Goodbye chalkboard! The opportunities and challenges of teaching in an active learning classroom

This year I have the pleasure of teaching my Population and Community Ecology class in one of McGill’s Active Learning Classrooms – this one is touted as been quite exceptional, and I’m keen to put it to the test. Over the past 4-5 years, I have been teaching my quantitative ecology course almost entirely with chalk. In fact, I have actively argued about the value of teaching with chalk, and about a move away from technology can be beneficial to student learning, to my own teaching, and overall a very positive experience for all. Now I’ll be faced with this kind of environment when teaching my class:

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A view of two of the group tables in the Macdonald Campus active learning classroom; each “pod” seats 12 students (in three wings), and each is colour coded, and linked and adjacent to a screen and whiteboard

So why change?

One problem with the Chalkboard it that it doesn’t easily allow for ‘capturing’ the content from the board. Students need to write their own notes (which is good, in my opinion), but at times there may be specific equations, graphs, or other content from the board that they wished they could have captured, but failed to do so. The Active Learning classroom allows an easy way to overcome this – as the tablet/screen that is in the room has a smart pen, and acts like a chalkboard (or, rather, kind of like a smartboard, except that the instructor uses the screen at the podium in the middle of the room). I can therefore project this board, and teach as if I was using chalk, and everything I write is projected on one of the screens. The big benefit here is that I can save everything I write as a PDF (or other file type), and upload the notes to the online course management system. This approach still encourages students to come to class and take notes, but doesn’t put them in a position to rush with notetaking, and live in fear of missing something that I write on the board. Here’s an example from the first lecture (it’s a bit clunky, and I’m not used to writing on the screen yet, but hopefully will get more seamless as the term progresses):
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Another great benefit of the classroom is that it allows a second screen to be projected simultaneously as the first screen – I am thinking of primarily using this second screen to project graphs or equations directly from the textbook, through the use of a very high quality document camera. This saves me from having to hand-draw graphs (I do this very, very poorly – drawing straight lines is NOT easy!), and will allow the students to see the very direct ways that the content relates to the course’s textbook. This photo below shows how this looks: in that example the textbook cover is projected on the left screen and some ice-breaking questions are presented on the right-hand screen.

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I have been trying to transition my course into more of an active learning course, and set an active learning challenge last year. Overall I felt this was very beneficial, but the traditional lecture theatre (where I have taught in the past) is not conducive to active group work and student collaboration. I’m excited that the active learning classroom is ideally set up for this: the 84 students in the class sit at seven separate tables, each with 12 students, and the tables are designed into three wings of four students each. This is optimal for group work, and provides many opportunities for different sizes of groups. Next to each table is a whiteboard and screen, and each table can project (independently) onto their screen. Students then have many options to collaborate and work on problems. I’m excited about this, and look forward to having groups of students work on problems together, collaboratively. The interesting thing about this space is that it doesn’t seem that big, yet is a classroom that holds 84 students! It’s also designed so that the noise level isn’t overwhelming when students are working in groups.

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Students writing out ideas/answers to some questions, with their groups (from two different groups – notice the different colours?)

During the first lecture last week, I asked students how many of them had previously taken classes in the Active Learning classroom, and of those that did, many stated they did not enjoy the classroom. A little more discussion revealed that the students who disliked the classroom said their instructor used the room as a traditional lecture hall, and taught with powerpoint slides, from a podium. This clearly doesn’t work – the podium is in the middle, there are multiple screens (students say they are confused about where to look), and there are pillars that run right through the classroom (unavoidable since these are support pillars – and the classroom is in a basement); the ‘feel’ of the room, when used for traditional podium lectures, is all wrong. To use an Active Learning classroom means moving away from a podium-style lecture.

I certainly have a challenge ahead: in order to fully use the classroom’s potential, and make it engaging for the students, I have to ensure the technology and space is used properly. I’m only at the very start of term, so I will certainly report back on the experiences as the course unfolds. That being said, the combination of the technology and design is really promising for an active learning environment for my ecology class. It may just lead to the abandonment of chalk for a smart pen…

Course outlines and student assessment methods now available for EVERYONE

I send around my course outlines, assessment details, and grading rubrics to a lot of people. Sharing these kinds of documents helps me get feedback from my peers/colleagues about ways to improve my courses or assessment methods, in turn improving the course. And my peers/colleagues may learn some ideas from me, and try new things in their own courses. I think it’s also rather useful for students to be able to access details about the courses I teach. This can help students decide whether or not to take my courses, or helps them best understand the style of assessments that I use in my classes.

