Sunday, June 17, 2007

Excusable Absences

For those of us who teach and do research at a research university, one challenge of simultaneously teaching and doing research is how to deal with the travel that is necessary for the research but that conflicts with the responsibilities of teaching.

Even though summer has just started, I am already making decisions about travels for the next academic year, and trying to decide how to balance teaching responsibilities with research-related travel. There are some conferences I have to attend (2), some I would like to attend (2 others), and some invitations to give talks at other universities. There is other travel I would like to do (e.g., visit colleagues and other labs). However, even if I wanted to be away that much, I am teaching 2 classes in the fall and taking a class as a student. So, I am trying to restrict my travel to the minimum: the 2 essential conferences. My grad students will represent our group just fine at any conferences I can't attend, and I will try to schedule all invited talks for the spring semester, when I am team-teaching and have a more open schedule.

And, yes, some conferences are essential for presenting results and for networking. A colleague of mine recently filed his annual NSF report and didn't report any conference presentations,and there were no papers or theses yet to report; the program director rejected his report. My colleague did in fact have conference presentations to report, but he didn't think these were important to mention. He added the abstract citations, and the report was accepted.

Even with my plans for limited travel in the fall, I will miss 3 classes for one course, and 2 for another. There are various ways to deal with these absences, including:

- scheduling an exam for a day I will be away, if the timing makes sense for an exam then. In the pre-email era, I never scheduled exams for times I would be away, unless I was around up until very close to the time of the exam. Now that students are most likely to email me with questions, I can help them remotely just as well as if I'm in my office. If I'm going to be away for 2 classes in a week, I schedule the exam for the first absence, and cancel the second one. It's more difficult if the class meets less and/or doesn't have exams, but in these cases I provide an extended, structured activity that can be accomplished with small working groups and email input from me.

- arranging for a substitute: a grad student, postdoc, or colleague. This can work well as long as not overdone, and can be a good experience for a grad student or postdoc (as well as providing additional good material for letters of reference). This fall, I have an informal agreement to trade substitute activities with a colleague who will also be traveling a lot. I've taught his course before and he's taught mine, so it's an easy trade.

I have never left a movie to be shown to a class while I'm away, but I suppose this would be OK as long as the movie was well justified in the context of the class.

It would be best for my teaching if I didn't miss any classes, but that's not possible.


Rob Halford said...

Thanks a lot for useful information! )))

beth said...

I never minded the occasional substitute. Sometimes it's nice to get a different perspective on the material.

Jane said...

These are all great ideas! Other things I've done: scheduled a guest speaker (if the guest speaker is an alum, then I don't feel as bad not being there), scheduled a "tutorial" with the library or the IT folks (if, for instance, the students will be using research databases or using a particular piece of software), had the students do a lab to give them practical exposure to whatever concept we're currently learning (similar to your "extended activity", I'm guessing).

Mr. B. said...


In the past when I have taught, I always try to get my post-doc/senior grad student to give a lecture in the course. This is done with a run-through, I sit there during the lecture, and we talk about it afterwards.

I think this is a valuable experience for people thinking about a teaching career. It is kind of funny because in other non-science disciplines the grad students often teach the WHOLE course and there are corresponding complaints about English, not knowing how to teach, etc., etc.

Bottom line: If you can get a good grad student to cover for you it might be a valuable experience for them. This assumes that there won't be too much whining by your colleagues...

Mr. B.

Andrea Ann said...

I always have appropriate film or tv show picked out for my classes just in case something comes up. TV shows are particularly good because you can fit a whole episode into one class. (I'm in the humanities so this fits pretty easily) But I always have questions for them to consider while watching the show and an activity or discussion afterwards - I've often found this to be some of my most effective learning moments!

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EuropeanFemaleScienceProfessor said...

The trade is a great idea, if you have a colleague you can exchange with.

I have been experimenting quite a bit with teleteaching alternatives. So many laptops now have cameras built in, I just need that camera and a headset for video, or I just type into a chat window.

I use free software such as Skype for transmitting the video, and have a student assistant open up the classroom, set up their laptop with the beamer and the loud speakers, and then sort out a room microphone.

I use Powerpoint slides (and number them!) that I send to the student in advance. I just say "Next slide", and the student hits the return key. I repeat the slide number every now and then to make sure that we are on the same page.

I may end up having to teach at 6am if I am in the States and my class is scheduled for noon in Europe. But that is fine, I have the rest of the day to attend to whatever I am doing there.

Chatting is the easy for me, as there is very little technology involved. And I touch-type, having lost a fight with my mother in high school. I wanted to do physics, she made me take typing so that I could at least work as a secretary to earn money...

I don't overdo this - maybe once a semester per class. But it gives me some freedom to travel. And they kind of like this use of technology.

I had glowing evaluations on one instance where there was no video possible and they just had my voice. People commented that it was so quiet in the room (because everyone was trying to hear), that they were able to follow the lecture easily. I noted upon return that they can have this every session if they would all just keep their mouths shut....

Yvette said...

Fyi, students don't mind if you cancel one or two lectures during the year. :) Especially if it falls into the "video" category of things... Most students don't go on such days if they know of them in advance anyway, not as much because they're slackers but because there's usually something else more important to work on.