February 16, 2017

Distillations, Part 1

For my Candidacy exam, I wrote two papers. The first of these explored some of the fundamental questions behind my research, namely

  • what does it mean to teach?
  • how do we develop a sense of ourselves as teachers, particularly in the higher education context? and
  • how does our sense of identity influence our assessment practices?

This post is composed of excerpts and distillations of that paper.

WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE A CEGEP TEACHER?

For teachers, Cégep can be an excellent opportunity. Most programs, pre-university or technical, require a Master’s degree or equivalent, rather than a doctorate[1]; furthermore, Cégep teachers are not required to conduct research, publish, or present, although many institutions support individual teachers who wish to pursue such endeavours. Teaching in Cégep is a largely autonomous affair; teachers are not accountable to parents, nor are they accountable to funding agencies.

At the same time, teaching at the Cégep level can present its challenges, not least of which is navigating the question of what level are we really teaching. Since there is no equivalent, the Cégep system has had to address this question – or ignore it – internally. Our students are 17-20, especially in the preuniversity programs, and they are not yet in university, so we might think of them as high school students, and ourselves as high school teachers. On the other hand, they have graduated from high school, and are now enrolled in specific programs akin to undergraduate programs in universities, so we might think of them as freshmen, and ourselves as university professors. Although Cégep programs are mandated as competency-based, that is, curriculum is developed around a concept of knowledge that includes social and academic skills, Barbeau argued that paradigmatic shift toward the competency-based approach has not been properly explained, integrated, or implemented by government, institutions, or faculty (in Doucet, 2016).

Teachers in primary and secondary classrooms also face challenges to their sense of professional identity, of course. In postsecondary education, however, new teachers must negotiate their identity as teachers as opposed to practitioners in their discipline – or, as Garnett (2013) argued, they must embrace their discipline-based identity within the institution and in relation to their students. In postsecondary education, teachers are likely to self-identify first as a member of their discipline, and must, consciously or not, develop a sense of themselves as teachers, both within the discipline and in the larger context of the institution.

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February 10, 2017

The Candidate

Shortly after I was accepted to the doctoral program, I ordered business cards, thinking that they would come in handy at conferences and the like. I filled in the form, and checked off the box marked “PhD Candidate.” After all, now that I was in the program, that’s what I was, right? A candidate?

Um, no.

It turns out there are designations, and that “candidate” indicates, typically, that you have completed any required coursework and have demonstrated – through comprehensive exams or papers, or both – that you have sufficiently immersed yourself in your field and are now prepared to take on original research.

The graduate secretary and the print shop were happy to accept my order, though, so I was the proud if confused owner of 250 business cards that erroneously identified me as a PhD Candidate.

When I told my supervisor about this mistake, she laughed and confessed that she had made the same mistake, introducing herself as a PhD Candidate as a newbie in her program. We’re actually working on a paper together now, exploring who makes what assumptions in the graduate context – because while the business card gaffe may be an innocuous blunder, there are assumptions made, by students, faculty, and institutions, that may have more dire consequences, or at least more embarrassing ones. Our conversation began with me relating the frustrating experience I had in applying to the program; the frustration stemmed from the institutional assumption that I (a) knew departmental faculty, (b) knew that I was expected to work with someone in preparing my application, and (c) knew how to remedy the situation if (a) or (b) were not true.

We all make assumptions, as teachers, as students, as parents, as citizens. As teachers, we may assume that students understand our instructions and know what to do with our feedback, for instance. We may assume that our colleagues share our beliefs about our role as teachers, and that our institutions will support us in our pedagogical choices. We may assume that someone will tell us that we’re not “candidates” yet, rather than signing off on a card order.

I think that a large part of the writing and dialogue I’ll engage in in the next few months will involve recognizing and challenging my assumptions – considering why I’ve made such an assumption, why it persists, and whether or not it’s valid. At least now that I have presented and defended my methodology and concepts papers, I can use those business cards 🙂

Maggie, PhD Candidate

April 16, 2016

Decisions, decisions

So I have finished the first year of course work in my doctoral pursuit. 1  I have four more weeks of teaching my Montreal Writers lit course, which thus overlaps with the course on assessment that I begin teaching this coming week.

I know that what I’ve taken on is huge, and, I’ll admit, intimidating and impressive. Full-time course work as a student, full-time workload as a teacher (including work on implementation of our new policy on assessing student proficiency in the language of instruction, and work on the English Exit Exam committee), teaching at the university, part-time yoga instruction, my own fitness training (working to improve my 10K time, and maybe get to a half-marathon this year), and all the domestic stuff, as a wife, mother, and dog/cat lover. It’s a big list. Yet, day-to-day, I’ve managed to stay on top of everything…

…or so I thought.

Mid-March, my husband and I managed to get away, just the two of us, for a week of scuba and sunbathing in Cozumel2  I figured that week would be the reboot I needed to face the end of term in my doctoral courses, and power through the end of semester at the college. But a week after we got home, I was exhausted. So I took a long, hard look at what I was actually doing 3  and realized that while I might feel in control of my workload on a day-to-day basis, the bigger picture was that I was really, really, really busy, and maybe I don’t need to be. After all, as I keep telling my yoga classes, we need to listen to our bodies – and mine was tired. I had no energy for running. I wasn’t doing yoga on my own. I wasn’t sleeping well. I wasn’t waking up well.

