Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Mixed Methods International Research Association (MMIRA)

A second conference I got to attend this past summer was the first annual MMIRA meeting. Mixed methods is a methodology that is growing in esteem in the field. I was so excited to be part of this conference's first meeting and share a few presentations about mixed methods studies I have conducted. While the conference was new, it did not disappoint.

People were very helpful and friendly! I know it sounds simple, but I really enjoy conferences where people are there to share their research, mentor young faculty/graduate students, or build the field. Too often, it seems people attend conferences for their own agenda or to put other researchers down. This conference, mostly, was not like that. I made some great connections that are leading to further research (being part of a multi-institution symposium at another conference and getting direct feedback on my dissertation research).

I learned more about what mixed methods research is and what it is not. Mixed methods research is new so it has a limited definition. I learned more about what this new methodology consists of and how to ensure the research I am doing fits the definition. I received so many references to further my study. Overall, I feel the research I conduct from here forward will be more rigorous because I attended this conference.

There was great diversity in methodology, areas of study, and people! This was one of the most diverse conference I have ever attended. People came from all over the world (China, Puerto Rico, Canada, and across the United States). No specific area of research was the focus so health, education, and other social science research was presented. Finally, there were so many different types of mixed methods research being conducted. Again, it was a great learning experience just from the exposure to so much research.

While I do not foresee attending this conference again as it overlaps in time with another conference I enjoy, I am glad I attended. I will definitely encourage my future graduate students to pursue this conference as a great learning experience.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Text and Academic Authors Association

This summer I had wonderful opportunities to attend several conferences, including TAA (Text and Academic Authors Association). I wanted so badly to attend this conference, so I submitted two presentation ideas and both were accepted! One was a formal presentation over managing multiple writing projects and one was a roundtable presentation from my current research on writing in higher education.

This conference is hands down one of the best I have ever been to. I plan to attend for many years to come and present as often as I can. :) Next year, the conference is in Las Vegas!

They care about their conference attendees. 

Conferences often do not "take care" of their attendees, but this one did! There was breakfast provided every morning (oatmeal, fruit, and pastries) with coffee, water, or soda. Drinks were available throughout the day (water, soda, and coffee) for pick-me-ups along with snacks. The conference committee organized dinner as a group each night and lunch was provided at the conference. During registration, all attendees were given programs, pens, and small backpacks to carry everything in. 

While feeding me and keeping me hydrated wins my heart, what truly made a difference is how welcoming the conference committee was. I was never without someone shaking my hand and talking to me. Members of the committee made a point to attend both my roundtable and presentation and give me helpful, encouraging feedback. I met every single one of the people who organized the conference and could tell you something about them when I left. Usually, I have no idea who was in charge or what role they played. This attention to the attendees and presenters is unparalleled. 

The sessions were very informative and helpful. 

I am a researcher and writer. This conference is going to be the conference I attend to help build my writing craft and give my soul some good vibes. During the break-out sessions, I found it challenging to choose which sessions I wanted to go to because everything was so good! There were sessions about writing manuscripts or books, getting published, legal issues, funding, and from a variety of presenters, college instructors, textbook writers, and lawyers. Everyone could find something to enjoy. 

The sessions were also very good. Each one I attended, I left with handouts and notes from the interactions. Most presenters were open to answering questions and being flexible in their presentation to accommodate the needs of the audience. I learned so much! 

They used social media well. 

More and more conferences are beginning to use social media (Facebook, Twitter, discussion groups online) to get people involved in the conference. Most fail. However, this conference did it right! A bowl was set up at the registration table where attendees could write tweets that were posted via the TAA Twitter Page (and there was a drawing for an Amazon gift card to encourage people to participate). Furthermore, at least one member of the conference committee was at each session posting to the Twitter page during the presentation! How great! There was a unique hashtag to follow the tweets and when I reviewed these at the end of the day, I learned just as much as from the sessions. 