Instead of emailing these documents around to people, I’ve decided to share them publicly on Google Drive*. I’ve made my course outlines from the last offerings of my two main undergraduate courses, St Lawrence Ecosystems, and Population and Community Ecology.

St Lawrence Ecosystems is a field biology course, with a deep focus on “natural history and its observation”, done via research projects (with significant science communication components), and with assessments such as natural history field journals.

Population and Community Ecology is a quantitative ecology course, with a strong focus on modeling, and I use many active learning techniques in the course. For the past few years I’ve also done a very enjoyable pod-cast assignment in the class.

Please feel free to read, discuss, and give me feedback about the course outlines and the assignment details (with rubrics). I’d love to hear the ways these may be helpful to you, and I’m always keen to hear how other people are teaching their classes too!

*I’ve now also created a resource page for this  blog, with access to this Google Drive

How are you doing? Perhaps not “fine”?

When asked “how are you”, many people give a default answer of “fine”. Although that may be true a lot of the time, I worry that not everyone is “fine” all of the time. In my experience, this is especially true at this time of year: the late autumn can be tough on a lot of people, as the semester is no longer new and exciting, and the dark days of November* are ahead.

I’m involved with a lot of initiatives on campus around ‘wellness’ of our community, from mental and physical health, through to trying to best understand our campus resources, and think about ways we can be proactive around well-being. Part of my goal is to increase awareness of services and resources available to everyone, and to ‘check in’ with people as we enter a difficult time of year.

I decided to write a letter to our community, but a member of our communications team suggested a video message may also help to increase awareness. So, here’s the video. It’s low-tech and done without a script, but perhaps the message is relevant to your own community. Please share if that’s the case.

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*I personally find November rather tough. A few years ago my amazing and insightful wife suggested I take a photo every day in November, to explore the beauty that the month has to offer. That helped me a lot, and I’m immensely grateful for her suggestion to see beyond the dreariness to embrace colour and texture. Honestly, I think that project helped me with my own mental health, and I no longer dread November to the same degree.

 

Questions from grad students: on stress, being a generalist, and publishing

I was recently invited down to the Arkansas to be a “student-selected” speaker for their entomology Department. Their graduate students decide on someone to invite down to Fayetteville, and the honouree gets to visit that lovely part of the world, meet with grad students and professors in the Department, and give a seminar. It was a fabulous trip, and it was incredibly special to be recognized by graduate students. Thank you!

Quite a lot of my discussions with students ended up focusing on career development, pressures of the tenure-track run, and professional development. The students asked great questions, so great that I thought I would post them here, with some responses. (Surely other people will have better advice than what I have written, and please comment if you are so inclined!)

So many professors I know are always so stressed. How do you avoid burn-out, and why would anyone want to be a prof since it takes a real toll!

Indeed, there are days when the work is stressful, and pressures of the tenure run can be really tough. Grant writing, learning to run a lab, teaching and supervising all happen at the same time. Even after 14 years as a Prof, the stress can remain and still rears its ugly head. The job doesn’t get easier or stress-free over time.

I know this seems somewhat counter-intuitive at first, but for me, the best way to reduce work-related stress is to not work too much. You do not need to work 80 hrs a week to succeed in Academia, and finding balance between work and life is critically important. Even if you *love* everything about your research, take time away from it. Real time. Proper weekends. Find hobbies or activities that take your mind and body to somewhere else, whether it’s playing the ukulele or learning to bake. Making time for exercise is important too. A healthy body really does help with work productivity and lets you get a little distance.

The work will always be there. No matter how hard you try to get ahead on a project, the next task or project will be waiting for you. Nagging you and calling you name… Don’t give in!

This relates very much to the overwhelming urge to be a perfectionist, and do *everything* at an unattainable level. This must be jettisoned. Now. When you start to work a little less, you will actually start an important process of prioritizing and leaning the skill of time management. With less time at work, you will get more efficient with the time you do spend at work!

