Helping the Minoritized Achieve in Academic Science

Archive for July, 2013

Networking On Campus

Networking should not just be done off campus, at conferences and other professional gatherings. Your on-campus network is just as important (maybe more so) than your off campus. Most of us are tenure track at research or small schools where your department, college, dean, and provost will have a say on if you get to stay after your tenure decision. Make sure these people know who you are and have a positive opinion of you before your tenure case comes before them. Below are a few ways you can do them. Again, you can go the in your face, PublicityWhore route, or you can be subtle or discreet. Just don’t be too subtle that they don’t notice you.

Get a group. I don’t mean a scientific group, I mean an EveryOtherThursday Group. This is a group of like-minded women to whom you can talk openly and honestly about the challenges of this job and who will give you feedback and advise.  We have several of these on campus. My group has a number of very senior women, mid-career women, and junior women. Your group doesn’t have to be just women, but there are definitely issues that women face that men are oblivious to (too many to list here, and we will get to them – eventually). The group should be supportive and problem-solving – not just a bitch-session group, although that is useful too. The senior women in my group have helped immensely with navigating my early career, academic politics of the university, and they were supportive of my tenure case at the college-wide level in a number of ways.

Go to lunch. Invite random people to lunch routinely from within your department and outside. This is another part of that bonding over science and personal information to form friendships. This is called “being collegial,” and it makes you look like part of the team. If people in your department go running, biking, hiking, or to the gym together, join in with that. Be part of the team. Do not exclude yourself.

Go to lunch with senior faculty. The year before my tenure packet went in, I had a series of lunches with influential senior men in my department. Your know who they are. If you don’t – pay attention in faculty meetings: which members of the department do people always listen to or credit with ideas? Those are the people who are respected. If people roll their eyes when someone senior is talking, don’t go to them. When I invited them to lunch, I specifically told them that I wanted to talk about my tenure case with them, to make sure I was on the right track and would be fine. At lunch, I laid out the path to tenure as I saw it. I had 6-9 months left until my packet went in, I had this many papers out, this many in the pipeline to publication. I was working with this many students, postdocs, undergrads. I did not bring up negatives, but only positives. My goal: get these men on my side. They are the movers of the department, the wise elders that people listen to. I didn’t want there to be any surprises at tenure time, and I wanted any one of them to be able to present my case as if they knew it by heart.

Be seen at conferences. This is not about off-campus mentoring, so why am I brining up conferences? Well, when you go to a conference, you will likely have other people from your department, college, university at the same conference. Be visible to your institutional colleagues. Make sure they see you are giving a talk or a poster. Make sure they see you out and about at the meeting talking and networking. Much like going to lunch, this is also part of being collegial. I have seen someone not get tenure because someone in his department said, “I never saw him at that conference, so I assume he was just in his hotel room.” Of course that is irrational and stupid reason to destroy someone’s career, but it happens. Make sure it doesn’t happen to YOU.

Respond to emails. This is hard because we all get bogged down with stuff and can’t always respond right away, but when your on-campus collegaues send an email – respond!

Do your part. When working with others on non-service tasks, do a good job. For instance, if a big multi-PI grant is being assembled, and they assign you a task, do it well and in a timely manner. Yes, your chances of getting it may be slim, and it it may seem like a waste of time, but you need to be part of the team. If you are doing service, there are some times when you should work really hard and do a great job and other times when you should half-ass it. Of course, do your work that you are assigned, but don’t spend too much of your precious time. Example1: you are working on the admissions committee reviewing files. Do have all your files read and commented on by the deadline. Don’t spend 6 hours on 3 files – spend 20 minutes on each, giving your impressions. There will be a discussion, and you will have time to go back and re-evluate if your quick scan was too cursory. Example2: You are serving on a student’s qualifying committee with 2 senior people from other departments. Do respond to emails and be at the committee meeting for the student on time. Don’t be so hard to track down that the senior person heading the committee has to ask your senior colleagues if you are traveling. That makes you look bad both out of department and within.

Write lots of grants. At my university, every time I write a grant, my chair signs off and my dean signs off. That means that my dean sees my name about 5-10 times per year in the context of research and grant writing. This is a positive. My name is associated with grants and money and research – all positive. In this environment of no money, you shouldn’t ned much motivation to write lots of grants, but this added self-promotion may help you get a few more out and across people’s desks.

