Pomodori per Professori or Tomato for the Teacher

The pomodoro technique for time management is named after the handy-dandy kitchen timer shaped like a tomato.

The basic idea is simple: you divide the time you have available into fairly short increments, and during those periods you work intensively.  Each period of intense activity is followed by a short break: between each of  “pomodoro” of 25 minutes,  you rest for about 5 minutes.  After a group of four pomodoros, you take a longer break of perhaps 15 minutes.

I’ve found this technique particularly suited to out of class teaching activities like grading exams, writing tests or other assignments and organizing class websites.  The short burst of activity let me perform at a high level, especially since I know that a break is coming.  After even a short 5 minute break, during which I might get up and move around or even read a blog or two, I feel refreshed enough for another period of intense concentration.

This is a great technique for students to learn, too, especially these days when so many have a hard time concentrating for an extended period.

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Cutting Conference Expenses–Cooking in the Hotel

Do a quick google search for “hotel cooking” and you’ll be amazed at the number of sites that come up.  It seems that everyone who has ever stayed in a hotel has cooked in the room and either made a video or written a blog post about it.   George Egg’s video (and what a name for a guy cooking in a hotel room) is one of my favorites.

I’ve written before about trying to cut food expenses when going to conferences, and hotel cooking is one way to do that.  WARNING: as you may have read at some of the sites that turned up in your search, some hotels prohibit cooking in rooms.  If that is the case with your hotel, don’t take a chance!  Just eat a cold cut sandwich or go out to eat.  Assuming that you can legally cook in your room, you have some options.  Some of the simpler ones I outlined in my previous post, but if you feel adventurous, you can try a grilled sandwich on an iron, or even poached salmon.

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Rubrics as a Time Saver

For a master’s level course I’ve been teaching this spring, I’ve tried to integrate grading rubrics into my assignments more often.  I’ve used them in the past, primarily for grading big end-of-the-term projects.  This semester, I used them to grade the students’ weekly writing assignments.

(This is for the 2004 edition; another is coming 12/2011)

My guidebook for this endeavor has been Introduction to Rubrics: An Assessment Tool to Save Grading Time, Convey Effective Feedback and Promote Student Learning by Danielle D.  Stevens and Antonia Levi.  It’s a good solid book without a lot of chaff.  Additionally, it’s geared toward university level instructors, a refreshing change from the typical how-to manual whose audience is grade school or high school teachers.

Of course, the part of the title that caught my attention was “Save Grading Time.”  Writing the my “master” rubric for the typical weekly assignment took me a while, but for each week’s work, I only had to tweak it a bit, and applying it to my students’ writing did in fact save me a lot of time.  Since the grad courses that I teach are similar in the writing requirements, I’ll be modifying the rubrics I used this semester for the next time, saving even more time.

Before the first assignment, I went over the rubric with the class.  A few students have some questions, some not pertinent, but one or two helped me further refine the rubric to be helpful as a guide to the assignment.  After grading the assignment, I showed “real life” examples of the completed papers and scoring based on the rubric (with the students’ permission, of course, and with identifying information removed).  I even wrote up a paper myself to show what an unacceptable paper looked like since thankfully nobody turned one in!

The investment of time up front, both writing the rubric, and going over it before and after the first assignment, paid off.  Informally, students have told me that they liked the system and felt that the feedback was better and helped them improve their writing from week to week.  As part of the course evaluations, I also asked questions on the use of the rubric system and I’m looking forward to reading the student’s unfettered opinions about the rubrics.

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This one’s dedicated to my two loyal readers:

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Taking it slow…

Yesterday I had some free time, and one thing I like to do is bake.  I had seen a recipe for Nutella bread and had talked about it at the office.  In fact, I told the secretary that I’d bring some in on Monday if I made it.

I broke two of my hard and fast rules (okay,  so not so hard and fast as all that): first, I always follow the recipe meticulously when I make something for the first time.  Second, I never double a recipe the first time I make it.  Really, look at that picture.  Does that not look divine?  And to have just one loaf, what a shame.  I do a fair amount of baking, so I thought, “What could go wrong?”

Lots could and did go wrong.  First, I used a pound of butter and a jar of chocolate gold to end up with a doughy lava mess.  It was a disaster.  The recipe called for a bake time of 1 hour and 15 minutes.  I tested at one hour, and the wooden skewer came out clean.  Bingo, done!  Wrong.  I inverted the pans after waiting 15 minutes, and first, there was a little jiggle, then the sides opened up, and out flowed butter and Nutella.

So why am I exposing my baking shame on an academic blog?  Because the same two hard and fast baking rules also apply to classroom assessment techniques:  the first time you try an assessment, do it just like the instructions say.  Probably even the second time.  Then make adjustments to fit your situation.  Second, don’t make a double batch; start with one assessment, master it, then start adding more to your repertoire.


