Taking student evaluations into account

After writing about some of the new things I tried last semester, I thought I’d wait to write about the rest until student evaluations had come back and I could see how it went. They have come back, and they were pretty good!

I know that there are many, many problems with student evaluations, including a growing list of studies on how they are biased against women and against people of color, especially for junior faculty. There’s a campus-level committee at my university working to come up with some other way of evaluating teaching, and I’ll be interested to see what they recommend. (For the record, classroom observations are not any better unless they’re done by a trained professional, IMHO. Biases exist at all levels of seniority.)

But I’m going to be honest: I usually get good evaluations, and so I don’t mind the process as much as many people. (In fact, I had strong enough evaluations my first three years at my R1 institution that my third-year review letter warned me I might be spending too much time on teaching–but that’s for another post.) So that’s a caveat to keep in mind.

I always choose specific questions to go on the evaluation form that I really want to hear about, and I always read the free-form comments on the back. And I always make changes based on the specific things that students suggest. I’ve worked to more closely integrate the textbook with lecture (without too much overlap between the two), I’ve changed the nature and number of assignments, I’ve kept some experiments that worked really well, like a weekly essay question instead of exams, and I’ve tried to do a better job of explaining how the assignments relate to the lecture and textbook.

For the team-taught class I wrote about before, the main feedback about the format was that the students liked it: they thought each instructor had something to contribute and that the class worked better because we could each share our different perspectives. We did joke a few times in class about the differences between our viewpoints, so I’m pleased that was seen as a positive. That’s great news, and makes me want to consider more team-teaching opportunities in the future.

They also said we could have been a little quicker with getting grades back, which was a very polite way to put a totally fair criticism. I’m really trying to work on that one this semester, because it’s a chronic problem of mine. Always room for improvement!

How many hours I spend working

When I was an assistant professor, I started tracking how many hours I worked per week. I started this to make sure I was spending enough time on what I was “supposed to.” (And because my spouse and I had already been tracking our work and housework hours to make sure my long commute in California was adequately compensated, but that’s for another post.) I don’t know that it made me change my habits at all, but it seemed to average about 40 hours per week during the school year and 20 hours per week in the summer.

After I was tenured, I kept keeping track out of habit, but then decided at some point to stop. And then after becoming a full professor, I felt like I was doing no research at all compared to teaching and my new service responsibilities. So this fall, I got a nifty time-tracking app set up, and I’ve been keeping track of everything I do.

I have five broad categories: Research, Teaching, Administration, E-mail, and Community (departmental coffee hour, colloquium, etc). I broke out e-mail because I wanted to see how much time it specifically took, not just reading messages but dealing with their contents. I averaged 43 hours of work a week in the fall semester, broken down like this:

That’s not bad, right? Research is almost a third of my time, teaching is over a third of my time, and everything else is a little under a third. I mean, research is the only thing that’s important as far as The System is concerned, so that piece of the pie should be much bigger. But overall, it looks pretty balanced.

However. When I record my hours, I break them down into specific activities: meetings, classes, large service commitments like being on the university’s climate action plan team, grant writing, etc. When we look at that pie chart, it’s a little different:

Half of the admin came from chairing our tenure track job search. That’s understandable, and I’d gladly do it again (if only because it meant we were hiring again!). Teaching is almost entirely my two undergraduate classes (of which the team-taught one was almost exactly half the hours of the other one), plus meeting with grad students and working on my transportation geography textbook.

The real shocker was research. About 70% of the time I had marked as research was traveling to or attending conferences. I went to three: Regional Studies Association in Montreal; Transport, Traffic, and Mobility in Paris; and the West Lakes Regional Meeting of the AAG in Cedar Falls, IA. Which means a tiny 1% of my time went to data analysis, 2% went to grantwriting (and that was more than normal, since I’m on sabbatical next year and was applying for a lot of fellowships), and 3% went to reading books and articles in my field. A measly 3% went to writing, which again, is the only thing besides grantwriting that really matters according to R1 university standards.

So what am I going to do with this information? Well, since my role in our job search is largely done, that will free up about 4 hours a week. E-mail didn’t take up as much time as I feared. Teaching will take much more time, since my grad seminar will require a lot of hours of reading and grading. I only have one conference in the spring, although since the AAG takes up a whole week, I’m expecting the conference hours will be about half of what they were in the fall. Now, that’s not all directly transferable to additional hours for other things: I’m not going to replace my 26-hour journey to Paris with 26 hours of writing, for example.

It got me thinking about conferences, though. I did get some great things out of going to Paris, including getting to know people with whom I’m co-sponsoring sessions at AAG, learning about new books that are coming out, and motivating myself to make at least a little progress on my research. But is that worth the time? There’s a huge debate right now about academics flying to conferences in an era of climate change, which I’m pretty firmly ambivalent about but am getting very interested in the discourse. (Again, for another post.) What I learned from analyzing my hours like this is that there’s another aspect to deciding whether or not to attend a conference. We all have only so many hours in the week, and hours spent in transit or in paper sessions are hours we’re not working on our own research. Obviously, we get ideas from hearing other people’s work, including potential collaborations; I’m working on an article right now with someone that came about because we’ve attended multiple conferences together. But at least for an introvert like me, maybe I need to be more careful about the conferences I choose: what am I going to get out of going there in person? Is it worth my time?

Have you tracked your hours? Made modifications to your schedule as a result? Or do you not want to monitor yourself like that?

