Friday, April 11, 2008

 

Ask the Administrator: Professional Development in the Sticks

Right now I'm in the midst of an unbloggable circus, so letters are especially welcome.

An earnest correspondent in the middle of nowhere writes:

I'm an adjunct at a local CC, and I have two
questions.

First, my department has expressed an interest in
hiring me full-time when the economics are right. (And
the college has a history of hiring from within
adjunct ranks when possible.) While I'm not getting my
hopes up, it is an opportunity I'd like to position
myself to pursue if and when it becomes available. I
have both academic and professional graduate degrees,
and I went right into the professions after school
(and, due to student loans, knew I was going to do
so), so I've never published. I'd like to publish a
few things to improve my resume (though my CC does
hire unpublished folk full-time), but I don't really
have the vaguest idea how to begin. There's not a
strong academic community in this town, so I don't
know where to find a mentor to help me figure it out,
either.

Second, I feel like I've got my teaching under control
now, and I'm at the point where some of my pedagogical
material is great, and some is only okay, but I'm not
entirely sure how to go about upgrading the "only
okay" (I think part of the problem is that it's easy
to fix things that just plain DON'T work, but things
that mostly work and are in the syllabus have a
tendency to resist change). I want to continue to
improve my lecturing, my assignments, and the feedback
I give my students.

My chair is great, but he has an extremely adversarial
teaching style that doesn't suit me, and he's
absolutely impossible to keep to a point when I ask
him a question. (I'll ask him for ideas on how to
better assess student learning on topic X, and he ends
up trapping me in his office for an hour discussing
18th-century advances in skepticism. Anything I say
sends him off on an entirely DIFFERENT topic that's
totally unrelated!) I've been through our faculty
development center and take advantage of their
resources, but they're really focused on online
teaching right now.

Are there resources that I can pursue on my own that
you or your readers have found particularly helpful?
(Books, blogs, whatever!) Really anything -- I've
snagged books from a K-12 teacher friend that have
turned out to be reasonably helpful. I'm very open ...
I just want to improve!

I like your comment about the faculty development center. In a perfect world, they'd have both instructional designers and academic technologists, and you could use what made sense for you. Instead, whenever budget cuts roll around, they devolve into technology training centers. There's a use for that, but it leaves out something crucial. And the Geeky Moms of the world, who can do both tasks single-handedly, are much too few and far between.

(My ex-girlfriend from college has actually made quite a name for herself as an academic technologist, after getting her doctorate in her academic field, so I feel a certain kinship with Geeky Mom.)

One of the glories of the internet is that being in the sticks doesn't necessarily involve being as thoroughly cut off as it once did. Several academic bloggers have posted some wonderful discussions of teaching over the last few years, and you can obviously access those. (I'd start over at Dr. Crazy's, since she tends to delve into the 'why' as well as the 'what.') You can also post dilemmas and queries on your own blog and solicit comments. (I've been absolutely shameless about doing that, and the collective wisdom of the blogosphere has saved my bacon more than once.)

Back in the more innocent 1990's, when we thought that the worst thing a President could possibly do was mess around with an intern, I was an earnest young instructor trying to improve. Something I found that worked wonders was simply seeking out some of the more successful senior faculty at my college and asking them, respectfully, how they did it. They were remarkably generous with their advice, and even seemed flattered that I had asked. Better, since they were dealing with the same students and the same peculiar institutional context that I was, the tips were immediately useful. The key was that I didn't restrict myself to my home discipline. Certain methods transfer across disciplines quite well, and some fields have actually devoted serious thought to this stuff. (Generally, I've found that the folks who've kept current with the composition-and-rhetoric field have the best tips, though your mileage may vary.)

So I'll take my own advice and throw this one open to the collective wisdom of my wise and worldly readers. What would you suggest to an earnest young instructor in the sticks?

Good luck!

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.


Comments:
As for the first question -- The CC will more than likely value publishing ABOUT teachiing -- so, start looking for journals about teaching -- or the section of your discipline's big associaiton that is more teaching focused... they often publish their own little journal. Then write up your more successful teaching techniques and submit.

