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Dear WSU Teaching

Dear WSU Teaching

Note: The “Dear WSU Teaching” is a series in which blog contributors directly answer questions and advice requests submitted by instructors in the program. You can find previous entries in the series here.

Dear WSU Teaching,
What is it like as far as managing your time between teaching and keeping up with your own studies? Can you offer any suggestions concerning techniques that would be effective for maintaining a balance between your student and teaching life?
– Unbalanced in Utica

–Dear Unbalanced in Utica,
It’s tricky sometimes (no surprise there). I’d address this on two levels, the micro and the macro. For the micro level, I have a timer. Looks like:

It’s very simple, and I can start and stop it with the thumb of my left hand without looking while I keep mousing or typing away with my right hand (that’s why I prefer the timer over using my phone or a program on my pc). I use it when I’m grading papers or other relatively short tasks. It’s good for not losing track of time and also for figuring out how long it takes to do things. When you’re grading 45 papers, 2 extra minutes per paper is an hour and a half. Pretty soon you’re talking about real time!

So how does the timer help? After grading the first few papers, multiply the time per paper by the number of remaining papers and find out that you’ll be finished roughly at the end of the next Mayan calendar cycle. Since that won’t work, you can then back into something that will let you finish them in a reasonable amount of time. In order to hit that reasonable time, you have to keep hitting your target for each paper or rethink your time. It’s kind of like training in track – you have to figure out your splits and then think about ways that you can reduce the time and still produce a reasonable, helpful result.

The other really important aspect of time management for me is the 70-30 relationship rule. I learned it in the context of personal relationships, but it also works for the relationship between your teaching and your own studies. That rule explains that the pollyannas who say that since the partners in a relationship are equal they should always put forth the same effort are setting you up for failure. In real life, 50-50 doesn’t work. Sometimes one person is having a really bad week and the other person has to pick up the slack. That’s fair! As long as sometimes it’s 70-30 and sometimes it’s 30-70 or 20-80, it will all balance out in the end. So don’t set your teaching/studying relationship up for failure. Know that some weeks (grading) will take lots more effort on the teaching side and others (seminar paper due; QE exam that week) will take lots more effort on the studying side. Plan your syllabus accordingly, since that’s one thing that you can control. Then try to stick with the syllabus schedule as much as possible.

Pro-tip: At least double the amount of time you think it will take you to grade your first sets of papers. There’s a learning curve as you learn how students respond to your assignments. (CR)

–Dear Unbalanced in Utica,
To be honest, I still struggle quite a bit with this. Before I launch into what has been helpful for me so far, I think it’s appropriate to broaden the question a little. We’re really talking about managing the addition of a teaching load to course work, research interests, departmental service, family obligations, personal life, recreation, professionalization, etc. This isn’t to bemoan graduate student life, but rather to acknowledge that effectively managing time between teaching and [insert obligation here] is really about effective time management in general – an issue that all aspiring professionals must deal with at some point in their careers. So, my first suggestion is to take an honest, hard look at your entire list of responsibilities when figuring out how to work in teaching.

A trick from a few businesspeople I know has actually helped me a lot. Create an hourly breakdown of each typical day in the week and fill it in with all of your daily and weekly obligations. Besides obvious items like teaching times, office hours, and graduate course meetings, include seemingly trivial things like meals, commuting, cleaning, paying your bills, and (dare I say) sleep. This will help you to identify and maximize “open” times for grading, reading, research, and even the occasional beer. You can use a packaged daily organizer like the corporate types, or go my way and just use an excel spreadsheet.

However, be warned. This strategy hinges on the fact that you know and are honest about your own habits and limitations. Don’t try to fool yourself into thinking that you can grade a whole class of essays in one sitting if you can’t. You will only throw off your schedule and start digging a hole that gets deep fast. Further, if you work better in the morning, then arrange your personal schedule so that more rigorous work is done early, leaving evening hours for more passive, basic tasks – if you’re a night owl, then rearrange accordingly. It might also help to build in some extra buffer time for yourself. Emergencies will happen and you will need to move things around, so a little extra pre-planned time will help to minimize the impact. (CS)

About how long did it take you to get comfortable in the teaching position, supposing you are comfortable in the position? What did you do, consciously or perhaps unconsciously, that helped you to become more comfortable?
-Uncomfortable in Union Township