Are there other specific suggestions for networking on campus? It is a long-term thing, so start early – you can’t save it all for the last minute. Please guest post or comment!


One really important part of coming up for tenure, and actually every part of your job as an academic, even after tenure, is networking. I personally enjoy networking and chatting with people in my field. Good science ideas come out of it, and most of the people are actually fun to talk to. Plus, it helps remove feelings of isolation that can often come on in this job – especially if you are “the only one” in your subfield in your department of university. Talking with experts in your field to get them excited about your work is very satisfying. Bonus: what if that person is on a grant panel or one of your letter writers? Getting them excited about you and your work predisposes them favorably to you. I will have two posts on networking: (1) Networking off campus (like at a conference) and (2) Networking on campus.

Networking off campus. I am sitting at a small research conference in the middle of nowhere, so this is on my mind now. I am actually employing these skills in many of my conversations right now!

Sometimes it can be scary, but stay positive. If you are giving a talk or just chatting and someone who is very negative to you, try to stay positive. Ask them more questions about their opinion and tell them that your goal is to do great science and their opinion is important. This often diffuses the person because they realize that you value their opinion. If they are really negative, ask them to become your ally. I say, “We have some new stuff we are going to submit, would you mind reading it for us?” This often works and makes them a colleague instead of a competitor. Many times, if he/she is an honorable person who is just a good scientist/hard-ass, they will help you. And, if they get called to review the paper, they will not review it because they have already commented and had input, so reviewing would be a conflict of interest. If you worry they might still review it, thank them in the acknowledgements and make sure the editor knows that they had input on it, and they won’t be asked.  If they are really a meanypants, they might refuse to help you. If they do this in front of other people, they will get a bad reputation as a jerk, so most people who care about being liked won’t do this.

Show off unpublished work. This is also scary, and I know you can be afraid of being scooped, but sometimes you have to risk it. When you show off work at a meeting in a talk or poster, there is the added bonus of marking your territory on a problem. You also need to put yourself out there with the right group. This is especially important if you are changing fields. For instance, if you are switching from Astrobiology to Physical Chemistry, you cannot only talk to Astrobiologists. You must talk to Physical Chemists and get their opinions on your work. This is the group that will judge you, so they need to get to know you. It is easier for them to do that in person at a conference than when they review your proposal or write you a letter for tenure. Show them your work, discuss your ideas, and ask them for guidance in coming up with your problems. It may hurt at the time, but better in person than at a panel on in your tenure packet where you cannot defend yourself and refine your ideas.

Self-promote. Did you get a new grant funded? Let people know. You don’t have to be a PublicityWhore like me and announce it during your talk. You can do it discretely. For instance, in your poster or in your talk, write NEW! next to the funding agency name and the grant number. Is your student graduating? Let people know he/she is looking for a position – again loudly by announcing it or discretely, by putting up the words only. Make sure people are aware that you are doing your job and doing it well – science and the other stuff.

Don’t neglect students. Although you do want fancy BigShots to notice you and talk to you about your work, don’t forget to talk to students. One reason is that you could recruit a good graduate student or postdoc to your lab through these interactions. But second, it is a nice thing to do, and they might go home and talk about you to their BigShot PI and say good things. Good things are good. Also, give back and mentor a little. Some students have terrible advisors and need help and mentoring – offer it. You never know when it will pay off. (tomorrow or 10 years from now).  PayItForward. Some of the people that were most influential to me were random nice people at conferences who were more senior. They treated me with respect and dignity, even though I was a grad student (a female one at that!). I still remember them, and their treatment meant a lot to me. I try to treat graduate students and postdocs that way, too. The old adage is true: Treat others as you would like to be treated.

Chat with friends. Having conversations about non-science things is good, too because it takes people past the colleague arena into the friend arena. Forming bonds by sharing personal information can allow people to see more sides to you besides your awesome science. They can see you are a real person who has feelings. I don’t think it can hurt.

Facebook with style. You should decide: who will you be friends with on Facebook? Is it only going to be real friends and family, and you wouldn’t want your colleagues to see you? If so, make sure it is private and people cannot friend you. I use Facebook to network and promote myself. I friend people in my field, and try to initiate science questions or even the social science of science questions.

