Thoughts on Teaching – The Bane of Summer Productivity – 8/3/2016
The summer is almost over. I am a little over halfway through my summer classes, and I feel like I have not done even a quarter of the things that I had planned to do. This is common for everyone that I see who has a long break like this. We all have big plans and then get so little of those things done. I think it’s the dilemma of high expectations. We expect so much of ourselves in a break, but we fail to take into account the reality of how much time just normal day-to-day stuff takes.
I was asked by a friend how my summer was going, and all I could say is that it was busy. Just taking this week as an example, I have two boys doing summer band each day from 7:30-4, I have another daughter in an all week summer camp, the other daughter is in summer Montessori three days a week and has yoga one night of the week, and I’m teaching this week and going away to a conference in San Antonio this weekend. And that’s just one week. I feel like I have just been running around making sure I get done what needs to get done, while also getting my work done and getting the necessary relaxation for the summer as well.
And that’s where the summer has gone. I had grand plans. Now, with what time is left, my main goal is to finish out my summer classes and be prepared for starting the fall semester. If I had set that as my goal from the beginning, I would have been very happy, as that would have been a very reasonable and achievable goal. As it stands now, I am frustrated at how little I have gotten done. Maybe we should all just not be so hard on ourselves and set more realistic goals and expectations. If I can just start back in with the fall semester being ready for everything and being reasonably relaxed and clear of mind, that should be enough.
I’m going to keep telling myself that it is enough. Can you repeat that mantra with me? Reasonable expectations are good enough!
Thoughts on Teaching – Summer School – 7/14/2016
I have started up my summer session as of yesterday. Summers are low impact overall, with 50 students in two online sections for the next 5 1/2 weeks here, and the first two days here have largely matched the low-key aspect so far.
As I think about it, I see a lot of value to the summer session for both professors and students.
For students at the community college level, a full load of classes can be quite challenging, as they tend to have at least one job, take care of family members, and have many commitments outside of school that traditional, four-year students do not have. As well, many are coming in with academic deficiencies that need remediation and many struggle financially to pay for college, books, housing, and transportation. Many students taking 12 to 15 hours in a long semester struggle with these problems, and yet their reliance on financial aid makes ties them to a full-time schedule. As well, many students really do not have an idea of what it means to be a full-time college student, as opposed to a high school student, and this shows in their struggles, especially in the fall semester. In the summer, students can take a maximum of two classes in a summer session, and most just take one. This allows them to concentrate in on one course and do the best they can in it. I will say that my grade distribution, the quality of work, and the number of students successfully completing the course are much higher in the summer than in a long semester. I find students to be generally more focused and able to work around other commitments better with the lower pressure from fewer classes.
From the professor side, as well, the smaller number of classes and students (as an example, in a long semester, I generally teach six sections and have around 200 students) can be a nice break and time for recovery. The long semesters can wear down even the most dedicated instructors, whereas the summers allow for a more relaxed teaching and grading pace. Because I have required office hours in the summer (10 hours on campus per week in the summer), I am almost forced to get things done in a way that can easily be left behind in more unstructured summer time. I plan on preparing my fall semester and reworking some of the material while also catching up on my own professional development reading that I never seem to have time for otherwise. I can feel productive without feeling overwhelmed, which is something that is hard to achieve otherwise.
What do you think? Are you or have you ever taken a summer course? Do you teach in the summer if you are in the profession?
Thoughts on Life – Summer Balance -6/22/2016
I have been trying to ease back into working toward material to do with work as the summer continues to move on. I have an 8-week break this summer, as I am not teaching again until the second summer session. What that means is that I have a number of weeks to take off completely, which is largely what I have been doing to this point, but now it is starting to be time to think about academic work again.
I can’t say I have done a whole lot to this point, but I have made a few starts. For one, I completed a textbook chapter review yesterday, which was something on my agenda for the early part of the summer. I have also participated in a few activities with McGraw-Hill as part of my role as a Digital Faculty Consultant with them. And, in the past week or so, I have been trying to catch up on some of the blogs and e-newsletters that I read, as well as dabbling with some of the academic podcasts I listen to. Shortly, I will start working on my summer class, although I still have about a 3-week window before starting. I am not planning any major changes from last summer, so it will really just be a case of changing up the dates and making sure everything is in there. There are a few changes that I made last semester, including adding screencast videos for the online class, so those will need to be created for the summer session. Otherwise, summer prep is not too bad.
