teacher or tech support?

This post is part of a series on bringing a human touch to online education. See the series introduction here.

I try to keep abreast of ideas in my field by reading scholarly journals. Often, it’s a difficult slog to get through the articles, both because I’m not familiar with the concepts of all the many subfields of the very broad discipline of language and literature and because academics are not always the best at writing clear prose (and I’m pointing at myself here too). But occasionally, I get to spend a few hours of sheer intellectual pleasure as I’m doing my professional development reading, and yesterday I had one of those times.

I sat down with the latest Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and Culture, a special issue on how the pandemic has changed how we teach English. I was drawn to several articles (which I’ll cite at the end of this post) about teaching online, since that’s currently the only modality in which I teach. Although these articles were written by faculty who had to rapidly shift to online teaching due to the pandemic, whereas I teach for programs that were developed to be online and that have existed since long before spring 2020, I assumed I would find some relevance in them, and I wasn’t disappointed. Though they were written independently of each other (albeit responding to the same special issue prompt), the three articles formed a conversation about the deeper philosophical issues of online education, such as how it is subtly shifting the definition of learning to something that can be measured by metrics like frequency of log-ins and number of discussion posts. All of the authors readily acknowledged the benefits and possibilities of online education, but all of them pointed to trends and assumptions that could be pernicious if unquestioned and offered ways to push back against them.

One of the moments in my reading when I found myself agreeing aloud was in Mark Brenden’s article on learning management systems (LMS)–websites like Blackboard and Canvas where students and faculty conduct the business of online courses. Something Brenden said struck me so profoundly that I want to quote it at length here:

[the LMS] directs students’ interactions to mostly take place with the LMS itself, rather than with their peers or their instructor. Learning is presented as a digital maze–at the end of which apparently lies knowledge-in-waiting–that students must navigate. The teacher often functions more as a technician, or customer-service agent, who gets contacted if something goes awry with the students’ interaction with the LMS.

In other words, one of the most meaningful aspects of the college adventure–the encounter with other humans–is sidelined into an option to be avoided except when necessary. I mean no disrespect to people who work in tech support positions (their role is different, not less valuable) when I say that as a professor, I hope my relationship with students is deeper, longer-lasting, and less one-sided than a quick phone call or text chat with a troubleshooter.

We can get information from a website, but we can only get transformative, life-defining conversations (whether real-time or asynchronous) from real people. I believe we can get those in an online education setting, but this requires professors who are willing to be authentic and available. And that’s what this blog post series is about.

Back to more practical tips next time! Here are the articles I mentioned. All are from Pedagogy vol. 23, no. 2:

Bezio, Kelly L. “How to Subvert the Banking Concept of Education in Neoliberal Times.” pp. 263-274.

Brenden, Mark. “Learning and Management during and after the Pandemic: Reading Student Resistance to LMS.” pp. 297-310

Tidwell, Christy. “In Defense of Facelessness: Not In-Person but Not Impersonal.” pp. 321-332.

Let them hear your voice.

This post is part of a series on bringing a human touch (cue the Bruce Springsteen song) to online education. See the series introduction here.

Today I have a simple tip to offer you, yet I’ve received more positive student feedback in response to this practice than almost anything else I’ve ever done as a professor. I would like to invite you to consider making videos for your students. And I don’t mean scripted lectures shot in multiple takes with official-looking title cards provided by your institution (though there can be a place for those). I mean short, personal, off-the-cuff video responses to students’ assignments. Here is a short account of my experiences with this practice.

I teach two research classes in which students submit a major project in several steps, the first being a proposal. Though the assignment instructions for the proposal are relatively formal and lead students to take it seriously, I treat it as a formative assessment–that is, not a finished product but a stepping stone. So instead of making corrections and deducting points from the rubric, I read each student’s proposal, then use the recording feature embedded in our learning management system (Canvas) to make a short video (2-5 minutes) expressing enthusiasm for their projects and giving them some advice about things like the scope of the project (students often start out a little too ambitious), pitfalls to avoid, and sources that might be helpful. The videos tend to be longer if I know something about the topic and have specific source recommendations to make or if the student seems to have had a little trouble understanding the assignment. But in all cases, I try to project excitement about their ideas and let them know that I’m a helpful resource.

