“Kids These Days” Part 1

At the time of writing, I’m assisting faculty with processing the grades and academic standings of students from the last academic year.  All of the grades for the Winter are in, but for the engineering degrees we are in the long, tedious process of reviewing all the grades and courses delivered over the last twelve months and making notes on ways the delivery can be improved for next year.  This is an important process for us to follow, not only for our continuous improvement requirements for accreditation, but also because it’s important to pause periodically and reflect on the reasons students perform they way they do – especially when they fail.

Because people have a tendancy to shift blame away from themselves, reviewing student failures can be challenging.  If you ask students why they fail, you’ll likely hear something that reflects courses that are too challenging, professors who are unreasonable, or circumstances they had no control over.  Faculty, on the other hand, think students are unwilling to put in the hard work needed to be successful.  The truth is likely somewhere in the middle.  In my opinion, I feel that faculty sometimes forget what it’s like to be a student, and I feel that students don’t see the bigger picture to help them understand how they should be prioritizing their work.

Despite the fact that students are legally adults when they come to school, we forget that the depth of their experience is often pretty shallow.  It’s the first time they are away from home, the first time they are having to manage their day-to-day lives, and often higher education is a large step-up in academic expectations compared to their secondary school experience.  I’ll chat a bit more about this next week, but I think the takeaway is that we often take for granted the experience we, as professors, draw upon to manage ourselves and our work, and instead we shake our heads when the students perform poorly in their work and seem to ignore the opportunities we extend them for extra support (office hours, anyone?).

A valuable skill faculty need to develop and practice is empathy for students.  We as faculty have a responsibility to both apply high expectations to the students, but also be willing to place ourselves in their shoes and see the world as they do – a world where everything seems important, everything is competing for their attention, and crucially, students think everything carries dire consequences.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

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A Note to My Students

I closed out the winter semester last week, submitted my marks, and took a breather.  During the next week, I will be prepping my next semester and updating the course shell in anticipation of the start of the new semester.  During the interim, I’ve been reflecting on how the last semester went, and what I can do to improve the student experience in my online course.  My failure rate was higher than usual, and I want to make sure that I’m doing what I can to address those elements I can control.

Were I to give some advice to my students, this is what I would say:

Hello Students!

It is the start of a new semester, and I welcome you to the course.  If this is your first general education elective or philosophy course, I hope it meets your expectations.  Gen Eds tend to be a special kind of course.  This is one of the few courses you get a chance to choose, but it’s also one of the courses you’ll take that is a departure from your core major courses.  While you need the Gen Ed credit for graduating, you will feel the conflict over prioritizing the rest of the semester’s courses that will lead directly to your career.  It is very easy to let my course slip to the back-burner.  I recognize this and can understand your predicament.

In light of that, I want to give you some advice on how to do well on my assignments.  If there is one piece of advice I can give that will maximize your chances of passing my course, it’s that you have to do the work and submit your assignments.  As obvious as it might be that in order for me to give you a grade, you have to give me something to mark, I know that you will look at the assignment weightings and judge that the assignment is not worth your time to complete when you have other “more important” assignments to turn in.  Unfortunately, each submission you don’t turn in is essentially free marks that you will miss.  A good grade in this course is not won through stellar big assignments.  It’s about showing up consistently and slogging through the little assignment.  All those little assignments add up.

It can be intimidating to do philosophy.  If you are used to coming up with the right answers easily, you can face down a philosophy paper and become paralyzed by the weight of the work.  However, I want you to remember one important fact: doing good work in philosophy is not about thinking big ideas.  To do good work in philosophy, you must be good at communicating ideas.  I don’t expect you to have the “right” answer.  I don’t expect you to fully understand the concepts you are encountering.  Instead, I expect you to give an honest attempt to grapple with the ideas, and for you to use what you are learning in the module to play around with the ideas.  The more connections you can make between the ideas, the better.  Also, the more simply you can communicate those ideas, the better.  Don’t try to wow me with big vocabularies and vague writing.

