“The only easy day was yesterday”

“So, first of all,let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself–nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
Franklin D. Roosevelt
March 4, 1933

Having emerged from our Thanksgiving feast induced comas, we are faced with a harsh reality this week. Yes, it is the end of term. Looking out my window, I can almost seethe fear surrounding the students walking from the residence halls to central campus.

Fear is good. It is a powerful motivator. The trick is not becoming paralyzed by fear. You must overcome the fear of failure. Recognize the fear as a warning sign and use it to motivate you for what are admittedly two very difficult weeks. Every trick and tip I or anyone else has ever offered is now on the table. Your local barista is now your best friend. This is the championship of the academic world.

In two weeks, it will all seem anticlimactic. While the people on my side of the desk are still grading, you will have packed up your dorm room and headed home for the break and–hopefully – a halfway regular sleep schedule for a few weeks. In the end, your grades may not be what you wanted, but there is always next semester. Next Semester will be an almost clean slate. There is plenty of room for improvement then.

For now and the remainder of this semester, work diligently. Don’t panic. Keep a list of what you have to accomplish and mark things off when they are complete. Not only with this remind you of what you need to be doing, but it will also give you a sense of accomplishment as you move towards the end of finals. It is a great sense of fulfillment watching the check marks advance down the page.

Time management is more important now than ever. Don’t totally neglect sleep. You are not going to be able to even guess at the information on the test if you are sleeping on your desk. Don’t spend all your time working on your most difficult class. Stand Up from your desk and walk around for five minutes every hour or so. Remember to proof your assignments before you submit them. And finally, don’t forget to eat actual meals (and not just junk food) every now and then. Your body needs the nourishment.
Now, get to work.Just don’t forget to breathe.

Know when to ask for help

A long time ago,and it seems even longer, I had a larger tool box than a set of software applications that I used on my computer. As difficult (even for me) to believe now, I used to be a construction worker. I mainly did electrical work, but also did a fair share of framing as well. I learned enough background to be able to build most of the barns and sheds on my parents’ farm. (The picture is actually me replacing siding on our horse barn.)

One time, I was helping add on a back porch to our house. It was fairly simple. I managed to pour the concrete slab, frame the roof, lay the decking, and do all the boxing and siding without too much of a problem. But then it was time to lay the shingles.I know how to lay shingles. I know how to align the patterns, weave the seams so it doesn’t leak, and even know how to construct a ridge along the top from the tabs. There’s just one slight problem.

I can’t do it.

I don’t know what the issue is, but I have NEVER been able to do roofing. I’ve taught others how to do it. I can watch someone else and tell them what they are doing wrong. I had made it all the way to the end of that project, and I couldn’t do it by myself anymore. I had to call on my neighbors for help.

Sometimes, like in this situation, it is easy when to know when to ask for help. In others,pride or unreasonable expectations can easily get in the way. I learned one thing very early in college. It is much better to ask for help early.

The research methods course I tutored as a GA was difficult (the DFW – Drop/Fail/Withdraw – rate is around 24%). But there was one thing I noticed. The ones who I saw for the first time for the term paper and final exam I ended up seeing again the next semester. The ones who paid attention to the horror stories and started seeing me from the very first homework assignment? Out of nearly 250 students who took the course, only one student who sought help from the beginning of the term had to repeat the course.

Only ONE.

I’m not saying this because I’m a great tutor. I’m saying this because asking for help when you need it – and admitting you need it – is a vital part of education. I didn’t make it through college without asking for help. Indeed, it was far from it. Ralph (the GA at the time) and Will (who was a friend finishing his PhD in the same field) probably got extremely tired of me asking them questions. But that’s okay. You have to do what it takes to learn things.

This is not something that just disappears after graduation either. Still, as a faculty member conducting research, I have to ask for help. I’m currently working on a research project. My background is policy. This paper requires a lot of theory and history. So, I found co-authors who had the experience in those areas. With our three areas combined, it is now coming together nicely.

Never be afraid to ask for help in your studies. No one is brilliant enough to make it on his or her own. That’s why professors hold office hours. That is why supplemental instructors have jobs. That is why tutoring and writing centers exist. The entire structure of the university is to support you in your quest for knowledge. Make use of the resources at your disposal.

PowerPoint, Part II

Okay, I guess I should start off by saying I realize there are other types of presentation software. But, I use PowerPoint. This is about design elements, so it applies to all of them. 

