And I’m done… or am I?

The past week has given me some much needed time to pause, reflect, and reorganize. I realized that I have not posted since September, and lots has happened since then. The most significant happening, of course, is that I finished my dissertation, defended it, and graduated. The past month was a whirlwind, but I survived with my sanity mostly intact. It’s been difficult, however, to stay focused and keep plodding forward with that milestone behind me. I have some things to get published, and I need to begin the job search in earnest. With the holidays looming, I am setting a goal of sending out one job application per day for the rest of the month. Now I just need someone to hold me accountable. Will it be you?:-)

Four Months Gone in the Blink of an Eye

It seems like only a minute ago that I was writing like mad and defending my dissertation proposal. Successfully, I should add! But it was four months ago. Maybe my shock has something to do with how little I have accomplished in the intervening time. I think I had the same feeling last year when the summer went by so quickly. This year, I was waiting. First, I was waiting for IRB approval for my study. Even though my proposal meets the criteria for exempt review, the review process took eleven weeks… yes, eleven. “Why?” is what I kept wondering.

And then I realized that the faculty member assigned to review my study was probably being academically productive while I was being swim team mom and recreation club treasurer. Instead of reviewing my proposal, he was doing his own research. While I was officiating swim meets and doing payroll for lifeguards, he was publishing. Note to self: Next summer, there will be no volunteering of any sort. None. Only writing. And reading. And lesson planning. If, of course, I am successful at finding a faculty position. If I do not obtain a faculty position, I will undoubtedly be back in an administrative role, and I will be working full-time next summer. Monday through Friday. Eight to five. No more days filled with chlorine and sunshine.

At the end of August, I got the long-awaited approval letter from the IRB. Then I had to request my data from the university. Which entailed another review process. Which took another few weeks. Now that my data storage plan has been deemed secure, and encryption software has been installed on my computer, I am waiting for the university’s Office of Planning and Decision Support to create the data files for me. I hesitate to predict how long that process might take. Sigh.

Meanwhile, I had to file my intent to graduate in December. I am becoming secretly worried that I won’t be able to do my data analysis and write the results and conclusions in order to meet the deadline. But I won’t worry about that now. One step at a time. One worry at a time. Right now, my biggest worry is whether my husband can survive being the sole breadwinner and insurance provider for one more semester. Saying that his job has been stressful lately would be an understatement.

In a holding pattern

I spent the two-week period at the end of the spring semester putting the finishing touches on the first three chapters of my dissertation, so that I could submit it to my committee. It’s amazing how things finally come together when there’s a deadline… I mean, a goal… yes, a goal! My prospectus hearing is scheduled for June 5, and I am looking forward to presenting and defending my proposal. It’s not perfect, but I think it’s in pretty good shape. I’ve also written my IRB protocol, so I will be ready to send that off as soon as my proposal is accepted.

In the meantime, I am trying to catch up on all those projects that have taken a back seat to my dissertation. There’s an article to finish writing, data from surveys to analyze,  two surveys to develop and administer, an evaluation report to write, and a whole bunch of other lingering tasks. It’s nice to start plodding through these activities and finish them.

This has also been a good time to think critically about my job search and the kind of position that would be a good fit for me. I once heard someone described as “a mile wide and an inch deep”. For some reason, that expression really made an impression on me. Although I’d like to think of myself as more than an inch deep, the description fits me too. I am a generalist…. which doesn’t mean that I don’t have any specialized skills… it just means that I like variety. I want to be able to do a little bit of everything. I have a broad range of experience, and there are many kinds of jobs that would suit me. I enjoy teaching, whether it’s in a traditional classroom, a one-on-one mentoring relationship, or a training situation.  I also like doing research, investigating a problem, deciding on valid measures, and conveying results to people who care. These activities have a place in the realm of institutional research and institutional effectiveness, but they also fit other kinds of academic and administrative positions in higher education.

So far, I have only submitted a few job applications, and I have been strategic. I have applied for positions at places where I think I would have the opportunity for variety in my work and where I think I could make an impact. Generally, these schools are smaller than VCU. Now, I am in a holding pattern, waiting to see where the path takes me.