The videos don’t take long to create because I shoot them in one take, without doing any editing and without even writing down notes first. I am pretty good at speaking ad lib–others might want to jot some notes first (and I do sometimes miss important things I meant to say or should have said!). Video grading gives me a break from writing, which constitutes the bulk of my work, and it allows students to see my face and hear my voice, letting them know I’m a real person who’s invested in them and their writing. The students love these videos–I get more positive feedback on them in my course evaluations than on anything else. Often the videos initiate a warm and enthusiastic exchange of questions and ideas that continues throughout the course.

Next week, it will be time for me to make proposal feedback videos for my new set of students, and I am genuinely excited to make them–not something I can normally say about grading. I encourage you, if you are a teacher or any type of communicator (aren’t we all?), to find ways to let the people you work with hear your voice. It will lay the foundation for trusting relationships and make your future written communication less likely to be misunderstood. Try it out and let me know what you learn!

online education for humans

Sometimes I wonder if my students realize I’m a real human being, not a machine who grades their work. When students are surprised that I answer a pretty reasonable request in the affirmative, or that I reply to their messages at all–that’s when I really wonder. But I can’t be too critical of my students’ assumptions, because there have been times when I’ve forgotten that my students are real human beings and not machines composing assignments. When all you see of a person is a) their writing (which may or may not sound like something that came from a real human being–we’ll talk more about that in a later post) and b) a tiny, low-quality profile picture, seeing that person’s humanity can be a struggle.

This will be the topic of my next few posts. We’ll talk about strategies that online faculty and students can use to remember and respect each other’s humanity. And as always, I hope these posts will have a wider application, offering useful advice for all of us who live in this world where so much of our human interaction is mediated by screens.

what “adjunct faculty” means

This summer I took a seven-week break from teaching for my main institution, and I’m finally getting around to writing a blog post about it, largely as a way to reflectively journal about the experience. But as I thought about what I wanted to say, I realized that, since other people will be reading this journal entry, it might be productive for me to spend some time explaining how I was able to take a seven-week break (not normal in most industries!) and, more broadly, how I get compensated for my work. I hope some of you will find this information interesting in its own right, but also–full disclosure–I have a point I want to make at the end of the post.

Let me start by evoking what many people likely picture when they hear the job title “college professor.” I live near an old and prestigious university, and there’s a part of town I sometimes drive through where, I’m told, a lot of the professors live–and where there are some truly palatial homes. I won’t make a blanket statement about all faculty at this university, but I think it’s safe to assume that some of them are being compensated very generously. This makes sense–the university has been there for a long time, and it has a lot of donors. The professors who live in these homes have earned advanced degrees; many of them have probably published books and articles in prestigious publications, and they likely spend a lot of time producing and supervising important research. This is probably the kind of person most people picture when they hear the phrase “college professor.” (And I want to be clear that those professors work hard for their paychecks! Even those who have graders or teaching assistants do a lot of behind-the-scenes work that most people don’t think about–lesson planning, keeping up with new research in their field, serving on committees, answering emails, and perhaps doing administrative work for the university. College professors work hard, just like people in any industry.)

The professors I’ve just been describing are generally on a full-time contract with their university, meaning that they know ahead of time how much they’ll be paid each year, and they receive benefits (health insurance, retirement plan matching, etc.) from their employer. (Many of them may also benefit from the academic job security mechanism known as tenure, but I won’t get into that in this post–it’s a complicated system, and I’m no expert on it.) But there’s a whole category of college faculty, known as adjuncts, who aren’t on full-time contracts. Instead of receiving a salary, adjuncts get paid per class. This means that their compensation can vary from semester to semester (or term to term), depending on the courses that are available for them to teach. While they may be doing forty hours (or more) of work per week, adjuncts usually do not receive full-time employment benefits.

