Thursday, June 16, 2011

Advising II: Journalism and Business

I love my summer job!  I get to see a variety of freshman and transfers.  They all present new challenges to me and I try and problem solve for them.  So far, I have done an excellent job at ticking the boxes and explaining what they need to graduate.  I have a reason for doing this job well:

My freshman advisor screwed me over.  My sister's freshman advisor's screw up was worse.  She needed two core classes to get into her Education program and she wasn't told about them.  So, thankfully, my sister was able to get into summer courses.  The worst that mine did was put me in a French class I didn't want (blargh) and sign me up for 18 credit hours because she couldn't count.  For this reason, I have memorized the requirements for Pre-Ed and I always count off the number of credit hours in front of the student.

I like my students.  They are generally bright.  Their parents are sometimes crazy awesome.  I had one mom popping one liners out left and right!  Her son was such a sweetie.  I had a great time with them.  I even asked if she could be the voice in my head when I need a come back.  She was a hoot.  I have other parents who are clearly confused and just want answers.  Their kid is sitting there, near tears, and the parents just want to help.  It's my job to help them.  A lot of times they get defensive at first.  I have realized why - the other pre-whatever advisors have really done a crappy job explaining things and they feel as though I will also ignore their questions.

I won't.  Once I make that clear, they really help me understand their student's abilities/needs and become helpful rather than problematic.

One main issue I have had is that students come to me "undeclared" and then want to say they are going to declare Business or Journalism.  Now, we have the number one J-School in the country.  I get it.  It's a great program.  Our business program is also good.  However, we cannot have students doing both and graduating in a reasonable time.

I have designed a way to handle this.

Ask one question:  Do you like math?

Usually students either love it or hate it (I HATE it, did not want to follow Dad into one of the country's most prestigious business schools).  I had one student who barely passed pre-calc in school, did poorly on a placement exam, and then heard he would have to take four math classes and flat out said no to business.  Others say, "Why do I have to take accounting?"  Well, because that is pretty much a foundation of business. If they like math, I encourage them to look over the other requirements.  At this point, they usually want to go business.  If still not sold, I ask if they like writing and the social sciences - all big requirements of  Journalism. The answer: usually no.  Furthering reinforcing business.

Students that hate math usually love writing.  And for this reason, Journalism is the better fit.

Of course, then there is student A.  Student A is a smart kid.  He has a bunch of AP's and Dual Credits coming in.  He has done well on math placement.  And then when he comes in, he says, "I want to do Journalism, Business, and Pre-Law."

Wow.  This is even more confusing, but thankfully I am who I am and can help him understand what a Pre-Law major looks like.  As I talk to him, I find he hates math, even though he is good at it.  He likes writing, but not necessarily journalism.  So, I slide Poli Sci in there as an option.  His parents ask, "What jobs are there?"  Same question my dad asked when I said my junior year of high school that that was what I planned to do for the rest of my life.

I explained the options, talked to them about other "flavors" of poli sci outside of American Government.  They suddenly think I am the coolest grad student ever and say they can't believe their kid lucked out.  I laughed because I can't be his advisor for the fall.  Faces fall and I feel loved because they are actually going to miss me.  I give them my email and they say they are going to email me when they get home - and they do!

Coolest kid and parents ever.  Moral of the story - ask questions.  Kids don't know what they want to do.  Parents may have no clue what their kids options are - hence Journalism and Business!  But the best major is rarely so obvious.  For this kid, it appears he really loves political science and wants to make it his major.  I handed him off to our departmental advisor and got butterflies.  That was a great day.  I love when I can convert one to the dark side.

I do love this work.  Hopefully someday when I am a director of u-grad studies I can pass it along to some more awesome kids!

Living on $60.00/week

So, my goal for the end of this summer is to do two things:
1. pay down my medical debt - I currently owe $2450.00 to the hospital for emergency surgery.
2. pay off my credit cards.

This summer, I took an advising position that lasts about 5 weeks.  I work mostly half days advising freshman and transfer students.  My coworkers are great and I love my supervisors.  The pay is great, too. I make $750.00 for the five weeks.  It's great pay per hour and I am very thankful.  Most important, I am learning a ton from my students and colleagues alike.  I have contemplated over the past year possibly looking to become a DUS (director of undergraduate studies) since I really like mentoring my undergrads and am honestly more interested in developing them as human beings than just grading papers.  I may have some disdain for living with them or working out next to 100 lb perfect tan sorostitutes who are blathering away on the phone in the quiet room, but I realize that there are annoying people everywhere and college kids are particularly entitled.  I want to work to change that and open their eyes up to service, research, and knowledge.