–Dear Uncomfortable in Union Township,
Before coming to Wayne, I had been teaching high school for almost two years, so I got a chance to compose myself a little without also being a student. However, I think my advice would be the same with or without the experience – be honest, up front, and true to who you are. The quickest way to feeling comfortable in a teaching position is to feel comfortable in your own skin. Have confidence in the fact that your skills and knowledge have earned you a place in the front of that classroom (not to mention a place in this graduate program), and that you have quite a bit of valuable experience to share with them. Next, play to your strengths. Allow your natural personality to fit into your teaching persona. I’m pretty sarcastic, so I pretty much harass my students into enjoying my own personal brand of humor. It has worked so far…

You could also find ways to incorporate your own interests into your teaching, and relate them to your students. Not only will your own excitement usually spread around the room, but you will be inherently more interesting to learn from. Lastly, instead of always trying to play the role of perfectly informed and composed teacher, it’s much easier and more effective to just be bluntly honest (without being mean) and maybe even a little self-deprecating at times. First, you won’t have to dodge around pretending to have all the answers. Plus, students can usually tell if you’re faking it anyway. Secondly, if you can laugh at or even gently critique yourself after fumbling over lecture, knocking a desk over or making a genuine mistake, then students will usually respond positively. (CS)

–Dear Uncomfortable in Union Township,
On one level – about five minutes. By the end of my first class, I was grinning inside and remembering one of the reasons why I wanted to go to grad school. I was prepped for that class (I knew my material and had my lesson plan) and I dressed for teaching (more professionally than I dress in my grad student role). That all helped. Probably the key moment, however, was when a student asked me a question about something that wasn’t on my prep and I had no problem answering it. I realized that yes, I do know more than they do (way more) and I do have something to teach these students.

On the second level – about half way through the semester I felt that I’d hit my stride in terms of dealing with students and student papers. I’d seen a variety of situations and handled them- some better, some worse, but without disasters. I think that’s where I still am. I haven’t had any real catastrophes, though I’ve now had even more experiences good and bad, including a couple of cases of plagiarism.

On the third level – I don’t know that I’ll ever get completely comfortable and I’m fine with that. For me there’s an element of teaching that’s like being out in a windy rain storm (not that nasty sleet stuff). It’s invigorating, and I love it, but it’s not exactly comfortable, either. (CR)

What are some different ways you’ve done peer editing? How productive do you find peer editing to be?
– A Peer from Plymouth

–Dear A Peer from Plymouth,
This semester, I had my students turn in a rough draft and then bring the draft to class. I graded and responded to their drafts beforehand. Then I sorted them by draft grade (Excel is my friend) and put them into groups of three by grade (I didn’t tell them how I’d come up with the groups). I gave them worksheets with questions to help them with the peer review process. I had mixed results. I think the sort-by-grade process worked pretty well. Some of the students really got a lot from the peer review. Others didn’t and hated it, but I think part of that was who they were teamed with. I’m going to keep tweaking the process. (CR)

–Dear A Peer from Plymouth,
I have tried random and assigned partner peers, round robin exchanges, oral readings/feedback, crowd-sourcing, as well as both form guided and open-ended question peer edits. Regardless of the technique, the productiveness of each peer edit comes down to the effectiveness of the editor. So I’ve found that modeling effective peer editing techniques as early and as often as possible in my classes has helped to improve the process greatly. Whatever you do, don’t just have them exchange papers and leave class. Give students some type of incentive to do a thorough job.

After you have established a good rapport with your students, I encourage you to try crowd-sourcing for one class session. Obviously, this won’t work for entire papers, but you can cover introductions, body paragraphs, or conclusions with ease. I have students submit work to me via email and then, with their permission, post their work anonymously on the wiki. After a brief note on respect and constructive criticism, we spend the session working through submissions conversationally as a class. If the class has a hard time offering enough substantial praise/criticism, I lead the group through a series of questions. This helps them to identify what works or doesn’t, why, and how it can either be improved or implemented in other papers. Also, I typically prepare a list of common issues ahead of time, which we cover for everyone’s benefit.

One interesting tactic, that I have yet to try, comes from Lisa Maruca and Joe Paszek. Lisa has students post their papers as Google Docs and then editors apply track comments much like in a Word document. I believe Joe uses Word exclusively. I believe both she and Joe then have authors respond substantively to the comments in addition to making document changes. From what I understand, this approach has produced some very interesting results.(CS)

Claudia Ross is a PhD candidate and GTA who researches Early Modern Literature and currently teaches ENG 1020. She is also a member of the program’s Pilot Committee and our inaugural 1020 Teaching Circle. She has previously taught ENG 2200 (Shakespeare) and worked as a tutor in the Writing Center.

Chris Susak is a PhD candidate and GTA who currently teaches 1020. He is also a member of the program’s Curriculum Committee.



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