Highlights from the 2015 Innovation in Pedagogy & Technology Symposium

Long time no see…regularly. Yes, my blog languished a good bit during the past semester and while I was away on research in Australia. (More on the latter later. But here’s a pic of me photo-bombing ↓ some roos for now to tide you over.)

The author in Australia
Dopey hat required at all times to protect my extremely pale skin from the tropical clime. I also did research while down under, I promise.

I also taught a class, History of the U.S. Present, my second course, in the Spring. I’ll admit I lose focus on blogging while teaching. Potential post topics don’t seem to percolate as easily, and the idea of blogging on what I’m learning about teaching while teaching makes me a little uncomfortable. Perhaps there’s a blog post there somewhere. At any rate I’m back, working on the introduction to my dissertation with the help of #writingpact and weekly writing support meetings with my #TeamPhinisheD teammates. And to begin my return to regular blogging I offer you the below highlights from three sessions I attended at the 2015 Innovation in Pedagogy and Technology Symposium, which was held in May here in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Getting Your Digital Hands Dirty: Creating Interest and Engagement in an Online Course
by Dr. Valerie Jones, College of Journalism and Mass Communications, UNL

This first panel gave me a lot to think about when it comes to utilizing blogs in both online and traditional courses. I’ve used blogs quite successfully in past courses to promote the development and improvement of student writing via iterative, brief (250-word) posts with formal writing standards and citations. Dr. Jones’ guiding principles (below) were especially helpful, and offer additional strategies to increase student engagement with course content and objectives. I especially like her idea of student-produced short videos on an independent reading relevant to the course topics.

Panel notes:

Guiding Principles:

  • start w/ their interests
    • e.g. Jones teaching course on digital/web analytics so had students start a blog on their interests — then students had data on their blogs the class could use
  • make it matter
    • e.g. rewards for students who develop a following, highest return visits
    • some peer pressure to produce good content & get visits (public nature of blog)
  • provide purpose
    • e.g. bring in guest speakers (via free-trial version of Zoom video conferencing) to show students can apply knowledge in class to, for example, real-world jobs
      • zoom video conferencing has the added advantage of allowing you to build a digital library of recordings of these guest speakers
  • give them a promotion
    • e.g. had lots of reading on Blackboard; had students create a presentation/video of “fresh content” of something they’d read that was highly relevant to the class → something they wanted the other students to know
    • helps create a sense of responsibility and community in the class
      • peer feedback = part of this too^
      • e.g. on peer feedback: require 2 peer reviews throughout the semester of other students’ blog + MUST cite an article in support of their critique)
  • closing thoughts: find the insight, be brave, have fun

Technology Tools as Levers for Learning
by Faye Haggar, Technology Training Analyst, UNMC

This panel was the last one I attended at the symposium, but it really got my creative juices going. Ms. Haggar not only introduced a wide variety of digital tools with pedagogical potential; she also offered examples of ways each tool can be used to support established principles of good teaching practice. Many of the tools listed (in my notes below) were new to me, while some were tools or platforms I was familiar with but unaware of certain features. I will definitely be experimenting with a few of these tools in future courses.

Panel notes:

