Combining productive work lives and balanced personal lives
Strong Start to the Semester
Those lazy hazy days of summer are over again. Didn’t it seem that they just began a week or so ago? The fall semester is upon you and if you are like most professors, you are feeling a bit anxious and overwhelmed. When I was a full time professor, my colleagues and I joked about waking up in cold sweats with pre-semester nightmares about arriving for class in our pajamas or showing up in the wrong building or teaching a class of students who rudely ignored the teacher. To calm some of your back-to-school jitters, take a few moments to plan how to have a strong start to the semester with your goals clearly in mind and your work life organized enough to feel confident and hopeful about a good semester.
Teaching Strong Starts
As a teaching faculty member you have two tasks that will make your semester start strong: a well-prepared syllabus, and a good first class.
A well-prepared syllabus has these elements:
- Information about you, your office, your office hours,
and how you want to be communicated with whether that is
email, a certain phone number, etc.
- The required and recommended textbooks and or
supporting materials such as journal articles, lab manuals,
- A week by week or day by day schedule of class topics,
assignments, and assessments.
- A clear grading scale.
- Class policies such as attendance, class participation,
use of cell phones, etc.
- A writing tone that sounds more like an organized
executive than a prison warden. For example, one syllabus
I reviewed for a coaching client said, “No amount of
begging will get me to change your grade.” We changed it
to read, “The best strategy to earn the grade you desire
is the timely completion of quality assignments.
- Special assignment directions such as for term papers or lab reports can be either attached to the syllabus or distributed later.
A strong start to a great first class includes:
- Being early so that you can greet students, circulate
around, introduce yourself and learn a few names. The
early birds are often the better students who come to
class prepared and want to contribute. Calling them by
name reinforces their hard work and builds a community
- When it is time for class to begin, introduce yourself
with whatever information you want the students to know
about you. They will spend approximately 45 hours this
semester staring at your face and they want to know
something about the person behind the face. The
introduction does not have to include personal material
about your marital and family status unless you are
public about those things but it should include:
- How your name is pronounced.
- Your degrees earned and schools where earned.
- Your rank and department.
- Your research and teaching interests (explained briefly in non-technical language for undergraduate classes).
- Do some activity that shows interest in your students
as people. In a small class, you can design a
structured exercise where they introduce themselves
apropos to the course topic, for example, what they
love about chemistry. At the very least, ask them to
fill out 3x5 cards with names including phonetic
pronunciation if it is not a name that would be
obvious to you, how they would like to be contacted by
you, and their academic and job experience in the
field related to the course.
- Spend some class time reviewing the syllabus. If it
is lengthy, distribute it or tell them the website
where you have posted it, Assign the students to read
it bringing questions to the second class. Class time
spent clearing up misunderstandings about the course
structure will pay off in lowering your stress later
in the semester.
- Introduce the topic of the course in a learning
centered activity, perhaps a short mini-lecture
followed by a small group or pencil-paper activity.
Don’t lecture the whole class and don’t dismiss the
- In case you read this newsletter after your first class and didn’t do any of the above, all is not lost. You can implement any suggestions that seem appropriate in the second or subsequent class.
Research Strong Starts
One area of feeling overwhelmed for most faculty is how to find time for scholarly work while still being prepared for class. For a strong start in your research role, block out writing appointments with yourself as though you were committed to a class hour at that time. When you were a student, if you were a smart student, you took your class schedule and then blocked in class preparation time around your classes. Similarly, as a smart professor you will want to sit down with your schedule, fill in with your classes and add class preparation and grading. Plug in your office hours including electronic office hours, those announced times when you promise your students you will deliver prompt replies to their emails. Then reserve time for standing meetings such as with your graduate students or committees. You should still have about 15 hours across the week to work on your research and writing. If you don’t, you may be spending your class preparation time ineffectively or perhaps you have overcommitted to service work.
If you have problems with staying on target with your research commitments, find accountability outside of yourself until you can build better habits.
- Join a faculty writing group and show up with some
pages to share with your colleagues.
- Buddy up with one or two colleagues to connect
and keep in touch on projects. You do not have to
actually meet in person; you can set a deadline
for reporting progress and do so by email. Or you
can meet in person and share writing for helpful
critiques. The colleagues do not have to be in
your field. Faculty writing expert, Tara Gray,
suggests that feedback from intelligent readers
who are not in your field can pick up the obvious
that would not be apparent to fellow scientists or
philosophers, for example, problems of logical
argument or lack of definitions and explanations.
However, be sure to specify the help you need so
that instead of getting overwhelmed by a full
critique of the piece you will receive feedback
just on your organizational structure or your use
of the third person or some other writing
challenge you are facing.
- Hire a coach. This person could be a writing coach who helps you specifically on techniques to improve your writing or it could be a life coach who acts as a point of accountability for your production schedule.
Community Building Strong Starts
Many professors fail to consider that part of their job is building good relationships with colleagues, administrators and students. While tenure application do not ask, “Are you a popular cool kid that others like?,” your social intelligence skills impact your career in more subtle ways.
- Think of building a community of learners in
each class. What activities like introducing
yourself do you need to engage in to make a good
first impression? What facial expressions and
body language quirks do you have that might be
an impediment to this process, for example,
looking down at your notes the whole class or
pacing nervously? For a humbling experience,
video tape a class and critique it privately.
- What small goal might you work on to increase
your visibility in your department or on campus?
Why does that matter? Because when your tenure
application gets approved by the committee and
passed on, you don’t want the dean to say,
“Professor Who?” Increasing your profile
increases the chances that people will think of
you when opportunities for interesting
collaborations present themselves. How can you
manage this area of your job without getting
overwhelmed? Think numbers. Meet one colleague
for lunch once a month. Attend lunch in the
faculty club once a week and talk to one person.
Take a faculty/staff aerobics class and
introduce yourself to one new person each
class meeting. Staff are often gatekeepers for
contacts with people that matter to your career.
- Arrive at committee meetings prepared and ready
to participate. If an agenda has not been sent out
the day before the meeting, suggest that it would
be a good idea so that all can prepare for the
vote or the discussion. When you run a meeting,
set an agenda and stay on task unless a major
- Look for ways to volunteer that count as service
and use your unique talent package. For example,
if you teach on a small campus that doesn’t have a
photography major but has a photography club and
you enjoy photography, consider moderating the
student club in this area.
- Smile, say hello, and be kind and interested in everyone you meet. You don’t have to waste time at the water cooler if you have focused positive interactions.
Get a strong start to the semester and it will be a great one.
© Copyright 2008 Susan Robison. All rights reserved. The above material is copyrighted but you may retransmit or distribute it to whomever you wish as long as not a single word is changed, added or deleted, including the contact information.
CONTACT INFORMATION: Susan Robison, PhD.; 3275 Font Hill Drive; Ellicott City, MD 21042 Voice: 410-465-5892; E-mail: Susan@ProfessorDestressor.com Website: www.ProfessorDestressor.com