Every college has different ways of assigning classes to adjuncts, and the adjunct experience can vary widely from school to school. For example, at some institutions (like the ones I serve at), adjuncts–at least on-campus ones, and many universities are doing more to include online adjuncts–are invited to events like faculty orientation, can request supplies from the department budget, and can even serve on committees (which allows them to give input that may affect their working conditions and teaching satisfaction), while at other institutions, adjuncts struggle to receive any kind of professional support. The pay scale can also vary widely for adjuncts, depending on factors like number of students in a class, the adjunct’s level of education, and the institution’s budget.

Until summer 2020, I taught on a university campus on a full-time faculty contract. Since then, I have been teaching online as an adjunct for two different universities. (Side note 1: It was marriage and moving, not the pandemic, that caused this shift. Moving to online adjunct work was a free choice I gladly made. I point this out because some adjuncts are in their position because it’s the only one their school can offer them, or because they’ve been demoted from full-time positions due to budget cuts or other factors. Side note 2: While adjuncts can teach either online or in person–some people do both–the number of people employed as adjunct faculty has risen dramatically with the growing popularity of online education.) Let me briefly describe what my adjunct experience has been, being careful to clarify that this is just my experience. I would be interested to hear from other adjuncts about their own work!

I teach a graduate and an undergraduate course at each of my two universities, for a total of four courses I teach regularly (four “preps” to use a common teacher expression). At any given time, I’m usually teaching two to five classes total. (Side note: One of my schools has eight-week terms, while the other has six-week terms for grad classes and five-week terms for undergrad. I find it confusing to keep track of what week each of my classes is on, so I have to use my planner carefully, and occasionally I turn down teaching offers because I don’t want to deal with all the overlap!) For two of the classes, I’m the “subject matter expert,” or SME. A SME is the person responsible for maintaining and updating the course content (and sometimes, creating it in the first place, which was my experience–meaning that students get to see my face in the video lectures and therefore get to know me better than a lot of online students get to know their faculty) and providing support and advice to other faculty teaching the course. Each term that I teach one of the courses I’m SME of (which is almost every term for me), I get a SME stipend, which is a pretty significant amount. I make more money from my grad classes than my undergrad ones, since teaching them requires more specialized knowledge (but is not necessarily harder!), and I get paid more than someone who does not have a terminal degree–a PhD in my case. I’m not going to tell you my total pay, but when you combine all my classes and add other income sources like serving on master’s thesis committees (not very lucrative, but one of the most rewarding parts of my work), I make roughly the equivalent of what my husband makes as an engineer with a full-time salaried position. But while he gets paid every week, I get paid every five to eight weeks, making it really hard to incorporate my pay into our budget!*

This is turning into an incredibly long post, so I’ll wrap it up with a couple of things I hope people will learn from this post. First, if you’re considering an academic career (as I know many of my students are), keep adjuncting in mind as a possibility, but also be aware of the potential challenges of this type of work. And remember that the description I’ve given here is just one person’s experience! Second, in our busy, hyper-connected culture, the stereotype of the leisured professor is not true anymore, if it ever was. Despite what some politicians may want you to think, universities are not paying faculty big bucks to do nothing. The work of teaching at the college level can be rewarding and delightful, but it is hard work—and important work. Yes, we all have all the information in the world at our fingertips, but the job of professors (and of teachers at all levels) is not merely to convey information but to help students learn how to interpret that information, to think deeply, to have meaningful and respectful discussions with others, and to love learning. I’m grateful to be able to do that work and to be compensated well for it, and I hope universities will continue to see adjuncts as a crucial partners in that work and give them the support they need and deserve.

Creative writing tip: Find your Inklings

There’s a lot of talk these days about finding one’s “tribe” or one’s “people.” If taken to extremes or left unexamined, this attitude can worsen the polarization that plagues our society by excusing us from spending time with and listening to people who are different from us. But underlying this idea is a good impulse: the desire to connect with people who share our interests and joys.