Why would anyone want to be a stressed-out Prof? Well… It remains a rather amazing job, and if that’s your career goal, go for it! But it doesn’t have to be a career goal, and we need to all do a better job at recognizing and valuing PhD career paths outside of higher education (check this out about “life after Academia“). Regardless, however, leaning how to manage stress and time are a part of the work, whether at a university, research institute, in government, or elsewhere. If you are doing grad work, it’s unlikely you will work in a “stress free” environment in your future.

We have to be so specialized during grad school, yet also need to figure out how to be generalists. How do we make that transition?

This is a great question, and very true! We become experts at the end of a MSc or PhD, and then are suddenly thrust into teaching an intro Biology class, or having to write a collaborative grant on a topic at arm’s length from our own expertise. For those interested in a career in Academia, the job requires people to be specialists and generalists, and that’s not always easy.

However, the transition is easier if you start taking small steps towards being a generalist early on. Often a qualifying (or comprehensive) exam during a PhD gets us thinking in more general terms, as that’s a time we are thinking a lot about how our research fits into a broader conceptual framework, or perhaps we are asked questions outside of our area, as a means for the committee to assess limits of knowledge. After these exams, it’s easy to slip back into our projects with a sigh of relief, and we delve back into become experts. It becomes a nice and cozy comfort zone. However, it’s important to start and keep some habits and continue on the path of being a generalist. Here are some ideas:

  • Spend a bit of time, every day, reading interesting stories at the periphery of your subject areas, whether that means checking out science blogs, listening to podcasts or following interesting people on social media. I do this every morning with a cup of coffee: I have a number of blogs I follow regularly, and I always check out tweets from scientists with an eye for interesting stories (e.g., Malcolm Campbell is a great person to follow). Most of these stories are not related directly to my area of research, but they help me keep up on what is happening in ecology, evolutionary biology, entomology and Arachnology, Heck, these stories sometimes help me rethink my own research, or give me ideas for new avenues of research. It’s a great use of time.
  • Try to attend any seminars offered by guest speakers, whether in your own department, or elsewhere. Often these guests are excellent speakers, and are doing interesting things worth hearing about. It is sometimes tricky to justify getting away from the lab bench, but exposure to different areas of study will help you become more of a generalist.
  • If your department offers a journal club, take part as much as you can, as this will expose you to new literature in other areas of study. The papers you will discuss may end up being great case studies when you first teach that intro ecology class. This will also help you learn methods, techniques and language from other disciplines, which will also help you later in your career, especially when you write collaborative and interdisciplinary grants.

How do we play the “impact factor” game with publications, knowing how flawed that index is! It’s sometimes so hard to know where to try to publish! Help!

Groan. This is a tough one! Despite the known issues with impact factors, some people/search committees still put value on perceived value of journals, and want to see a CV that has publications in “top tier” journals. The push for publishing open access (OA) is sometimes at odds with this, since not all OA journals are indexed in the same way as other journals, and some of the great OA journals coming on stream are not well known to some of the people that may be reviewing your CV.

So, the best advice I can have is to try to diversify your publications as much as you can, showing that you *can* publish in higher “impact” journals, but that you are also well aware of other publications venues, and most of all, that your work is of high quality. You can make a direct case on your CV or cover letter to help explain your logic, and there are excellent reasons why you might choose one journal over another despite a perceived difference in that journal’s impact.

What remains important in publishing as an early-career researcher is that it’s clear to any committee what *your* research is, and how you have made important contributions to your discipline, even if all your papers aren’t in top-tier journals. Any search committee  wants to know you can be a leader in your discipline.

Sometimes it seems “frowned upon” to say you want to work at a more teaching-focused college instead of a big R1 school. Why does this bias exist? 

I think this actually comes from a good place in that supervisors want the very best for their students, and the “best” is often thought of as a select group of R1 (research-intensive) schools. This ends up being pervasive in the culture of higher education, and there becomes an assumption that everyone wants to work in R1 schools but many end up “settling” for a lesser-known University. So, this means that all the profs not at R1 schools done really want to be there, and everyone is looking longingly towards greener pastures. This is, of course, entirely flawed logic because rankings are fundamentally flawed. But, speaking as both a parent and a supervisor, we don’t often think logically about those we care about and are mentoring. However, I firmly believe that it’s generally bad advice to bias any student’s thinking around their career path. An open mind is much, much better.