Overall, this conference was welcoming, friendly, and raised the bar for my expectations at conferences. I cannot wait to attend (and maybe present) again next year! :)

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Managing Stress in Graduate School - The "Bigger" Picture

A common theme has emerged on this blog this summer - Graduate school is stressful.

One of the most important things an individual, who is considering or currently in graduate school, can do is learn how to manage the stress. This looks different for every person. This summer, I have made it my mission to learn how to manage my own stress and learn how I deal with stress. 

First of all, I am a quiet stressor. When things get difficult, I don't want other people to know I am freaking out or stressed. What I have learned, through research on stress, is that this actually can cause a worse problem. While I get very frustrated by people who "let their stress out" and show it all over the place, these people actually are less stressed over time. According to research, when we feel stressed, our bodies are reacting to the stress which wears down our immune system. When we do not allow our bodies to get out the stress, it continues to harm our bodies. Thank goodness I have one of the greatest immune systems of all time. :) Seriously, my immune system rocks. However, it is constantly dealing with this more potent stress because I don't show it or let it out. 

After learning all of this information about stress, I decided to begin building my stress management plan. This has involved a few major life changes related to scheduling and hobbies. So far, in just a month, they have made all the difference. I am still stressed, but manage it much better. One of the worst parts of stress for me is that it makes me gain weight. However, in just a month of doing these different tasks, I have lost 8 pounds! Without a ton of changes to eating. I'm telling you, this works...

Let's begin with hobbies. One of my colleagues and friends has said something numerous times to me and in the company of people not in graduate school that has truly bothered me. She has said (I'm paraphrasing), "I remember before graduate school, I used to have hobbies. Now, I can't remember what they were or what I did with my free time." The point of this statement is that graduate school is so time-consuming that it is hard to do anything else. When you did get "free time", you are usually too fried to do anything that requires brain power. As I have contemplated on this statement, I have been troubled. What did I used to do with my free time? 

In all honesty, I've had a unique run in my 20s that really hasn't involved much free time. As an undergraduate student, I took 16-18 hours each semester, worked 3 part time jobs, and was a leader in (and very involved with) 3 organizations. My days started around 6:30am and ended around 11pm. Free time was spent hanging out with friends. After graduation, I worked full time as a teacher and went to school at night. Again, any free time was spent hanging out with friends. Now, well, now is much the same level of busyness. 

Nonetheless, I have picked up several hobbies that I loved at one time, but got away from for one reason or another. Enjoying my time away from work and giving myself permission to love the simpler things in life has been inspiring, rejuvenating, and invigorating.

1. Pilates. I love pilates. Always have. It combines exercise with meditation and breathing. Not only am I working my body and strengthening my muscles, but it is so relaxing and calming. Pilates is all about controlling the body in movement. Also, when I get frustrated or stressed by work, I use the breathing techniques and feel calmer. 

2. Music. I love music. In my home, there is always music playing in the background, but I equally love producing music. As a child I learned to play the piano, then played the flute and saxophone in middle school. When I was approaching high school, I gave up band because I wanted to play sports and take advanced courses, and my school would not allow me to do all three. I'm glad I made that choice then; however, now I am happy to reteach myself to play the instruments I loved. I saved my flute and saxophone from my parents' house and have started relearning the flute first. I can successfully play "Mary Had a Little Lamb" and have already relearned how to read music (in only 2 weeks). I cannot wait to see where this takes me. It is such a joy to produce music and makes me truly happy to practice. 

3. Family heritage. As I've been traveling so much, I have become more and more interested in history, which has made me more and more interested in my family history. Anytime I have ever asked someone in my family about our history, I get a few great stories then nothing. I want to answer two questions: 1. When did we originate in the United States (I'm in the mid-1800s and we haven't left Texas, so we have been here a while)? and 2. Did any of my ancestors fight in major wars? This has been a fun experiment and has given me something new to talk about with my family. Every time I see them, I have a list of questions and facts that need verifying. 