I thought this job would be a great start.  It has allowed me to subsist through the summer without paychecks.  God answered my prayers, it all worked out, and now I am going to get some cash.  It's awesome, really.

Anyhow, because of my medical debt, I don't get to have a ton of fun this summer.  After running my budget, I am living on $60.00 of money for personal expenses, food, eating out, etc a week.  I realize when I put things on my CC in the summer, I have no clue what I am spending because a lot of my expenses are not the same.

$40.00 of this goes to food alone, generally.  Today I did shopping for the week ahead.  I bought a thing of paper towels, a huge thing of dish detergent, cheese, Chobani greek yogurt (I am obsessed and it keeps me healthy), pepsi throwback, organic pasta sauce, lunch meat, Magnum bars (which are my splurge), and some other staples.  With coupons, my total was $39.81.  And this is at the most expensive supermarket in town.  Every couple of weeks, I go to Aldi.  I buy a lot of staples there.  TBH, I kind of love it there.  I love the chocolate and the baking products as well as their new croissants.  Eh, they're American forms of croissants, but they are still damn good.

The other $20.00 I am trying to save.  No one is eating out right now.  We are all dirt poor, so that works.  The $20.00 will go towards my time spent with my best friend Abi who is coming in from the UK in a month. We will go have some cheap fun, no doubt.

Because I have a terrible espresso addiction, I try not to buy coffee out.  I will drink black drip coffee fine, but in the morning, I prefer to have a cappuccino or a mocha.  I had a moka pot, but that blew up.  I had a coffee pot, it broke (each within two days of one another!).  So, now I have a $36.00 espresso machine.  I was doubtful at first, but it is a great little machine.  I have easily saved $36.00 in coffee since I owned it.  The premium beans I buy range from $8.00 - $13.00 for half a pound and when I buy a pound, I get a free cup of coffee.  A half pound lasts me a month.  Milk is cheap.  Hershey's syrup is cheap.  $36.00 is less than 8 grande mochas.   People think I am nuts, but I refuse to pay to eat out when I can make something just as good at home.  I feel the same way about food.  I am a good cook.  I made lamb steak that I got on special last night.  It was $7.00 for a pound and a half.  I will get three meals out of it.  That would cost $20.00 out.  I go out once every few weeks, but I don't need to do it every day.

Because of the credit card problem, I have decided to take $60.00 out of the my account on a weekly basis. I only use my card for fixed expenses like gas.  When I fill up, it will be between 30 and 45 dollars.  I only fill up once every 3-4 weeks. I take my bike when possible.  The rest, is because my car gets great gas mileage.

I can do it.  I can get through the summer AND enjoy myself!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Advising Files - Part I

So, I started going to these sessions on campus run by the student success center.  The course is a three-credit intro-to-college class given as an elective for freshman by one of the cheif advisors there.  My prof wanted to go and talk to the students about what it is to be a prof and invited me to come along with him to speak.  I obliged because I knew I could learn something.

You see, Prof D. is a great lecturer and the students really like him.  He's only in his second year of teaching and still relates to the grad students really well, too.  I like him a lot and have learned a TON this semester on how to lecture, how to put together a syllabus, and what to expect with grading papers.  He's always been helpful.  I figured I could learn something from his speech to the freshman.  Much to my surprise, he put me on the spot.  I didn't expect it, but I talked to them about reaching out to faculty members from the beginning.  It was the NUMBER ONE thing that helped me and it gave me three letter of rec writers just from classes my freshman year!  It also taught me a lot about academia, research, and being a woman in a male-dominated field.

So, anyhow, we talked to the students and then afterwards, Prof D. pulled me aside and said he could tell I was really interested in helping the students.  I told him that I loved doing this.  It's why I still tutor for athletics here and why I did it at my u-grad school.  I find it really rewarding - much more so than grading.  So, he told me to talk to the instructor of the class, R, and told me to ask her about how else I can get involved.