I am generally not a hard marker.  I value progress and earnest intellectual work over feeding me the “right” answer.  Don’t give me what you think I want to read, and don’t give me your unsupported opinions.  Learn to play around with the ideas and explore topics you’ve never thought about before.  Make sure to attribute your ideas, and make sure you keep your reader in mind when you write your papers; explain the concepts to me as if I am a your grandmother.  If you do that every week, and put in an honest effort, I won’t let you fail my course.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Two Approaches to Intro Phil

By the time this is published, I will have finished my grading for the Winter semester, however as of drafting, I am procrastinating from finishing.  That means it’s time to let my mind wander and to blog about it.

The course I’ve been teaching since Fall 2016 is a light, multidisciplinary romp through philosophy that examines various topics in human experience through multiple lenses.  Often, this is one of the first general education courses the students encounter, and for many it is the first time they are getting into something approximating formalized philosophy.  It’s an online course, so the students work their way through the module material, post to discussion boards, and submit weekly asignments.  The modules are a mix of text, graphics, and embedded videos, and all things considered is a pretty marked departure from my first course in philosophy.

My introduction to philosophy was significantly more old school.  We all had copies of Cahn’s Classics in Western Philosophy (the sixth edition), and we started the semester on Plato.  It was my first class in university, and my first introduction to academic philosophy.  In a small way, that course has dictated how, in my mind, philosophy gets taught.  It is my default template for teaching – the professor stands at the front and pontificates in fifty minute blocks of time.  I never questioned it; I just tried to take notes, not really knowing how one takes notes about the lecture material.

Since then, I’ve seen a few different pedagogical approaches to teaching an intro phil course.  You can teach the material chronologically, topically, using ancient sources, using modern case studies, you can approach the different branches of philosophy thematically, or you could teach the material historically.

But there is another axiom I’ve been thinking about when teaching philosophy (or any topic for that matter):

Should I require the students to read the text before or after the lecture?

On first glance, this seems like a silly question.  Afterall, the lecture is about exploring ideas, clarifying thought, and demonstrating how to extend the ideas.  Students should grapple with the text and work to come to an understanding.  If there are problems with the text, they can bring their questions to class for rich discussions.  After reading the text, the students can teach the concepts to each other and have fruitful conversations about the ideas.  Why would you want to let the students not read the text?

On the other hand, it depends on what your goals are.  You see, the problem with requiring the students to read the text prior to the lecture, at least at an introductory level, is that the students often don’t possess the vocabulary or the historical schema’s to truly understand the work in front of them.  In an introductory philosophy course, I’m not looking for students to master the material.  Often times, I’m not even looking for them to be right in their arguments.  Instead, I’m looking for other skills, like close reading, comprehension, and (most importantly) the ability to read text charitably.  The hardest thing for students to grapple with in intro phil is that they are seeking to be right and rarely allow themselves to explore ideas.

Plato wrote more than 2000 years ago – what could he possibly have to say in his silly dialogues that helps me today?  Given the current political climate, I’d say his Republic has a lot to say (I’m looking at you, Thrasymachus).

If I give students a text, they don’t have the benefit of a historical view.  They don’t understand the context in which the author is writing.  They don’t understand the conventions of language and allusions.  They don’t see the historical dialogue that is unfolding on the page, where the author is addressing thinkers who came before them.  For instance, in my experience, the vast majority of students who read Descartes for the first time end up thinking Descartes literally believes an evil genius is out to deceive him.  They get so fixated on trying to keep up with what Descartes is doing that they lose sight of the argument being laid out before their eyes.

Reading the text before class is a great way to have students develop critical thinking skills, but if you want the students to understand what they are reading, it might be worth your time to consider helping them to explore the text together.  At least for an intro phil course.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

 

 

3 Year Blogiversary

Yesterday marked my 3rd anniversary of the first post on this blog.  On April 21st, 2016, my first post went live – Welcome and First Post  It was the typical post you see on most blogs to announce a new voice has been added to the internet – the “Hello World” of the blogosphere.