  • #1: good practice encourages contacts between students and faculty
    • students want to feel a connection → scores go up when this happens
    • try Blackboard collaborate → virtual office hours
    • Remind 101 → send updates, reminders, other important information
      • used a lot in K-12
      • does NOT require you to give out your personal information (phone number) & is one-way communication
      • goes straight to their device
    • Screencastomatic → easy to use for an introductory video @ start of semester, set & articulate your expectations
      • up to 15 minutes
      • gives mp4
      • beta version may require download
  • #2: good practice develops reciprocity
    • document collaboration & sharing: Google docs, Office 365
    • Popplet → collaborative brainstorming (concept mapping)
      • can add links, files, images, videos, audio
      • updated in real time
    • FB class groups – “cringe” + “it’s where our students are”
      • not accessing any of their personal information this way (not friend-ing one another)
  • #3: good practice uses active learning techniques
    • TodaysMeet → “back channeling”
      • works much like Twitter but is PRIVATE
      • log in with a url
      • students can ask questions and/or leave a comment
      • can return to after class (both you AND the students can)
    • audience response: Socrative
      • similar to a clicker device
      • this^ = free and open source (currently, as are most all of the tools being discussed)
      • allows for multiple choice and short answer questions
      • students given a class poll to go to and answer Q’s
      • can do it in real time (so instructor can use during lecture)
      • can also have student-run poll to take at any time
      • Excel-format spreadsheet offered → students can be anonymous or require names (e.g. anonymous if want to show results in class to illustrate where everyone is)
      • can be set up to be taken just once or multiple times
    • Google formsexit tickets
      • can use to ask students questions at the very end of lecture (or provide most important thing they learned today)
      • students will receive a URL (you’ll need to shorten this for them)
      • *good to use to have students pick out important themes for the day (check how well picking these things out)
      • delivered to the instructor in the form of a spreadsheet → students don’t see this
      • you create the fields SO you can make it anonymous if you want
  • #4: good practice gives prompt feedback
    • consider making students use the following tools before submitting a paper (w/o checking the first submission)
    • Soundcloud → record a podcast
      • idea for audio feedback
      • free
      • sound clip can be private → can e-mail link to students or attach to an assignment on Blackboard
      • not sure what the limit is on this…
    • Adobe PDF → you can leave an audio message
      • on Adobe Pro ONLY
        • although students can listen in Adobe Reader
      • 1 minute-long limit
      • can click anywhere on the paper to add a 1-minute chunk message
    • Kaizena → works with Google Docs
      • recording audio
      • requires sign-up but is free
      • right click in Google Docs & say “open with Kaizena”
      • time limit is around 5-minute chunks → again, anywhere in the text
      • you can also type comments
      • students DO need to download Kaizena; need to tell them to do this (no e-mail sent)
      • works with any file in Google Drive
  • #5: good practice emphasizes time on task
    • TedEd → interactive presentation
      • can also create interactive quizzes
      • works with videos on YouTube
        • then insert questions into
        • give students questions to ponder & discuss
        • students can provide questions and/or feedback
        • can provide additional resources for students to look at
    • eduCanon → interactive videos
      • can use any mp4
      • load video, choose places to pause video and insert question to check for understanding, can tell it to “self-score” so students instantly know how they did
      • no limit to questions
      • get spreadsheet @ end w/ student name, score, what answers they offered
      • students cannot download the video (can always screen-capture though)
      • you can leave feedback for the students if they get a wrong answer (a prompt will come up WHEN they answer)
    • Evernote → shared notes
      • can share notebooks
      • different students assigned to take notes on different days → then can grade how students are taking notes
      • can leave feedback
  • #6: good practice communicates high expectations
    • Rubrics → Blackboard
    • (can also just google “rubrics” for some free platforms that students can download and print)
    • Google docs → group work and revision history
      • e.g. when group work is done, instructor can see via the revision history who did what revisions
    • thinglink → consider using to build an interactive syllabus
      • takes some time to build
      • build an infographic (Piktochart or Google “make my own infographic”) THEN, via thinglink, you add pop-outs that open when students click on (or hover over, scroll to ?) content (e.g. hyperlinks)
  • #7: good practice respects diversity and the different ways students learn
    • Random Name Picker → uses these for calling on students at random
      • so that “everyone gets a chance to respond”
    • Post It Plus → Digital Post-it notes
      • gives you a jpeg
      • app will “clean up” the notes
      • can group things together differently (could have the students do this in groups) → costs an extra 99 cents right now
        • has text recognition now
    • paper.li → curate material
      • students collect & build their own content
      • e.g. have students search topics (she does this in groups first) & find content (she assigns content for them to search through)
      • supplement to a class topic/theme

Surviving the long research trip

I’m spending much of my day today preparing and packing for a two and a half week long dissertation research trip to California. I’ll visit both the Huntington Library in San Marino and California State University at Fresno’s Henry Madden Library to view collections related to Albert Kimsey Owen’s Topolobampo Cooperative Colony. Along the way I’ll work on organizing my research for writing, perform some website work on evenings and weekends for my summer income, visit a few friends in the Pasadena area, and hopefully do a bit of exploring around town. In short, I’ll employ all the strategies I’ve developed over my graduate career to make the most of my research time and money. So until my next opportunity to write a post arrives, I’ve re-posted my popular “Surviving the long research trip” piece below for all of you making the most of the last bit of summer research time. Safe travels and productive work!

Surviving the long research trip

Emerging from a long research trip with your sanity intact can be tricky. Anyone who’s traveled knows not only how quickly expenses add up, but also how quickly time flies when you’d desperately like more of it. Other factors associated with travel – like a disrupted personal routine, the potential digestional hazards of “road food,” the high correlation between an affordable hotel and a bad hotel, and delayed access to good coffee – can make the long research trip seem like something to first dread, then endure, and finally recover from.