Reflections on teaching, part 2

Especially for upper-division, discussion-based courses, it’s vital to have input from students on a regular basis in class. In the past, I’ve assessed participation in terms of perceived attendance, recorded attendance, perceived frequency of speaking in class, and quasi-recorded frequency of speaking in class. Obviously, these a) are subjective and prone to bias, b) favor outspoken students, and c) favor quantity over quality. As an introvert who had to force myself to speak up in class once every few weeks, I know that simple measures of participation won’t foster individual growth or make quieter students feel comfortable.

I read a Chronicle article (I think) over the summer about class participation and how hard it is to measure, but how important it can be for student learning. There was a link to a self-assessment rubric from the University of Kansas’s Center for Teaching Excellence (here) and a discussion of how to use it to grade participation. My co-instructor thought this was a fine idea, so with a few modifications, we handed it out at the beginning of the semester, asked students to fill it in, then scanned their responses and returned them. The idea was to have them set goals for themselves and then self-evaluate at the end.

Section of self-assessment rubric, modified from KU’s CTE. As a student, I would generally rate myself a 6 in this category.

What I like about this rubric is that it considers multiple dimensions to class participation. There’s preparing for class, as in doing the reading. (Bet you most people don’t think of that as participation per se, but it is.) There’s being active in small group discussions and the class as a whole, not only in terms of sharing your own ideas, but encouraging other students to share theirs. I added categories here for those who talk too much and don’t give others room to speak, and for those who engage with the material internally, even if they can’t get themselves to raise their hand. There’s also paying attention in class and not being distracted by texts or other browser tabs–maybe a more passive form of participation, but still vital. And finally, I added a category of participation outside of class, which meant contacting other students for notes, discussing topics after class, or coming to office hours.

Unfortunately, we kind of fell through on implementing this. It wasn’t until about 3/4 of the way through the semester that I realized we hadn’t been checking in with the class on how they were meeting their participation goals, and at that point, it wasn’t clear they would be able to make many adjustments. So we asked for a self-assessment at the end of the semester, which wasn’t done very consistently thanks to our late request, so we had to make do with what we had. But we did still get some good feedback from students on how they prepared for in-class participation by doing the readings to a greater extent than in previous classes, or how they talked about concepts with their friends outside of class even if they weren’t confident enough to speak up in discussion, or how they tried to encourage other, quieter students to share their thoughts.

So in Spring 2020, I’m going to try this again with both my upper-division undergrad/grad class and my graduate seminar, and we’ll see how it goes!

Reflections on teaching, part 1

I’m always reflecting on and trying to improve my teaching. I read the Chronicle of Higher Ed, including their weekly teaching newsletter. I pay attention on Twitter to conversations about how to be more inclusive in the classroom and how to make things easier for students while still expecting a lot from them intellectually. I usually teach one large gen ed class in the fall (100-110 students), small-to-medium classes in the fall and spring (20-25 students), and occasionally a graduate seminar. So I have a variety of classes to work with, and a variety of students as well.

In keeping with James Lang’s Small Changes in Teaching book and philosophy, I choose one or two big things to try out each semester. (I also make small changes based on student evaluations, like four smaller written assignments instead of three medium-sized ones, etc.) Here’s the first of my reflections on how those changes worked in Fall 2019.

The first big change I made was to team-teach a class for the first time. Our GEOG 412, Geospatial Technologies and Society, is one of very few classes in the U.S. that addresses the political, social, and critical aspects of GIS, remote sensing, and “big” geospatial data. The course used to be team-taught by our critical cartography expert and our spatial analysis expert, until the former retired. I took on the course in Fall 2017 and had a great time with it. Digital geographies might not be my area of research, but it’s a fascinating topic, and teaching it is one way to keep up with the field. But since we have an expert in our department–Dr. Brian Jefferson, whose forthcoming Digitize and Punish is going to be an amazing book–we decided to team-teach the course.

We are fortunate that our department policy is for a team-taught course to count as a full course for each instructor, because a 50-50 split often really means a 75-75 split. (In my case, this class required almost exactly half the time as my other class, but that might be a function of other things…I’ll be posting soon about my hours worked during the fall semester.) This particular class meets twice a week, with the first meeting consisting of a short lecture and a lot of discussion, and the second meeting consisting of lab activities. We divided up the weeks of the course ahead of time and were responsible for finding readings and developing labs for our respective weeks. We agreed that we’d both attend all of the discussions, but that we only needed to come to the lab when it was our “assigned” week.

I would definitely recommend the experience. We each had different strengths with regards to subject matter, but we were both able to contribute to each other’s weeks as well. We have very different teaching styles: I plan out my classes in five-minute increments and focus on the empirical, while he’s much better at explaining theory, as well as extemporizing and getting a lively discussion going. For some people, that might be a source of friction; for us, it meant that we complemented each other well. I learned to let go a little of my need to plan everything ahead of time, which for an upper-division, discussion-based course, is probably a good thing. We were able to negotiate an equitable distribution of grading (group projects, term paper, and class presentation) with little difficulty, although it probably would have made more sense to do the negotiations at the beginning of the semester rather than after the projects had come in. We did have a little confusion with students contacting one but not both of us with regard to requests for extensions or grading questions, but that could be easily fixed in the future. (We’re still waiting on course evaluations to see how well everything worked from the student’s perspective.)

Have you team-taught a course? Or taken one as a student? What worked well or didn’t?