Earlier this summer, I read Humphrey Carpenter’s The Inklings, which is a collective biography of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams, but even more than that, a fascinating account of an unusual group of men who “found their people.” The Inklings, as many of my readers will probably know, were an informal club of friends–mostly Oxford and Cambridge academics, mostly Christians–who met for years, twice a week, to eat, drink, have intellectually rich discussions, and–most famously–read aloud from their works in progress, some of which turned out to be genre-defining sagas like The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia. The atmosphere of the group, as well as some weird ideas that floated around during their intense discussions (Carpenter doesn’t shy away from these), was shaped by the group’s demographics (almost exclusively middle-aged white Englishmen) and the times in which they lived. But within their similarity, they were a remarkably diverse group in their marital status, politics, religious expressions, and philosophies on all sorts of things (e.g., how a fantasy world should be constructed). And, by all accounts, their strongly-held, often opposing opinions made the group exciting, not threatening. They were fans of each other’s work (even when they criticized it), and most importantly, they were friends.

In the decades since the Inklings met, aspiring writers (especially fantasy nerds) have been trying to recapture the heady atmosphere of their meetings. I was once part of a creative writing group called, unabashedly, the Inklings, which held long, food-fueled sessions in which we read aloud from our works in progress and received gracious yet detailed feedback from our peers. Like the original Inklings, we were brought together not only by our love of stories but also (for most of us) by our Christian faith, which deeply informed our group’s philosophy even though hardly any of us were writing explicitly Christian literature. And like the original Inklings, many of us developed close, trusting friendships.

If you are a writer–or if you don’t write yourself, but you enjoy a good story and know how to give helpful feedback (or are willing to learn how)*–I encourage you to join a creative writing group. Don’t try too hard to recapture the atmosphere of the original Inklings; you’re not them. You don’t have to wear tweed or meet every week or even meet in person. (My old group moved to Zoom during the pandemic.) Not all creative writing groups even involve critique of works in progress; some focus on support, encouragement, learning new techniques, or even writing silently in each other’s presence. The greatest gift of a creative writing group is not the activities that happen during the meeting or even the works of literature that its members produce, but that feeling of belonging, of being understood by other people who also have stories in their heads. Or, as C.S. Lewis put it, “the moment when one man says to another ‘What! You too? I thought that no one but myself . . .'”

Subscribe to get notified of upcoming posts: an ode to my grandparents’ cabin in the western Maryland mountains and an explanation of how adjunct faculty get paid (much more interesting than it sounds!). Also, if you’re a fan of the Inklings, subscribe to my podcast, It’s Lit Time!, for an upcoming series on rereading J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth saga.

*Several of the original Inklings weren’t writers; they just enjoyed hanging out with their friends and hearing their stories.

lessons from conflict

I rarely have negative interactions with my students. I don’t know if that’s because of the environment in which I teach or the obsessive care I take to try to stay on everyone’s good side–likely it’s a combination of factors. But when I do have a negative interaction with a student (typically by email, since I teach exclusively online right now), I tend to be equally obsessive about trying to figure out what went wrong. I’ve learned that there’s a good side and a bad side to this tendency, and I want to share these lessons in the form of two tips that, in most cases, should be followed in sequential order. Though I’m thinking about student and professor interactions as I write this post, these two tips can apply to almost any type of conflict.

  1. Be open to realizing you’ve been wrong. By listening to other faculty talk and doing some uncomfortable self-reflection, I’ve realized that we professors are way too quick to assume students are in the wrong–they didn’t read the assignment carefully enough, they’re entitled, they just don’t like me…you can see that these assumptions may lead down an ugly path. Sometimes those statements may be true, but they should not be our default responses. A conflict with a student can be a good opportunity to evaluate our own teaching practice. Ask yourself: Can I explain these assignment instructions or this course material more clearly? Can I rewrite the test to remove unnecessary ambiguity? Can I approach my students with a more open mind and a listening posture? You can also pose these questions to a colleague or someone else you trust, who may be able to see the situation more clearly than you can.
  2. Sometimes, though, asking those questions does not lead to an explanation of why the negative interaction occurred. Maybe the student is going through a hard time and is taking frustration out on you. Or maybe, in rare cases, this is simply a student who likes to stir up conflict. In that case, my second tip applies: Let it go. I know that this is much, much easier said than done. But sometimes it’s the only right answer. Instead of obsessively combing through your responses and wondering where you went wrong, you may need to accept that you did everything right as much as you were able. If you’re like me, you may have to remind yourself that it’s not a tragedy if a student doesn’t like you. Admitting this doesn’t make you cynical or uncaring, and it may help you sleep better at night.

So there you have it–my simple (but not necessarily easy) steps to dealing with interpersonal conflict. Maybe I should write a book about this and make lots of money. But then I’d have to fill it with embarrassing stories about myself and my students, and I don’t want to do that. So I’ll turn it over to you: What principles have you found helpful in dealing with conflict resolution?

my top tips for creative writing inspiration

Writing is hard, even for those of us who claim to enjoy it. I recently had a conversation with a former student who had graduated with a degree in creative writing but was having trouble finding the motivation to write, now that she was no longer required to do so for classes. I could relate, more than I wanted to admit. Though at first I felt like I didn’t have any advice to give her, I gradually–through about an hour of conversation–came up with the following tips. They aren’t magical, and some will suit certain people better than others. If you’re in need of writing inspiration, give them a try and see which ones work for you.

  1. Join a writing group. I recommend this one all the time. Being part of a supportive writing feedback group, online or in person, can bring all sorts of benefits, from lifelong friendships to marked improvements in your writing craft. More to the point of this post, belonging to such a group can work wonders for your writing motivation, both because hearing other people’s work can get your mental gears turning with ideas of your own and because knowing that people are waiting for your next installment creates a healthy, exciting pressure.
  2. Try some writing prompts. A book of story prompts (e.g. “Write a short mystery that includes a mirror, a bird, and Germany” or whatever) was one of the first gifts I gave my now-husband, an avid tabletop roleplayer who is always looking for campaign ideas. But you don’t even need to spend money on a book to do this; creative writing prompts abound on the internet. The constraints of the prompt can be a great antidote to writer’s block, and you can always abandon them once your story gets going.
  3. Set aside a regular time to write. This advice is so common as to almost be a cliché, but most people don’t do it. (Actually, I haven’t been doing it lately either, and I notice the absence of this routine in my life!) For several years, I spent the last half-hour of each of my workdays writing something–a PowerPoint for a class, a page or two of my novel, a blog post. Editing something I’d already written counted too. I was always amazed at how much I was able to accomplish in 30 minutes, five days a week.
  4. Read widely. Once again, this is common advice, but you’d be surprised how many people I’ve met who say, “I’m a writer, but I don’t really read much.” I understand it might not be your favorite thing to do, but if you’re a writer, you should be reading–in your genre, outside your genre, writers whose style you admire, etc. You don’t have to approach it like an assigned task (unless that motivates you to do it), but any reading you do is going to have benefits for your writing in some way, even if you don’t notice it right away.

I hope these tips are helpful to you! Let me know if you try any of them, and please share writing tips of your own!

Work Places: breakfast and Wi-Fi in Ludington, MI

Since working remotely has been a theme of this blog since it became what it currently is, and since I’m finding myself working in a variety of far-flung parts of America this month, I’ve decided to start a recurring series called Work Places. In each location, I’ll write about the places where I get out my laptop or planner and do anything that falls under the umbrella of work (and I have a fairly expansive definition of the term).

Before I get to today’s location, I’ll briefly mention where I was last weekend. My husband Jordan and I spent Labor Day weekend at a family cabin in Grantsville, Maryland, in the mountainous western part of the state. There’s no Wi-Fi at the cabin, and I didn’t want to spend much of this vacation working, but I did have some grading to catch up on, and one of our days ended up being too rainy for hiking, so I create an iPhone hotspot at the cabin. I worked for about three hours under the sturdy roof of the outdoor kitchen area, while Jordan sat by the nearby campfire and read. For a grading session, it was pretty idyllic. Afterward, we had lunch at the Cornucopia Café, a breakfast and lunch place with a quiet, rustic vibe, a seasonally changing menu (we’ve eaten there several times and always enjoyed the food), and a full coffee menu, within a short walk of the historic Casselman Bridge and the Spruce Forest Artisan Village. We saw a woman using a laptop at one of the tables, so we’re assuming there’s Wi-Fi there, but don’t quote me on that.