Other specific ideas and advice for effective networking? Guest post or comment.

Service Statement

The three areas of a tenure track job are Research, Teaching, and Service. Your packet must address each of these three separate parts, but let’s be honest, no one really cares about service.  So, check with your department chairperson and look at the packets you got from others and ask, “Do I need a separate service statement?” If the answer is “no” make sure that your CV has all the information about your service in it, so that people know what you did. If the answer is “yes” then you need to write a separate service statement.

This statement is even worse than the teaching statement about knowing what to write because most people don’t have a vision of service. You usually just do the service you are assigned and don’t mess up too bad. But, if you think about it, you might find that some of the service you do might be aligned in some way, and you can write about that. For instance, did you serve on the graduate admissions committee and mentor new graduate students and served on the qualifying exam committee? You can write about your commitment to training graduate students. If you were an undergraduate advisor and served as the liaison between the department and the undergraduate student club, you can talk about undergraduate mentoring and education. Not all your committee assignments will coalesce, but you don’t have to detail them all. All your committees are listed in your CV, so you just have to outline and point out the ones you want to here.

Another aspect of service is your scientific community service. This includes the panels you serve on, the papers you review for journals, the meetings you organize, and any national committees you serve on for your societies. This is the easiest to describe, since it is closely aligned with research, and maybe you actually sought some of these service activities, instead of having them randomly assigned.

Any other suggestions? Comment or guest post!

Your Packet: Teaching

At most schools, research is most important and teaching is a close second. So, you need to have a teaching statement in your packet. This should be familiar, since many schools and departments require a teaching statement in your application packet. When writing your application, it was probably not clear what that teaching statement was supposed to say, especially since most of us haven’t taught before going to their tenure track job. Well, it probably isn’t clear here either. Again, this is where some one else’s packet and teaching statement can help immensely.

Another thing is that your CV now has a bunch of information about your teaching including a list of courses that you taught, a list of students you have mentored, and students’ committees. So, what needs to go here? This post includes some suggestions of topics you can include. I am sure there are other good things, so please comment or guest post. (Don’t forget to hit the follow button to be notified every time there is a new WomanOf Science post!)

Your point of view: People say you should discuss your vision for teaching. When applying, this was a daunting task. Never having taught meant that I had no idea how to teach poorly, let alone how I thought it should be done well. After a few years of teaching, and hopefully getting better at it, you might actually have a real vision of the best way to teach. Maybe you don’t have a “vision,” but you can say what things are important to you about teaching a class. Again, give them your take on things to orient them about your opinions on teaching.

Course development: This may or may not apply, but if you did develop a new course, you should describe what you did in your packet. This is similar to what you do in your research statement. Describe what you did. Use figures, including pictures of your class, if you have them. If you were funded to develop the new course, describe the grant. Play up the fact that you took a risk and did something innovative before tenure. Again, self-promote and sell it here.

Student mentoring: Part of your teaching includes the training of students in the laboratory. If you have specific means to mentor your students, describe them. I think it is easier to have a vision about how to mentor than how to teach because it is so closely aligned with research, which is the one thing you were trained to do. You probably had some idea of how you would train your graduate students and some ideal of what your graduate students would come out being able to do. Do you teach them specific skills? Then there are a whole bunch of other skills that we train our students in addition to the science, and most people have a good idea how they would ideally do that, too. For instance: Do you train them in writing? How? Do you educate them in presentation skills? In what way? Do you encourage them and send them to conferences to present their work? How is training a postdoc different from training a graduate student in your lab? How do you train undergraduates? Check with your institution if mentoring should go under teaching or research, but it usually is part of teaching.

Classroom teaching: Since your CV already has a list of courses, this section should include more information about how you went about teaching your assigned courses. You should emphasize innovative changes, those 20% changes that we talked about before, that made your class better. If your evaluations improved over time due to these changes, point it out.

More so than the research statement, the teaching statement has a lot of flexibility. You can quote student evaluations and even include scans of thank you letters from students – should you have them! Again, you are selling yourself so that you are sailing over the bar instead of just barely making it. I am sure there are a lot of other great suggestions, so hopefully some others will chime in!

