Monday, January 26, 2015

The SCCList and Important Phone Numbers at Your Campus

by Sarah Kain Gutowski, Chair, FA New Member Program

By now you will have all received the official class cancellation from Mary Lou Araneo for Tuesday and Wednesday's classes. Some of you, if you're on the SCCList, will have been up-to-date on the reason why (Snowpocalypse '15!!) because of Professor Scott Mandia's useful updates regarding the impending inclement weather.

And some of you may be scratching your head right now, thinking, "SCCList?"

The SCCList is the official listserv for Suffolk through which its members may communicate unofficially . . . that is to say, it's a little more casual and democratic -- any member can post and use the listserv to speak to the SCCC Community at large. It's a place where you can discuss anything to do with Suffolk, from its internal policies to pedagogical issues. Or, you know, the weather.

If your email hasn't been made part of the SCCC distribution list already, you may want to sign up to be included. To subscribe to the SCCList, go to Once in a while you'll find a flurry of messages in your inbox via the listserv, but on the whole it's worth the storage space in your email account to be kept in the loop.

Also, with so much recent stress on where-to-go for information, I thought that this would be an opportune time to share some important campus numbers with you: those of The FA Office, Security, Health Services, Counseling, and Payroll. You might want to print this email out and post it on a wall somewhere near your office phone, or maybe even carry a copy with you to class if you’re teaching faculty -- sometimes, sadly or oddly enough, you need Security and/or the assistance of Health Services while you’re teaching class. (It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen  -- sometimes students try to attend class when they’re just too ill to make it through. And sometimes they faint, which is when you should call Health Services.)

Important Numbers  -- Ammerman

Faculty Association:  x4151
Security: x4242
Health Services: x4047
Counseling:  x4053
Payroll: x4204

Important Numbers  -- Eastern

Faculty Association:  x4151
Security: x3636
Health Services: x2510
Counseling:  x2524
Payroll: x4204

Important Numbers -- Grant

Faculty Association: x4151
Security: x6777
Health Services: x6709
Counseling: x6250
Payroll: x4204

Friday, January 9, 2015

Serenity Now!

by Sarah Kain Gutowski, Chair, FA New Member Program

Greetings, new-ish faculty! Congratulations on having survived your first semester of full-time employment at SCCC! You may be surprised to hear from me  . . . I have, after all, been fairly absent from this blog since the end of October, which wasn't intentional but certainly wasn't helpful, either. Teaching an online class for the first time in several semesters very nearly drove me insane (in addition to being a phenomenal time-suck) and all because of some road-blocks and problems that could have been avoided had I only done a couple of fairly small and simple things before the fall semester even began.

But I didn't, and so, as we used to say while waiting tables, I found myself in the weeds. I managed to get through it, but it certainly wasn't pretty.

And now, on the eve of our first semester of the 2015 year, I'd like to extend a few helpful hints and pointers that I picked up as I tripped my merry way through a Complete Disaster Semester in the fall of '14:
Mmmm . . . Canned Serenity 

1. Using Technology is Good When it's Very Very Good, But When it is Bad, it is Horrid (Subtitle: Check Your Links and Files, Fool!) (Alternate Subtitle: Don't Reinvent the Wheel While the Wheel is Spinning)

Sometimes . . . well, a lot of times, technology doesn't act as you wish it would. This is more likely a result of Operator-Error than anything else, but regardless of the reason, it's really really inconvenient -- some might say, panic-inducing -- when you can't make it work the way you wish it would in the moment when you need it to work. Remember that post from last semester when I cried and whinged about Powerpoint for Macs? Yeah . . . that wasn't especially fun, for me OR the students I had waiting around for the stupid lecture to load. 

I won't rehash the details of that episode here (feel free to revisit my agony any time you like, though!), but it should suffice to say it wasn't my only problem with Blackboard Learn, or my online students, that semester. 

One of the best lessons I learned from last semester -- and this is something that I'm carrying over to my face-to-face (traditional) classrooms too -- is that it's almost impossible to be an effective teacher giving truly quality lectures and/or assignment feedback if you're prepping for your class at the same time you're teaching it. I know I've "known" this -- but I don't think it really hit me as concretely or viciously as it did last semester. 