Research trips are a critical part of grad school, at least if you hope to graduate anytime soon, and an extended research trip can be the best way to get the most bang for that buck you may or may not be getting reimbursed for, but lengthy research trips can be fun too. In fact, having fun is one of the simplest ways to put difficult tasks in perspective, reduce stress, and prevent burnout. Contrary to popular (academic) belief the long research trip need not be a grueling ordeal that you soldier through macho style. Over the years I’ve developed some basic strategies that help me not only survive the long research trip, but live the days in a way that enables me to make the best possible use of precious research time.

Plan ahead. This seems like a no-brainer. Of course you must plan ahead to book your airfare, rental car, hotel, and so on but did you cover all your bases?  Most grad students know better than to show up to an archive without having at least searched the online catalog and communicated their research needs to an archivist or two well in advance. (For more on this see my post A good archivist goes a long way.) But you should also develop the habit of nosing around for potential sources whenever you travel in a professional capacity. I’m not advocating you disrupt a vacation by taking a research detour, rather that you should never go to a conference, attend a seminar, or give a guest lecture without checking for relevant holdings in libraries and archives nearby. Failing to do your homework in advance means missing out on easy opportunities to maximize your research time, stretch those travel dollars, justify your expenses, and reduce your overall stress about the research process.

Give yourself over to the idea and get organized. Yes, you’ll have to work really hard for long hours with on-the-go food, grossly abbreviated lunch breaks, limited sleep, and many demands on your attention but it will only be for a certain amount of time. Mentally frame the experience as an exception to your usual schedule, one that you will make the best of, benefit a great deal from, and thank yourself for later. Then work out a detailed daily schedule that incorporates the ways your travel itinerary and library/archive hours of operation will dictate your routine as well as the ways this schedule may need to flex to adjust to unanticipated events. Try to leave some maneuvering room for unexpected archival discoveries, delays from getting lost in an unfamiliar city, opportunities to network, morning/evening organization of photocopies/digital notes, and so forth. A well-planned schedule is key to effective time management, and recognizing in advance that you’ll need to make room for adjustments will help you set reasonable boundaries when you encounter new demands on your time.

Know thyself. Know your personal habits and preferences and don’t be afraid to assert them when you know it’s in your best interest. (This goes for grad school in general too.) You know what you need to perform at your best. Long research trips will stretch you to your max, mentally and sometimes physically as well. Acknowledge this and think about what tactics you’ll need to use to keep yourself in peak research mode. If it’s a quiet, calm evening at the end of an exhausting, busy day so be it. Occasional exceptions must be made, of course, when you recognize a unique opportunity to extend your professional network or examine an uncatalogued collection, for example, but be sure any exception is exceptional and not just a cave to someone else’s idea of a great post-research evening. Know when to put your needs first, and carefully communicate your decisions to any invitation-extenders, travel companions, or roommates.

Consider the wonders of a microwave and mini-fridge. Again, you have to know yourself here to decide if this is for you. I am personally in the habit of eating a good bit of fruit, vegetables, and whole grains every day. I feel “off” when I can’t. Same for exercise. Although my research trips usually end in me not being able to maintain anything close to my normal workout routine a microwave and mini-fridge go a long way toward helping me eat more of what I’m used to, which makes me feel good and in turn reduces some of the stress of travel. It also cuts down on expenses associated with eating out. Yes, you’ll spend on average an extra ten bucks per night to get a hotel room equipped with these wonder appliances, but you’ll save at least that much each day in restaurant tabs.

Do something new. Going somewhere new or doing something new is one of the primary ways I like to treat myself and take a breather while on a long research trip. Sundays are a good day for this since most research libraries and archives are closed on Sundays. If you’re on an extended research trip, chances are you’ll be out of town at least one Sunday and a brief excursion is generally a far better use of your time than just sleeping in or watching t.v. in your hotel room all day. Sometimes I plan something extra to do in advance; other times I wait until I’m in the area to find out what the locals recommend. I rarely miss an opportunity to integrate some personal travel and fun into my research trips, and I always emerge refreshed, refocused, and better for it. You can do more than merely survive your research trips. You can and should find ways to enjoy them too.

