Category Archives: Teaching

Annotation Minus Paper

I’ve always been a huge fan of the “Reviewing” toolbar in Microsoft Word, which allows one to make marginal comments in documents. I grade using this tool and I love it. I don’t have to worry about messy handwriting, and I can type faster than I can write–which means I give my students more comments. Bonus: they can read them. I have long since given up receiving paper copies of student work.

While researching for my dissertation, I can comment on Word documents and highlight important points, but until today I wasn’t able to annotate .pdf files. Then I learned about the PDF XChange Viewer, which is a free program that lets one underline, draw pictures, and attach “sticky notes” all over a .pdf.

Academics may not be the worst paper wasters in our nation, but we’ve got to come close. In my book–or rather, my blog, taking notes while avoiding printing = awesome.

Teaching: It Works!

I had a student in a literature class who–even though she ended up with a good grade in the class–I felt did not “get it” in some important way.  Her papers tended to try to argue something an uncontroversial point, and I worried that she wasn’t developing skills for subtle critique.

This student is taking another class of mine this semester–a course designed by another person.  My former student, who I did not have high expectations for, just aced a big assignment.  A big part of her success was due to her knowledge of poetic forms and techniques–something she learned in my class.

I rarely teach the same students twice, and it’s wonderful at this moment to see that my student learned and improved in my class.  And she retained something!

Self-Help for Graduate Students, Part 8: Authentic Happiness

Seligman, Martin E. P. Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press, 2002.

Time Investment: 263 pages. Plus questionnaires on the following website:

You could do the Signature Strengths questionnaire before reading the book for some interesting insight also. When I took the it, I found that one of my strengths is “loving and being loved.” Going back to the book, I expected to read something like: “If you’re good at loving, you should pursue one of the following careers: x,y, or z.” What the author actually said was to incorporate that strength into as many things that you do as possible.

His example involved a janitor he met while visiting his friend in the hospital who was in a coma. The janitor cleaned up the room, and then switched the wall art around–and he was spending a really long time fussing with the art. Finally, the author asks what he’s doing. The janitor says, “Patients do better when they have new stimulus. It’s my job to make sure that they have new and beautiful art.” Basically the author (Martin Seligman) was amazed that this janitor took a menial job and turned it into a calling by retuning his job to be about nurturing (instead of scrubbing toilets).

While I’m not mean to my students, I could instantly see how focusing on caring for them (instead of focusing exclusively on improving their writing) would improve my performance and my happiness with my job. It would also, as the book says, help give my job meaning and purpose.

I also realized that my favorite professors–the ones who made me want to be a professor myself–would score pretty high on the kindness scale. I don’t even always ask my students, “how are you?” when they come to office hours!

Yesterday, instead of sending a brisk & businesslike, “you can’t take advantage of me just because I’m a young woman” e-mail to a student who has missed several classes, I forced myself to sit down next to him and look him in the eye as I showed him the attendance sheet. Instead of wishing he would just drop the class and get out of my hair, I thought about how great it would be if he staying in the class and succeeded in passing it.

I think part of the point Seligman makes is that doing what you’re good at is bound to make you feel happier. And you can find ways to do what you’re good at in almost any situation.

8 Resolutions for ’08

  1. Resolve to treat yourself after achieving major dissertation milestones. A weekend trip, a new pair of jeans, or (for the financially struggling) a day in bed will help you keep working toward your goals.
  2. Stop procrastinating on contacting committee members.
  3. Write a list of reasons you want to complete this project. Read it over at the start of every workday.
  4. Resolve to stretch, have a mini-dance party, or take a short walk when you get stiff from desk or lab work. Your mind and body will function better.
  5. Write in a dissertation journal. Writing daily, or even a couple times a week will help keep work anxiety under control.
  6. Resolve not to let your students dominate your life. Tell your students you can only answer e-mail before 6 P.M., for instance, to prevent flurries of late night e-mails the night before a paper is due. Don’t make promises about when you will grade their tests—they may not like to wait for grades, but they can handle it.
  7. Shake up your routine. If you usually check e-mail before writing, try to write first thing in the morning. If you normally work 9-3, try sitting at your desk from 2-6 instead.
  8. Resolve to stop grousing with your fellow graduate students about how much work you have, how behind you are, or how little you’ve gotten done. Force yourself to start with something positive whenever anyone asks about your work. If nothing else, you’ll be able to speak more convincingly about the merits of your work when you go on the job market.

Teaching Nightmare

My students just turned in their first paper of the semester, and they are so clueless. How I wish I could laugh heartily at the mistakes and outlandish statements in student compositions, the way Anne of Green Gables does. Instead, I get mad. Real mad. First at the students, and then at myself.

To prepare the students to write this paper, they wrote no less than nine informal papers. After they turned in each response, I e-mailed them personally with comments explaining how to do better on the final paper. They were given two reading quizzes on their textbook. In addition to making the assignment instructions available on-line, I gave the students two other step-by-step instruction sheets to writing and revising—specific to this paper. I gave them a full class period to work on revision. We analyzed not just any examples in class, but examples from the students’ own writing. We graded a sample paper together in class.

I know this italics overload, but I have had it up to here. I delayed the due date of the first paper because I wanted them to be really ready! I knew they were in trouble as the due date approached, and I warned them in shriller and shriller voices that they needed to follow the assignment instructions very carefully.

The class average is a 65. One student received a grade of 20%. Two students that I met with to discuss early drafts both received a D. One student who went to the Undergraduate Writing Center twice received an F.

A friend of mine, The Future Doctor Moulder, told me that confusion is productive for the students, and they aren’t supposed to get it right away. (Those are her italics this time.) I don’t know. Before I taught, I always thought I was a naturally talented instructor. I never dreamed my darkest hours as a graduate student would involve doubting my ability to teach.