That being said, it is important to look critically at yourself and figure out what gives you the most joy and happiness. If you love being in the classroom, embrace it! If you can’t stand teaching but are at ease behind a lab bench or writing grants, embrace it! Then, once you have done this self-examination, stick to your guns and have an honest and frank discussion about this with those doing the frowning. Your supervisors and mentors really need to know what you want, in the best-case scenario, because they are a strong ally for you when you are looking for a job, whether it’s giving an informal reference over the phone, or writing a letter of reference.

Now, we all know that academic jobs are not that easy to get, and despite what you may *want* as a perfect job, this should not stop you from applying to any positions that you might be qualified: keep a open mind because you may find yourself in a R1 school, and you might love it (I know this from personal experience: I always saw myself at a smaller college/University yet managed to land a job at one of the big research Universities in Canada, even though I didn’t think I had a chance of landing the job! And, I’m very happy with the job).

Once you do land a job, and you are happy about it, spread the word. Discuss how great it is to be at your University, whether a liberal arts college, Land grant University, or Ivy League. They are all great.

The pillars of the ivory tower remain deeply planted, and despite increased interest in public engagement and outreach, Universities remain slow-moving, old, conservative institutions. Will this ever change? 

Ok, so this is a pretty big question. So big that it will wait for another post since this one is getting a little too long… I will save that for another time.

In sum, interacting with grad students at Arkansas was truly a delight. They were confident, bright, engaged and inquisitive. Spending time with a group of graduate students gives me great hope and optimism, and their insightful questions are an indication of this.

Rethinking the University Classroom: Ban the podium-style lecture, not the laptop

There has been a lot of recent coverage/chatter about bans on laptops in the lecture halls of Universities and colleges (e.g., see here, here and here). I am particularly interested when instructors implement outright bans on laptops in their classes, citing reasons related to distraction, both by students on their computers, but also distraction for students sitting nearby classmates with their screens aglow. There have also been some recent studies about how students retain and learn content more effectively when taking hand-written notes instead of typing notes. Are laptop bans the solution?

What bothers me about this debate is that most coverage actually skirts around the true issue, which to me is about a fundamental problem of podium-style teaching. A traditional lecture hall environment is not always a great place for teaching and learning. It is in those environments where the issues of note-taking and distraction arise, and where laptop bans occur. I certainly don’t hear complaints about laptops in seminar/discussion courses, or in those occurring in active learning classrooms.

The view from my seat in the lecture hall.

I was student for a day once. This as a view from my seat in the lecture hall. Students were using laptops to take lecture notes.

Here is my opinion: in most teaching environments*, laptop bans are unnecessary and should be avoided. Some students need to take notes with a laptop, perhaps because of a disability (eg, arthritis), and accommodation is needed. Sometimes it is useful for students to follow along a PowerPoint presentation, or fact-check or Google some of the content during the lecture (heck that could even provide opportunity for some class discussion!). If students are distracted, this likely indicates a bigger problem, and the instructor should look into ways to make the classroom more active and engaging. It is perhaps easier to look to issues with distracted students and laptops than it is to rethink the way material is being taught. We are living in a digital age with our students being true digital natives, and I worry that sometimes a ban on laptops is a reflection on biases by the instructor and, frankly, doesn’t reflect the world we live in.

Let’s make our lecture halls inclusive environments, and perhaps ban policies about banning laptops!

Ok, fine, but… but … but… what if other students are bothered by their peers with laptops? What if students just don’t want to be in that “required” course, and are grumpy… and become easily distracted? I think some of this can be solved. I suggest that all instructors have a frank and open conversation about technology in the classroom. A discussion about your concerns, and the concerns by students, can go a long way. It also may be useful and necessary to develop some guidelines around technology in the classroom – and perhaps adjust the seating plan to avoid issues with students being distracted. Check out if your University has a formal policy about this, and see how your thinking aligns with this policy (as an example, here is McGill’s policy). Another option to help with the “boredom” factor (a potential reason for distraction) is to allow “tech time” mid-way through a lecture. Stop halfway through**, give everyone a break for a few minutes (to stretch, nap, text or post to Facebook).