Surviving life as a first-generation grad student, part II

Image of flower in concrete by KittyThis post has been percolating in my head for some time, perhaps since I first entered graduate school or maybe even since I became an undergraduate. I’ve whittled it down to what I hope are those points most useful for my primary intended audience: other first-generation students — both those currently in grad school (a.k.a. “FGGS”) or those considering grad school. But I also hope non-first geners find this post insightful and informative. Anyone involved in academia should be attuned to the issues and experiences that impact first-generation students, particularly given the recent political push away from affirmative action and toward income and class-based college admission policies as well as the fact that nearly one in four American children are currently growing up in families living below the federal poverty level.

Academic culture has many layers, and it takes time for those new to the academic sphere to recognize, process, and understand its many nuances. Although specific conditions vary from one discipline and professional environment to the next, most cases of culture shock among FGGS revolve around systemic issues of class present throughout academia as well as questions related to adaptation, conformity, integration, and (gasp!) dissent to certain elements of academic culture.

FGGS must first develop an awareness of the character of academic culture, then learn to employ their knowledge of both academic culture and the culture from which they came in a way that not only promotes their personal academic success but hopefully also enhances the scope of academia to the benefit of other disadvantaged and non-traditional students who follow in their footsteps. Below are just a handful of points that may aid my fellow FGGS in this difficult work:

Be idealistic, but not too idealistic. If you’ve made it this far chances are good that perseverance, resilience, and a positive attitude about your own potential played no small role. Hold on to these qualities as you move forward in your graduate career, but monitor your expectations of academia as you move through graduate school. Every system has flaws and, yes, even your professors are human. Too much idealism about the nature of academia and its members will make you more likely to be much too hard on both yourself and those around you, and will probably hamper your academic progress.

Find an academic adviser that is also a mentor. Surround yourself with as many positive examples and as much support as possible. Do everything you can to find an academic adviser you admire, both as a professional and a person. This may be difficult if your program pre-selects your adviser, if your options are limited, or simply because it takes time to get to know another person. Certainly ask around about someone you are considering as an adviser, especially among fellow graduate students in your program who’ve been around the block. One good way to test the waters is to set up a face-to-face meeting with your prospective adviser, “come out” to her or him as a first-generation student, and ask for some specific recommendations on how you can succeed in the program. If this person draws a blank, grows visibly uncomfortable, develops a hostile tone, or completely dismisses the notion that the FGGS experience differs in any way from that of other graduate students, seek someone else. If you don’t have any alternatives to such a person, stay positive and build a collection of other people — both within your program and without — who can be the mentors you need to be successful.

Stay connected with your family and your past. Don’t forget where you came from and who helped get you to where you are now. Your network of family and friends can help carry you through any culture shock and other stress you experience as you work toward your academic goals. Given that many first-generation students come from low-income backgrounds, however, there may be experiences and elements of your past you would rather not think about or engage with. But your past made you who you are, and your perspective and insight are greatly needed in academia. There are many others who would like to be where you are, but for whatever reason will never get there. Consider the ways you can be their spokesperson, but don’t feel pressure to be the representative of a given culture, gender, race, or class.

Work through any difficulties with impostor syndrome, anxiety, depression, personal tragedy, the struggles of family members and friends, and the frustrations that accompany years of work as a low-wage, low-status graduate student. You won’t do yourself any favors by trying to avoid any of these problems. Learning healthy ways to cope with stress will be critical to your success as a graduate student. It can be tempting to harp upon how unfair it is that you have difficulties and disadvantages to cope with that others don’t, but focusing on these differences changes nothing and can be unhealthy. A little commiseration with fellow FGGS goes a long way in relieving some of this tension, but is no substitute for counseling and psychological help when it’s needed. If you find yourself overwhelmed or struggle with your daily habits, sleep patterns, academic progress, and personal relationships seek professional help. There is nothing to be ashamed of. Most colleges and universities have a variety of mental health services available to students, either free of charge or at very low cost, and all mental health providers operate under strict privacy guidelines. Consider how such tools can help you succeed and check into your options.

Speak up. Be a voice for your experiences and perspectives. Doing so will not only make the road less bumpy for those who follow in your footsteps; it will also enhance academia’s educational environment by pushing those within it to expand their understanding of the diversity of cultures and circumstances in which people live.

Surviving life as a first-generation grad student, part I

Following a semester filled with dissertation work, constant lecture writing, grading, and meetings, pedagogical experimentation, a hurried research trip, a cross-country conference presentation, and all the self-doubt, exhaustion, elation, and humility that comes with teaching one’s first course, I now return to regular blogging.