So, I sat down with a lovely person in our human resources department, and found myself just babbling at her about everything I was doing, everything I was about to take one, everything I was being asked to do. And I realized that I really needed to take back some control, and take back some time. I’ve dropped one of my yoga classes, so I’ll only be teaching three times a week, at least for the summer. More importantly, I’ve applied for a voluntary workload reduction, so I’ll only be teaching one course each semester. I’ll still be working on the Exit Exam committee, but the language policy team has been disbanded, so that’s off my list.

I’ve also reflected on what I want to accomplish over the next few months, and created a timeline for myself. I have actually added a few things (such as more regular blogging!), but it’s loose enough that I feel it’s a good balance between having set goals and having space to breathe.

At the beginning of the last month of the semester, I do an exercise with my students and get them to note every assignment, every test, every reading, every soccer game, every family gathering, every work shift, etc., on a one-page calendar that covers the end of the semester. Seeing all those commitments on one page first feels terrifying, but then feels empowering. As I remind the students, we’ve all survived an end of semester before, with just as much stuff to do, but the calendar gives us a plan. It gives us control.

So, that’s what I did for myself. I made my decision for the workload reduction, and I set up my timeline, and took back the control I almost didn’t realize I’d lost.
Maybe I’ll even have time for a nap.

  1. I feel I should specify “course work,” because, as I’m sure anyone else who is going or has gone through the process can attest, the non-course work – reading, writing, more reading, more writing, thinking, talking, reading some more, planning, more writing – somehow takes on a life and momentum of its own, so that even when you want to take a break, your brain won’t shut off and just let you focus on that trashy novel or mindless TV show.
  2. Hands down my favourite place to just relax and breathe, underwater or otherwise.
  3. In the midst of this reflection period, by the way, three different colleagues approached me to suggest I step forward as coordinator of the Liberal Arts program.
March 25, 2016

Not product placement, I swear

I recently attended a conference, and before travelling, I did some research on styluses for my iPad. I love the device, but I have long struggled with using it for taking notes, because inevitably, my hand-written notes look like a ransom note written by a toddler. So I thought I would look into a better stylus, and in my research, came across this actual pen.Livescribe 3

I bought one and used it throughout the conference, and I LOVE it. I can’t remember which of my doctoral seminar classmates said that writing notes by hand was much more in keeping with her/his thought process; I remember the discussion (I think with regard to reading journals) concluded with the idea that typing is ultimately better. What I liked about the pen was that I could write, using my 40+ year-old annotations and everything, but have notes uploaded immediately to my phone (or any device running the app). When your note-taking session is complete, the app converts the pages to PDF, which you can save anywhere. This is one page from my conference notes, saved as a PDF, which I mailed to myself:

2016-03-25 (2)

Furthermore, the app includes OCR, so you can eventually ‘translate’ your hand-written notes to text. One section of this note page was rendered as

-technology ⇒ and related social media
communities; digital cldoacyg
online social mores

OK, it totally messed up “literacy,” but otherwise, it got everything, so imagine how well it would do with better penmanship 🙂

Anyway, that conversation from this past fall kept ringing in my ears as I took notes at the conference, so I wanted to share my new find with everyone. The pen is NOT cheap, and does require special note paper, but if handwritten notes are a preferred method, it might be worth the investment. The special paper is available in everything from standard spiral notebooks to post-it style sticky notes, which could be very useful for reading notes.

PS: another conference tip I learned, with a much cheaper solution, was to pick up a cheap portable charger. I found one at Winners for $13, and it saved my phone on Day 2 of the conference.

Does anyone else have travel tips to share?

 

December 22, 2015

In closing…

Earlier, I posted about using a new lesson for teaching students about thesis statements. The plan was heavy on interactive feedback, which in turn was something I used more frequently this semester. As we got into planning and drafting the final essay, I came back to the thesis lesson a few times, and made sure to include feedback on their thesis statements when I reviewed their outlines for the essay. I was happy to see that overall, the theses were stronger and clearer, and the final outcome was a batch of pretty well written essays.

At the beginning of each course, as part of my overview and introduction, I ask students to think about what they expect from the course, and what they hope to achieve. I give some space in my course pack for them to record these thoughts, and at the end of the semester, their final assignment is a personal reflection on whether their expectations and goals were met. I also ask them, among other things, to discuss which aspect(s) of the course they found most useful.

Last night, I read the reflections of this semester’s class, and I was thrilled to see that several students discussed the thesis lessons in particular as helpful, not just for our class, but for their writing in other courses. Many discussed the emphasis on writing stages as very useful and, in some cases, a sort of epiphany about writing; but I’ve been using that approach for a while, and I’m used to getting that feedback in their reflections. The thesis lessons were new, however, so I was gratified to get validation of the new tactic.

Of course, the end of my teaching semester is also, more or less, the end of my student semester – I’ve officially finished my first semester of my doctorate. It was a great three months, and I’m excited, still, about moving forward with my research and my writing. So, not a finish, but a pause.

But first, a few days of baking and present wrapping. Happy holidays!