I did.  We met for coffee and I came to another session.  I was looking to get involved and she offered a job advising freshman.  This was a cause near and dear to me because I know just how crucial advising is for students.  My poli sci adviser was AMAZING.  She was the best.  But, I had a terrible Honors College adviser who screwed me over and a terribly bad gender studies minor adviser.  She was so bad that she almost made it impossible for me to graduate my senior year just because she couldn't sign off on my paperwork.  Nor could she understand why I couldn't meet with her when I was in the UK during my junior year!  She was a peach, let me tell you.

My baby sister as well (currently just finished her freshman year) was also screwed over by an adviser who did not tell her what she needed for education.  It is why she is now taking a ton of classes this summer.  So, for me, being a good adviser and helping students is really important to me.  I remember being terrified going into that session.  I was shaking even worse when my adviser didn't properly add up my credits and left me unable to register with 19 credit hours.  Thankfully, an adviser from the University Division was helpful and sorted things out for me.

I hope to learn a lot this summer.  While I knew everything there was to know about most majors in the College of Arts and Science at my old university, the COAS curriculum here is still mostly a mystery.  I feel as though grad students often have no clue what the students are facing with concern to the university often because our heart is somewhere else.  In my case, it's back with the cream and crimson.  By better knowing the curriculum,  I will also be better able to help y students by maybe suggesting a set of courses that would better help them in the future.  I really do care about teaching.

I mean, I know that I love research and this is why I am here, but when I have positive interactions with students and see them grow and develop, I get really happy.  Having one student come to me and ask about graduate school made me feel really proud - proud that he was considering this option.  It was also a huge honor that he was asking for *my* expertise.  When I was asked for a letter of rec this year, I wrote it gladly, despite my confusion with how to do so (it's all a learning experience, right?).  I really do care for my students and can't imagine a time without teaching.

So, we'll see if advising makes me feel warm and fuzzy (as I expect it will) in comparison to grading papers) and if I will continue to do it from this semester onwards.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Challenging Students Pays Off?

I recently watched Declining By Degrees, which is a documentary about the problems in academia today.  In fact, it generated a whole load of questions which I will be asking in blogs in the future.  It was a very thought-provoking look into many subjects and I highly recommend it - whether or not you come to the same conclusions as the documentary makers.  I didn't agree with every single statement made, but it highlighted a great deal of things that I find challenging in higher education today.

One such problem is that of challenging students.  I faced this early on this year when I first started TA'ing an Intro to American Government class for a world-renowned Americanist in the department.  I don't "do" American politics, so it was frustrating in that I really did not enjoy the subject as I would have public policy or comparative political institutions, but the prof was great.  And he expected A LOT out of Freshman.  At times, I even wondered if he expected TOO much.

You see, he taught the only essay section in the department.  While there were 5 TA's (three, I believe were 1/2 time), I was stuck with 90 students to grade for.  This mean I would grade 90 full blue books five times in the semester - with the final giving me only 4 days to grade a doubled-in-length exam.  I didn't sleep for two days.  But that aside, I got frustrated dealing with students who were clearly unprepared for what an essay exam required.  Every student in the state must take an American Politics or American History class, you see.  So, whether they like it or not, it is a requirement to graduate.

So, all sorts of students were in the class.  In the first exam, one of my students had a mental breakdown that brought on psychosis.  I am not making fun, but she went psychotic, tried to push the professor down (who is about 6'4'') and then the cops were called.  I was interrogated by a journalist on my way across campus with an undoubtely large stack of blue books.  I wondered if maybe the students were not capable.  However, slowly, students got better.  I tried to be very available to my students and saw them improve, which was rewarding.  I saw my opinion on the capability of the students change.

One professor in this documentary said that students get "better" when you challenge them.  If you don't, the will not apply themselves.  After a year of TA'ing and with two classes under my belt - one an intro and one an upper-division course - I feel that this is true.  At the start of the semester in my upper-division course, I was pulling my hair out.  Students did not know how to quote.  They could not capitalize.  The same students who were apparently "A students", many who had been accepted into good law schools or were in the top journalism program in the country as a double major had no idea how to make an argument or what one even looked like.

Out of about 85 students, I gave out a few A's, based on the criteria set by the prof.  He backed me up on the grades.  I wrote extensive comments and held office hours.  I had one girl have a panic attack in my office.  Another student pounded her hand on my desk and threatened me over her grade.  Another one said she doubted whether I was really capable of doing my job.  I once again began to doubt whether we were expecting too much.  This was the first time this young prof had taught this class and the first round of essays I had graded, so I had no clue.

