Where do you get stuck?: Process-oriented planning and organizing for teaching

I wanted to finish this PALS post yesterday but here it is today, and I have had trouble focusing on a topic to write about. It’s not because I don’t have a lot of ideas swirling in my head. Rather, I have been using much of my teacher brain the last couple of weeks to focus on course planning and organizing, and I just can’t get those swirling ideas about actual teaching to settle. So I have decided to lean in and write about the process of planning, and some ways I have tried to be a little more reflective about how that process works for me, or more specifically, where my process often breaks down.

I will spare you the details of my current course prep because they aren’t that exciting (my brother on the other end of the phone this weekend as I talk about my planning: “Brie, I literally stopped listening.”) But I am probably doing the most planning/organizing/figuring things out/being confused about how things work that I have done since the first year I was a teacher — oh, blessed be those who have never written an assignment sheet before. My circumstances this year are unique to my situation: new job, new education system, newish country, etc. However, I think some of my reflections might be more universal.

First, this post is written in part to recognize all of the administrative/planning/organizing labor that we have to do as teachers. That labor is often not thought of as an important part of the job of teaching. I’m not specifically talking about the kind of planning that involves envisioning texts for a course or making sure the course assignments meet the learning objectives. Rather, I’m thinking of things like posting to learning management systems, keeping track of add/drop dates, getting your room changed because the assigned room isn’t big enough, and so many more. Of course, every job has these more mundane but time-consuming aspects. However, whenever I had an office job, that kind of work — scheduling meetings, updating calendars, communicating with team members effectively-— was considered part of the work that I did. Whereas, now I have trouble giving myself “credit” for that work. I will feel like I have not accomplished much that day if all I did was put up course content on the LMS and finish planning the schedule for the semester.

For me personally, feeling like I didn’t do enough work makes me feel kind of bad about myself, which leads me to other kinds of time wasting/unproductivity. I have to feel accomplished to stay in an accomplishing-stuff zone, so not acknowledging organizing tasks as work has negative effects on what I achieve generally. In a broader sense too, we need to acknowledge all of the work of teaching and talk about it too. We need to talk about it to each other and also to everyone else we know. I don’t think people know how much and how many kinds of WORK go into teaching, and maybe being just a little louder about it would help us value teaching more and show that value with things like higher pay.

The increase in my need to organize and plan this semester got me thinking about the process of completing those kinds of tasks. One of the reasons that I like writing about teaching is that I love process. I like to think about how I get from point A to point B. But I, honestly, except for buying a lot of paper planners, have not thought much about my own process for getting mundane things accomplished. I have thought about my process of writing, certainly, and researching, but I haven’t dissected the process of me writing an email to the class, for example.

When I did break down the process a bit, I started to notice a few places in the process where I routinely get stuck. I don’t really have any solutions for dealing with these places yet, but it has been helpful to pull back and just explore a bit where I get frustrated and think about why that is. What follows are a few of my “stuck places”:

  1. Too many ideas. I love to generate ideas. I have a lot of ideas. But often I start too many things at once and that doesn’t allow me to focus on finishing them. See number 4.
  2. Not understanding how long things take me. I regularly block on 25 minutes for things that take me 3 hours or a morning for things that take me all day. Over-estimating what I can accomplish makes me feel unaccomplished when I can’t get everything done.
  3. Not being able to vary the intensity of my work. I was never a very good skim reader. And I’m not very good at knowing what kind of focus I need to put into something. I’m either completely focused or metaphorically picking dandelions. Putting a lot of effort into everything I do work-wise might sound like a good thing, but I have found that it can make things take way longer than necessary. See number 2. Yes, I can beautifully format a table in Word, but what if I just didn’t?
  4. Getting over the finish line. I have a lot of things from drafts of assignment sheets to academic articles not just half done but more like 75-90% done. Part of the procrastination here is trying to do too many things at once. See number 1. But another issue is once things are finished then they have to go out into the world. That is super scary with academic articles, but it is also even a little scary with assignment sheets.

I don’t want to suggest that my goal here is to “fix” these things and become a more productive worker. I see you, capitalism. But recognizing them and learning to troubleshoot a bit might give me more peace as a worker. Or at least be just a tiny bit less hard on myself.

What are your process concerns when it comes to work? Where does your process work well, and where does it break down? Comment below or tweet us with thoughts!


PALS Summer Post Roundup

Site visits and page views are lean for PALS between the May and Labor Day. A summer readership drop-off is a common occurrence for many academic blogs, perhaps especially so for a blog focusing exclusively on teaching. Our traffic successes follow the rhythms of the academic school year. (You can read more about our traffic flow here). Our visits are robust during the fall and spring terms, but drop off during holidays and extended breaks. Again, the readership drop-off phenomenon isn’t exclusive to PALS, as these tweets from Robert Keys show.


By the way, if you’re not visiting Keys’ Adverts 250 Project throughout the entire year, you’re missing out!

We even joked about this drop-off earlier in the summer. Our joking paid off and turned into one of our summer blog posts! Side Note: We’re always looking for guest post pitches. Hit us up with your ideas!