Or even better, rethink the fundamental ways you are teaching.

I posit that boredom and distraction in a classroom, and the broader concern about laptops, learning, and note taking, are because instructors are stuck in the “lecture hall rut”. The debate points again to a need to embrace active learning, and work to increase engagement within the classroom. Most profs only learned one way to teach: at the podium. It’s what we were exposed to during our undergraduate degrees: the podium is the standard. But it’s not the gold standard and a serious rethink is long overdue.

How to break the tradition? How about taking the active learning challenge? There are small, simple things instructors can do, even in large lecture halls (yes, there are infrastructure constraints – not enough of our learning spaces are built for active learning). There are amazing resources out there to better understand active learning, and why it’s important.

Learn from other instructors who are doing different things in the classroom – hang out with the innovators, and use their strategies in your classroom. Watch videos, take workshops from your teaching and learning units, and work with your chairs and Deans to rethink the classroom context.

Work to integrate technology (and laptops!) into the classroom – on-line quizzes can be done in class, with technology – perhaps with mobile devices, laptops or student response systems (aka, clickers). Try integrating social media to the classroom, via a course hashtag or course blog. Use the tools that students are using: this will work to increase engagement in the classroom. We are truly living in an exiting time for the integration of technology into teaching – it’s time to harness the possibilities and harness the power of technology, instead of ban it.

I won’t lie: rethinking why and how you teach the way you do will take time and energy. But the short term pain will lead to long term gains. Students will appreciate the efforts, the classroom dynamics will change, and I believe the amount of boredom and distraction will decrease. Active leaning is not just a catch phrase, it’s a meaningful and important way to improve the classroom experience, for the students but also for the instructor.

There is little need to ban laptops in classrooms that are active, engaging and break from the traditional podium-style lectures.

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*There are some kinds of classes in which laptop use can be questioned, such as a hands-on laboratory, field course, studio-class or with some seminar/discussion classes. However I believe these are a minority. (If there are other examples you know about, please leave a comment!)

** this strategy was shared by Prof. Matthew Cobb, at Manchester – he says it works very well!

How to succeed at University: twelve tips for undergraduate students

Note: this is an updated/edited post, it was originally published several years ago.

The start of term is an exciting time for those of us who work at a University. There are many new students arriving on campus, full of enthusiasm, hope, and questions.  As an Associate Dean, I meet many of these students, and I am often asked for advice during orientation week. Later in the term, I sometimes see students who are struggling, and looking for strategies to help with balancing their academic work with other priorities, or looking for ways to make their time at University a little easier. So, here are my twelve tips for success at University:

1. Work hard. At the end of the day, hard work pays off. You made it into University, which suggests you have the fundamental skill set required for higher education. However, don’t forget to keep your eye on the ball and buckle down and get the work done! It’s easy to get swayed by social life,  students clubs and activities, athletics, and by trips home to see family. These things are all important, and your well-being often depends on these extracurricular activities but academic success largely rests with a developing and maintaining a strong work ethic. Make lists, prioritize, and focus on getting the “job” of being a student done well.

2.  Listen to your academic advisor:  Most academic programs have an ‘academic advisor’ associated with them (e.g., see here for McGill’s website about advising).  These individuals are there to help you get through your program. Advisors typically help  with course selection, and help plan an academic program from start to finish.  When arriving on campus, you should book a meeting with your advisor, and more importantly, listen to their advice!  Advisors know the ins and outs of your program, and paying attention to them will help you in the long run.  You don’t want to end up messing up your academic program because you decided to avoid taking required courses early on in your program! Advisors can also help you get on the correct path should you wish to pursue research or internships later in your program, or a term away such as a field semester or an exchange program.