In those three years, I have posted 158 times, and put up content on a nearly consistent weekly schedule.  While the blog still doesn’t really have a focus, I’m happy with the progress I’ve made and even of some of the insights and musings I’ve published.  I still find it strange that my most visited post continues to be my review of the Zombies, Run! training app, with a total of 1,366 page views as of writing (a minimum of 100 monthly visits since August 2018).  Otherwise, I’m pretty happy with having 3,136 views from 2,417 visitors.  It makes me feel special.

Shout-out to my 73 followers on WordPress!  And shout-out to my top two commenters, my Aunt K and Tis Leigh of Tis But A Moment!  I’m glad you find value in my ramblings.

Even without focus or purpose, I plan to keep up the habit of writing and posting things weekly.  Here’s to another few years of writing yet!

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

 

 

Management and Teaching My Replacement

Over the last two weeks, I’ve been onboarding my replacement at work.  On the one hand, it’s great to finally offload the extra tasks that I’ve been juggling since assuming my new position.  On the other hand, I’m having to experience a new world at work in the form of management and performance coaching.  It’s one thing to do the tasks yourself, but it’s an entirely different thing to anticipate another person’s tasks, teach those tasks to the person, the follow-up on the progress with feedback.

While I am not the direct manager for the new program assistant, I share some of the responsibilities for ensuring she’s successful in her new role by virtue of me being the last person who occupied the role.  I suppose I’m over-thinking this a bit, since employees move on all the time and are not accountable for the new person’s performance.  Nevertheless, between me still working in the same office and me being a team player, I feel that it is my duty to help the new employee succeed until she can run under her own steam.  Afterall, the program assistant position is a job that was developed over the course of four years, so it’s a lot to take in all at once.

I knew prior to her starting that I would need to reflect intentionally on how I could teach someone to do the job that I have built over time, and figure out how to deconstruct the tasks and portfolios so that it makes sense to a fresh set of eyes.  Since this is my first time doing this, I took a stab at it and realized that there was a lot more I could have done to prepare for onboarding her.

One example is at the end of her first day.  I met with her to do a mini-debrief on how she felt her first day went.  She admitted it was a bit overwhelming, but was confident that she would learn more as she did the tasks.  She then asked for my input on what she should do the next day.  I hadn’t anticipated this question, so I floundered a bit, suggesting that she should take some time to read through the relevant policies and procedures I’ve got stashed away in a binder, as well as reviewing the committee minutes from the past year for an upcoming meeting she will need to plan.

After work, I reflected on this and realized that I didn’t do a good job of setting her up with concrete tasks for her to fill her day meaningfully.  Don’t get me wrong – at some point she will need to read over all of that stuff as it will be important to her job.  However, I realized there are better ways she could be utilizing her time.  Instead of reading over abstract documents, I need to get her working on tasks that are directly related to what she will be doing over time.

The next day, I jotted some ideas down and met with her in the afternoon to discuss how things are going and give her concrete tasks to start figuring out, such as responding to program-based email inquiries, learning where to find reports, typing up committee minutes so I could critique them, etc.  I also coached her on setting up meetings with the program Chairs to 1.) introduce herself more formally, and b.) to learn from them what their needs and wishes are.  I seeded some questions with her on topics she ought to cover, and left it to her to arrange the meetings.  In the background, I also spoke informally with some of the Chairs to let them know she was doing this, and to suggest ways they could help onboard her to their program areas.

This was a much better way to onboard her, and she was busy over the rest of the week learning various systems.  She would stop by my office a few times a day to ask clarifying questions or ask advice on how she should approach a certain task.  She was learning by doing, and seems to be adjusting well to her new role.  I’ll leave it for her actual boss to determine whether she is meeting targets, but at least I know she’s able to work with us as a team behind her.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

My Backfill Starts Today (Job Update)

A few months back, I updated that I hadn’t been selected for a job I was in the running for (again).  Well, turns out that I was a tad premature in my announcement.  A few weeks after the post went live, my boss came to my desk, smiling, and let me know that the candidate they had moved forward on originally had accepted a job elsewhere, which moved me from the second slot to the top.  I was advanced to two more informal interviews, and on March 4th I started my new job as the Graduate Attributes Quality Assurance Coordinator for our degree programs.  And finally, my replacement for my old position started today, which will begin the formal hand-off of all of my old job tasks.