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The Academic Hierarchy

Just for fun (HT to S Kraus)….

The Hierarchy of the Academic World

DEPT. CHAIR: Leaps tall building in a single bound
Is more powerful than a locomotive
Is faster than a speeding bullet
Walks on water
Gives policy to God
FULL PROF: Leaps short buildings in a single bound
Is more powerful than a switch engine
Is just as fast as a speeding bullet
Walks on water if the sea is calm
Talks with God
ASSOCIATE PROF: Leaps short buildings with a running start and favourable winds
Is almost as powerful as a switch engine
Is faster than a speeding BB
Walks on water in an indoor swimming pool
Talks with God if special request is approved
ASSISTANT PROF: Makes high marks on the wall when trying to leap buildings
Is run over by locomotive
Can sometimes handle a gun without inflicting self-injury
Dog paddles
Talks to animals
GRAD STUDENT: Runs into buildings
Recognizes locomotive two out of three times
Is not issued ammunition
Can’t stay afloat with a life preserver
Talks to walls
UNDERGRAD: Falls over doorsteps when trying to enter building
Says “look at the choo-choo”
Wets himself with a water pistol
Plays in mud puddles
Mumbles to himself
DEPT. SECRETARY: Lifts buildings and walks under them
Kicks locomotives off the tracks
Catches speeding bullets in her teeth
Freezes water with a single glance
She is God

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Preparing for Tenure and Promotion

The hype around the tenure and promotion process is intense.  In my opinion, it’s also misplaced.  The review year should be seen as the culmination of the probationary period.  Candidates should have a pretty good idea of whether they have a solid case for tenure and promotion or not.  Being jittery is natural, but it should not be overwhelming.

One of the keys to success for the tenure review is preparation.  This does not just mean getting the portfolio ready for the committee.  Rather, it involves understanding the tenure process at the institutions and conforming yourself to those standards.  Different activities are valued differently at different universities or colleges.  While one school (or even department) may place a great deal of weight on the scholarship of teaching and learning, another may not, or even see such activity as a negative.  Understanding the institutional culture from the beginning of your career is important, if not essential.

Another important key to success is documentation.   Keeping track of everything you do in a year is difficult, but it must be done.  In five years, you will not be able to remember which committees you served on or which workshops you participated in if you have not filed that information away someplace that is accessible again when it comes time to compile your dossier.  Keeping your CV up-to-date is a good way to start, but I’ve also found it helpful to have a Word file with the three major categories (research, teaching, service) and a miscellaneous area to include activities that might not neatly fit into one of the three traditional areas.  In my case, it made it much easier to review all of these activities, sort them into some kind of order, eliminate the unnecessary or trivial activities, and whip them into presentable shape.

Robert Diamond has written a good, basic overview of how to begin preparing for tenure from day one on the tenure track.  You may want to get his book from your library and give it a quick read.

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Classroom Assessment Techniques

Sometimes when I teach, I wonder if my student really get it.  They seem attentive, they participated in discussions, and so on, but then at test time, they completely miss the boat on something that I had thought they had nailed and understood perfectly.

One way to check for understanding is to use classroom assessment techniques (CATs).  These techniques help instructors and students understand how well students have understood the material, if they can locate the main point in a lecture, etc.  The time spent devising, administering and reviewing these papers is generally minimal, but the payoffs can well exceed the investment.

Understanding the value of these techniques, learning them, and implementing them in the classroom are Covey  Quadrant II activities; they are not urgent, but they are important for helping to gauge student success in your class.  After all, isn’t that why we teach in the first place?

FYI: The CAT book I’m most familiar is Thomas Angelo and Patricia Cross’ Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers.  It’s well organized and gives practical step-by-step instructions explaining each type of CAT.   But theirs is not the only book, or perhaps even the best.  A quick search on Amazon.com returns many hits for books that deal with the same topic.

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G. K. Chesterton and Choices

G. K. Chesterton is author that I admire.  The man was a writer, a prolific writer.  He would have been, I think, right at home in blogosphere.  He is commonly known as the “apostle of common sense” for his no-nonsense approach to many of the problems he wrote about at the beginning of the twentieth century, and many of the problems he expounded on are strangely similar to problems at the beginning of the twenty-first century.  In one of his most philosophical books he observes:

When you choose anything, you reject everything else. (G.K. Chesterton in Orthodoxy p. 45)

I’ve found sometimes that in my teaching, I’ve had problems selecting what to teach my students.  There’s so much that they don’t know and that I want them to experience, that I try to give them everything.  By trying to give everything, I overwhelm them and they come away with nothing except frustration.   It would be better to say carefully choose the most important things and say “no” to the rest, and live with those consequences.

The same could be said of research: to say “yes” to one project is to say “no” to the others, at least temporarily.

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Peter Elbow on Writing

A video of Peter Elbow speaking about writing…

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