3.  Have an agenda, and use it:  This seems like pretty obvious advice, but you would be surprised how many students (and Professors!) don’t have a good system for managing time.  University is a lot about managing your time: getting to classes, dealing with e-mails, assignments, planning for exams, and squeezing in a social life, or a part-time job.  It’s a struggle to manage all these tasks, and therefore it is essential to develop a clear and straightforward system of ‘calendar + tasks‘.  Under calendar, include your class schedule, important dates and meetings, and most importantly, LOOK at the calendar regularly!  I personally prefer using an on-line calendar that syncs with my mobile devices – but some people prefer the old-fashion (yet dependable) hard-copy calendar.  For tasks, include short-term tasks (with deadlines – cross-referenced with your calendar) and long-term tasks, so that you are reminded of on a regular basis.  I use a small notebook for my task list, and it is always with me – for me, the act of physically writing down a task list helps me remember what I need to work on.   A good system for your agenda and tasks will make your life a lot easier.  Using an agenda and task list properly will also help you refine your time management skills, and these skills are truly essential to future success almost anywhere.

4.  Show up on time and don’t miss deadlines:  Again, this seems pretty obvious, but it’s also pretty easy to mess up.  Treat University like a professional job – you need to be mature, you must be on time, and never miss deadlines.  Try to have everything done early (with good time management skills, this is very possible!).   Being late to lectures, or having to ask for extensions on papers or projects (without extenuating circumstances), does you no favours, and  Professors, generally speaking, are not impressed by these behaviours.   At some point, you may need to ask your Professors for a letter of reference, and it is much better to be remembered as the students who hands in papers early, then a student who can’t manage deadlines.

5.  Go to class:   Lectures, labs and seminars are there for a reason:  they provide you with value-added content, and a context for the course materials.  It’s true that some of the content may be available on-line, or with a text-book, but in most cases, lectures or labs will help to draw connections between different content, and/or provide a valuable context to the material that might be available elsewhere. Labs or seminars provide important opportunity for hands-on and interactive learning, and this cannot be replaced easily.  Instructors take a lot of pride in lecturing or leading a lab demonstration, and most of them work hard to make the time worthwhile,  interesting, and thought-provoking.  You will soak up an amazing amount of material by just being there, and paying attention.

6. Keep up! This point is closely related to the previous few ideas – but is important to keep in mind as a separate item.  Assignments at University tend to sneak up on you – deadlines seem so far away, until you realize that there are three written reports due within a two week period, with Thanksgiving in the middle! Similarly, lecture content builds upon itself, and assuming you will just naturally be able to keep up may not be the best idea. Try to build some habits in your life so that you review the content soon after each lecture or laboratory, and/or spend a bit of time each morning prepping for your day and keeping an eye on the week ahead.  Do your best to stay on top of the material: in my experience, if students start to fall behind a little bit, this quickly spirals as the weeks pass by, and the stress level increases as you try cram for an assignment or final exam.

7.  Get help when you are struggling:  At some point in your University career you will likely need help, whether it is with difficulties with finances, a personal relationship, failing a course, or struggles with mental or physical health.  The University system is a compassionate and collegial environment and it’s a place with a lot of wonderful resources to help you when you are struggling (e.g., see this example for McGill).  Don’t hesitate to seek help when you need it, or if you know you already have some struggles with anxiety or depression, be sure to be aware of what resources are available to you ahead of time. If you are feeling sick, visit health services. If you are struggling with your program, touch base with your academic advisor. If you are feeling overwhelmed or isolated, touch base with counseling services. Know that you are not alone in your struggles (although it may feel that way), and the community will support you. As part of this community, you also have a responsibility to keep an eye on your classmates and friends, and if they need help, you can be in a position to direct them to the right resources.

8.  Ask questions:  In most of my classes, I tell students that there are no stupid questions (except for “Will this be on the exam?”).  This is very, very true.  If you are confused about a concept, or failed to get the point of a slide, or discussion, you must ask for clarification. Although it can be intimidating to ask a question in a large lecture hall, it’s important to try.  If you are confused, it’s highly likely that other student’s are also confused.  You are helping yourself, and your peers, when you put your hand up. In many cases, there is a on-line course management system for each class, and often there are discussion boards available: this provides another opportunity to ask questions of your instructor or TA, or you can ask questions that your peers may be able to help with.