And I’d like to do so, first, by pointing to some excellent posts I read recently in GradHacker on the subject of first-generation students in graduate school. Those of you familiar with my blog know I’m a first-generation college and graduate student and believe many of the perspectives and concerns of first-generation students have yet to be fully recognized and appreciated within the academy, so I was glad to see some attention devoted to this topic in GradHacker. Jess Waggoner, Auriel Fournier, and Alicia Peaker each contribute insightful posts that not only offer honest advice to first-generation grad students (a.k.a. “FGGS”), but also explain aspects of the first-generation experience to those outside the FGGS community. Most of their recommendations wisely focus less on what separates FGGS from their peers than on ways FGGS can connect with others–be they other members of academia, mentors, or even members of one’s own family. Although I’ll leave the meat of each post for you to peruse on your own I’ve listed some of my favorite highlights below and, in the second part of this post, I’ll offer some of my own recommendations for first-generation grad students.

First up, by order of publication: Jess Waggoner’s “Beyond Imposter Syndrome: Graduate Study for First-Generation Students.”

‘Impostor Syndrome’ is often thrown around as a one-size-fits-all pathology for first-generations, women, students with disabilities, and students of color who feel uncomfortable with the conventions of the academy. Let me change the terms of the conversation a bit: you don’t have a ‘syndrome.’ Academia is just a confusing system that isn’t always the most transparent.

Well said, Ms. Waggoner, well said. Dominant systems and cultures generally expect would-be members to “climb up” and conform to their norms rather than recognize, appreciate, and integrate the norms of “lesser/lower/outside” groups. Many academic disciplines have documented the tendency toward this process in detail, but it can be difficult to discern in one’s own behavior and interaction and still more difficult to discern the ways it weaves itself into the structures of an entire system. Waggoner describes herself as a “slightly obnoxious class warrior” by the end of her undergraduate career. To this I say hey, aren’t most people who challenge dominant systems and cultures, who prod so-called insiders to confront the experiences, perspectives, and realities of so-called outsiders usually considered at least slightly “obnoxious”? If educators within the academy expect to be able to challenge their students’ beliefs, to make them confront problems of thought and analysis even if it makes them uncomfortable, why should members of the academy expect any less of themselves? But yes, discomfort can be obnoxious.

Next, Auriel Fournier’s “Family Ties and Grad School ‘Why’s’.”

I’m the first member of my family to go to graduate school. In their mind I’m still ‘just a student.’ They don’t understand the intricacies of my job or that I even have one…If your family and friends aren’t academics there can be some communication breakdown since they aren’t going through the highs and lows of grad school.

Ah, yes, the “when are you going to get a real job?” perspective, generally also accompanied by the “what do you mean you’re busy working?” line of thought. I admire all Fournier’s recommendations for maintaining solid family ties while pursuing a graduate degree. Communication problems can, of course, arise in the life of any graduate student but I agree they are much more likely to occur when one’s family has no personal knowledge of the college or grad school experience. It takes a lot of hard work to explain what’s involved in grad school and why certain activities are required within a given profession or career path. Often it can seem like another side project, one that requires constant monitoring and regular adjustments to maintain. Like most everything else in grad school, it’s a balancing act.

Finally, Alicia Peaker’s “From First-Generation College Student to First-Generation Grad Student”:

Always remember that these kinds of regular failures are NORMAL and do not mean that you are incompetent, merely learning. And there is a LOT of learning in graduate school. At a certain point, graduate school is more a test of how well you can learn from failures and keep persevering rather than producing perfect work.

Peaker offers some excellent advice for FGGS struggling with their new status and workload as grad students. I most admire her encouragement to find common ground with other grad students and her recommendations for coping with failure. My impression, from a combination of personal experience and working with first-generation, low-income, and minority students as a graduate assistant in my first year of grad school, is that most FGGS already know a lot about perseverance. “Failure” might be less a problem for FGGS than letting go of perfectionism or over-worrying about the way academic performance and professional potential is perceived by faculty and mentors. There are also still many issues related to institutional support when it comes to students experiencing personal hardship or family crisis as a result of their background or circumstances. Often there are few formal protocols in place, for instance, to ensure that a student who is unable to complete a project on time due to personal crisis is not misjudged as academically, intellectually, or motivationally-challenged merely as a result of the personal challenges that student faces. Here there remains much work to be done, as opinion and interpretation ought not play a larger role than reality in matters of appointments, grades, funding, and opportunity.

Peaker writes, “there is a major lack of research about first-generation grad students (FGGS).” Hopefully the more FGGS who enter graduate school, the more their experiences and perspectives will contribute to the diversity of the academic community.

You can view part II of this post here.

The case for extra credit at the college level

In discussions of pedagogical practices at the university level the issue of extra credit can be a contentious one. Sooner or later one is bound to hear some stern-toned iteration of the statement “I don’t believe in extra credit.” Somehow this statement has always brought to my mind the mental image of a puffed-up politician, declaring his intention to be “tough on crime” once he assumes office. One is never really sure about the specifics of what he means, but could still be moved to rally behind him by the sheer force of confidence with which he expresses his “tough” (i.e. anti-“soft”) stance. But even if the anti-extra credit statement is issued in one such self-assured tone, accompanied by a hostile, arms-crossed posture, it would be unfair to dismiss some of the anti-extra credit camp’s arguments. We should expect our students to work hard, do their best, behave professionally, and not try to invoke the pity of professors to make up for their own mistakes. They are in training to be career-holding adults after all, and the so-called real world is a difficult place. What we shouldn’t do, though, is let our fear of being or appearing “soft” make us expect our students to be just like us.

Some of the students who come to us will be just like us. As a self-professed nerd I like to say to my family and to others outside the academy, as a way of explaining what the culture of the academy is like, that you could think of most academics as the nerdiest of the nerds you knew in high school. I don’t mean this in a disparaging way. Academics love learning. We work hard to pay attention to what our mentors have to say, we constantly seek out new information, strive to be as productive as possible, and consider self-improvement a favorite pastime. Many of our students share these traits and, as a member of the human species, it’s natural to feel greater affinity for those most like us.

But many of our students won’t be like us. Many take our classes only because they have to, are much more interested in the college party scene than productivity, and genuinely believe other aspects of life should come before learning. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work to instill the qualities of responsibility, attentiveness, and accountability in our students that we know they’ll need as they move forward in life. Of course we should. We should demand they achieve a certain level of proficiency in the content and methodology of our given fields as well. But since one of our basic responsibilities as educators is to ensure we serve all of our students, we must strive to move beyond our natural-born affinity for students like us and recognize the different interests, goals, backgrounds, and challenges our students come to us with. Consider some of the below recent data.

[R]ich kids without a college degree are 2.5 times more likely to end up rich than poor kids who graduate from college.

[O]nly 34 percent of high-achieving, low-income [what I like to call our “walk on water”] students attend a selective college versus 78 percent for high-achieving, high-income students.

The average Black student attends a school where the percentage of low-income students is 59 percent. The average White student attends a school where the percentage of low-income students is 32 percent.

The average high school graduation rate for Black students is 62 percent, compared to 81 percent for White students.

Low-income students are less likely to graduate from high school than more affluent students, less likely to enroll in college after high school and less likely to graduate from college after enrolling. Only about 1 out of 10 Americans whose parents were in the lowest income quartile held four-year college degrees by age 24 in 2011; the comparable share for people from the highest quartile was about 7 in 10.

Just 29 percent of the poorest students ever enroll, and only 9 percent ever finish.

These are just a few examples of the challenges and realities our students face. Yes, some students might choose to use extra credit to pad their already amazing midterm score, or, as an excuse not to study as hard for the final exam. But extra credit can also provide disadvantaged students the opportunity to repair the damage that late-night family emergency did to their attendance score, give them some breathing room for those two part-time jobs they have to work after they leave your class, or let them know you recognize that it might have been difficult for them to pay attention to your lecture while their brother, mother, or aunt is struggling with substance addiction. Maybe students with an anxiety disorder will take advantage of your extra credit to show you that although their disorder often inhibits them from speaking up a lot in class discussions, they really can work hard and are just as intelligent as their peers.

Perhaps you won’t decide to offer extra credit to your students for any of these reasons but instead as an acknowledgement that you, as their instructor, don’t always communicate everything perfectly, that you sometimes make mistakes, have bad days, and get distracted too. Awareness and recognition of your students as people who are often much different from you won’t make you “soft.” It will make you a better educator. When thinking about how to best serve your students consider the case for extra credit carefully.