This is a different phase of work for me.  I’ve trained people on tasks before, but I’ve never trained my replacement.  Until now, I’ve been trying to balance both job portfolios, but now I begin the process of uncoupling myself from my old tasks and handing them off to the new Program Assistant.

I feel a little bad for her.  The Program Assistant position didn’t exist in our office when I first started at the college.  It is the result of four years of expanding the role to take on tasks that didn’t really fit under other people’s roles.  It’s wholly unique in the college as far as I know, and it interacts with almost all major stakeholders: students, faculty, administration, alumni, and industry partners.  I have to condense the four key areas of my job – Advisory Committees, Program Development, Continuous Improvement, and Student Advising – into a meaningful set of processes and best practices.  At each phase of my old job’s development, my boss would give me a mandate, and I would figure out how to operationalize it over the next year.  It’s a lot of stuff to summarize and cleanly hand off, and I’m only now realizing that I didn’t spend enough time reflecting on how to make the work accessible to someone else.

Granted, this is a place of business, and she’s an employee.  She’s competent and is expected to actively learn her role, so it’s not up to me to hold her hand or treat her as if she needs special guidance.  The benefit of this transition is that I’m still in the office and available to answer questions as she learns her new role.

And in this transition, not only do I have a new job, but I’m occupying a brand new position at the college, which means I get a chance to take the objectives set by my boss and figure out what it means all over again, which is an exciting prospect to me.  Similar to my experience working in the gambling lab, I like situations where I’m given an objective and carte blanche to set up processes and procedures myself.

It is a steep learning curve, but I’m liking the work so far.  It’s just outside of my comfort zone, which is a good place for me to be.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

 

A Really Good Day

I was reflecting on a day I had last week that I would classify as a “really good” day.  I’m not saying it was perfect, but when I think about it from a personal level, I was very happy with it.

And by a really good day, I mean it was a really good professional day.  It was a day where I went to bed, and I felt professionally and creatively satisfied.  Most days, I feel like I’ve wasted my day with either pointless tasks or active procrastination.  I look back over the day and think that I’ve let it slip away, never to be recovered, and I have nothing to show for it – no movement on any projects, I haven’t grown in any significant way, and I’ve let my base instincts drag me away from what’s important.

I’ve had many good days with friends and family, but I find good professional days to be rare – possibly because I spend so much time at work relatively to anything else in my life.

When thinking about this really good day, I suppose this is what Simon Sinek gets at when he talks about finding your “why,” or your purpose.  I still can’t articulate my “why,” but I feel like the elements that made up my good day somehow speak to what fulfills me.

Anyway, I’ve talked around the topic enough.  What was this day?

Here is a list of things I did that I felt fulfilled by:

  • I took a phone call to consult with a client about some ethics questions related to their project.
  • I secured some consent from industry partners on a development project I’m working on to create a new engineering degree.
  • I had a meta-discussion about working at the college with a boss.
  • I went home and got exercise by shoveling the driveway.
  • My normally scheduled board meeting was cancelled due to the weather, and I took the night off from working at the bar, which meant I had a free night that I’d normally not have in the week.
  • I watched some videos from a Udemy course I’m taking on how to record videos better (I enrolled to help me make better vlogs and possibly future courses).
  • I spent an hour or so reading 40-50 pages of a book on professional/career development while listening to ambient white noise.
  • I spend 30-45 minutes reading book about literary structure for fun.

I think what made these events so meaningful is I felt like I was either learning/developing through the process, or I was able to get good, positive reinforcement on tasks I was initiating.  It’s not about “winning” or succeeding, but in this case, it’s about drawing a line that connects an intentional effort to find a certain outcome, and reaching that outcome precisely how you intended to do it.

In other word, I think the day felt so great because it felt intentional.  I felt those elements that lead to professional satisfaction – I felt autonomous, a sense of control, and I was working towards mastery.

Now the trick will be to do that more regularly.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan