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Post-Grad-School Life

Voice in the Academy

I recently was asked by a relative over the Thanksgiving break about the aspects of working at a university that I found most surprising. What he was really asking was, "What weren't you prepared for?" As someone who had the good fortune to be involved in a graduate program with a considerable amount of transparency, I thought I was well prepared for the realities of being a tenure-track faculty member at a university. I will not go into details, but trust me when I say I was not nearly as prepared as I thought I was. During my four years at UVA, I taught between 1-3 courses each semester, and this doesn't count my teaching experience in my Master's program or my 8 years of teaching public school. This gave me an unbelievable head start in terms of learning the ropes of course planning, teaching and dealing with students. I had written several syllabi from scratch, crafted many, many projects and tests, and heard just about every excuse under the sun from students. Even so, I had a ton to learn this semester as I taught two courses for the first time in a new university.

I left class last night with a sinking feeling that I had failed as a teacher this semester, and I was obsessed with the fact that two of my biggest projects were just not planned out very well. As I skimmed blogs in my reader this morning, I ran across this post by Female Science Professor (yes, that is her Web identity). In general, her blog has quickly risen near the top of my favorites because of her insight, wisdom and humor. On more than one occasion, she has addressed topics similar to things I was struggling with, and today that was the case. I have no idea how my evaluations will turn out, but it doesn't really matter because I have always been harsher on myself than my students or colleagues. Anyway, the main points I took away from this post are that A) planning and teaching a new course for the first time is hard, and B) it takes 1-2 semesters to feel comfortable with it. I have already jotted down some changes I plan on making next semester, fearing that if I didn't do this I would get back in January and forget what didn't go so well.

This brings up my last point, which is that to succeed in any kind of teaching profession, a person has to be reflective. We constantly have to think about our craft and thoughtfully consider the feedback we get from other people.  I gave a mid-semester evaluation in my classes, which helped me shift things around a little before the semester completely got away from me. I also plan on recruiting some colleagues to evaluate my course by sitting in on a couple of sessions, looking at my course materials and maybe even reading my course evaluations. This will require a high degree of humility if in fact my evaluations come back less than stellar, but I think this will be beneficial in the long run.

Similar to this, I recently got accepted to present at a conference. I was very excited to get this news, but I was shocked when I read the reviewers' comments. They absolutely tore my paper apart. It was borderline humiliating, but as I thought about it, I realized it was the best possible scenario. Had I gotten accepted with no real feedback, I might have tried to submit these findings to a journal and been devastated to find out they weren't as glorious as I originally thought (or was led to believe). But I got the best of both worlds: I got into the conference AND got blistering feedback. So, now I have a roadmap for how to make my paper even better.

My teaching is  the same in this regard. Critical feedback might just be what I need to hear in order to grow and continually develop my craft.

Cognitive Load

This is a pretty good snapshot of my life these days. I got this from Jessica Hagy's blog, Indexed. Now, the trick is figuring out how to keep the amount of information flowing in somewhere at the bottom of that inverse bell curve. Lately, the trend has been to skip between the two extremes of the x-axis, leaving me in a perpetual state of confusion. Regardless, this is a great visual display of a concept.

Sleep and Creativity

I read this post on Lifehacker the other day, which was timely considering my lack of sleep this week. I took Monday off to spend time with my family, and my week was unusually full with meetings and other time-drainers. So, instead of carving out time at work to write and plan for class meetings, I did most of this until the wee hours of the morning. People who know me are aware of my struggles with staying alert at night. In an earlier time in my life, I used to meet a couple of my buddies every Monday to watch football, and I can't remember one time when I stayed awake for the whole game. However, I had no problem waking up at 5:00 a.m. for a 5-6 mile run. Clearly, I am a morning person. In my efforts to create a schedule for myself that includes writing, planning, service, research, teaching, and oh yeah, family, I find it increasingly easier to give up the one thing that usually helps me stay focused ... sleep. The later I stay up, and the more often I stay up late, the more of a decrease I notice in my creativity, yet it's the same creativity I strive to find when I am staying up late scratching out a couple of extra hours of work.

This is a personal problem, I know, but it definitely falls within the "things they don't tell you in grad. school" category. It's probably better if we (new faculty) discover this kind of thing ourselves, anyway. If I ever get the opportunity to mentor doc students or new faculty, I will be sure to put this on the list.