All right–now for today’s Work Places. This weekend, Jordan and I are RV camping with his parents in Ludington State Park, on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan (i.e. the Michigan side). Cell phone reception in the state park is terrible, at least in the campground where we’re staying, and in general I think that’s a good thing. (When we came here last year, my phone kept thinking I was in Central Time–it must have been picking up a signal from across the lake. It was like being in a place outside of time.) But today, Jordan needed to do a half-day’s worth of work, so I decided to join him in his quest for Wi-Fi in downtown Ludington.

We left the park when the sun was just coming up; the quiet and semi-darkness made the trip feel more magical than such an errand normally would. Jordan’s dad had scoped out a few locations for us earlier in the week, and his recommendation was Red Rooster Coffee and Community on James Street, so we headed there first–mainly because it’s one of the few businesses in town that opens at 7 am. It has the somewhat sterile industrial look that seems to be so popular in coffee shops these days, but it still manages to feel cozy, mainly because it takes that “community” thing seriously. There are bulletin boards advertising local events and businesses, the baristas are friendly, and it seemed like every other person who walked through the door knew either one of the staff or one of the other customers. The coffee was good (Jordan had a cold brew, and I had a hot cup of their medium roast), and so were the muffins (we split a banana nut and an orange cranberry). We decided to wait until our second location of the morning to have a full breakfast, but the Red Rooster offers oatmeal, an acai bowl (my father-in-law tried this and said it was good), and a variety of breads and spreads. We stayed for about two hours and never felt like we were being pressured to move. The Wi-Fi was strong and easy to connect to, all the tables had easy-to-reach outlets, and the bathroom was clean. The hip youngster music they were playing was a little loud, but not too distracting, though Jordan did have to step outside to made a phone call.

You can park on the street for free in downtown Ludington, but the spots (which are nice and spacious for bad parallel parkers like me) are all marked “2 hours.” I am not sure if this regulation is closely patrolled, but I went out to move the car a little before 9:00 anyway. About that time, Jordan came to a good stopping place in his work, so we decided to walk down the street probably a tenth of a mile to Brenda’s Harbor Café, a breakfast-focused diner whose menu looked good to us online. We were seated right away even though the place was clearly busy, and we’re still here (9:48) finishing up our breakfast and working on our back-to-back Lenovo Yogas–yeah, we’re cute :). (There aren’t many outlets, but the Wi-Fi password is clearly printed on the condiment tray. It’s like they want you to stick around.) Although the décor here is nautical kitsch (anchors on the curtains and wallpaper, walls packed with framed photos of boats), this place actually feels a lot like the Red Rooster with its friendly staff and vibrant conversations among the patrons, who seem to be locals. (Again, I’m only exaggerating a little when I say that we seem to be the only people here who don’t know anyone else.) And the food is great! Jordan had a classic breakfast of eggs, sausage, toast, and hash browns, while I went for the slightly fancier option of eggs Florentine (a Benedict variation with spinach and tomatoes), and we both really enjoyed our meal. The waitress kept the water and coffee (a solid standard diner coffee) coming, and I enjoyed doing a little people-watching while surreptitiously writing this post. (I didn’t really want the waitress to know I was reviewing this place in real time, you know?) I haven’t checked out the bathroom yet, but the Wi-Fi is working great, and the music is more muted (I think I’ve heard the Beatles and the Eagles, but I can’t really tell).