But, as the semester crept on, the essays got progressively better.  One student even came back to my office to thank me - the one who doubted my capability.  She thanked me for being so constructively critical of her essay because she now realized she was capable of more and did not know it until she was pushed to really make an argument.

The problem that I face at this large state school (LSS) is that it has 90 students in classes that would easily be seminars at smaller schools.  Whereas I should have time to work with students one-on-one over an assignment and review all of their drafts, there is just no time.  I have to grade 3 essays and 2 essay exams a semester.  I don't have time.  I try to help them as best I can, but even then, they don't come to office hours. If I could give them that help in class, it would probably be more effective, but neither I or the professor have the time or resources to really challenge them.

Sure, a few students like the girl above will be challenged and will learn, but a great number will either drop the class (as about 20 did) or will barely skate by.  I believe challenging them should be a prerequisite and am glad this department encourages it.  However, I think that with challenges come responsibilities of the professors and TA's to help them more.  Maybe not in this class, but in general education classes.  Students in an upper-division course should not have trouble arguing.  Intensive writing courses do help with this and are not required at LSS, but they are often not taken until Jr or Sr year.  It would be best if a very intensive comp class was required to challenge students early.  I took one my freshman year and while the GA was a nutcase, I learned a lot about writing and argument.  However, even that wasn't required!  I could have taken a basic gen ed class to fulfill my requirement.

So, I agree, students aren't challenged enough.  However, they do need some baseline knowledge to fully benefit from such endeavors.  I'm just still not sure what that requires, I guess.  Any ideas?

Impostor Syndrome Dies Again

For those of you who are new to thinking about grad school and those who are in grad school, you may or may not have heard of impostor syndrome.  Impostor Syndrome (IS) is something that likes to rear its ugly head in the back of your mind and makes you doubt yourself.  All year I have been facing it.  What if I don't pass my classes?  What if this is the end of the line for me?  What if I really just suck at research?  What if my students always hate me and I am a lousy lecturer?

This year it led me to not want to make any big plans until the year was over.  Something could always happen.  And if it could happen this year, it did.  The year started off with an epic battle with the financial aid office over money they owed me.  While they held my stipend, I barely had money to EAT.  It came to a head when I was sitting in the DGS's office in tears because it was supposed to get below 30 and I needed to buy a coat because the postal service lost the one my mother had sent me from my hometown.  I had no money to buy a freaking coat.

Then, I was diagnosed with BiPolar Depression II.  It runs in my family, but it is not something I ever wanted to deal with.  I'd had OCD and depression for at least 4 years, but new symptoms appeared.  On top of everything else that was happening in my life, now I could not sleep thanks to hypomania.  I kept saying that I would just have to go home.  I would fail out.  Many of my cohort members jumped ship and it led to low morale.  I was just really depressed and happy to see the light of Christmas break.  I made it that far, I told myself it couldn't get worse.

My meds were figuring themselves out by the time that I managed to get to a place where I felt good again.  I was doing well in my classes, I was happy.  Then, one Sunday I woke up in an INCREDIBLE amount of pain.  My good friend and college N drove me to the ER and I had emergency surgery to remove what was supposed to be an infected appendix.  It was something else that also could have killed me, so I was thankful that it happened, but hello $3000.00 emergency bill.

Despite all of that, I did well.  Even this week, I was awfully concerned about my progress.  Submitting a Plan of Study and organizing a committee meeting made it real.  It was frightening, but I did it.  I survived.  Imposter no more, I am okay.  I don't suck at research and may even have a dissertation topic already.  I may be going back to Europe to do research.  I thrived, despite all the terrible stuff that shafted me this year.  I thrived.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

How to email your TA

I may sound old, but I feel as though kids no longer get practice writing letters in school, since no one does it.  I may be dating myself by admitting to receiving such training, but I assure you that I am just a bit younger than the last NCAA banner hanging in Indiana's Assembly Hall.  Has it really been THAT long?  Anyhow, I remember learning this when also learning to write in cursive (another skill they no longer teach, according to my friends with school-age kids) in second grade.  I wrote a letter to my aunt who, at the time, lived in Colorado.  I was planning on visiting her that summer, so I wrote her a letter about what I wanted to do when I arrived.  I think the number one thing was ride a horse and the second was ride my bike.  Sadly, I think I still would say the same thing.  Some things never change.