It's not that I intended to be prepping while I was teaching -- it happened because of the following reasons:
  • Like my nine year old daughter taking a test, I didn't check my work:  I'm pretty sure my daughter's interior life consists of a series of gorgeously overblown musical numbers, so I'm not surprised when she marks something on a map as NE instead of NW, despite having a compass rose right in front of her. I, however, don't have the same excuse. I too-confidently copied files from Desire2Learn (our former course management system) to Blackboard, and then set up my online course for the fall trusting that everything was hunky-dory. It wasn't. Lesson: Check your links. Check your files. Check your links and your files. And then check your links and files again. 
  • A fresh start is not always the best start: In some ways, the beginning of a new semester is to an academic like the New Year is to the rest of the working world: A chance to start over. However, just because you have a great idea about restructuring your course or revamping its content doesn't mean that you should attempt the change RIGHT NOW. It's tempting -- I know. I did it last semester. I thought I'd make some innovative changes, but because I lacked the amount of time necessary to implement those changes thoroughly and/or effectively, my course ended up being FAR (far) (really far) from innovative.
I take the bulk of the blame for my lame online class last semester, but I will say this: Our system at SCCC for creating and changing online content is not the greatest. Faculty do not have ample amounts of time to "reinvent the wheel" -- even when we take "summers off" we spend most of that time catching up on all of the professional development and scholarship we've ignored during the school year. The result is depending on pre-packaged monstrosities from mercenary, thoroughly NON-academic publishing companies (despite their titles) for course content; or, rushing to get it all done in the few weeks before the course begins (. . . or even after it begins *cough*); or, paring down the content until it's a ghost of your traditional classroom. 

None of this, of course, is satisfactory. The obvious answer is to have the class mapped and as kink-free as possible before day one, and to do this WELL before the semester begins. (A little birdie tells me there's hope --and possibly paid time to work on revitalizing your DE classes -- on the horizon, but I'll wait to tell you more when I have concrete details.)
But wait, you're saying (if you're still reading, that is): Surely ALL of your classes didn't go poorly, did they? Funny you should ask! As a matter of fact:

2. Sometimes You DO Have Time to Plan Thoroughly and Those Plans Fail Anyway (Subtitle: Keep Calm and Change Your Course  . . . of Action)

For my face-to-face/traditional classes, I found that my preps were easy and completed well before the semester began -- I'd taught the classes before, made minor changes to the lecture/discussion agenda, updated my assignments to match updates in the texts, etc.

And then, you know, HUMANS happened.

My students know pretty well into the first month of a class that if they come to an office hour, I'll give them my full and undivided attention for as long as they need it. Unfortunately ("unfortunately" only in terms of time-management), quite a few of them -- a lot of them -- more than any previous semester -- took me up on this offer. That ate into my figure-out-that-darn-online-class time, which grew monstrously and then proceeded to eat into my grading time, which then ate into my sleeping time because any moment that isn't spent in service of my job these days is spent in service to my three young children (I know, I know, I did it to myself: the audacity of having babies while teaching! Not to mention that at least they were relatively healthy this fall, unlike in 2013, where even my contingency plans needed contingency plans).

Anyway, on the upside, I felt like my traditional-classroom students garnered a LOT of one-on-one help, and I believe it helped the classroom dynamic as well as their understanding of the material. On the downside, I felt thoroughly overwhelmed at how I was going to possibly respond to all of their assignments . . . assignments that in a "normal" semester (I know! Normal! I can hear you laugh!) would have seemed manageable. 

So I explained my dilemma. I was honest with them, apologetic to a point (I mean, I was still doing my JOB, I just wasn't doing it the way I'd outlined it at the beginning of the semester). Instead of hiding from my students in those final weeks, I scheduled MORE one-on-one conferences and made sure I looked each of them (most of them) in the face and reviewed the work, right in front of them, that they'd been waiting for so patiently.

And it seemed to work. At least, no one's lobbed fiery hate-mail at me yet. And it seems the old adage is true: You can't account for the actions of other people, but you CAN account for your response to people. 

Just try to make sure your response to other people isn't running at a full sprint from the room, wailing and tearing at your hair.

3. Your Most Important Duty is the One That Makes Your Job Title. All the Other Stuff is Frosting.

3.A. Okay, Not All of It is Frosting. Some of It is Definitely Not as Fun as Frosting. (This Blog is Frosting.)

In a week I'll archive the first of the presentations from our November New Member Discussion Series Event, and in it you'll read something to the tune of: "Only accept those tasks and committee memberships you feel truly excited about and/or invested in, because no matter what, you're going to feel overwhelmed."

I felt incredibly overwhelmed last semester. And by this point in my career, I only participate in those committees and activities to which I feel drawn and enthusiastic. So I felt very disheartened that I didn't have enough time to complete the primary responsibility of my job, let alone the secondary and tertiary responsibilities . . . like this blog, for instance, which I thoroughly enjoy writing (I don't know if you can tell); or my advising of the campus literary magazine; or my contributions to the planning of our annual creative writing festival.

