Saturday, February 18, 2012

Excellent advice from an article in IHE about the use of e-mail in the workplace.

I strongly endorse both the main advice and a contrary opinion in the comments. Contradiction? No, because the common thread is to know why you are using e-mail rather than a personal conversation.

The contrarian advice is the important value of e-mail as a written record that can be used for legal backup (even if only with your department head or dean). However, as the main article points out, that message will only be of assistance to you if you think before you send.

And the one thing to think before you hit "send" is that all e-mail is a public record in some states and potentially a public record in others. Always think about how it will be read by anyone in your organization, including board members and (for state schools) legislators.

A key thing to think about with students, but also with many others, is that they might only read the first sentence of your response. Before you hit "send", go back and read that sentence, all by itself, as a stand-alone message to see if it sends a mistaken impression of your main message. I've rewritten an e-mail for that reason alone. We have a tendency to put the main point at the end, like a conclusion, rather than at the beginning, as is proper in a memo. The CYA stuff is always at the end, of course.

It is definitely true the e-mail carries bigger risks than a personal conversation. That is because nuances conveyed by tone of voice are simply absent in an e-mail. A direct, "just the facts, Ma'am" approach common among scientists is particularly risky when used with non-scientist colleagues or students. It comes across as brusque or even rude. That is perfect if your goal is to be rude, but not if you goal is to develop consensus on a policy or decision.

Finally, e-mail can be slower than face-to-face discussions. Something as simple as re-ranking priorities can happen in a minute during informal discussion, but take days as e-mails bounce back and forth asynchronously between members of a committee.

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Wednesday, January 4, 2012

First Day of Class

Amusing and thought-provoking blog about first day of class rituals from Gradhacker at IHE.

I usually waste way too much time on the syllabus and am fighting to get pro-forma nonsense down under 10 minutes. I want to do some physics on the first day.

More detailed comments later, but I also like to give a quiz.

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Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Sense of Progress

I always know when Dean Dad has written a great column: I am composing a reply before I even get to his thesis statement!

That was true for his first post of the new year, about progress and cycles. As soon as he wrote "The one idea of this book is that the feeling of “progress,” even when small, is a powerful motivator." I was thinking about a key part of my teaching style. But then he started talking about ... semesters? Yeah, he has a point there as well. And on one other topic he could have addressed. And another.

Lets take up both my thoughts and his. That will also keep my comment on his blog a bit shorter than normal in a case like this.

Dean Dad's Semesters Question:

Dean Dad asks "How do you handle the lack of a sense of progress that attends the semesterly reset?"

Since I teach a subject that consists of a two-semester sequence, I don't suffer as much as some people because there is a huge sense of progress at each reset. Those that make it through the distillery that is my classroom (not to mention those of my math colleagues) are generally not at the level of finely aged "sippin whiskey", but they sometimes get close! I have come to expect a 90 to 95% pass rate in my second semester class, and it would be higher if I didn't have some students slip in from a nearby university. [And, as noted in my next topic, those students also benefit from the objectively valid sense that they can now learn anything.]

I view the reset in the first semester class as a new opportunity. (I hope the students attempting a second pass through the distillation apparatus see it that way also, rather than repeating their original flawed approach.) Now that "outcomes assessment" and a revise and evaluate cycle are being institutionalized here, there are things one learns from each class that feeds back into the next. I have always done some of that, usually focusing on some specific problem, but the gift of "outcomes" from our accrediting agency has led me to look at the entire course once again with new eyes. That is something I wanted to blog about over break.

In the interim, I'll just say that I concur completely with Dean Dad that "a deliberate focus at the cc level on pedagogical and curricular experiments over time could pay off" in more than one way. It has always been that way for me. So maybe it is a bigger problem for Administrators? They only see the classes being taught, not the students in them, unless something has gone horribly wrong.

My Teaching Version:

I am a huge believer in "small victories". That drives the intense, short cycles I use for homework and increasing use of active learning in the classroom.

That wasn't my original motivation for tightening up due dates or using active leraning. It started my first semester teaching at a CC, following someone else's previous syllabus with homework due on Friday. I quickly saw that students procrastinated so badly that they didn't know what they didn't know until almost a week had passed since a topic was introduced. The lurkers didn't even know that they had no clue what had been going on as the engaged students participated as we did problems on the board. I cut the sets in half, more like the twice-a-week recitation approach I had experienced as a grad TA. Better. On-line homework let me push it further. Sets open up early so they can see what is coming, but the first basic problems on a topic are due within a day or two of when the concept is introduced.

Get an easy one under your belt, and away you go to harder problems.

Ditto for active learning in the classroom.

The only thing I can't seem to deal with is "active failure". Never do the homework, sit with a pencil napping on the paper while texting about something more interesting at that millisecond, refuse to even start a problem when everyone else is working at their desks, or not attend at all. Actually, I view that as a small victory for all of us because someone with an attitude like that should never have thought for one second about becoming an engineer!

My Dean Dad Semesters Snark:

Dean Dad often promotes eliminating semesters, although he always does so with nonsensical references to an agrarian calendar and without ever offering a functional alternative that would allow employers and others to evaluate what students might know. I suspect he wants shorter grading periods tied to competency exams. I ride a similar hobby horse, arguing for shorter terms like those in the "quarter" system that has three 10+1 week terms rather than two 14.5+1 week semesters in an academic "year".

Both of these makes the faculty problem he writes about worse, but does help students get some small victories at the course level unless they don't start attending class until 8 of the 10 weeks have gone by.

Frankly, I have no idea what has driven the movement to semesters other than filling football stadiums from August through November. It certainly seems more of a herd mentality than anything that is research driven.

Overlooked Analogy in Developmental classes:

Some of the more promising approaches to developmental math at a CC make use of the "small victory" approach. Diagnostics locate problem areas, and targeted homework along with instructor feedback -- often in a computer classroom -- attacks that weakness until it is corrected. The alternative, where some students remain forever weak in a particular tiny area as the class moves on, is ultimately fatal in math.

Programs where a student can pass all of it in one semester by working at their own pace appear to hold great promise. They also have the distinct advantage that none of these classes transfer anywhere as college credit, so all we need is a clear way to document internally that they have met the requirements to move into college algebra. That is where other colleges need to know what something on the transcript really means.

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