I receive a number of emails from students every day.  I have a class of about 75.  The students are mostly upper-classmen and, with the exception of probably 10 or so, all seniors.  They should know what is expected at this time in their college career, but still cannot possibly formulate an email.  Now, let me preface this by stating that my students are pretty much your average college students and I am your average TA.  I am not expecting the world.  I am, however, expecting that people can email me in a respectful manner.  I don't ask them to call me "Ms. Overworked TA" or anything, even though getting an email with "Dr. Overworked TA" is humorous and fun.  I let them call me by my first name.  It's easier that way and I am not much older than most of them, even younger than some of them.  Still, I get a lot of emails like this:

"hi :)  i was wondering when u were going to b in ur office hrs 2day?"

What is wrong with this?

Well, never use chat speak.  EVER.  No one likes it.  Treat this as a business communication.  Would you talk to your boss this way?  I hope not!

Also, please don't ask when someone's office hours are.  It's on the syllabus.  It's on the Department Website.  It's on the course page.  It is everywhere.  If all else fails, I list this in my email signature.  I have sent you many emails before as a class.  Look there.  Be resourceful.  It saves you time in the long run.  If you send this at 1:30 and I have office hours until 2 but am busy with another student, you could have gotten it out of the way, but I won't send you an email back until 2:15.  By then, you will be out of luck.

A proper email has a salutation like, "Dear Ms. X" or "Dear X".  Even the person's name is sufficient if you have previously emailed them.  If you have not, don't use their first name.  As a rule of thumb, never use a professor's first name right off the bat.  I don't do this at all.  If I have never established this rule, I will always say "Dear Dr. X" or "Dear Professor X".  That's important.  Some people will never let you call them by their first name.  No one I work with cares, but they know me.  Still, there are some Profs that refuse to let the students they are presiding on committees over call them on a first name basis.  It is rare, but especially as an undergrad, you should never assume anything!

You should state clearly what you want this person to do in your email.  If you were sick and need to explain an absence, do that.  If you want to argue with me about a grade, know that violates FERPA, so I can't respond to that via email.  I also do not remember who you are and what you did on page 2 of your essay.  I graded 75 of those things!  Even if I only graded 20, don't assume that I remember what you did on page 2 four weeks ago.  If you need to discuss a grade, please say you want to see me in office hours and I should expect you.  If you can't make my office hours, explain why, and then I will be more than happy to set up a time with you.  If you have a quick question over email, fine, but if it is more than that, please set up an appointment and come to office hours.  I tell my students that I am more than happy to look over drafts for them, but they need to come to my office in order for me to talk with them!

Likewise, never expect to email a TA or Professor on the weekends.  TA's don't get paid to check emails.  Some don't even respond if they are not in office hours.  I will usually respond during the week during the hours of 9 and 5, but weekends are different.  Don't email me at 5:30 PM on a Friday about a paper due Monday.  I will not get back to you.  Many profs won't even respond on days they are not in their office.  If they are off on Fridays, good luck.

Also, asking a TA to see you outside of office hours is a little tricky.  Some will.  Some won't.  I will generally try to be accomodating - especially when there are ceratin circumstances or the student is really trying.  I will not rush if it is the day before an assignment due or if you are simply too lazy to show up.  Case in point from today.  A student stops me after class and says my office hours don't work for her.  Now, this is in regards to an assignment that is due Thursday.  She has had this assignment for more than 3 weeks.  We have given the entire class a 2 day extension.  I also had an additional FOUR hours of office hours last Friday - when few classes meet - to help students.  One very reliable student came by.  That was it.  She wants to meet Wednesday at noon.  I have a doctor's appointment shortly before this, so I say no.  She says can you stay after.  I say no because I have an important meeting.  She then says, "Can you reschedule your doctor's appointment."  Now, I have just had surgery.  The students know that.  However, she thinks her time is that important.  I get that your time is important, I do.  But I will not be rescheduling my life because you think it is necessary.  Sorry.  You could have met with me last Friday, but you chose to go home.  That was your decision.  Never be unreasonable.  I will try and meet you half way, but asking me to reschedule a medical appointment is not okay.

Altogether, your profs or TA's want to help you.  I, especially, love helping my students. I love reading good papers.  I love giving A grades to my students.  However, you have to put in the effort and be reasonable.