Surviving the long research trip

Emerging from a long research trip with your sanity intact can be tricky. Anyone who’s traveled knows not only how quickly expenses add up, but also how quickly time flies when you’d desperately like more of it. Other factors associated with travel – like a disrupted personal routine, the potential digestional hazards of “road food,” the high correlation between an affordable hotel and a bad hotel, and delayed access to good coffee – can make the long research trip seem like something to first dread, then endure, and finally recover from.

Research trips are a critical part of grad school, at least if you hope to graduate anytime soon, and an extended research trip can be the best way to get the most bang for that buck you may or may not be getting reimbursed for, but lengthy research trips can be fun too. In fact, having fun is one of the simplest ways to put difficult tasks in perspective, reduce stress, and prevent burnout. Contrary to popular (academic) belief the long research trip need not be a grueling ordeal that you soldier through macho style. Over the years I’ve developed some basic strategies that help me not only survive the long research trip, but live the days in a way that enables me to make the best possible use of precious research time.

Plan ahead. This seems like a no-brainer. Of course you must plan ahead to book your airfare, rental car, hotel, and so on but did you cover all your bases?  Most grad students know better than to show up to an archive without having at least searched the online catalog and communicated their research needs to an archivist or two well in advance. (For more on this see my post A good archivist goes a long way.) But you should also develop the habit of nosing around for potential sources whenever you travel in a professional capacity. I’m not advocating you disrupt a vacation by taking a research detour, rather that you should never go to a conference, attend a seminar, or give a guest lecture without checking for relevant holdings in libraries and archives nearby. Failing to do your homework in advance means missing out on easy opportunities to maximize your research time, stretch those travel dollars, justify your expenses, and reduce your overall stress about the research process.

Give yourself over to the idea and get organized. Yes, you’ll have to work really hard for long hours with on-the-go food, grossly abbreviated lunch breaks, limited sleep, and many demands on your attention but it will only be for a certain amount of time. Mentally frame the experience as an exception to your usual schedule, one that you will make the best of, benefit a great deal from, and thank yourself for later. Then work out a detailed daily schedule that incorporates the ways your travel itinerary and library/archive hours of operation will dictate your routine as well as the ways this schedule may need to flex to adjust to unanticipated events. Try to leave some maneuvering room for unexpected archival discoveries, delays from getting lost in an unfamiliar city, opportunities to network, morning/evening organization of photocopies/digital notes, and so forth. A well-planned schedule is key to effective time management, and recognizing in advance that you’ll need to make room for adjustments will help you set reasonable boundaries when you encounter new demands on your time.

Know thyself. Know your personal habits and preferences and don’t be afraid to assert them when you know it’s in your best interest. (This goes for grad school in general too.) You know what you need to perform at your best. Long research trips will stretch you to your max, mentally and sometimes physically as well. Acknowledge this and think about what tactics you’ll need to use to keep yourself in peak research mode. If it’s a quiet, calm evening at the end of an exhausting, busy day so be it. Occasional exceptions must be made, of course, when you recognize a unique opportunity to extend your professional network or examine an uncatalogued collection, for example, but be sure any exception is exceptional and not just a cave to someone else’s idea of a great post-research evening. Know when to put your needs first, and carefully communicate your decisions to any invitation-extenders, travel companions, or roommates.

Consider the wonders of a microwave and mini-fridge. Again, you have to know yourself here to decide if this is for you. I am personally in the habit of eating a good bit of fruit, vegetables, and whole grains every day. I feel “off” when I can’t. Same for exercise. Although my research trips usually end in me not being able to maintain anything close to my normal workout routine a microwave and mini-fridge go a long way toward helping me eat more of what I’m used to, which makes me feel good and in turn reduces some of the stress of travel. It also cuts down on expenses associated with eating out. Yes, you’ll spend on average an extra ten bucks per night to get a hotel room equipped with these wonder appliances, but you’ll save at least that much each day in restaurant tabs.

Do something new. Going somewhere new or doing something new is one of the primary ways I like to treat myself and take a breather while on a long research trip. Sundays are a good day for this since most research libraries and archives are closed on Sundays. If you’re on an extended research trip, chances are you’ll be out of town at least one Sunday and a brief excursion is generally a far better use of your time than just sleeping in or watching t.v. in your hotel room all day. Sometimes I plan something extra to do in advance; other times I wait until I’m in the area to find out what the locals recommend. I rarely miss an opportunity to integrate some personal travel and fun into my research trips, and I always emerge refreshed, refocused, and better for it. You can do more than merely survive your research trips. You can and should find ways to enjoy them too.