Finding balance by force is still finding balance

Those of you who’ve been reading this here blog for any length of time know that a common theme/expressed desire on this blog is for balance. Balance between work and home. Balance between research, teaching, and service. Balance between “should dos” and “want to dos”. When making resolutions at the start of academic years, or selecting themes at the start of calendar years, “balance” tops the list. Yet I’d give myself, oh, an F– if I had to grade how well I’ve actually done at achieving balance in my work life, my home life, or the intersection between the two, particularly since earning tenure.

Sometimes you need the universe to give you a nice swift kick in the pants to remind you of your true priorities.

In February 2010, my husband and I applied to become adoptive parents through the Korea program at a local agency. Adoption is not for the faint of heart, and for a control freak like myself it’s really the definition of hell. There are timelines, but they are wide-ranging (i.e., you may get matched with a child sometime in the next 6-12 months, you will travel to meet your child in the next 2-10 months) and constantly changing (i.e., that 2-10 month wait to travel is now 13-14 months and rising). You have to be adaptive, and patient, and more patient, and then even more patient. There are intense periods where you have to hand in about 100 pieces of paperwork, half of them notarized, in the next 24 hours, and then months of waiting for something to happen. You can try to plan, but realistically your only plan is to be prepared to throw your plans out and start over.

We knew all this going in. We made our best guesses. We were right about when we would be matched with our son (Dec 2010, 6 months after we completed our home study, almost to the day). We were told that we were sure to travel to meet and bring home our son in February 2012.

I dutifully applied for leave during spring term 2012 and planned my winter term 2012 teaching schedule so that colleagues could easily step in and finish the term for me if need be. I accepted some (too many) service commitments that would be winding down in December 2011/January 2012. I think I felt a bit guilty for “taking time off” to spend time with the new kiddo, and attempted to overcompensate by overcommitting myself until he came home. Which meant I spent a good portion of last year working overtime, stressed and miserable and with my life way out of balance, trying desperately to meet all of my responsibilities.

Then, in October, we learned that our adoption date was moving up…by several months. And I was forced to prioritize. I had to make very quick decisions about what stayed and what went. I triaged almost everything except teaching and a couple of non-negotiable (and fast-looming) research and service deadlines. I changed my leave and my teaching schedule. I came up with plans A, B, C, and D in case the call to travel to Korea came before fall term ended.

Even though I had spent months worrying about my responsibilities to everyone else, I was surprised at how easily I was able to shed all of that out of necessity. The universe had sent a reminder, loud and clear. This little boy we had committed to a year ago was coming home, and that was the only thing that mattered. Everything else could, and indeed must, be delegated.

Eight weeks after that October phone call, we finally received our son’s visa, and less than 48 hours later were on a plane to Korea to meet and bring home our son. We’ve been home for a week and I’ve yet to check my work email (sorry, colleagues!). My son is my top priority for the immediate future, as he should be.

I hope I can remember this lesson the next time my life starts to get out of whack, or the next time someone asks to add something to my already full plate. I’ve finally achieved balance of a sort, although the mechanism was admittedly a bit extreme. I am not keen to give it up. My resolution for 2012 and beyond is to remember what’s truly important and truly a priority, and structure my life and my work accordingly. I hope I am up to the challenge.

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The most effective course evaluation question ever

There are always a few students in my courses each term who come to me at some point during the term unhappy with their progress. Invariably they ask me for tips on how they can succeed in the course. Towards the end of one particular term, when it seemed like I was fielding the question more and more often, I had the crazy idea to turn the question around and ask the students for their ideas. So I posed the following question on the intro course evaluation*:

What is one piece of advice you would give to someone taking this course in the future on how to succeed in the course?

I also indicated that I’d like to share their advice with future students, and to let me know if they were not comfortable with that. (Most gave me permission to use their advice.)

Some of it was the advice I typically give to students—read the text, try the problems, seek out the lab assistants, read next to the computer so you can try things out. Some of it indicated a desire for better study habits—“start the assignments early!”, “start studying for the quizzes earlier”.  Some of it indicated issues with the course structure or with particular assignments—alluding to instructions that were too vague, or assignments that took too long, and how to cope with those. And some of it indicated things—concepts, skills, life lessons—that the students were particularly proud to have mastered as a result of the course.

It was these last two areas that threw me. From this simple question, I could tell at a glance exactly what the students struggled with, whether conceptually or skills-wise or study habits-wise. I could tell what made them proud and in what areas they felt they’d grown the most.

Sometimes, I discovered, it was easier for them to indicate how the course worked for them if I asked them indirectly.

I’ve used this question in every single course since then, from intros to upper-level courses, and it is hands-down the most useful question on the evaluation for me. Sometimes the answers make me laugh. Always, the answers make me think. When I take my end-of-term notes and file them away with the course files until the next time I teach the course, it’s from this question that I take the most notes. I also, as threatened promised, do include the advice on future syllabi, so that students at the start of the term can get a better sense of what they’re in for, what are the potential sticky points and trouble spots, and most importantly, what rewards potentially await them at the end.

(Plus, for some reason they’re more likely to follow a peer’s advice to “try the problems in the text” than they are to listen to me say the same thing. Peer mentoring is powerful, even when it’s done via a few lines on a course syllabus as a voice from the past.)

What course evaluation questions have you found most useful, whether as an instructor (or, on the other side of the desk, as a student, to help you process and reflect on your own course learning)?

* Here are Carleton, we are fortunate (or cursed, depending on your mindset and where you are in the tenure stream) to have no  official, formal course evaluation forms. Course evaluations are entirely optional and, if used, must be developed, administered, and processed by the instructor. No one other than the instructor sees them (unless, of course, you share them with others, which I found immensely valuable pre-tenure).