4. History and Art History. I've never been one to mask my annoyance with learning history in school. However, as I mentioned, traveling has given me a new appreciation - one I wished I had as a student. I have divulged a little more into nonfiction and have been reading about American history and art history. 

5. Reading Fiction. Enough said. :) 

6. Playing tennis. Tennis is my favorite sport, hands down. Yes, I love football, but it doesn't compare to tennis. I played tennis for 12 years growing up and will drop everything to watch my boys play in the grand slams. One of my life bucket-list items is to attend the U.S. Open, Australian Open, and Wimbledon. We shall see. To play tennis, you need another human being. Luckily, I have some friends who are eager to go play with me. But, when they aren't, I can still go to the courts, run drills, and hit serves. I usually do this with music. Again, it is great to exercise the body, but tennis is a mental game. It gives me the opportunity to practice mental energy and take a break from thinking about work. 

These hobbies have filled my nights and weekends with new adventures and much more enjoyment. They are also great activities to bring other people into to enjoy. However, they are only half of the puzzle.  

Now, onto scheduling. I am a very routine-oriented person. I enjoy routine and it helps me function. I have developed a new routine for working (now that I am not taking classes) that has proven very successful and given me the chance to enjoy my new hobbies at night (I get very bored with TV and the quality of programming available). 

7:00-8:00 - Wake up and Pilates routine
8:00-8:30 - Walk the dog
8:30-9:15 - Get ready for the day/breakfast
9:15-12:15 - Morning Work block (dissertation)
12:15-1:00 - Lunch (away from the office)
1:00-5:00 - Afternoon Work block (collaborations, course prep, reading, personal projects, work for professors, etc.)

So far, this routine has been golden! I begin my day with centering and exercise and make the dog happy! Because I am most productive in the morning, I give this time to my most important task - dissertation. This can be any work related to the dissertation - surveys, conference presentations, statistics, write-ups, etc. Lunch away from the office is extremely important. It is important to get up, walk around, and leave the work space. During my lunch break, I run errands, read, walk the dog, or do something away from my desk while re-energizing my mind with food. The afternoon work block is devoted to everything else I need to accomplish. I use pomodoro and during the breaks, I check and respond to emails. This way, I also limit the time I spend doing this task. 

Once 5pm hits, I'm done with work (except for a few special occasions) and can enjoy my nights. When I come back to work in the morning, I feel refreshed and ready to tackle my projects. Overall, I feel more productive and less stressed. 

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Writing Motivation and Inspiration

Writing is hard.

From thoughts and ideas to grammar and stylistics - writing is one of the most complex actions we can complete.

However, writing can also be one of the most rewarding tasks. At its core, writing is a form of self-expression, advocacy, and communication. It is a way to convey the deepest thoughts of our hearts and minds. It is personal.

Because of this one fact alone, it's personal, we face challenges. Allowing other people to read our writing can be frightening and we can feel like their opinion of our writing is their opinion of us. Separating the two can be difficult.

I consider myself a "good" writer. I have been writing since childhood when I would prepare newspapers, reports, or presentations on daily events or topics I researched (like the Alamo, Pocahontas, and the American Revolution). During my school years, I mostly faced failure as a writer. My teachers did not believe I was a good writer though I was a good student. It wasn't until I began studying writing for a living that I saw the problem - I didn't fit the mold. I wrote in my own style. This style was good, but not appropriate for what my school required. 

In college, I majored in English with an emphasis in rhetoric. I then began teaching English and Language Arts to middle and high school students before returning to graduate school full time for my Ph.D., which I knew would focus on the study of writing. In my free time, I blog, write poetry, short stories, and chunks of a novel, and diary daily. Writing is a part of my lifestyle and well-being.

Yet, I find writing challenging and difficult at times. This summer I have been struck with an odd case of "lack of motivation and inspiration". There are so many things I want to write, so many ideas, but not nearly the time to complete them. For me, this results in an apathetic attitude. There is too much before me, not enough time, and therefore, I feel like I am falling behind. What I need is motivation and inspiration.