To be or not to be

In less than a month, the spring semester will end, the class I am teaching will end, and my current contract as a graduate assistant will end. It’s an unsettling feeling, but it’s also a welcome change. I was so excited to begin teaching that I overlooked the time commitment that I knew it would require. With the exception of small bits and pieces, I have generally ignored my almost-finished dissertation proposal, which is not good. My plan had been to defend the proposal in January, analyze the data, and finish up in May. However, the teaching has really put a damper on my research!

My mentored  teaching experience last fall was more of a time commitment than I planned, so I should have realized my goal was unrealistic, but it was one of those catch-22 situations. I thought I wanted to find a faculty job, so I knew I needed to get some teaching under my belt to be competitive. I was pretty sure I would enjoy teaching, and I was right! My students are bright and interesting, and I really get a thrill when I see them catch on to a concept that is challenging. Mentoring these 21 students through the research process has been immensely rewarding and satisfying, and I have really deepened my own understanding of the material. Of course, the extra salary money for teaching hasn’t hurt either, small as it is!

But… and this is a big “but”, I can’t begin looking for a faculty job now because I still need to finish my dissertation! All the teaching has made me miss the window of opportunity for faculty jobs. And now, after experiencing how much work is involved in being a good teacher, I’m not sure I’m really cut out for the multi-tasking and creative prioritizing that are required for earning tenure! Sigh. I’m having one of those moments where I realize that the grass isn’t greener on the other side. It’s just different grass. Hence, I am back to the plan I had when I started the doctoral program: strengthening my research skills to become more competitive for an administrative position as a Director of Institutional Research or Effectiveness. I don’t know if I’m making the right decision. If I had the luxury of time, even just one more Fall semester to really focus on my dissertation, I might feel differently. But three years as a full-time student has been long enough. I need to move forward.

Rigid or Accommodating. Where do you draw the line?

Today is the last day for students at VCU to withdraw form a course with a grade of ‘W’. I posted a reminder on Blackboard two weeks ago, and I made an announcement in class on Monday. For most of my students, there is no reason to even consider withdrawing, but there is one student who really should cut his/her losses while there’s still time. This student is late to class every week, and s/he wasn’t present when I made the announcement.  By the time class started, s/he hadn’t completed the last four assignments (two blog posts and two graded homework assignments), and I didn’t have any expectation that the blog post due the following day would appear by the deadline. I’m very clear in the syllabus about the penalty for late submissions, and they are not accepted without requesting prior approval. This student had not requested approval to submit anything late, except the very first assignment that s/he missed… which still had not been submitted six weeks later.

The student hung around after class, and approached me, saying “I sent you an email right before class…” (the email actually had a time stamp of 4:05, and class begins at 4:00). I politely responded that I hadn’t seen the message yet, and asked whether s/he wanted to discuss the content in person. S/he asked whether s/he could have until the end of the week to turn in all of the outstanding work. I reminded him/her about the late submission policy. After pleading his/her case for several minutes, I caved. This is his/her last class. S/he had just finished up some incomplete grades from courses in previous semesters, and it had been a busy time for him/her at work. Since 80% of the students in the class are also working adults with full-time jobs and families, I didn’t feel that s/he had a compelling argument, but I gave in anyway. I agreed to allow the student to submit everything, but I sated that it must be emailed to be before 8:00 a.m. today, and there would be a 20% penalty on each assignment. If I had all the work by 8:00 a.m., I would grade it before 5:00 p.m., so the student could make an informed decision about whether to withdraw. S/he agreed, and I put our agreement in writing via email as soon as I got home that evening.