Also, when you find the highly successful senior instructors in your college, discuss writing a cross-discipline teaching article with them. Making those connections can be very useful when it comes time to get hired full-time.
 
Hmmmm.

Many questions and issues raised here; esp wrt the "I'd like to publish but don't know how" comment.

First, "publishing" is usually something that occurs as the result of "research;" research which generally "makes a contribution to your field." Not knowing your discipline of course "Your Mileage May Vary." (pedagogy is a universal discipline so I ditto the earlier response; I have a pub or two in measurement/assessment theory and such)

Second, without knowing your discipline I'm not really sure what yoiu mean by "both academic and professional graduate degrees." Typically, if you have an MS degree in the sciences, yoiu had to complete a "research component" that included, well, research.

Read the literature in your discipline and contact the authors of articles that appeal to you . . .
 
I want to offer advice, but it's really, really hard without knowing the field of the correspondent. For example, I'd second IPF's comment about publishing on teaching, but if this person is in an MLA field and submits something to Profession (where the acceptance rate according to the MLA Bib doesn't appear to be out-of-this-world but which nevertheless most often seems to publish the thoughts of superstars on teaching) that's probably not going to produce the best results.

So here's the best advice that I can offer about publishing:
1) Start reading journals in your field (about teaching, or more traditional journals). Figure out what people are publishing on, and where certain sorts of things get published. It also can be helpful to do "reverse outlines" of journal articles to see how they're put together, structured, etc.
2) Once you've done your homework, you can figure out where you might like to submit something that you'd do.
3) Consider trying to put together a writing group at the CC. You can't be the only person who's thought about publishing something. Support is good.

Re: Lukewarm Teaching

1) Sometimes it's ok not to be totally on fire in class. Actually, it's probably better if some days are a bit less great than others, as everybody needs a break (not just you but also your students). Some days are going to be days where you do housekeeping things, or where you do an assignment that is important to the overall stuff you're trying to teach them but that independently is sort of boring. That's really ok.
2) That said, if you try to change one or two of those per semester, that can feel really good. One way to go about it is to take the assignment just after you've taught it and to freewrite about why you think it's not so hot. Then, jot down notes about why you use the assignment and what you think the assignment should ideally give the students. From there, either modify what you've got or replace the assignment with something that gets closer to what your ideal for the assignment is. This has often worked really well for me, but be prepared that sometimes the new thing ends up being just as lame as the old - only different :)

Finally, thanks for suggesting that your questioner check out my place. She'll have to sift through a lot of rambling to get there, but I do hope that when I write about teaching that it's useful to people :)
 
YACP: I read the questioner's description as meaning that he/she has an MA plus another degree (law, MBA, something like that). If that's the case, it's entirely possible that there was little-to-no discussion about how to go about getting one's work published. Doing research in a classroom situation - or even in a thesis situation - is one thing. Writing for publication can still seem utterly mystifying if one hasn't done it before. In other words, I think you were a little mean.
 
For the research part. Did any of your fellow graduate students head into academia? Have you kept in touch? If so, they can be resources, and, possibly (if your interests overlap) co-authors.

Identify what you're interested in finding out more about. Or things in your field that have high public (maybe policy) profiles and in which you're interested. Read the recent literature, not just piblished, but working papers (if you're in the social sciences, check out the Social Science Research Network for working papers: http://www.ssrn.com/).

Papers about pedagogy are also a good place to work. But, again, know what the journals are looking for. Some are OK with descriptions (with a litle analysis) of things you're doing. Others are more theory and data based. The key, again, is to identify an interesting question and pursue it. Do your students perform better on one type of question/assignment than on others? Can you figure out why. Do some things "work" in some classes but not in others? Again, can you identify patterns. A good interdisciplinary journal is the Journal of Scholarship of Teaching and Learning: www.iupui.edu/~josotl/.

Attend some (disciplinary) research conferences, especially if you know someone there. Volunteer to be a discussant.

The real key to getting research done, and published, is to know what interests you and to be able to demontrate why it should interest someone else.

Good luck.
 