Selling Yourself with your Packet

When you go up for tenure, there are only a few things that are still completely in your control. Your packet is one of them. You should promote and sell yourself using your packet. This is your opportunity to make it clear how awesome you are. As with a proposal, you don’t want your audience to infer or guess that you have achieved all that you promised when they hired you. You just have to tell them. Here is some advice about your packet from a WomanOfScience who just went through it successfully. This post will only describe the research section. Teaching and Service sections will follow. Any other suggestions welcomed and encouraged!

Most important: Get some other packets as examples. Ask people who just went up within the last year. Ask people in your department in your subfield. If that doesn’t exist, ask people in other departments within your college, in a similar subfield but maybe in a different department. Try to get at least 2-3 because different people have different styles. You can pick the aspects from each that you like most and use that.

Sell your field: When your packet goes out, it might go to people who are not in your particular subfield of your discipline. Hopefully the letter writers will be right up your alley, but maybe not, depending on how big your field is, if there are even smaller sub-subfields, and how good you did at meeting others and making a network outside of campus. You will probably have to sell it to the members of your College Promotion and Tenure committee (Personnel Committee), if not your own department. Having a few sentences up front about what your subfield is called, and how you view the field is a good way to orient the readers, and get everyone on the same page – your page. This is especially important if you are in a fringe subfield that is unusual within the department or within the college.

Sell your topic: Your packet readers may not know why studying the respiratory pathway in gulf shrimp is important. Sell it! Or why block-copolymers are essential to energy harvesting. Sell it! Write it like you are talking to a scientist from a very different field at a dinner party. They are smart, but they just don’t know what you do or why. In fact, attend or host a dinner party and try out some ideas on people. Just chatting about your science is a good way to feel out what types of selling lines work and which do not. Maybe you don’t like dinner parties, but there are other opportunities to chat with scientists from different fields over lunch or whatever.

Detail what you did: Next, you need to describe what you accomplished scientifically. Discuss each project separately. Most people have 2-3 distinct projects that they made progress on during their tenure process. If you have over 5, try to lump them together. List or describe the funded grants you got for each project in the text to make it clear that you got funding. If you didn’t have funding, you can list pending proposals. Have images to illustrate your data. You should be able to reference your own papers. Try, as much as possible, to not reference papers by any other groups in the research write-up section. It is not petty; it is part of self-promotion. Do not be afraid to self-promote. You are doing it because this document is supposed to highlight your work – not another group. You are building a case for yourself and what you did, so you shouldn’t have to reference any other work outside of the introductory material. In cases where you have collaborations with other scientists, especially senior people, be very very clear about what you did. Find out beforehand from a senior person in your department about how they feel about these collaborations. Many departments think collaborating is good. Some don’t, make sure you know so you can emphasize or de-emphasize as needed.

Clearly detail all your papers in the text: This is up to you, but many packets I got from others and I used this style myself, inserted a block of citations in the middle of the text just after the paragraphs describing the work. My thoughts on this is that:

  1. It draws attention to your work, so they can’t really miss it. Plus, when you list papers in your CV, they are by date of publication, which is important, but it is just as important for people to see them listed by project or research thrust in your lab. This is how you probably think of them, so why not be explicit!
  2. It can be more detailed with annotations to highlight what the paper showed and which students of your did the work. I highlighted which students were high school, undergrads, graduate, and postdocs from my lab.
  3. I included the relevant book chapters and review articles in with this list. That gave me a list of about 4-5 per project, instead of 1-2 research papers only. It also highlighted that people in my community care about what I think, which is why they ask me to write reviews, prospectives, and chapters.

Future aspirations: The last paragraph of my research section had a five year plan for research. This is similar to what you might write for when you went up for the job. The difference is that you have a lot of experience, and you know what will work and what might be higher risk. Tenure is about to give you job security for life. It is the time to take some risks. Highlight that you are moving into a more innovative, high-risk, yet high-reward phase after securing tenure.

Are there other specific or general items that I missed? Please guest post or comment!

