh at how foolish I was.  For now, though, the future doesn’t seem quite as cool as I had hoped.

In addition to digital textbooks, another one of the things I had hoped that the future would bring was mentioned in a post about the Kindle 2, I said, “I’ll really get excited when e-books are a viable option for students looking to save on the cost of textbooks and grad students looking to avoid printing thousands of pages of PDF journal articles.”

It isn’t quite 2015 yet, and the electronic versions of textbooks are barely cheaper than traditional formats, but I’ve seen increasing evidence that people can use tablets to do the things that I use a lot of paper for: grading assignments, reading journal articles, and taking (and, more importantly, storing) notes on meetings and presentations. Combined with a fresh opportunity for start-up funds, I decided it was time to try to digitize my workload but waited until the iPad Air 2 was released in order to make sure that I was starting with the newest model since I plan to be using it for several years – unfortunately, there is no money in my start-up funds for a replacement. What follows are some thoughts on my experience so far. (At no point did I consider an Android tablet, although I’m sure that there are plenty of good ones. Due to my current phone and computer I am tied pretty strongly to Apple’s ecosystem, which makes it easy to share files – and apps, in the case of my phone – between them.)


While I wanted a tablet that would allow me to do my work, I also wanted it to be easily portable. Not having any personal experience using an iPad, and thinking that the original iPad looked huge, I negotiated my start-up funds based on the cost of an iPad Mini but I still wasn’t sure which was the best size so I stopped by an Apple store. In person, I quickly discovered that the iPad was a lot smaller than I thought and the iPad mini seemed like it wouldn’t provide much space for annotating PDF files and commenting on student papers. Several times, I saw an iPad that I thought must have been a Mini but that turned out not to be. The best size comparison for academics may be one of those “Composition” notebooks with the black covers. The iPad Air 2 is a little narrower, a tiny bit shorter, and about half the thickness of one of those. The screen size is 9.7 inches, measured diagonally, and has a 4:3 ratio like pre-HD TVs, which may not be best for watching widescreen movies but provides extra width when reading student papers and journal articles in portrait (tall, rather than wide) orientation. In the image below, you can see the size in relation to an 8.5 x 11 inch piece of paper and a piece of paper I cut to the size of an iPad Mini:

Size ComparisonI suppose that it is technologically impressive that the newest iPad is less than half the thickness of the original and is even thinner than the already-thin iPhone 6 (6.1 mm vs. 6.9 mm), but I think we have reached the point of diminishing returns for thinness in electronics. Like the iPhone, even though your first impression might be “wow, this is thin!” after a few uses it becomes normal. (Due to the glass front and aluminum back, it feels a bit like holding a pane of glass if you have any experience with that.) Similarly, the weight is less than 1 pound, which I’ve found no more difficult to hold than a hardcover book. Like a hardcover book, I’ve found that I typically rest the iPad on a desk or my legs when using it, which mitigates the impact of the weight. Most importantly, neither the thickness nor the weight get in the way of everyday usage, though it can get a bit slippery if you tend to have sweaty hands.


So far, I’ve found the iPad to be better for some of my intended tasks (reading and annotating journal articles) than others (note taking and writing legibly enough for students to read), although practice might improve my results. I’ve used it primarily with an app called “GoodNotes” that I will talk more about on another day. Like many others, I have found that it is difficult to type quickly and accurately on a piece of glass. An online typing speed test showed that I type 98 words per minute on my usual keyboard but only 42 words per minute on the iPad, with lots of mistakes. This is surely better than my pathetic phone-typing speed, and is vastly preferable to a phone for sending an e-mail, but I wouldn’t try typing anything longer than a few sentences without a bluetooth keyboard, which I don’t have.

Typing difficulty was expected, but I did not expect to be frustrated by the placement of the volume and power buttons. As you can see in the image below, the side of the iPhone 6 (on top) is curved from front to back, with the buttons placed at the apex of the curve. The apex of an iPad’s edge, however, is very close to the front, curving toward the back, with the buttons perpendicular to the curve near the back.

Edge ComparisonThese buttons are especially hard to press when using an open Smart Cover wrapped around the back (think about the way you might fold the cover of a spiral-bound notebook behind the notebook itself) because the cover sticks out a tiny bit next to the buttons. In the Smart Cover’s defense, it eliminates the need to press the similarly difficult power/sleep/wake button in most circumstances. I’ve found that it is easier to adjust the volume through the control center that appears when swiping up from the bottom of the screen, as shown in the image below.

Volume ControlUnfortunately for academics, Apple eliminated the mute switch that was near the volume controls on previous models. Before classes, meetings, etc., then, you will need to remember to silence the iPad’s speakers either through the control center or by holding the “down” volume button, both of which require the iPad to be awake and unlocked and neither of which allows a quick glance like an external mute switch.

Things aren’t all bad, however, as the addition of Touch ID makes it easy to use a fingerprint to unlock the iPad when waking it up rather than typing in a passcode. This protection is particularly important for academics who need to protect data, student grades, and access to their e-mail and Facebook accounts in case of theft. Battery life is also good. This afternoon I spent an hour and 25 minutes reading for class and used 14% of the battery, suggesting that I could do this for roughly 10 hours on a full charge. Standby time is also good, meaning that if you don’t use your iPad for a few days, it is likely to still have battery life when you need it. New iPads run iOS 8, which will be familiar if you have an iPhone but may take some adjustment if you’re used to Android or, worse, still use a “dumb” phone (or what are sometimes kindly referred to as “feature” phones).


Although I didn’t pay anything for my iPad, most people don’t have start-up funds to draw from, so the cost might be the biggest factor in whether or not you think it is time to digitize your own workload. The base iPad Air 2 costs $479 for educators and the smart cover costs $39. I’ve never used a cover or case on my phone, and the iPad’s glass screen would probably be fine in a bag with some books, but it seems like an expensive gamble so some might see it as a requirement. Even with only 16 GB of storage space and no cellular connectivity, the iPad cost more than the laptop that I bought with my start-up funds at my first job. Luckily, cloud storage like DropBox and Google Drive can help alleviate the storage crunch while providing access to your files (but, of course, depending on your needs that can add an additional cost). Because you’re probably not going to use your finger to comment on student assignments and annotate journal articles, there’s also the cost of a stylus, which can range from a few dollars to over $100. My own search for the right stylus, which I’ll discuss on another day, is still in progress.


Apparently, I like to wait about five years before purchasing a new technology (see also: my first smartphone). So far, my time with the iPad hasn’t provided the same level of amazement as my first smartphone, but that may be due to the difference between gaining the ability to do things that I had never done before (like checking my e-mail wherever I was) and gaining the ability to do things that I have been doing for years in a different way. It has been nice, however, to take notes on class readings electronically and take the iPad to class instead of a pile of papers. I’m also looking forward to having these notes in a single location for future reference rather than printing an article for the seventh time because I can’t find a previous copy with my notes.

I’ll keep you posted.

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Over four years ago, I discussed my move away from signing e-mails with my first name in grad school but that I hadn’t settled on a replacement since starting as an assistant professor, stating: “My current unsatisfactory practice has been to let my e-mail signature, which includes my full name and contact information, stand in as a closing and signature, but this leaves my e-mails feeling unfinished.” This year, I decided that needed to change.

At the beginning of the semester I decided to start signing e-mail to students “Professor Smith.” In some ways, my new institution made this easier because the norm on campus is for students to call faculty “Professor,” whereas there was no strong norm at my previous institution. My hope is that this will also help students think about professionalism in the e-mails that they send me, maybe even leading to things like complete sentences and the use of the subject line. If nothing else, at least my e-mails feel complete.

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