I was relating this episode to a friend and colleague yesterday, and lamenting the fact that I’d have to spend so much time grading one student’s work, when I should really be grading and giving feedback to the rest of the class on the most recent assignment. She called it. She said, “No, you won’t.” If the student couldn’t get the work turned in one assignment at a time, spread out over 5 weeks, it’s highly unlikely that s/he will turn in all five assignments at once. She was right. By 8:00 a.m., I did not have an email from the student. At 8:15, I logged in to Blackboard and posted grades of zero for each assignment. Then I went back to my email to send the student a message. As I began to compose the message, I received an email from the student with more excuses. S/he had finished the 3 blog assignments but wanted more time to do the homework. S/he even had the audacity to calculate his/her own final grade in the A range, even with the penalties. Of course, the calculation was based on a perfect score on every assignment! His/her rationale for not withdrawing was mostly financial. If s/he withdrew, s/he would have to reimburse his/her employer for the course.

My response: “I’m sorry. Our agreement was that you would submit all of the incomplete assignments to me by 8:00 this morning, and you have not lived up to that agreement. The syllabus is clear about late assignments, and I was generous in my offer to you. I have posted your grades on Blackboard, and you can see the weighted total, which reflects where your cumulative grade stands as of today.” Of course, that wasn’t the end of it. Another message from the student expressing disappointment in my rigid stance and requesting that I at least give feedback on the blog assignments that s/he submitted. Again, against my better judgment, I took the time to read and critique the blog assignments, and they were rubbish. I gave specific feedback about how the response did not fully address the prompts and how the student failed to include relevant content from class or the text. I sent the student my written feedback with the following message…

As I stated in my earlier message, I have been very generous with you already. I have repeatedly emphasized that this course is designed in a way to build your skills incrementally. Research is systematic. There is a process. Each of the topics we cover in class builds on concepts we have covered earlier and enables you to think through the research process step-by-step. In order to be successful, you must keep up with the material. You have not done that.

I have read your responses to Blog Assignments 2, 3, and 4 that you sent this morning, and I have provided my feedback in the attached document. The decision to continue or withdraw from the course is yours to make, but it will be very difficult for you to pass this class considering your progress. I gave you solid, concrete suggestions about how you could proceed with your research proposal when I responded to your first blog post. We had subsequent discussions after class on two occasions where I gave you suggestions. You have not implemented any of my suggestions. You told me you would submit blogs 2 and 3 several weeks ago, but you did not follow through.

I can tell by your blog responses that you have not done the reading. I also know from the Blackboard log files that you did not login to the Blackboard course site for 34 days prior to Monday, which means that you did not even look at the course materials or the homework assignments for almost 5 weeks. You have not made a good faith effort to do any of the work in this class, and I have been more than accommodating. I understand the financial considerations you are facing if you withdraw, but you will face the same considerations if you earn a grade lower than a C, and the low grade will go on your transcript. The decision is yours.

Did I make the right decision?

And the job search begins

Spring Break has officially commenced at VCU. I am now acutely aware that I will be unemployed when my GRA contract ends on May 9. Since I didn’t have to obsess about a lesson plan for this evening, I took advantage of my free time over the weekend and began the job application process for next year. At this point, I am keeping all of my options open. I like teaching, and I enjoy doing research, but I have also experienced a great deal of satisfaction in the administrative positions that I have held. It’s a toss-up. Although I have discovered along my journey that a tenure-track faculty position would be a good match for my personality and professional interests, I began the doctoral program with the intention of increasing my knowledge and skills in the areas  of institutional research, effectiveness, and assessment. In other words, I could just as easily see myself completing that journey and returning to an administrative role.

Since the administrative application process is more familiar and comfortable for me, that’s where I have started. So far, I have hit the submit button on applications for three positions. All three are at relatively small institutions, a criteria that was purposeful. Although I have been at a large institution for six years now, I have begun to realize that a smaller university or college is probably better suited to my personality… particularly if I want a good fit in a long-term administrative position. Although there are a few other jobs being advertised that fall into this category, it’s now time for me to focus on the faculty job ads. These are more challenging.

Had I begun my PhD program with the intention of pursuing a faculty career, I might have selected a different program or another institution. As it stands, I feel that I have two disciplines. My masters degree is in higher education administration. I had a relatively lengthy professional career in this area, and, as a result, most of my research has been focused on higher education. However, my doctorate will be in educational research and evaluation. Since the focus of my program is fairly broad, I have personally chosen courses that lean toward statistical analysis, with my goal being exposure to a variety of research and analysis methods. I did not intentionally shy away from qualitative courses. In fact, if I had the luxury of continuing my studies for a fourth year, I probably would have broadened my perspective in that direction. But, alas, I have sapped our financial resources for as long as I can, and it’s time for me to become gainfully employed again.

