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.

Professional Use of Social Media

Social media is a tool. Like any other tool, it can be misused. I have already done a post on how to use social networking for a job search. Many of the same rules apply to your online presence once you find a professional position. Actually, once you are in a position, even more rules apply.

Your institution may have specific guidelines governing online conduct, especially when you interact with students. There are some overreaching guidelines, such as FERPA, which much be followed anytime you deal with student information and contact. So while it is one thing to post “The grades have been posted in BlackBoard/Moodle/etc,” it is an entirely different (and unacceptable due to lack of security) to discuss individual grades over Facebook Chat. But instead of a discussion of all the different requirements, I’m just going to talk about what I do, and how it has been working for me.

Students spend an insane amount of time on Facebook. But if you’ve ever walked through a computer lab, or stood in the back of a classroom while they had their laptops open, this will not come as a surprise. So, to reach the students where they are, I have a Page and a Group (I’m trying to decide which I like the best. At the moment, I’m leaning towards the Page).This prevents most of the privacy concerts since under both of these systems, while I (the instructor/advisor) can see what they post related to the class, I cannot see anything else that is posted by the students. We are not direct “friends.” If a student sends me a friend request, I will approve it, but unsubscribe to the updates, and add their profile to a group that only has limited access to my page. I don’t have anything unprofessional on there, but there are some activities (I’m in politics, remember?) that I’d rather not have students see. I have never, and probably will never, send a friend request to a student.

Twitter I use more for professional networking. NACADA has an excellent discussion forum established with certain hashtags and also has a weekly chat with advisors which is very informative. LinkedIn also is an excellent tool for networking and asking questions. Their groups have excellent forums and you can select email notifications at daily or weekly intervals.

Basically, use of social media is what you make if it. Remember that you are the professional, and the students are – well, students. It is up to you to preserve the sense of decorum and professionalism. If things start slipping into a gray area, use it as a teachable moment and correct the situation. I list things in class that students do not need to have on profiles. I never call anyone out, but every time I go through the list, there are plenty of shocked expressions. There are many times where it is obvious they have never even considered that underage drinking, portrayal of illegal drug use, or sexual or obscene imagery posted on a public site might have negative repercussions in the future.

As long as the professionalism is maintained, social media is a great tool for education. It allows us to engage the students where they are and to make the material relevant to their everyday lives. The challenge is for the educator to ensure that no ethical, legal, or moral lines are crossed (don’t use it to set up dates with your students, obviously) and that the portal of social networking is one that is advantageous to the student.

Social Networking for the Academic

Anyone who has been involved in academia for longer than a drop/add period will know that there are only three things in the life of an academic: teaching, service, and research. How those three balance will depend on the institution, but all three exist and are at the core of everything that is done throughout the course of the week, month, and term. At least with research and teaching, social networking and other Web 2.0 resources can be extremely valuable.

Unless you’re lucky enough to have your service be as a webmaster (like me), most of the time it involves conferences rooms and reheated-one-too-many-times Chick-fil-a (this may be a phenomenon isolated to Georgia). For teaching and research however, there is a fair amount of human interaction that does not involve high-gloss large tables.

As for research, at least in my field, I think it is safe to say that I am by no means confined to one location. My “lab” is anywhere with a good Wi-Fi signal and my notebook computer equipped with J-STOR, SPSS, Mendeley, and Microsoft Word. So, if I’m collaborating with someone on another part of campus it is quite easy for me to pack up and go have a face-to-face meeting with them. But, what should be done when faced with a collaborator who– instead of being down the hall or across campus (I’m one of 3 political science instructors at GMC Milledgeville right now and the only one with a focus in policy) – is in another city or even another state?

Of course, you use technology. You talk via GTalk or Skype. You edit your documents in the cloud or make use of a research wiki. You use Dropbox to share data files. The research goes on unimpeded by the distance and the sphere of knowledge is expanded.

I would estimate about 90% of “teaching” is done in the classroom. But it would be absurd to even consider the idea that 90% of learning took place in the same location. Today’s students live online, mainly through social media. I draw heavily from outside readings and historical documents for my different classes. Why would I use paper to give out hardcopies of 10 page articles to 50 students in my classes when I can post a link on a Facebook group? Yes, I could post that same link on Blackboard, which I normally do. But, students – in my experience – spend far more time on Facebook than they do on whatever course management system is used by your institution.

I will be the first to say that clear guidelines need to be developed for professionalism in media. Sometimes there are institution wide policies governing faculty and staff conduct. And even if there is not, a wise instructor would still govern himself or herself with the highest sense of decorum. How to do that is up to the individual. But, my next post will discuss how I use each individual platform and how I use them to interact with students. It may not work for everyone, but it has – at least so far – worked well for me.

Faculty Focus Report on Social Media

Faculty Focus has released a report on Social Media Usage Trends among Higher Education Faculty [pdf]. To me at least, the results are not at all surprising. Social networking sites (the focus of the survey was FacebookLinkedIn, and Twitter) are more popular than ever and continue to grow rapidly.

When the children of this technologically advanced generation enter the classroom, they expect to find many of the same elements as they use in their everyday lives. Can this technology be leveraged for use by the Academy? I assert that it can.
My first conference paper (which I’m not linking… I wrote it as an undergrad and it is quite obvious) discussed this issue. How can faculty utilize these “Pedagogical Portals” in a way which students will accept and yet still preserves the decorum and professionalism of the classroom? With the rise of electronic note-taking systems, where do the instructors draw the line at allowing technology to be utilized in the classroom? The first statistic which surprised me was while nearly 83% of instructors allowed laptops in the classroom, only 52% allowed smartphones (no mention was made of tablets, such as iPads). A 31-point difference in device which can cause the same distractions as well as be used for the same legitimate educational purposes.

Social media is not foreign to academics. Nearly half (44.6%) of survey respondents replied that they use Facebook daily. Only 14.6%stated that they never used the service. Now, I’m not going to walk through every single response (there’s a reason I posted the link…) but I did want to mention some of the quotes.

One of my favorites is “Facebook is a backyard barbecue, Twitter is a cocktail hour, and LinkedIn is a business luncheon” (p. 9). That is the best comparison of the three sites I have seen. But still, the detractors remain. One respondent stated that using social networking is a “Bunch of nonsense. Just use the telephone and e-mail is enough to communicate when not in class” (p. 19). While I admit it is a bit annoying to realize a student is bombarding you with messages – no matter the forum – at one in the morning, the educational paradigm has shifted.  An individual exists and interacts in cyberspace nearly as much as they do in the physical realm.

Students come to campus. They live on campus. But they also exist in the land of technology. Study groups no longer have to be in the same room. In fact, they rarely are. I have both given and received tutoring over Skype, GTalk, AIM, and Facebook Chat. If you look at the acknowledgements in my thesis, one of them is to a friend who kept me company via instant messaging during many mutual late-night writing marathons.

To me the answer is clear. Faculty need to be involved in social networking. But there must also boundaries. The answer is not to run from the issue – say, by banning laptops or smart phones from the classroom –but to engage in the novel ideal of EDUCATING our students. We must explain to them what is appropriate and what is not. We must have clear expectations of appropriate behavior with technology. But, we should not, we cannot, fear the technology.

I had planned on discussing how I make use of social network and technology. But, given the length of this post already, I believe that is a topic for another day. Be looking for that post soon.