31 March 2017

Annual Performance Evaluations

Three dreaded words ~ annual performance evaluation. These words bring to mind sitting uncomfortably, waiting for critiques, hoping for some praise, feeling the need to justify one's position. An emphasis on individual performance is not new; it's a staple of human resources practice and consulting. Ideally, it's a time of reflection and personal goal setting.

For faculty, this is a time to recount the peer reviewed publications, re-tally the grant and contract dollars awarded, report on student course evaluation scores, refresh the list of advisees and update the list of campus and professional committee memberships, as well as add new honors and invited presentations. The renowned curriculum vita (CV) becomes current. Each university and each department has slightly different criteria for determining whether the productivity has been sufficient. But, all expect that their faculty members exceed whatever minimum has been set. In preparation of theses counts and updates, some faculty rush to submit manuscripts for publication and nudge students toward graduation. The annual academic clock is predictable.

For many doctoral students, this is a time for anxiety as they measure their accomplishments against the market expectations they will be facing. In some doctoral programs, students do a self-evaluation of accomplishments and updating of CV.  As new students engage in this activity, they might be overwhelmed at the list of what ought to done before graduation. Like faculty, students are expected to serve as student representatives on various campus or professional committees, publish in peer reviewed journals, present their research, all while completing coursework at a satisfactory level.

For the university, the annual performance evaulation tends to focus on graduation rates, national university rankings, and total grant dollars summed across faculty.

Missing across these three levels are the intangibles of knowledge generated and shared, acceptances gained and restrictions lost, and critical thinking skills honed; The societal goods necessary for a healthy democracy.

24 March 2017

Classroom technology

Students arrive for class with laptops and tablets, with the readings and their class notes documents open. It all feels quite normal, now. I do remember when laptops first started appearing the classroom, brought in by the random, slightly more resourced and more techie students. These students tended to slouch down, almost hiding behind the fully upright screen. Their gaze was never at me, always at the screen. That hasn't changed much over the years.  But, I have. I used to feel exasperated, wanting nothing between me and the student. I was at a loss for what to say. Now I say, politely but pointedly, "look at me" when I want their engaged attention.

As tools for organizing thoughts, keeping printing and textbook costs down, and being prepared for class, laptops and tablets now make a lot of sense. In addition, so many textbooks are electronic, with no hard copies, which makes computers a student necessity. I have learned to incorporate their computers into some discussions. Sometimes when I mention something slightly historical, like President Johnson or the start of day care centers, their quizzical look tells me that they have no clear sense of the historical reference. I can use that as a learning moment because the entire campus has wifi so internet access is easy. I'll pause and say "look it up."  Students readily slip into a subtle competition for the best google find.

In contrast, the phone remains mostly an annoying distraction. Partly, because of the wifi availability. At best, the phone is silenced and tucked away until break or the end of class. At worst, it makes noises and the bright white of the small screen feeds the addiction with trivial updates that somehow have deep meaning to the reader. Well, okay, networking can be fun, but not during a lecture or a discussion that is intended to broaden the horizons for the student.

Faculty have come to accept that technology we use and that our students use is still evolving. That constant change contributes to the slight burdensomeness of modifying assignments and interactions, but also the challenge of keeping our teaching fresh and alive with the vast resources now literally at our fingertips. 


17 March 2017

Spring Break Reflecion

 It's equinox season which also means it's spring break season. Students and faculty switch from thinking about beginning to ending. For students, endings range from the simple "end of the semester but still have lots of courses before graduating", to the more panicky "OMG I have so much to do so that I can graduate this semester."  For students with many course still be be taken, the spring break functions more like a brief breather, a tiny landmark that denotes progress. For students in the OMG category, spring break provides time to get caught up on assignments, begin planning for the family attendance at the commencement ceremony, finish job applications, or just sleep and do house work.  Admittedly, I've never heard a student complain about having a week of reprieve.