As a result of my professional career and my educational choices, I could be equally comfortable  in a higher ed program or an educational research/measurement program, but I’m not sure I’d be considered an expert in either one. In a field where specialization is de rigueur, I am probably more of a generalist. This could be desirable at an institution that has both kinds of programs, but it could also be the fatal flaw that prevents me from being hired anywhere! Ever the optimist, I am going to proceed with my search anyway, secure in the knowledge that there is a job out there somewhere that will be a good fit. With that in mind, I have a list of eight faculty jobs that are evenly split between higher ed programs and research methods positions. Next up… crafting cover letters to convince these schools that I have potential to be successful as a faculty member, despite the fact that I won’t finish my dissertation until this summer.

Epic failure? Or just one bad night?

Based on the two [polar opposite] feedback notes I received last week, I decided to do things a little bit differently in class on Monday. My attempts bombed. Or at least it felt like they did. I kept having the sense that everything was going badly. Sure, I’ve had a couple of moments like that each week so far, but this whole session felt like a train wreck from the get go.

Here’s how it started… There was an accident on the interstate, and at least a half dozen students were late. I waited almost 10 minutes, but then decided to start class anyway. I began reviewing measurement by talking about the feedback I had received and how I needed to know whether most of the class felt confident that they understood the concepts we had covered so far (like one student did) or if they were all wallowing in confusion (like the other student seemed to be). I had created a 22-item self-assessment questionnaire to collect quantitative data, and I included open-ended space at the bottom for them to tell me anything else they wanted me to know. I told them they could include their names if they chose, but it wasn’t required. I told them to hold onto their surveys and give them to me at the end of the class. As the latecomers trickled in, I gave them a copy of the survey too, but they didn’t get to hear why they were completing it.

After the survey, I wanted to address some of the issues raised by the student with the complaints. In other words, let’s assume that this student’s comments reflected the central tendency of the class and try to do something about it. One of his/her complaints was that the small group activities are ineffective when the group members are clueless. This student suggested that we should be discussing the examples as a whole class. So… instead of breaking up the class time into blocks of interactive lecture and small group activities, I rearranged the desks into a circle and tried to conduct class more like a seminar. It didn’t work well. I just couldn’t seem to get a dialogue going.

There are 22 students in the class, and, although two were absent, it was a big circle, and it was awkward. I also couldn’t abandon my PowerPoint slides. I needed them to keep me on track and make sure we covered all of the important concepts, but because we were in a circle, some of the students had their backs to the screen and had to keep turning around. I also had to keep getting up to advance the slides. More awkwardness!

The worst part was that some of the topics we had to cover are difficult concepts. It took me several classes before I really understood measurement validity and reliability, and I was trying to introduce these topics during the last hour of class. It just didn’t work. Even the topics that I thought would be easy (reviewing things we had already covered and discussing data collection strategies) seemed difficult. I could sense the frustration and the confusion throughout the evening, and I felt myself getting more and more flustered and uncomfortable. I have never felt so relieved when time ran out. The evening felt like an epic failure.

As I collected the self-assessment surveys, I prepared myself for the worst. I stacked them and put them in my bag and didn’t look at them until I got home. When I finally had time to scan the quantitative data and read the comments, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the complaining student’s perceptions do not seem to reflect the central tendency. Most of the students seem to feel confident that they understand and can apply the concepts we have covered so far. There are a few areas that I will need to review and give some additional practice, but not as many as I thought.

Although I did not ask specific questions about the format of the class sessions or the materials, students commented positively about them (without any prompting) in the open space I provided. I decided that the class format that was comfortable for me is also working for the majority of students. I am still worried about the one student who won’t identify himself/herself, but I’ll have to figure out another way to address that. Thankfully, I only needed one glass of wine to recover from the disastrous evening.


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