One interesting discovery I have made is the Student Caring project (studentcaring.com). I was turned onto the project from either a Chronicle of Higher Education or Inside Higher Ed blog about podcasts that we should be listening to. I came to this site through the podcast, and I will certainly make it part of what I am going to be looking at in the near future as I get back into thinking about my own job. The project is designed to help professors with all of the issues that we face in an environment that is aimed at helping us teach better, live better, and think better. I have only dabbled in it so far, although I have probably listened to about 15 of their podcast episodes so far. The general professor part of the site has both curated and guest posts on issues related to teaching in higher education. The podcasts (which are what I have accessed so far), are aimed at talking through issues on teaching in higher education. I have thoroughly enjoyed them so far and would recommend them to anyone teaching at a college or university. I am currently in the middle of the series titled, “What Your Students Probably Don’t Know,” which has been interesting and already given me a couple of ideas for my own classes, especially in formulating syllabi and course outlines for our students. I accessed the podcasts through iTunes, but I am sure they are available in multiple places.
Otherwise, I am just starting to do some thinking on my classes for the fall. I already do a hybrid American history class, and I am thinking of moving it to be even more thematic in approach so that the ideas hold together even better than I think they already do right now. I am teaching both halves of the American history survey this fall, and I am thinking of reworking the second half one. I already have a general set of themes, but not everything fits in with those themes right now. I am considering using a race/ethnicity/immigration theme, as over 1/3 of what I already have works with that theme, and I would have two writing assignments already ready to go to aim at that theme. It would help me feel more focused in what I am doing in the class and make it more apparent for the students how everything fits together. So, that is what I am thinking about.
Anyway, I just wanted to hop in here for a few minutes and update. I’ll be back for more later.
Thoughts on Teaching – Summer School – 7/9/2015
And so the summer session begins. I am teaching the second of our two summer sessions, which means that I just finished up roughly 8 weeks off before starting teaching again. I have never done that before, as I usually teach the first summer session, which means 3 weeks off, teach for 5 weeks, and then 5 weeks off. I can’t say I got any more or less done in having the 8 weeks off together, but I will see how I feel at the end of this summer session on how that change affects me.
I have 44 total students in two online sections this summer. We are on day 2 of the session, and 10 of those students have not yet logged into the classroom. Of the 34 who have, things seem to be going well so far. I have fielded some questions, and I have found one minor mistake in the material that I had prepared. Otherwise, I would say that it has been a smooth start so far. About 20-25 students have been at least somewhat active, starting to complete some assignments and interacting with the introductory materials.
The summer is always strange, as I pointed out to the students directly in one of my initial announcement posts. As opposed to a traditional, long semester, the students have just 5 weeks to complete all of the material. And, if you consider when I have to schedule exams (the school and Testing Center are only open Monday-Thursday over the summer), things get even more rushed. The first half of the course will take a little less than two weeks, which is normally the first seven weeks of a long semester. As I pointed out to the students, this means that each two days, they are covering a week’s worth of material. I would have let it go a bit longer, but with the school schedule, I have the first exam running a Wednesday and Thursday, leaving only 13 days to cover the first half of the course before the exam opens. Then, they will have about 2 1/2 weeks for the second half of the class, because I had to schedule my exams around the college’s schedule. I understand the need to have shorter work weeks in the summer and the less need for long hours with a much smaller student presence in summer classes, but 4 days a week is limiting when compared to 6 days a week in the long semester.
I have made some suggestions to the students on how to complete the material in time. I have the class set up with two major deadlines, one at the end of each unit. I know that the temptation for the students will be to put it all off until the end of each unit, but I have warned them that there is more material to complete than can be done in a day or two. My suggestion is that they take the class with the goal to complete each “week’s” worth of material from the long semesters every two days. If they do that, they will be on a path to complete the course material with no problem. I cannot, of course, force them to do this, but it is my suggestion. Of course, I could actually force them to do it, by putting in intermediate deadlines, but I like the flexibility that the current format allows students to have. The summers are always complicated, and I want to make this a process that works well for all of the students regardless of vacation and work schedules.
We shall see how the summer session progresses, but it has been a good start so far.
Thoughts on Teaching – A Day in Summer School – 6/19/2014
Today was another day of teaching. What can I say. My wife always asks me the same question every day when I come home – Was work exciting? And, I really never have a good answer to that. Rarely is work exciting, but rarely is it dismal either. Going in to work is a necessary evil in many ways. I teach exclusively online in the summer, and your standard community college student taking online classes in the summer is very unlikely to make it to on-campus office hours. In three weeks so far, I have seen three students. Now, yes, if I was not there, those three students could not have come in to see me, but does tha make up for the rest of it? I don’t know. It is a 25-minute commute each way to get to work, and I stay up there for around four hours at a time for office hours. And, for the most part, I sit there and do work. Or not. It depends on my mood, my attentiveness, my concentration, my guilt, and many other things as to whether a day in the office is a good, productive one, or a bad, unproductive one.