Your CV

One of the main components, if not the first component of your tenure packet will be your CV. This is a place where it is easy to get it wrong. The people writing letters and on the committees will get your CV and scan it. Much like writing a grant, it needs to be in the right format – a format that people expect. Unexpected things from an outsider (woman, minority, whatever) are not welcome. So, what does your CV need to include and what order? The best way to find out is to ask someone for their CV. I suggest asking the young people at your institution who just got tenure. They need to be at your institution, because the Promotion and Tenure committee at your institution will ultimately make the decision. If they just got tenure, then they obviously did something right. Don’t just ask for one. Ask for many. In fact, ask for their entire packet. We will discuss the packet more in a following post.

What should be in your CV?

  1. Your name and contact information right up front. No pictures of yourself. That is odd.
  2. Your education including your undergraduate and graduate (Ph.D.) degrees. You can put your postdoctoral appointment(s) in this section or in the following section I have seen both.
  3. Your professional positions. If you got paid to do it, it is professional. This changes as you get on with your career.
  4. Awards and honors. Include a short citation after the names so people understand what the award recognizes.
  5. Publications. When going up for tenure, I modified my publications area in several key ways. I had a sentence describing author contributions in regard to author order. This is distinct from sub-field to sub-field in my department, so I wanted it to be clear for my particular sub-field. I grouped my publications as at my current institution and prior to my current institution, so that it was easy for people to see what work should be attributed to my pre-tenure years. I also highlighted which students worked in my lab under my direction and indicated if they were high school students, undergraduates, graduate students, or postdocs. Also, it is now becoming standard to add the DOI locator at the end of each reference, so it is best to include it.
  6. Presentations. By the time you are coming up for tenure, this list might be fairly long. You can divide them up into different types of presentations such as Invited Presentations at International Conferences, Invited Seminars and Colloquia, Contributed Talks at International Conferences, and Contributed Posters at Conferences.
  7. Funding. Yes. List your funding in your CV. When you are coming up for tenure, be explicit. List all the grants you currently have active, your prior grants that have expired, and the grants that are pending.
  8. Teaching Record. As I have said before, being a professor is many jobs in one. Your CV now needs to reflect these other responsibilities and duties that you have taken on. I think you want to be specific about what you did for teaching and mentoring. *Mentoring of research students could go in the research sections above after funding. I have seen both ways. The teaching section should include:
    1. Classroom teaching record. What you taught and when, number of students, evaluation scores.
    2. Student mentoring including postdocs, graduate students, undergraduates, and high school students. Don’t forget to include students for whom you have served on committees as a committee member, also.
  9. Service Record. Much like teaching is a new addition, so to is service. Make sure you are updating your CV often when you get new service assignments, so you don’t lose track. Also, there are multiple types of service. Service to your research field, service to your department, service to the college and university. I separated these different service aspects out, so they were not jumbled together. Also, did you get funding for service or teaching activities? Where will you list it? Up in the funding, which is really your research section? It might be a bit distracting. I separated out my service and teaching funding and put it into a separate funding section. Some sections in my CV include:
    1. List of funded and pending grants for service and teaching activities.
    2. Professional service to societies and meeting organization. This includes any offices held in professional societies or any meeting sessions organized or chaired.
    3. Proposal reviewing is a professional service, but some panels are anonymous and others are known. If it is anonymous, like NSF, don’t list the panel or the date, but simply leave it vague, like (2 panels over the past 5 years). If it is a published list, like NIH, you can list the panel. I also list ad hoc proposal reviews by the organization.
    4. Journal reviewing is important to show that other people care about your opinion. I list all the journals I have reviewed for and the years I served as a reviewer.
    5. List and short description of service to my department.
    6. List and short description of service to the college and university.
  10. For going up for tenure, I also make a list of active collaborations with a short description of the collaborative work. This helped the department decide who to ask for letters and who was an “insider” vs. and “outsider.” After tenure, I don’t see as many people listing these collaborators, but having it for tenure makes it easy for people to read what are your contributions to these collaborations.

These are just some of the items you can put in, and this is your CV, so you can add other things, such as publicity for your work and cover artwork. But, make sure that the research is up front. For instance, it would be a mistake to put your publications at the end of the CV.

Any other advise or suggestions on getting your CV ready for tenure? Guest post or comment!