Faculty too have patterned responses to the spring break. Those with school age children often take the time for a brief family vacation. (Hence the sharp increase in the % of children on airplanes.) Other faculty, like so many of their students, take the time to get caught up on the variety of tasks that plague faculty, like accreditation reports, meeting agendas and minutes, low priority but necessary emails, grading papers and exams, polishing the manuscript that is almost ready to send, or search once again for a grant funding source for that kool idea that won't go away. Naturally, there are a few faculty who look like the slacker category, who, like some students, don't do work, but in doing nothing regain composure and energy for the remainder of the semester.

There are no strict rules, but academic norms about how to spend spring break. Sure, Human Resources has a policy, but academic freedom seems extended to flexibility in time management. In today's environment of productivity focused performance measures, how to recharge the intellect becomes an interesting question. Research on creativity and even more classical productivity converges on the need to have time to "do something different" as a stimulus for the next push. Spring break, no matter how it is taken, provides just that, a break, from the routine and a time in which the little grey cells can rejuvenate.

06 February 2015

Learnig Curves

As the semester progresses, the weaker spots in my teaching and in student comprehensive become visible. The class discussion this morning revealed the steepness of our learning curves. While I have come to a comfortable acceptance of the discomfort associated with learning curves, students tend to fear those curves as possible barriers to getting good grades. This creates an interesting tension.

I have a teaching philosophy which has only become stronger over the years, particularly as it relates to doctoral student education. The philosophy centers on challenging ourselves to think about things (phenomena, problems, solutions, theories) from different perspectives and using different lens for the purpose of finding new questions and alternative ways to frame the problems we wish to solve. In challenging ourselves to become more conceptually nibble, uncertainty enters the picture. Learning to  live with uncertainty includes not having a handy, bubble sheet "right" answer. My responsibility as a teacher includes fostering independent thinking and supporting the students through the uncertainty of that.

Curves becomes an appropriate analogy, especially curvy roads and mountains. Being on a mountain road involves the hidden faith that the road continues around the curve, that the going up and the going down have a purposes, and that the curves cumulatively take you from place A to place B. I prefer this interpretation of learning curves, rather than the x/y plot showing a steep slope. For me learning curves are more about distance, angles, and perseverance. Doctoral students have a path that involves distance between what was formerly assumed and what have since been learned and questioned. The path involves angles, an acquired ability to view life from almost 360 degrees, and to appreciate the views from that width. The path definitely involves perseverance, as in determination to do finish the grey cell exercises and and to go beyond the comfort of long straight roads.

As the professor, I am on that path with the students. Experiencing their questioning faith. Getting sore feet walking the distance. Getting a sore neck from looking over my shoulder for that new angle. Getting worn out grey cells from the impromptu examples and answers to their wonderfully challenging questions. My teaching philosophy is that the teacher and the student, for a short while, share the same path and get stronger together.  

26 September 2014

Conference Learning

Earlier this month, I attended the state public health association meeting. The location changes each year, moving around the state in a effort to engage a broader audience of individuals who work in local health departments. Attendees included dental assistants, directors and administrators of the health department, environmental engineers, public health nurses, medical directors, and health educators; to name a few.

I've now been to such meetings in three different states over my career. These state meetings are interesting in several ways.

The ratio of practitioners to academics favors practitioners, unlike many large public health conferences. What that means is the conversation differs from what you hear at the large academic conferences. The conversation stays close to "what does this mean for agency and my clients?" The desire and inclination to mimic a successful neighbor creeps into the thinking. While this maybe helpful, it may not be completely thoughtful. It does reflect the reality that the most visible evidence is likely to be what my immediate peers are doing, rather than the latest RCT published in an expensive, inaccessible academic journal.

The scope of problems stays local, not national or global. Local epidemiological data guide attention mainly to health conditions for which the local situation is near the bottom (worst).  The thinking takes the form of: If the problem is not in my backyard, I don't have the energy, resources, or time to worry about it.  This is by no means a critique. When resources are tight, it's a practical approach.

The other interesting angle centers around an underlying desire to find "what works." This might include finding ways to leverage connections to academics. Across the nation the culture has been shifting away from "ivory tower vs real work" toward "let's collaborate." Naturally, such a culture shift take time for complete uptake. But, I view the shift as a positive one, and one that I tried to help along.

Going to such meetings is always humbling for me.  I enjoy being reminded of what the details really look like. And, I have multiple opportunities to silently practice empathy.