Yes, Dr. Crazy is correct. I have a JD and a graduate degree in a liberal arts field. I actually DO know how to publish as a JD (though it's hard to get the energy up to finish my current article), but while I've written while in school, I never contemplated publishing in non-law academic journals, so it's a bit of a mystery.

I'm teaching in the liberal arts discipline; while the law comes into it quite a bit, that's not what I'm teaching.

I do do plenty of research, sometimes just preparing lectures on topical issues; I just haven't developed an academic paper for publication before and it intimidates me.

(Enjoying the responses so far, just firing off a quick clarification before my next class. Hope this is clear; in a rush!)

-Earnest
 
Gee, I never would have guessed "liberal arts field" from "discussing 18th-century advances in skepticism" with the Chair. I knew right away that the journal of the American Association of Physics Teachers was not for you!

One suggestion I have not seen is a classroom visit. DD mentions asking another faculty member how they do it. I suggest asking if you could watch them do it, and ask them to watch you. I did that with a chemistry prof recently. (How do you teach X? How do *you* teach X? Lets see.) We both learned a lot.

I'll add my voice to what ItPF said at the top, but don't assume that publishing about pedagogy is automatically easier than research in your specialty area. I'd guess that actively working on your teaching is more important than publishing. It is at our CC.

I'll also add to what Dr. Crazy said in the last item 2: The time to revise a part of a course is right when you just did it. Keep an "as taught" outline to flag what you actually did on a given day, and what you think you could have tried (but thought of about an hour later). Then remember to look at it when planning the next class!

PS - Dr. Crazy is too modest. If a physicist can find something useful about how to teach kids to solve word problems in the ramblings a 'crazy' literati, anyone can.
 
Earnest:

More mean-spirited comments (I'm sure) to follow here!

There are various gradations of what different people/disciplines call "research;" double-ditto for "publishing."

The exact nature of what constitutes "research" in some fields wouldn't be considered "research" at all in many others. The example you gave fits the broader definition of "research" in that it probably didn't generate any "new knowledge" and so didn't really make a contribution to your discipline.

This definition of research is appropriate for trade journals and industry publications (editorially reviewed) but is not really considered appropriate for peer-reviewed, "academic" research.

There is a lot more to it than that certainly- much more than I can cover on someone else's blog- I would strongly recommend you do some "research" on your own about "research" (the scientific method, etc. etc.). A great place to start is a very user-friendly publication (popular in MS programs as a textbook for introduction to research classes) called "Practical Research: Planning and Design" 8th ed. by Paul D. Leedy and Jeanne Ellis Ormrod (ISBN 0-13-110895-6). It's light reading and as I said quite user friendly with lots of examples and web resources etc.

Better yet, sign up for a class in research methods at your local (defined as "accessible through distance learning") institution of higher learning!

Are you adjuncting by any chance? Does your current position include a "tenure track" at all?
 
. . . sorry about that last line . . . yes I know you're adjuncting presently my query is more concerned about the "full time" position you are seeking- is it considered "tenure track" and what exactly constitutes "tenure?"

If you don't *need* to "do research" that leads to "publication" for "tenure" then you are maneuvering on a very different battlefield from those who do . . . generally, the research/publication needs are very different between tenure/non tenure and between 4 yr Research I University/4 yr college/community college dimensions.

If you are pursuing the idea of research/publication just for personal reasons (unrelated to job requirements or considerations) then of course you can ignore what anyone else thinks.

Sorry about adding to the confusion . . .
 
YACP,

What I meant was that while pursuing interesting ways to present topics to my students, I frequently run across new issues that I end up wasting 12 hours delving into at the expense of what I'm supposed to be preparing to present. I've got five or six massive folders stuffed full of research on current problems that I have yet to see addressed in the literature, or that I think I have a thought nobody else has yet pursued. I know what academic research IS and I did it to get my degree; I just don't know how to go about PUBLISHING it.

(In fact, I've got a few papers from school that are probably novel enough to submit for publication, I just don't know how one does that or how one prepare one's paper for it!)