9.  Get to know your instructors:    Whenever possible, get to know the instructors of your courses, be they Professors, Lecturers, or Teaching Assistants.  Most instructors have office hours, and these hours are there for good reason – they provide time to meet your instructor, ask questions, and have a personal connection with them.  Don’t be intimidated by instructors: we are people, too, and most of us recognize that life as an  undergraduate student can be stressful and difficult.  We can provide you help with course content, but also help direct you to other resources.  Getting to know your instructors also helps when you might be seeking a summer job in the future, or when you need a letter of recommendation.

10. Avoid ‘grade panic’:  I am living proof that it is possible to do poorly at undergraduate courses yet still have a successful career!  When I was an undergraduate student at the University of Guelph, I just about failed my first year physics course and I was terrified that this would make it impossible to succeed in any kind of career.  Of course this was not the case – a University education is much more than a single course, or a single quiz or examination – an academic program has many components and even if some of the components fall off the rails, this does not mean everything is lost.   Aim for excellence in your academics, but also remember that EVERYONE has bad days, performs poorly on an exam, or just can’t seem to figure out a particular subject.  This is normal, and you must keep everything in perspective!  Your University career is not defined by a single moment of failure – keep the bigger picture in mind, and don’t sweat the small failures.  In a University environment, success at everything is nearly impossible to achieve.   Keep a level head,  keep calm, aim for excellence, but don’t panic when things go wrong.

11.  Stay healthy: Your mother was right – eat your vegetable and get some sleep.  Invariably, influenza and/or a bout of gastro will whip through residence halls sometime around when mid-term exams are starting.  Your best line of defense is a healthy immune system, and part of that includes nutrition, sleep, and exercise.  I think it’s more important to be less prepared but well rested than over-prepared and exhausted – and if you attended lectures, your rested mind will be in a good position to access the course content. Related to this is a little reminder to “slow down” every now and then (I need to remind myself of this, daily). Take some deep breaths, perhaps meditate or do yoga, or just find a bit of quiet time now and then to pause and reflect.

12.  Have fun!   Life as an undergraduate student is truly incredibly. It is a time of personal growth and reflection, and it is an enriching experience on intellectual, emotional, and social levels.   Remember that you are immersed in an amazing experience. University provides a wealth of opportunities (student groups, sports, lectures, laboratories, and more), and you will make close friends, meet future colleagues, business partners or partners in life.  Don’t forget to take it all in – in the future, you will remember a lot of details from your University days and you want these memories to be more than sweating over deadlines and grade panic. Stay well.

The Challenges and Opportunities of University Administration: reflections from a Deanlet

A “Deanlet” is a cutesy name for an Associate Dean. I have no idea who came up with this title, but I first heard it from Terry McGlynn about a year ago, just before I started my first year as an Associate Dean of Student Affairs. Yes, it’s been a year. A very quick and exciting year. And a year is a good point to stop, pause and reflect on life as an Associate Dean*.

An Associate Dean is a level of the university administration just below a Dean (who typically oversees a Faculty). A Deanlet helps run a Faculty because there are too many bits and pieces for one person to handle. In my case, I oversee the affairs of undergraduate students in our Faculty (of which there are about 1,400 undergraduates). This includes recruitment efforts, aspects of student records, dealing with and helping students in academic difficulty, sitting on various committees at various levels in the University, working closely with my Faculty’s executive committee to help establish and oversee larger projects, and a myriad of other tasks (for example, reading names at convocation – something I get to do tomorrow!). In my role I spend a lot of time communicating and collaborating with students, staff, professors, and administrators. I see and experience many aspects of our Faculty.

So, let me report and reflect on three challenges with being a Deanlet, and three of the greatest opportunities that the position has offered me in the first year.

Challenges:

1) Perhaps the biggest challenge in my role has been learning how to help students in difficulty. Student wellness is a priority for me, but it’s not always easy to navigate and find the best solutions when students are struggling, and every situation is context-specific so few ‘generalities’ exist. Sometimes the struggles are academic, and sometimes they involve issues of mental or physical health. I’m often on the front line, and have to make difficult decisions: decisions that affect people. This can be stressful and difficult at times, and certainly means the work doesn’t always stay at the office. Thankfully I have received some excellent training, and have a great team to help, I feel supported, and I am gaining experience that will certainly help me into the future.