I want to emphasize that I encourage setting boundaries around work. It’s important to disconnect regularly, even if you don’t go to the extreme of camping in a park where time zones don’t exist. But if you do have to check in with work while in Ludington, check out these two spots. Stay tuned for more Work Places!

why giving feedback to students makes you feel tired

I had an idea for a post to write today, but I’m not going to write it. One reason for that is that the topic is better suited to my podcast, so I’m going to save it for an episode. But the main reason is that I don’t feel like I have the brain capacity to write about that topic–which is as abstract and philosophical a topic as I’m willing to touch–right now. I have just spent about two hours answering student emails and text messages, grading assignments, and making Microsoft Word comments on a student’s masters thesis draft. The emails and texts were not just “Received, thanks!” type of messages; they consisted of several paragraphs’ worth of writing advice (in this case, about creating plausibility in a fantasy scenario) and explanations of how to use our learning management system. The grading feedback, while short, got into the topics of primary sources in early American history, tree communication (this is a real thing; there’s a book about it), and parallel universes. The Word comments weren’t of the basic “put a comma here” variety; they involved suggestions for further research, recommendations about elaborating on particular topics, and other macro-level issues regarding this student’s thesis.

Sometimes I get to the end of several hours of this kind of communication and wonder why I feel like I can’t have an intelligent conversation, or why I don’t want to talk at all. Maybe you’ve felt the same way. I know why: It’s because those individualized comments–whether they are written in red pen on a paper, typed in a comment box on Canvas or Blackboard, or spoken to a student in a face-to-face or phone conversation–are perhaps the most important thing we give students. I would venture to say they are more important than grades or lectures or materials. And if you take your job seriously and care about your students, you’re going to bring your best to writing (or speaking) those messages. So it’s no wonder they wipe you out in a good way. They are not peripheral–they are your work. Teacher, you are a writer (or a speaker, and not just a lecturer). Own that!

monthly goals

Hello, blog readers! It’s been over a month since I’ve posted, and I miss you. I’ve had a couple of students tell me they’ve started following my blog, so I thought I should get on the ball with some new content. Before I do, though, I want to remind you about my podcast, It’s Lit Time! with Dr. Tess. While this blog focuses on teaching and learning, the podcast is about literature in a broad sense, including film and other forms of storytelling. I have some exciting conversations with guests coming up later this month, including discussions of The Godfather, superheroes, and mistakes writers should avoid. For now, check out my first two episodes:

Episode 1: What Is a Story? https://asynchronous.podbean.com/e/its-lit-time-episode-1-what-is-a-story/

Episode 2: What Is a Novel? https://asynchronous.podbean.com/e/its-lit-time-episode-2-what-is-a-novel/

And now that the commercial is over, today’s post.

I was reading last week about someone who shares her goals each month with her blog readers as an accountability method. I thought I would try doing this, with hopes that it will be useful not only for me but also for you–perhaps as an inspiration for a framework for your own goals. (The goals themselves, of course, will be highly individual.)

All year, I’ve been using a formula for my goals that involves the concept of loving others well. I started with three and have added one each quarter, so I’m up to five. Here they are:

  1. Love and serve God well.
  2. Love and serve Jordan well. (Jordan is my husband.)
  3. Love and serve my students well.
  4. Love and maintain my body.
  5. Love and maintain our home.

The first thing some of you might notice about these goals is that they are not the SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-based) goals that many of us have been taught to make in organizational settings. (Teachers, you know these would not fare well as lesson objectives, as in “After this lesson, the student will be able to…”) This shortcoming is addressed partly by the fact that these goals deal with relationships in which I’m attuned enough to the other person or entity that I can usually tell intuitively whether things are going well or poorly. But also, as facilitated by my Cultivate What Matters Powersheets Goal Planner, I’ve broken down each of these large-scale goals into quarterly mini-goals, which are further broken down into action steps. My mini-goals for this summer range from the near-universal “Clean more regularly” to ones that are specific to my situation right now, like the one about helping Jordan transition back to the office three days a week after having worked almost entirely from home since March 2020. My action steps are even more varied, from setting my alarm earlier on Sunday morning to training for a race (I just signed up for a local zombie-themed 5K trail race) to making strategic use of apps like Forest and Love Nudge.

Once again, this post is meant to be inspirational, not prescriptive. And I realize that for some of you, the idea of making quarterly mini-goals and action steps sounds cheesy or restrictive. But for those of you who enjoy this kind of stuff–or are open to trying it–I hope this post gets you excited. Please feel free to keep me accountable–and to share your goals with me. Let’s help each other out!