Coming Up: Tenure

Many of the posts we have discussed on improving teaching, self promotion, and lab management are all geared toward ensuring that you secure tenure. Some of your may be coming up sooner than others, so I want to make sure that we spend a few posts on some simple things you can do when coming up for tenure to make sure that you get it. These are the last minute things like writing your package and communicating with your senior colleagues. These things are not going to help if you don’t have papers or grants and your teaching is poor. But, I feel that many deserving women don’t get tenure or barely get it even when they are good teachers and have a lot of research behind them because they are somehow not part of the club. Many of the things I will bring up also go under the heading of Self Promotion. Again, women and minorities are socially groomed to be demure and not boastful. Unfortunately, in academia, that can give you a whole lot of nothing. So, just remember, Women Rock, and you are one of them! So, let everyone know how awesome you are.

Small Changes for Big Impacts in Teaching

Going along with the 20% change rule, a couple PersonsOfScience who are CottrellScholars had some good things to say, so I am reposting them here. In case you are not aware, the Cottrell Scholars are a group of research faculty who take teaching very seriously. Their ideas and actions on good teaching practices are informed by education research literature. They know what they are talking about, but they don’t try to make you feel bad about what you don’t know yourself. Much like any good teacher, they are truly interested in educating people… about good teaching practices.

Andrew Feig says:

One of my favorite quick fixes is Just-In-Time Teaching. This is a method wherein you give a short assignment to the students typically due about 15 or 30 minutes prior to class. The assignment can be a warmup exercise based on the readings, it can recap something from the prior class or it can assess if students remember a foundational skill relevant to the topic of the day. The idea is to get the students engaged in the material prior to setting foot in class. You then browse the answers quickly immediately prior to starting class so that you can start the class with a comment based on how the class performed. If they did well, complement them and move on. If they could not do something that you expected them to be able to do (such as the foundational question or one that identifies a common misconception), then you had better stop and address the issue before moving onward with the new material. To make it work, you must be consistent and do it for every class and you must spend a minute or two at the start of class addressing the problem they did. It also helps to award a trivial number of points for completion. Grade on completion not correctness here. Remember, the goal is to judge if they can do an exercise and you don’t want them circumventing the challenge and copying from one another.

Many resources are available on line to learn more about JITT including:

Sarah Keller says:

Here’s a quick one: Assign a homework problem requiring students to write an “exam question” that would be appropriate for a future students taking the final in the same class, along with the answer key. Students get a nice review of the course material while they are hunting for ideas. As a bonus they discover (and are usually surprised to find out) that writing a decent exam question is hard; they become more appreciative of good exams with interesting problems.

Some compiled hints are at: S.L. Keller and A.L. Smith, Advice for New Faculty Teaching Undergraduate Science J. Chem. Educ., 83, 401-406, 2006.

Thanks for the great ideas Cottrell Scholars!

Changing 20%

In the last post, I described how I altered my office hours into homework session. It led to improved learning gains from my students and better evaluations for me. This was a specific example of how a small change of some specific things in my class greatly improved my course pedagogy.  There is a rule of thumb when making changes: only change the worst 20% at one time and keep the best 80%. Following this rule of thumb allows changes to be made a little at a time. It isn’t so daunting to make just a few changes to a few things.

For example, from year 1 to year 2 of teaching a particular course, I change my office hours to discussion sections, I added in small group work, and I started doing more computer demos as examples in class. I did not overhaul my lectures or completely change from a lecture style to an inverted classroom. For the following year, I made more changes to the course that included more student participation and active learning during class. If I could have taught the course for several more years, I would have eventually completely overhauled the course into an inverted classroom.

I want to point out: The additions and changes to my course did not require any extra time on my part. As anyone with any new course, I spent a lot of time the first offering coming up with the curriculum. Years 2 and 3 were a breeze compared to the effort of year 1, even with making important changes that greatly improved the course. The items that you change should strive to approach the scientifically documented best practices for scientific teaching. Honestly, my first year of teaching my course, I was struggling to get the material into lecture format in time for class. My teaching was not innovative or inspiring. Only the best students probably learned anything and they probably did not retain it. The blandness of my course was evident in my moderate evaluations of about 3.6 out of 5. The 20% changes I made were in the direction of best teaching practices. More student participation. More interaction with the teacher. More one-on-one time. My evaluations improved to a 4.2 in year 2 and a 4.9 in years 3 and 4 with students writing that I was the best professor they had in college and being nominated for university-wide teaching awards. I was able to make these improvements without a huge effort or commitment of time because I only changed 20% at a time.