But that’s the thing, it doesn’t matter really one way or the other. I am going to get my work done, but I am not necessarily going to get it done during the hours I sit at work. As I am teaching exclusively online right now, there is no physical bounds on my work. It can be done anywhere and at any time. And, of course, being on campus on Tuesdays through Thursdays from 10am – 2pm is probably the least likely time that my online-only students are going to be working on the course material, meaning that I am most available at the time they are least likely to need my help. But it is the requirement at my community college that we hold on-campus office hours, so I am there. But, again, is it exciting? No. Is it necessary? Apparently. Is it worth it? That depends on the day.
So, when she asked me today, when I got home, if work was exciting, what did I say? Not really. I graded some essay exams. I went to lunch. That’s what I had to say. But, the reality is that I did much more than that. I got there a little before 10 and cleared my email inbox, answering emails from students, including two who wanted to drop the class (because it is now time to take the exam) and one who wanted me to look at drafts of the essay questions for the exam. I clicked through the rest of the emails, most of which required no specific action today but are things I want to look at later. I have a folder rule set up in Outlook to send all of the newsletters and informational emails to a folder to be read when I have the time and interest in reading them. Then I checked in on my online class, looking to see what had happened since I had last looked at the class the night before. I double checked what I had fixed at 8am this morning when the Testing Center had called with a question about the exam, where I had not set the closing time correctly. It was fixed correctly, luckily, and four more students had taken my exam since that point. I then checked to see if the fix that is due from the textbook publisher had come in that would allow me to grade the written submissions of my students had happened yet. And, it had not. So, the publishers’ program that I am class testing still does not allow me to grade what my students submitted, which is getting to be more and more of a problem. I went in to talk to my Dean about it, but he had taken the day off. So, I sent him an email about it. By that time, I had been there about 45 minutes, and so I took a few minutes off to do some random web surfing. I am in the office by myself by that point, so I had turned on some music to listen to. I then started grading. I can grade about 3 exams at a time before I have to take a break. So, in the time between when I started and when it was time to go to lunch, I got 9 exams graded. As the exam actually does not close until tonight, I figured that really wasn’t too bad overall, as I’m ahead of the game there.
I went to my usual Thursday afternoon lunch with some colleagues, and it was 1:30 by the time I got back to the office. I chatted about office politics and the like with some people in my office bay until it was time to go at 2. I made it home in time to help my wife get all of the kids ready to go to the grocery store with her. We then realized that our elder daughter had math tutoring to go to, so my wife took the other kids to the grocery store, and I took the one to the tutoring. I normally sit at Starbucks and work while my daughter is in tutoring, which is where I started this post. However, my wife had gotten locked out of the house, so I had to go back and let her in, leaving me to finish this post later in the day. I entertained the toddler while my wife made dinner, then I went back to get the other daughter from tutoring. We had dinner; I watered the flowerbeds and garden; I did some laundry; and now I sit down.
So, was the day exciting? You tell me, but this was fairly typical.
Thoughts on Teaching – Class-Testing a New Book – 6/4/2014
I am teaching this summer. The summer sessions are always interesting at a community college, as we get a completely different crop of students. While there are certainly a number of continuing students from the semesters, we also get a significant population of students who are attending a four-year university who take a class or two from us over the summer. Thus, in many cases, we get students who would not normally be in a community college here over the summer. I am not saying they are better students, although some certainly are, but they are definitely a completely different group of students.
This summer, I have decided to class test a new textbook. So often, the textbook choice time catches all of us completely off guard. We choose a new textbook every three years, and, so often, we start making that choice essentially at the last minute, relying on a quick glance at the book, a demo of the online material, and a visit from a rep. Sometimes that is enough to get a sense of a book and to choose a good one, but it has also led to some duds over the years. When approached this year about a new textbook from a different company than the one we are currently using, I decided to take it for a test drive to see how it might compare. I will leave the names of the companies out of this, but they are all major publishing companies for college history textbooks.
I am not trying out the new textbook and company because I think that what they offer is superior, I am trying it out because I do not have any idea if they are superior. We have used two different publisher’s books so far since I have been in my current teaching position, and I strongly disliked one and generally like the other. When this third company approached me, I couldn’t help but be interested because I want to see what is out there. I certainly have the time to go out and explore on my own, but if nothing is forcing me to, I probably won’t. So, a class test forces me to delve into a different book and online system in more detail. It also allows me to see how it actually works in practice.