I am not usually one to blame my writing woes on this "lack"; however, there is really no other reason for the way I feel. To see if I could bolster my attitude, I reviewed what I have done since January:

1. completed my preliminary exams
2. presented 12 conference papers
3. piloted a study focused on writing
4. wrote 4 articles (3 currently under review for publication)
5. wrote and defended my dissertation proposal
6. wrote 2 book chapters that are under review

Um. Wow. I really have no reason to feel disappointed or like there is a lack in motivation. To provide further evidence against my position, I have felt like I've slowed down since summer began. Looking at my writing logs, this is the farthest thing from the truth. In June, I wrote for 64 hours, which is above average for the year! In fact, the only two months in which I wrote more were January (preliminary exams) and April (dissertation proposal). 

The big question then is: Why do I still feel a lack of motivation and inspiration and like I am not accomplishing all that I want? Simple answer: Too much. I have a never-ending list of tasks that doesn't get any shorter no matter how many items are crossed off. While this list is not changing any time soon, I have begun to better understand how to manage the stresses this causes. 

More importantly, I have realized how much I have accomplished and how happy I should be with my progress. That is all the motivation and inspiration I could ever hope for. :) 

What motivates and inspires you? If you can't find your answer, look within! 

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Teaching Online - Dos and Don'ts

This summer session I got the opportunity to teach the online version of the course I have been teaching for the last year. What an experience! I had never taught a course 100% online, though I've used the online system as a tool for teaching my face-to-face class, and historically, I loathe online courses. Personally, I don't feel like I get out of the course what I want to.

Moving this course online and condensing it to 5 weeks was tough. I struggled with cutting down the assignments, readings, and course presentations without cutting vital information. All in all, my course was very rigorous but the students have been sending me emails about the experience (mostly positive), so I feel like I did a thing or two right (and many things wrong).

The course was 5 weeks and writing-intensive (not a good idea for an online, summer course, but that is another story). My final course included:
1. 3 online discussions
2. 2 exams (midterm and final)
3. 8 writing assignments toward a final research paper
4. 3 content-based assignments
5. 18 PowerPoints of content
6. 18 scholarly articles to read (plus their research paper articles)

Wow - they did a lot! And, I did a lot of grading. Whomp whomp.

Here are the things I suggest avoiding...Online Teaching Don'ts

1. Don't be available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. At a conference recently, I heard someone say of online teaching, "Students view it as a hotline instead of online". This is beyond accurate. Just because the course is online and we have access to devices that allow us to respond to emails at every hour of every day does NOT mean we should. If you respond to an email at a funky time, you will get a lot more hours at a funky time.

2. Don't overload yourself with grading - you have a life, too. I always forget this point, if I assign it and they turn it in, I have to grade it. As this course is writing-intensive, I felt like I graded constantly. I wanted to give them feedback, but rather than having one week to get papers back to them (as in a regular semester), I had 3 or 4 days. Yikes! Be very cognizant of due dates and how closely they come to each other so that you have time to get the grading done without being overwhelmed. 

3. Don't be too flexible about technological glitches. I once had a professor say, "Technology will fail; it's just a matter of when". Yes! We can all tell of a time when technology was not our friend. With an online class, students will try to use technology failing as an excuse for nearly everything. What I have found works is to be very strict upfront about this (you can always ease off if you need to). Usually when students come to me, it really is a big problem and not just a glitch.

4. Don't make the course "easier". Many students believe that "online" or "summer" is synonymous with "easier". Combine these two terms and students think this is a party and an easy way to get three credits. The course should be as rigorous as face-to-face. In fact, in my opinion, it is harder because there is less time and the students can't see me. There is a great deal more work they have to do independently. However, I have been pleasantly surprised by the fact that if you raise your expectations, students will rise to the occasion to meet them. 

