Monday, May 1, 2017

Cheat sheet for a busy professor

I was asked by a colleague to share some hacks and cheats that make life of a SLAC professor easier. Here's a quick list I came up with:

  • Challenge every assignment: is it really needed? What purpose does it serve? Would a shorter / easier to grade assignment serve this purpose better?
  • Challenge the number of assignments: can you remove one? Don't create busywork.
  • Taking feedback is hard, so there's no point in critiquing more than one point at a time. If aspect A needs to be improved the most, don't even comment on aspect B for a while.
  • Students don't understand complicated rubrics, so don't use complicated rubrics.
  • Sometimes you don't need to prepare for classes in-depth, as most important confusions lie on the surface, and improvising with the blackboard, in dialogue with the students, may actually be more useful for them.
  • But if you need to prepare, prepare well so that you could reuse it fully next year.
  • If something didn't work, or you have an idea, write it down now; your future you (in a year) will be very grateful.
  • Use your own work / things you think about in your research at least once a semester; it makes it easier for you, and more fun for them.
  • Don't be afraid to teach fun topics instead of "useful topics"; "standard courses" are overrated. Your goal is not to bring them from point A to point B, but to encourage them to get there themselves. Emotion is more important than content or skill-drills.
  • Push as much work as you can to the students. Use things like reflective writing, discussions, pair-share, peer-review. Make them submit questions before class instead of generating all questions for them. Bounce their questions back to them. It so happens that most techniques that are proven to be more effective in teaching are also easier for the teacher, even if they feel risky and weird. Learn the best practices from good books, and use them to your advantage.
  • Integrate research with teaching in all ways possible.
  • Use labs for pilot experiments, to troubleshoot your methods.
  • Use honors theses for pilot experiments, to generate some data.
  • Bend upper college courses towards your current interests, to give you an excuse to read a few more reviews / primary papers.
Time management:
  • Schedule in chunks of few hours; don't break chunks. Don't give in to temptation to use these chunks for urgent matters. If it's research time, do research.
  • Do only things that are either important (even if they are unpleasant), or that you like to do (even if it feels that you're indulging yourself). Don't do kind-of-useful things that you don't like. Nobody cares about them anyway, and they drain your willpower stamina. Only critical strikes + fun stuff. That's what makes the difference.
  • Use some kind of a GTD-inspired time / e-mail / project management system. Google inbox seems promising, but I haven't used it yet. I use Google Keep, with a note for each project / class, and a checkbox for each action step.

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