I have launched on this with full openness to my students that this is a class test. They have to know it anyway, as only this class has a different textbook than the others, as we use a common department textbook. However, I also wanted to let them know, as I want their feedback as well. It is just as important to me that the textbook and online system be manageable and accessible to them as it is that it be something that works for me. It could be the best book in the world, but if they can’t deal with it, it is a failure.
The summer session started this week, and I have kept the students completely informed about the changes and expectations. In my course outline, this is how I explained it to them:
Over the course of the summer session, we will cover the first 15 chapters of the textbook, which is what is included in Volume 1. This section is what I am class-testing this summer. Thus, all of the assignments in this section are new to me, just as they are new to you. I will be working through them along with you, and I will be evaluating them from my own historical perspective as well as looking at your own responses and performance in this section. We class-test material such as this both to ensure that we are using the best possible material for our classes at Weatherford College and to evaluate new content that we have not seen before.
What that means for you is that the material is presented to you in a way that explores all of the different options available from XX [censored to not show what book I am using]. What I have seen appears to be a manageable amount of material, but I will be evaluating as I go along in case what is here is too much. I am very happy to change if necessary, as this is all about testing out the material, both in quantity and quality. I also will be looking at how the material is assigned and accessed. It appears to be fairly obvious what material is due when, and it appears to be clear what assignments you need to do. If there is a problem, I will work with the material to try to figure out what is going on. As of right now, the material is organized by chapter, with the exception of the introductory assignments at the top.
Again, I want to be as open with them, so that I can evaluate the book and they can evaluate the book. That way, when our choice comes up next spring, I can talk about not only the book we are currently using but another one as well. We can all make an informed choice at that point and come up with the best possible outcome for our department and our students.
Thoughts on Teaching Summer School – 7/17/2013
Yes. I know. I have not written in a while. You can blame the birth of our daughter and the first nine months or so of her life. Between teaching a full load, teaching an overload, taking care of the other three kids, and taking care of a baby, blogging has taken a back seat to the rest of life. Now that things are settled down some, and my teaching is done for the summer, I hope to get back on here a bit. We shall see how I do, but you have to start somewhere.
I just finished up my seventh summer of teaching full time (yes, I also taught some summer classes as a graduate student). I have taught online every summer session that I have taught, and this one went about the same as usual. Since our pay decrease two summers ago, I now have to teach three summer classes to make the amount of money that I want to make, so I taught three sections — two of the first half of American history and one of the second. I am not sure why my department chair assigns me both halves in the session, as it would be easier to do all of one, but I don’t have a lot of choice there.
While teaching in the summer, I had some general thoughts that I thought I would share.
The quality of students we get at a community college is dramatically higher in the summer. The majority of students are ones that are off at a 4-year university somewhere and have come back to get a few classes out of the way cheaply. Thus, the quality of work submitted is often much higher, and the ratio of A’s to the rest of my teaching is much higher. It reminds me a lot of my teaching in graduate school, where I was always fairly pleased with the quality of work submitted to me.
At the same time, we also get a lot of students who are taking summer classes who should not. I started out at the end of the spring semester with three full sections at 30 students each. By the time the summer session started, I was down by about 10 students, as we always lose some for academic suspensions or failure to pay. Then, in the first week, upon getting into the class and seeing the level of work required, I lost about 10-12 more students. Then, over the course of the summer session, I had more drop and/or stop attending. All together, I started out with 90 students at the end of the spring semester and ended up submitting about 55 real grades to students who worked on material all the way through the summer. This is fairly typical.
One of the requirements at my community college is that we hold physical office hours over the summer, even if we are teaching only online. The required number of on-campus office hours is fairly flexible, but some must be there, and I ended up holding 8 on campus each week. In the five weeks of the summer session, I saw three students in those office hours, and they all came on the day before the first exam opened. So, except for that day, it was a waste of both my time and gas to go to campus every day. I also held online office hours in the evening for students who could not make the on-campus hours. In the five weeks, I had no students in my online office hours. So, traditional office hours were largely a waste. However, I answered emails all day every day, participated in online discussions, responded to student posts with questions in the classroom, answered messages in our LMS system, graded, evaluated, read drafts, worked on course material, and more. Yet, if you count my output on what I did during my “official” time in office hours, it would look like I did very little. This is the conflict that we run into with teaching online, that the actual productive activities are not easily quantifiable or restricted to traditional avenues. In our culture that wants to quantify everything, it can easily look like I don’t do much, yet, if you ask my wife, I never stop working. I am busy in the class every day from when I get up until when I go to bed.