The summer months have always been lean for PALS since our rollout in the late summer of 2015. Our readership has climbed over the subsequent years, but the summer drop-off has remained a constant. However, the summer of 2018 topped all previous summers for site views and visitors, no doubt facilitated by a rather substantial uptick in content generated by our regular and guest contributors. PALS usually takes the summer months off, a practice reflecting the fact we understand our success is tied to the rhythms of the academic year.

However, in the summer of 2018 we posted a lot more than usual, which might explain our uptick in visitors to the site. Today’s post is a rundown of our summer 2018 content; it covers May through Labor Day. Think of it as an extended ICYMI as your semester starts to ramp up!

Teaching (Vocation Optional) by Meagan Ciesla

I bring this up because the idea of teaching as a vocation has been on my mind. For many of us in academia, we came to teaching through some other pathway: an interest in lab research, reading that kept us up at night, writing we didn’t want to stop doing. And although teaching is for many enjoyable work, it is often not a calling, but a career.

Teaching Japanese Internment Using Julie Otsuka’s When The Emperor Was Divine by Jessica Thelen

Since I teach at a small, predominantly white institution, I knew that bringing in historical contexts before starting Otsuka’s novel would greatly contribute to students’ understanding and engagement with the text. This was made clear when, on the first day of this mini unit, I asked my students if they had learned about Japanese Internment in school or in some other context, and only a handful of students raised their hands out of a class of twenty-eight.

Dear College Professor: On Your Incoming Students by Clay Zuba

I’m a high school English teacher. I’m writing to you regarding our students, their preparation for college, and how you can best build on this preparation in your classrooms. I freely admit that I am still learning to teach my own students. And I wouldn’t presume to tell you what to do. But in my younger days, almost every faculty member with whom I spoke at least once said, “students today . . .”

School’s Out: How to Focus Your Writing With a Summer Writing Group by Randi Tanglen

As many of us know from teaching writing workshops and incorporating peer revision into the classes we teach, writing is a collaborative and community process. Our students’ writing benefits from the feedback and support their peers provide. Yet for many of us, the demands of teaching and instruction make our own scholarly and creative writing an isolating and solitary process. Further, because many of us who read the PALS blog tend to emphasize teaching and pedagogy, our writing might not always be the priority we would like it to be on a day-to-day basis. A summer writing group may help you and your colleagues address concerns about writing in isolation and how to prioritize your own writing.

Some End-of-Semester Thoughts on Academic Struggle by Caitlin Kelly

In my current position I have the opportunity to serve as advisor to first-year students and this was my first time to do that. In one way or another, almost every conversation with my advisees turned to struggle. While some of the struggle they face comes from outside of the university community, a lot of it comes from within. I can only speak to the students I’ve taught but one of the things I’ve noticed about selective institutions is that there is a sense that all high-aptitude students are capable of anything if only they try hard enough.

Schooled in Barbecue by Thomas Hallock

I confess, I had other expectations. Being summer, the time when teachers become learners, I asked Mr. Walker to teach me how to cook ribs. He agreed to school me.

The Field of Reads: Weird Adventures in Course Design and Planning by Greg Specter

The assigned books in my fall honors class are a weird mélange. Notice that I didn’t say “The books that I assigned…” A few of the included texts come via a menu of options generated by a committee of instructors teaching different sections of an honors class in the fall.

Intro to Postmodernism: Questioning the Truth Claim by Matthew Luter

Literary postmodernism is a tough concept to introduce to my high school students. Many students have never heard the term postmodern at all; a few are aware of it as a kind of buzzword that has become a right-wing boogeyman; and more than a few are a little turned off by how academically highfalutin’ it sounds. In order to introduce it to my students, I developed a set of tasks that lean into rather than steer away from the complications of literary postmodernism.

Writing Academically with Emotional Clarity by Brianne Jaquette

I also have come to realize that I didn’t just need to write more; I needed more explanations for what makes good writing. I think the focus on what makes for competent writing in academia is a bit off. Yes, people care about our argument. They care about our sources and our research. But rarely is anyone talking about the quality of our writing, and we fall into bad habits of super long explanations and wordy clauses. We think we already know how to write, so we do not ask anyone about the clarity of our sentences. We only ask, “Does this argument make sense?”

Making Space for Voice and Choice: Assignment Design in an Online Course by Jacinta Yanders

However, in recent semesters, I’ve been thinking more and more about student ownership in the classroom and working to provide opportunities in which students have a hand in shaping the course. In the spring semester First Year Writing course I taught, for example, I had students generate the assessment criteria for their essays and vote on what they believed to be the most important elements of that criteria. By this point, students had seen and worked with sample essays as well as given feedback on drafts from their classmates. They had some sense of concrete moves that came across well to them as readers and other choices that hindered them. Collectively, they were responsible for setting the stakes for the essays and ultimately revising their work to meet those stakes.

This is not a Desk Copy by Greg Specter

It is no wonder the books start getting beaten down physically just by going in and out of bags. Corners dinged. Corners bent. Corners peeling. Stains. The physical destruction of my books is disconcerting for someone that takes care of their books. I take pride in reading a book and finishing it in mint condition. The semester is cruel to my books.