Now for the good stuff...Teaching Online Dos

1. Communicate often! While I do not believe you should be a "hotline" for students, it is important to communicate often with them. If you are proactive about communicating, you can fend off problems ahead of time. I did two things that really helped keep my students on task and avoided them asking me 100 tedious questions. Every Monday of the course, I sent my students a Weekly Agenda. This gave a synopsis of the objectives for the week, readings they should complete and how they related the course PowerPoints, activities the students needed to complete, and where they should be in their research paper. It served like a checklist for students to use to get through the week.

The second thing I did was send out a Weekly Synthesis at the end of each week. This included the big ideas students should have taken from the reading and course PowerPoints and recapped my overall thoughts on their assignments. For example, when students turned in writing assignments, I used this forum to outline major issues I was seeing with APA or writing. Also in these emails, I would let students know what grades had been posted or when they could expect feedback from me.

2. Include audio or video in your course presentations. PowerPoints are very boring if they are not being delivered. I don't like going through individual PPTs that other people have created; I miss the person's voice. If you are going to include PPTs with information in an online course, add video or audio of YOU. The students want the interaction with the professor. In my first PPT, I include a few pictures of myself and information about my life. In every PPT, I include audio for each slide. Students have the option of listening to this, but if they do, they can experience what a face-to-face class would be like. Many of the students in my course indicated that this was very useful because they felt like they got more content and got to hear my thoughts on everything, rather than just reading slides. 

3. Set specific time-limits on returning emails to students. My syllabus has a very specific clause that says I will "work to respond to emails within 24 hours Monday - Friday from 8am to 8pm". This means, if a student emails me at 9pm on Friday night, they can expect an answer after 8am on Monday. And, I am strict about this. As I mentioned earlier, if you respond to an email during a time you said you wouldn't, they think that means you are always available. For the most part, if students email me between 8 and 8, they get a response within a few hours, at most. 

4. Be more specific than you every thought possible. This goes for everything - explaining discussion posts, assignments, exams, PPTS, anything. Because students do not get the face-to-face explanation, they need more detail. I provided instructions, rubrics, and annotated templates for every assignment. The templates were not "samples", but were a way for me to communicate what I wanted without taking all creativity out of the assignment. The more detail you include here, the less likely you will have a bunch of questions later. 

5. Be organized! It is important to set up your course online so that it is highly organized from week to week. You want to keep a similar formatting, if possible. Some instructors like folders and some instructors like modules. It does not matter what method you pick as long as you are consistent and communicate strongly with your students. For my course, I used folders, one for each week of the course that included everything students needed for that particular week. The folders were divided into sub-folders with readings, activities, research paper assignments, and course PPTs. Every week, students knew exactly where to go for what materials. 

6. Have fun and show your personality a little. Students enjoy seeing that their instructor is a human being. When I was traveling, I told my students. If I was out of state when I needed to send an agenda or synthesis email, I began with "Greetings from ________", and the students really enjoyed it. I also shared inspirational videos and tools that I would share with my face-to-face class. The students really enjoyed this and wanted to know that I was a person, enjoying my summer too. 

Overall, I have learned so much about teaching online! I loved it, but it was challenging as well. I believe that this experience will make me a better instructor for my face-to-face classes.

I might be biased, but I think this was my favorite group of students ever to teach! :) 

Friday, July 11, 2014

Study Abroad - from the Instructor Perspective

Immediately following my dissertation proposal defense, I had the most incredible opportunity - I got to go to London, England to help chaperone a study abroad excursion. As my first experience traveling internationally, and my first attempt at leading 38 undergraduate students, I could not have asked for a better experience. To top it all off, I really needed a break after successfully defending my dissertation proposal.

While I was not the official instructor in charge on the trip, I was her graduate assistant. The undergraduates knew me as a member of the instructors and got to answer to me just the same. I learned so much on the trip and picked up some great advice for how to lead a study abroad in the future - which I cannot wait for! 

This trip was short and sweet, only one week. The students who attended had to meet some very rigorous requirements for academics and have recommendations from other instructors. Finally, every bit of this trip was planned by a travel agency and we had the most incredible tour guide ever.