You have to make a presentation.  I could be for a group project, thesis defense, academic conference, or anything else.  People who are pursuing higher education are eventually going to have to stand in front of a group of people and talk about something. In my last post, I talked about using contrasting text and background, easy to read fonts, and effective use of white space. Now, it’s time to get a little deeper into those themes, and to expand into color selection, timing, and transitions. 

Easy to read fonts… It seems so easy doesn’t it? In truth, this is a bigger problem than you can ever realize.  Now, blogger only has a limited number of fonts, so I took one of my lecture presentations, and will use one of the slides (saved as an image) as an example. Now, can you read this slide? If you can, you’re better than I am. If it was full size on my screen right in front of me, maybe. On a projection screen across a room? There is no way. Do not use the fancy fonts. While most people may consider them boring in desktop publishing, you need Times New Roman, Arial, or Helvetica for a presentation. See how much better this looks?

Okay, font is settled. Now, there is something else you must consider, the color design of the slide.  Most of the time, you will use a white background if it is being projected, black if it is being shown in a laptop screen. Since most presentations are talking to groups of people, typically white backgrounds are the way to go. If you are working a convention center type setting with a slideshow running on a laptop somewhere in the booth, black background is fine. 
There are a multitude of color combinations which will work for a presentation. You just want to make sure there is a good contrast. If you are starting from scratch, you can use a design color matching tool. Or, since you are more than likely making this presentation either in a school, or as a representative of a school, you have another option. This actually the route I typically take, and it makes life very simple. Use your school colors.  
Most schools have a set color pallet. While you can not use logos or trademarked items, there will typically be no problems using colors. You also tie into your campus ethos and create a subconscious bond with your audience, especially if it is a class presentation. This is what my slide actually looks like: 
If I was teaching back at my alma mater, my slide would look like this:
Both are clean designs, both have a good contrast and can be easily read from across the room. One thing this example slide violates though is the amount of text on it.  Typically, you need to follow the what was taught to me as the Rule of 7s, but sometimes varies to 6 or 8. You only want about 7 lines of text, and 7 words in each line. Yes, the example slide does have 10 lines. But, that is a very rare occurrence. 
Traditionally, you needed to conserve slides because it cost money to print the transparencies. This is no longer the case. Add another slide and preserve the white space.  It will make the presentation a lot easier to read in the long run. 
Just a few other points. Do NOT put everything you are going to say on the slide. I, and most other faculty I have ever dealt with, can see the points vanish into the air as you read your slides word for word. It is supposed to be a basic outline, and the blanks can be filled in as you go. One exception to this is when there is a quote that they need to remember word for word.  I will go ahead and write that out in the slide, but memorize the quote so you can look at the audience as you recite it. It improves the presentation immensely. 
Know your time limits when making a presentation. In some environments, it is acceptable for you to be a few minutes long or short of your target time. Most, however, want you to be fairly close to the target time. I’ve seen classes where points were deducted for being more than 10 seconds off the target. This is something that only comes through practice.  Know what you want to say, and say it. If it is too long, talk faster or adjust your speech. 
Finally, technology fails.  PowerPoint and the associated projectors are technology. Ergo, even though you prepare a wonderful presentation, you may not be able to use it. Always have a backup for major presentations. It could be transparencies, handouts, or chalk and blackboard.  Just be certain you have a backup plan. 
Your first speech will be terrifying. There is no way to get around it. My first time speaking in public I found out I was having to run a 5:30 meeting at 2 o’clock in the afternoon. I paced fr
om 3:00 until people started showing up at 5:00. I was terrified. There were only 8 people there.  I have since lectured classes of 80 and spoken to assemblies of 200 or more. You do get used to it; it does get better. In the meantime, it helps a lot to have a well prepared, readable, professional set of presentation slides backing you up. 

Weekend Roundup

The big news today is going to be the status of the national budget.  The clock is ticking a bit quicker than normal towards a government shutdown. The last time the government was shut down was nearly twenty years ago. Will it actually happen again this weekend? Honestly, I don’t know. The president has threatened to veto another continuing resolution, so it seems like it might actually take place. What I do know is these clip from The West Wing have been on repeat in my head all day (sorry I couldn’t find a better version of the first one).

In other news, HackCollege has a post about a new iPhone app which allows you to keep track of your grades, set targets, and program due dates. Since I am solidly in the BlackBerry camp of the great smartphone debate, I haven’t actually tried it myself, but their review can be found here.

Yahoo News has a guide to free software to “Upgrade Your Life.”  While for obvious reasons, it doesn’t mention any of the Google solutions, it is a nice addendum to my post from last Monday.