As usual, 20% of my students say they loved the class, 1-2 students said they hated it, and the rest are never heard from. It is frustrating sometimes, as I can only assume I am doing good as most of what I hear is positive. Yet, all it takes is that one students to write how much (s)he hated the course to drag down the rest. That is the comment I obsess over and worry about. I know I shouldn’t when that person is outnumbered by far by the rest. The one this summer session hit me harder than usual, as she said that I came off as rude and unwelcome in my Announcements to my students. Thus, now she has me paranoid that this is how I came off, and that is why I don’t hear from the other students. The so-called rude Announcement that I made was that the students should read the syllabus and Announcements before contacting me, as I get irritated when I have to copy and paste the answer back to them from something I have already said. I didn’t think that was an unreasonable thing to say, and I have sent an Announcement out along that line most semesters that I have taught. Sigh. It only takes one comment to get under your skin.
And, finally, the good thing about my course now is that I have it all pretty well set up. So, it largely runs itself, which allows me more time to actually participate in the classroom rather than spending my time creating and maintaining. It was a generally pleasant experience overall.
And, with that, I’m out for now. I just hit 1000 words, which is pretty good for the first time out in a while. I promise to try and write more.
Thoughts on Teaching – 6/13/2012 – Back to online office hours
Just a short post today. I am, again, in online office hours. The problem with online office hours in mid-week is that I tend to forget them. I am not used to having them on a Wednesday night, so if we are doing anything else, I tend to forget about them. So, tonight I forgot. Or, at least, I forgot about the first hour. The thing is, as is consistent with what I have discussed here before, it’s not like the students are banging down the door for online office hours. I started an hour late, and there is no evidence that any student tried to get into my office hours. And I have now been in them for 45 minutes with no students. So, as usual, it seems to be pretty much a waste of time. But I am diligently doing my job.
Of course, since it is a summer class, the funny thing is that nobody comes to office hours in person either. I have, a week and a half into the summer session, had one student in office hours. And, that student actually came to my office hours online last Sunday. I have had one phone call during my office hours as well. However, I have answered several dozen emails, sent out a half-dozen official announcements in the online classroom, and responded back to dozens of forum posts as well. It is simply a fact that the majority of my student interaction occurs outside of any official office hour channels.
And now, back to staring at a blank screen to see if any students come in the last 15 minutes.
Thoughts on Teaching – 6/10/2012 – Teaching summer school
Well, that time is here again. Time for teaching summer school again. We always need the extra money, so I teach every summer. I teach online, as that is easier with my own schedule as well as easy to step in with prepared classes. Also, as I am the primary online history instructor at my community college, there is always a high demand for my classes in the summer. So, I never have to worry about my classes making. It’s a good thing all the way around.
The summer is always weird. Squeezing what the students normally do in a 16-week semester in 5 weeks is quite a challenge for them. They have a lot to do each week, and I don’t think that a lot of students realize what that means. We always get students who are taking vacations in the middle of the summer session or who wait a week before entering the course, leaving them tremendously behind. I think that students assume that an online summer course is going to be easy. The general perception of online courses, I have found, is that they are easy (not mine, unfortunately for them). As well, many assume that it will be easy to complete a course in 5 weeks because it takes up less time. The time demand is high, and you cannot put your work off until the last minute because there is a lot of it.
Summer school also attracts an odd mix of students. Here are some of the types I have noted:
- Students who want to finish their degree early and so are doubling up in the summer
- Students who go to a four-year university and are home for the summer and taking a class or two for cheap
- Students who have failed the class in the normal semester and are hoping for better results in the summer
- Students who have never taken either an online course or a college course and decide that this is the best way to do it
It’s the last group that is the biggest pain for me. It’s always a good 10-15% of the students. I don’t know if someone advised them to do it, or if they simply decided on their own that their first college course should be an online summer class, but it is almost universally a bad idea. Either online courses or summer courses by themselves are more challenging then many semester-long, face-to-face classes, but to do both as your first experience is brutal. I spend an inordinate amount of my time in the summer dealing with these students.
On the other side, the first two groups tend to be some of the most motivated and strongest students that I will see in an academic year, so the summer also has its good side, as these students can restore your faith in students. Teaching can be depressing, especially when a semester goes poorly, and the summer session can sometimes be rejuvenating because you do get some of the best students there.
As of right now, we are just finishing up the first week of the summer session, so four more weeks are left. The first set of assignments come in tonight at midnight, so I will be able to start sizing up the students at this point. And, as it is an online class, I again have online office hours. I have them Wednesday and Sunday nights, and, so far, one student has come by to ask a question. That makes it already one more student than came to my online office hours all of last semester, so there’s something.
I don’t know how active I will be posting on this blog this summer, but you will probably be hearing from me on Wednesday and Sunday nights at least, as I have to sit here at the computer for two hours anyway.