Legal research for the journals is actually quite similar to academic research in the liberal arts, but the style of writing for the journals is very different, and the submission process is somewhat different, so I'm not sure how well it translates. I also have no idea how academic journals decide what to publish while I'm quite clear on the criteria for legal journals. (I'm not clear from your comments if you're familiar with law journals or not; I'm not talking about "industry publications" but peer-reviewed journals; but they're handled a little differently in law.)

I don't think I *NEED* to publish. (The position would be tenure track; there are tenured professors w/o any publishing credits, others with quite a few, and I am not sure on what the official "requirement" is.) But I WANT to publish, and I have all these interesting thoughts that I thunk (and researched and compiled massive files on) that I'd like to put out there. :)

I suppose it might help to add that while I don't particularly enjoy the practice of law, I do have that as an option, and so I'm quite comfortable pursuing a job I find interesting and rewarding (teaching at this CC) and research I find PERSONALLY interesting, rather than worrying about slugging it out for the "best" job with the most prestige or whatever. It's not an "all or nothing" proposition for me, because if it doesn't work out, while I'd be pretty upset, and not thrilled to go back into law full time, I also won't be starving on the street.

I mean, really, I just want to do what I'm doing as well as I possibly can, because I really enjoy doing it. :) (And I'd really like it if they wanted to pay me full time and give me benefits.)

-Earnest
 
YACP,

Does it help at all to know I did my undergrad at a top-25 R1, my law at a top-10 program, and my academic graduate work at a top-5 in the discipline? I know how research works, I assisted professors as an RA as a student (have a few credits for that). But I just didn't pay a lot of attention to publishing because I knew I'd be going to work as a lawyer; I didn't know I wouldn't LIKE it very much and would discover I liked teaching so much better!

It's not the research or the writing that confounds me; it's the process of preparing something for publication and navigating the gatekeepers to be successful in the quest. That I don't know how it works and it makes me nervous!

(And as to why I'm in the sticks with my CV, which everyone ALWAYS asks me, I got married, I followed my spouse's job, and I LIKE it here. It's safe, quiet, walkable, friendly, and has clean air.)
 
You could try, I think it's McKenzie's _Teaching Tips_ and _What the Best College Professors Do_. I also wander the halls of our biggest chain bookstore and glance through the k-12 teaching shelves (sometimes it's too low level, but some of the classroom discipline stuff _was_ helpful and I read a huge pile of books on dyslexia one day; it was fascinating.)

You might have more luck forming a pedagogy reading group or discussion group at the CC than a research one, you know.

As to publishing, I would say to go through the journals you read most in your grad program and find their websites for submission information and the editor's contact info. Then you can fire off a query letter ("Would you be interested in my article on new developments in X, Y and Z?") and see how they respond. Or you could just polish something up to match their submission guidelines and send it in, if you're worried that you might lose nerve.
 
It is too bad you did not get involved in the actual act of publishing a paper while in your MA program. The first one is always the hardest one, but I also watched older faculty struggle when the change to web submission of TeX files took place in physics.

As for you, Sisyphus is rolling your stone the right way. If you already see how law and academic journals differ, you are attuned to what to look for. Your paper has to be in the style the journal expects, and make its referees (and, in some cases, editor) think they want to read it in print.

Which journal(s) carry articles like your favorite? Has your idea, or something related to it, been addressed in the past 5 years? Can you make the case that your idea is a novel one? Are your citations up to date?

Read the submission procedures. All the requirements and review procedures are normally spelled out in quite a lot of detail. Do they offer double-blind review as a norm (quite helpful if your by-line is not the norm for that journal)?

If you collaborated on any of that work, so it would be submitted with your location and that of an R1 coauthor, that might be a place to start building a reputation so your future work will be taken seriously.
 
If you are truly in the middle of nowhere, you might try getting involved in the state level association of college educators in your field. They can be an invaluable resource pointing you to professional activities that would get your feet wet, so to speak, including making conference presentations, getting together a panel discussion for a regional conference, etc.

Also, the advice to move into education research in your field is an excellent suggestion. If you are teaching many classes, you have a built-in supply of data to gather, including student surveys (going through human subjects review process at your institution, of course - usually pretty easy at comm. colleges as long as you are doing research that preserves the anonymity of your subjects and doesn't involve minors).

Good luck.
 
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