2) A second challenge is time management: I have meetings scheduled almost every day, and although they are worthwhile and important, they take time. I remain active as a teacher and a researcher, and I will continue to have a lab and teach my classes, but it can be difficult to balance everything. Before becoming a Deanlet I had a high degree of flexibility in my schedule, which is something many Professors value. However, that flexibility is much diminished, and it has required a lot of adapting. I have no regrets and I expected this (and no, I’m NOT complaining about how busy I am), but I would be lying if I didn’t state that this year has been a big adjustment. The other issue around time management is that when many hours are spent in meetings, this means squeezing other work into weird times of the day.

3) Being a Deanlet sometimes places me in a position of having navigate collegiality: being a colleague in one circumstance, but an Associate Dean in another, can be a challenge. I sometime have to make decisions that do not always please my colleagues (e.g., here’s a new policy XYZ that required you to change how you fill in paperwork XYZ), but also collaborate with my colleagues in research projects, in teaching and on committees. Another example is when a student brings an issue to my attention, perhaps in reference to a grade they received – I sometimes need to bring this to the attention of an instructor and these are not necessary simple or easy discussions. We are all adults, of course, but there is sometimes a divide between administrators and academics, and a professor who is an administrator (this is more-or-less the model at my institution) needs to be cognizant of the different hats, when to wear them, and how to strike the right balance. That being said, I can honestly say that my colleagues have truly been collegial. In my opinion, our institution runs relatively smoothly and effectively in part because our administrators keep one foot in the classroom and research lab.

Opportunities:

1) It may sound cliché, but the best part of my Deanlet position is the people I get to interact with. A professor sees students in a classroom or research lab, and interacts with her or his peers, and certainly a Departmental chair, on a regular basis. A Deanlet gets to do this, and more: I see students for a suite of reasons (beyond teaching), and I meet Profs from many different corners of the University, largely because of the University-level committees I sit on. I also work in an office with *amazing* staff, who really run the show! These are individuals deeply committed to the University, and who have the students’ best interests in mind. A university runs well because of its staff, and the Deanlet appointment has afforded me very new and important perspectives on this. In general, Academic staff do not always appreciate the administrative and support staff, and the stresses and challenges they face. This is among the most valuable lesson that my Deanlet appointment has given me so far.

2) The second reason being a Deanlet is a great opportunity is because it places you in a position to understand the inner workings of a University. I have been able to see how the different arms of the University operate, and been in a position to compare and contrast operations in different Faculties with those in my own. It has allowed me wonderful insights into my institution, and allowed me to be an active player in the future directions of my Faculty, something I had hoped to do as part of this appointment. It is sometimes easy to criticize the ‘administration’ from the outside, but once being part of the process, I am much more sympathetic and sensitive to the reasons why some processes, policies and procedures are a certain way, and I am learning about how the system of collegiality at a University works to make change, and why that change sometimes takes time.

3) From a more selfish reason, a valuable gift of my Deanlet appointment is the constant learning it has provided: every day is different, there are always new projects, and the academic year brings different waves of activity, with each wave bringing its own sense of adventure. I’m the sort of person who thrives on variation, and thrives on new problems to solve, whether it be learning the finer points of a student assessment policy, or figuring out the best wording for recruitment materials. A University is a complex place, and delightful in this complexity. University Administration is another set of doors, levers and handles, and figuring out what they all do, and where they all go, is a good fit for me.

I hope this post provides some insights into the role of an Associate Dean in a University (don’t believe everything you read!). Of course, every University is different, and many of the challenges and opportunities will depend on institutional contexts and culture, but I would also think that some of the challenges and opportunities are relatively general (any Associate Dean’s out there wish to comment, below?). When others are afforded the opportunity for administrative appointments, I hope it’s considered seriously, as it’s certainly been a rewarding experience for me.

I will end with a sincere thanks to all the people who have supported me over the past year. The learning curve has been steep but my colleagues, staff, mentors, and my family have been patient and supportive. I’m excited and feeling ready for the years ahead.

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* I’m not 100% sure why I wrote and published this post. And it was one that I wavered on for a while. However, I suppose it’s a way to time stamp my own thoughts, for selfish reasons – at the end of my term as a Deanlet, in four years from now, it will be interesting to see how my perspectives change. Perhaps it also because many people don’t know what a Deanlet does and I wanted to provide a glimpse into this portfolio.