Here are my top lessons about leading a study abroad trip:

1. Have contacts in the country you are visiting. We had the number of our travel agent and our tour guide handy at all times. We could call them at any minute if we had a concern (and we had to a few times). Being close with people who know their way around the country is of the utmost importance; these people can assist you with how to act, correct tipping, travel, etc. 

2. Be flexible. The most important lesson in teaching is also important when traveling abroad. We had everything planned perfectly, down to the hour. However, things don't always go as planned. Our bus was late the first two days putting us nearly an hour behind schedule. This caused us to rush at several important stops, but we managed. We also had to rearrange a few stops that were more flexible in timing. While this was not ideal, we still had a great trip and got to see everything we wanted. 

3. Be nicer than necessary to everyone. Hotel personnel, drivers, waiters, everyone. Even if the service is sub-par, even if things aren't going your way. Nothing is more important than being extra nice, tipping too much, and showing gratitude to everyone. As I mentioned earlier, you never know when you will need someone to help you out. Plus, you don't want the reputation of being a "narcissistic American". 

4. Keep your cool. Upon arriving in London, one of our students left her passport on the plane BEFORE we went through customs. Many of the students freaked out and did not know what to do. However, the instructors kept their cool which made the students keep their cool. When our busses were late, we kept our cool. It is always important to maintain patience and a clear head. 

Traveling around London was a blast. The girls had a great time, we had a great time, and I want to go back ASAP. :) 

Someday, I hope to lead my own Study Abroad trip. 

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Proposal Defense Hearing

This past Spring semester was by far the craziest and busiest I have ever experienced. X10. 

I accomplished so much, but I really hope to never have a semester like this again. In January, I had my preliminary exams and successfully passed! (YAY!) The next big task was to work on my dissertation proposal so that I could pass my proposal defense at a hearing. 

I was also piloting my dissertation study with a small research team. Leading the research team was an adventure, but being able to pilot my study gave me great insights into what my data would look like and how I might write up the results. More importantly, I did a lot of things wrong, so I got to learn from those mistakes. (A post devoted to leading a research team and my study is coming soon.) 

Back to the purpose of this post - proposal defense hearing. This was the most exciting and most scary day of my Ph.D. experience so far. I am used to presenting at conferences and love it, but speaking in front of the four people who get to say "yes" or "no" to me about a subject that is so close to my heart made me extra nervous. 

I worked hard for 3 months writing up by "proposal". This is the "what I plan to do for my dissertation" plan. As I had been running the study this spring, I decided to take the dissertation a step further. In actuality, my dissertation will be a second phase to a much larger study. I cannot wait. 

My incredible family was very supportive, which is a must in graduate school. They sent me flowers the day before my defense.

On the day of my defense, I had called to get light snacks for my committee (muffins, bagels, and fruit). The defense lasted nearly 2 hours! I went through each phase of my larger study and was able to communicate results from the pilot study I had already done. 

The defense was both nauseating and invigorating.

Nauseating because it was scary. I was so nervous and afterwards, all I wanted to do was leave and go on vacation (luckily, I was going to London!). I never believed that people would say you have to love your dissertation because you will hate it by the end. While I don't believe I will hate it, I do believe it will be hard to do things by someone else's design. The most challenging part of academia, at this phase, is pleasing everyone. As a doctoral student, I have to make my committee happy and take some of their suggestions. However, there are 4 people in that room plus me that have slightly different opinions about the best way to do things. 

On the other side, the defense proposal hearing was invigorating. It was wonderful to see a group of academics I respect come together for me to help me succeed. I also enjoyed the suggestions my committee had and feel they will make my final product even better. In many ways, I became closer with some of my committee members after the defense. 

It was two months ago (to the date!), and I am still beyond excited that this part of the journey is over. My advisor told me repeatedly that the proposal defense is the most difficult part. Well, in my case, so far, it has been. 

BUT, it was 100% worth it to be able to say...

Ph.D. Candidate. ABD. All But Dissertation. :)