So what does that mean? It means change! Something has to change. Either I change the way I do these tasks, or I relinquish some of these responsibilities, or I refashion my role(s). Will all of this change happen immediately? Um . . . NOPE! Of course not. Remember what I said earlier in this book-of-a-blog-post about big changes at the beginning of a semester: DON'T DO THEM. But I can tweak. And I can be more mindful of the way I approach these facets of my job that I love, and judge worthy of my time, but that ultimately MUST come second place to my primary job duty (TEACHING) and MUST come second to my family life and my health. (Because being this crazy takes a toll on you and your loved ones, believe me!)

* * *

So here are some suggestions for enabling this semester to run more smoothly -- and as a result, any subsequent semesters, too: 
  • Do as much preparatory work as you can RIGHT NOW, during this last week before classes. Yes, the specter of last semester's final exams may still be haunting your office, and yes, you may not want to drag yourself into the office or over to your computer to dredge up any file other than your trusty course outline . . . and sure, it may be super tempting to either veg out on your couch with a Walking Dead marathon or book a last-minute mini-getaway to Connecticut . . . but if you haven't prepped your lectures/handouts/assignments/in-class exercises day-by-day, down to May 13, you're probably going to be swimming in a lot of grading backlog when May 13 actually arrives.
  • Keep a notebook/journal/diary for notes about class sessions. Many of us teach two to five sections of the same course every semester, either by necessity or by virtue of a strategic decision to create LESS PREP. The problem with this is that it can become very difficult -- particularly in the middle of the semester -- to remember what the heck you said to which group of students. Crack the same lame jokes to a class for the second class in a row, and you'll virtually hear the WAH-WAH-WAAAAHHH of a distant trumpet as your students grimace politely with restrained disdain. Spend fifteen minutes covering the same territory you spoke about in the last 15 minutes of the previous class, and you'll find your name blazoned across all the Yik Yaks or Yahoos or Rate Yer Professors that span the vast interwebs, in "critiques" (always featuring perfect grammar and refined, impermeable logic, of course) that go something like this: "omigod Profesor X totaly doesnt haf her SH** togethr Y do I come to class oh Yeh its for that hottie in the Abercrombie tee LOL." Anyway . . . where was I? OH YEAH. Keep a notebook. Jot down the date and time of the class session, and take a full five minutes -- surely we can spare that, right? -- to jot down a few notes:
    • Material covered (as expected -- because you prepped thoroughly, remember?)
    • Material not covered (also as expected -- because each class is different and you know that sometimes discussion is derailed when students need more time to cover some topic or problem more thoroughly)
    • Thoughts on the class: Did it go well? How do you know? Were students responsive? Were they engaged with the text? Did they read the text? How can you ensure they read the text next time? Some of these thoughts will lead to small innovations (pop quiz next time, suckers!) and some of these will lead, IN THE FUTURE AND CERTAINLY NOT THIS SEMESTER, to reshaping your course, changing the pace or sequence of material, and/or altering out of class or in class assignments. 
  • Solicit informal student feedback once or twice during the semester. Not of the brown-nosing, "OH I LOVED THIS CLASS SO MUCH" variety -- but of the "Do you all feel comfortable moving to the next text/issue/problem/concept, or should we take another class period to cover this material?" vein. Sometimes, taking yourself out of lecturer mode (or discussion facilitator mode) and having an honest conversation can really help you gauge whether the pace of your class is the right one -- particularly if you're teaching a  course for the first time -- and before you collect a bunch of lousy, vague papers or lackluster-to-terrible midterm scantrons. 
  • Be kind to your students, and you'll be helping yourself. This last suggestion I'm making comes from our lovely and on-top-of-her-game Adjunct Rep, Cynthia Eaton. You remember how last semester you introduced your students to the course and it took them forever to buy the books? Or the students went dutifully to the book store and it turned out the book store habitually NEVER BUYS ENOUGH TEXTBOOKS FOR THE NUMBER OF STUDENTS ENROLLED IN THE COURSE BECAUSE THEY'RE A BUSINESS AND BUSINESSES DON'T CARE IF SAMMY OR SHEILA FAILS THEIR FIRST QUIZ? Or the students came back and told you that the two books you'd ordered cost a total of $220 at the store, and they can't afford that yet because they don't get paid until next Friday/their financial aid hasn't come through, and also, oh yeah, they can get the same books on Amazon or at Powell's for $80 flat? Yeah . . . WELL! There's something you can do RIGHT NOW that might make your life easier in two weeks. Email your students and let them know what books you'll be using, and whether or not you mind them using ebook editions, or library copies, or secondhand copies sold on It's as simple as that: Let them know. It's not guaranteed, but it increases your chances of having prepared students in your first classes on January 20 and 21. 
Prepared faculty AND prepared students? That would be a fearsome thing to behold.

* * *

This post is dedicated to 
Carol Cavallo, 
Colleague and Friend Extraordinaire.
Happy Retirement, Carol!