Here is another issue: In order for this process of change to be effective, you need to teach the same course multiple years in a row. This is essential for any new faculty who is trying to get tenure. If your department will not let you teach the same course multiple times in a row, they are not being supportive and you absolutely need to demand it. They may tell you that they need you to teach something else for whatever reason, but really, they could do whatever they want. If teaching the same course multiple times in a row is not a regular thing in your new department, you need to put it in your contract or get a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the department chair. If you chair won’t do this for you, you need to go to the dean’s level to put pressure on the chair to ensure you can repeat the course. This is such a minor thing that most chairs will immediately agree, but you have to know to ask for it.  If they ask you to change the course you are teaching after only one time, simply refuse. Don’t be nice about this. This is your career, and it depends on you teaching relatively well (relative to your colleagues), so make a stink if they aren’t helping you.

Do others have examples of simple changes that can be made to improve teaching that don’t take a lot of time? Or examples of 20% changes you made that made a huge improvement to your teaching? Guest post or make a comment.

Office Hours = Homework Sessions

My first semester of teaching, I had office hours at some time during the day that worked for me. A very few, dedicated students were able to come to the office hours. I got to know these students really well. I think many professors would say that they really get to know the students who frequent their office hours. And, I did too, but I was troubled by how few students were able to come to office hours. I realized that daytime office hours were difficult for students because many had classes at the same time.

I decided to make a significant change to my office hours in order to reach more students. I decided to have evening office hours that I called homework sessions, so that more students could attend. Instead of my small, camped office, I had a classroom assigned to me that could hold the entire class. The classroom had desks that were moveable, so that students could work in small groups. When students arrived, I asked them which problem they were working on. I put all the students working on the same problem together, so that they could problem-solve together and peer-educate each other. Plus, this allowed me to help several students at once. Often one student would get it, and then explain further to the rest of the students in their group in their own words.

This system worked better than expected in that more students were working together on their homework. Plus, I had more direct access to the students and their thought processes as they actively solved problems. When I taught, I was in a huge lecture hall with seats bolted to the floor in stadium seating. These homework sessions enabled me to meet, chat with, and directly educate many more students than my normal class periods. The students felt more comfortable with me, and were more open about what they didn’t know, also allowing me to teach them individually and better.

Here is a specific example: During one HW session, I was watching a student solve a problem, and I realized that the student was struggling with fractions. We talked about it, and the student was able to get extra tutoring.

I was able to directly mentor students on how to get into a research lab, what a science degree is supposed to teach you, how to get into graduate school, what graduate school in science was like and that it was free!, and many other topics. The students really liked the homework sessions. I was told that they continued to work in these groups through graduation, and that many of them had never worked in a group on homework before my course. They weren’t communicating with their peers about the course before this course!

One more thing. My homework problem sets were due on Fridays, so I made my homework sessions on Mondays and Tuesdays to encourage the students to start early. Some, very motivated students would come to the homework sessions with most problems started and many completed. Most other students would have nothing started, but, by coming to the homework sessions, they would start their homework on Mondays instead of Thursdays. Some students complained that they wanted the homework sessions on Thursdays. I would explain, as I explained the first day of class, that I had these homework sessions early to encourage students to start their homework assignments early, which they really needed to get into the habit of doing. Having them on Thursday would defeat the purpose of the session. By the end of the semester I would have 50 – 75% of the course attending one or both homework sessions each week! And, my evaluation scores went from 3.5 out of 5 to 4.9 out of 5!

I understand that evening office hours probably won’t work for everyone, but having them at a time that is better for students (afternoons, maybe) in a big classroom and not your office could be the key to unlocking your students’ learning gains. And getting better evaluations! Although it seemed like I was spending a lot more hours, it wasn’t any more than regular office hours. Further, these office hours were a time saver. I didn’t have to have special individual office hours for each student who couldn’t come to my normal office hours because they could all come to one or the other homework session.

So, this was one way to teach better through direct engagement with the students. Do you have other good or better ways to hold office hours? Share with a comment or guest post!

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