Make Time NOT to Write

Yeah…you heard me. I’m hear telling you to find time NOT to write.

Does that sound strange? Well not writing is just as important as writing. The trick is that you have to not write in mindful ways. The idea of not writing is (unfortunately) not accomplished by simply putting your writing off for another day.

You have to schedule it in just like you do you regular writing time.

Giving yourself permission to not write is about taking mindful breaks, and mindful breaks are critical to your success as a writer. There are a number of ways you can think about taking breaks, and I outline them in the video above. Overall, I encourage you to plan for breaks in your writing. Doing so will help prevent burnout and allow you to view your work with a set of fresh eyes each time you approach it.

How are you working on taking mindful breaks in your writing practice?

See the full playlist of academic writing tips.

Trigger Warnings

Over the last couple of years, I have read a decent amount about using trigger warnings in college classrooms. A trigger warning is a statement that alerts people about sensitive subject matter that could cause them distress. The idea is that individuals should evaluate their past experiences in light of the upcoming content and consider if and how they wish to proceed.

While I’ve read the different thoughts on having trigger warnings in syllabi, or even put out in advance of a particular class, I had not given them much thought. The use of them simply hadn’t applied to me. There are a variety of opinions on the use of trigger warnings in college classrooms. Some consider them silly and others argued that they resulted in students not having to engage with sensitive, and emotionally difficult, content.

However, trigger warnings, if used well and in a thoughtful manner, are intended to alert students to potentially emotional content but not in a way that requires them to disengage from it. It’s in this camp that I have found myself in when planning a class.

The Emotional Response

One of my classes is getting ready to read Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools. There comes a point in the book where I thought it would be appropriate to discuss the foster care system and it’s role in how students experience education. I found a great talk by Molly McGrath Tierney on Rethinking Foster Care.

The thing to know about me is that I used to be a foster parent. I did it for three years. It was push-outexhausting work, and the system is horrible. It’s horrible for children, and it also doesn’t work for foster parents. As a member of this system, I was given access to stories for why children were in foster care. I had to read files that told me – in very vivid details – what the abuse was that they experienced. Keep in mind, I have never experienced any abuse of this level. I simply read it.

And as I watched Molly’s talk, I found myself crying. Crying because suddenly I started to remember these horrible details I had read. Crying because it dredged up for me awful memories of having been a participant in that system. Crying because I was remembering painful events.

What About My Students?

I still wanted to include the video in my class. Having watched it and dealt with my emotions I figured I could handle it. However, I realized that I had no idea if any of my students had been a part of the foster care system. What if they had been? What memories might this stir up for them? It’s the kind of thing that can catch you off guard.

So I left a note – a trigger warning if you will – above the video. It reads:

NOTE: If you were ever a part of the foster care system, this may be a sensitive video to watch. I encourage you to watch it in advance (it’s only 11 minutes). If you have questions or concerns about viewing it in class, please let me know.

Notice I did not say that students should not watch the video or engage with the content. I think they should. I’m not asking anyone to share personal trauma in class. I may or may not share that I was a foster parent. We’ll see how it plays out. Honestly, I may not be in a place where I want to deal with talking about it. However, it might be that someone in my class could do with some advance warning. Watch it. Process it. If you still think you can’t handle it during class, let me know.

One Year Ago

Two Years Ago


Writing for Your Audience: Three Tips to Succeed

When getting started on a manuscript, it’s important to realize that you are writing for an audience. While you will not personally know each person who reads your work, there are some steps you can take to help ensure you communicate more effectively than not.

Who Is Your Primary Audience?

When writing for an academic journal, you will often find that each journal has a primary and a secondary audience. For example, when I write for journals that are intended to be read by teachers, I also understand that my work may be read by educational researchers. However, teachers are the primary (and intended) audience of the journal. Therefore, I make sure I write my piece with them in mind.

What Does Your Audience Need to Know?

This next step is tricky. Identifying an audience is relatively easy. But now you must craft your piece through their eyes. Each time you revise, you have to consider such things as:

  • what information do my readers require in order to understand my message?
  • have I over explained something or provided more details than are necessary?
  • what might confuse my readers?

You know your work inside and out. When we know something so well, it’s easy to think we are communicating it well. After all, it makes sense to us! You have to write, read, and revise with an outside mindset. Even if you are a member of the primary audience for a journal, your readers are still not as familiar with your work as you are. Think about what terms need to be defined. Consider if you are using too much jargon. Look for places where you have left out information about what you did and how you did it that people need.

Each time you revise your piece, read it with an eye as an outsider. You will keep finding ways to clean it up and make it stronger if you do this. Check out the video below to see an example of how to revise with an outsider mindset:

What Is Confusing?

Often we think we are being clear when we are not. Because our writing makes sense to us, we assume that it makes sense to everyone (or we assume the reader is at fault if they fail to comprehend our message). Whenever there is a comprehension breakdown, it is usually the fault of the writer. The only exception to this is when readers skim over text or don’t read carefully enough to get the information they need. When this happens, you should be able to direct their attention to where the information they missed is located and it will all be cleared up.

But that aside….when someone fails to comprehend any of your writing see it as your responsibility to correct it. Find a better way to communicate it. Take the comment seriously even if you are sure that your piece is 100% awesome (we all know it is). Rather than dismiss the critique, see it as an opportunity to help your writing reach even more people. This will help you be successful at connecting with your audience.

See the full playlist of academic writing tips.

Deciding the Content

Recently, I explained that starting in the fall I would be teaching fully online for the 2017-2018 academic year. My first thought was about how I would foster community. However, once I got past that I realized that I needed to back up and think about the content first. Community is incredibly important for the class, but I can return to it another day (plus it’s always spinning around in the back of my head anyways).

Start With What You Know

I was excited to finally be able to teach fully online. However, that excitement quickly gave way to feeling overwhelmed. Where do I start? While I had the question about building community in my class, it seemed like the most reasonable place to start was making decisions about what I was actually going to teach/wanted students to learn.

That’s right. Just start old school style. No point in getting fancy when we don’y even know what we’re gonna be teaching over here.

I have the syllabi from the previous instructor. This is, of course, immensely helpful. But I don’t have to do it exactly the way she did. In fact, I assume they hired me because I would put my own spin on things. But. I am starting with the basics here. I’ve ordered five or six books from a few publishers that are on the way. I’m sure at least some of them will work for the course and help me refine what I want to teach and when. Because this course is really a course in two parts (spans across the year), I am not feeling constricted.

Having the Year To Teach

The idea that I have a year with students to cover a broad topic (in my case adolescent literacy) is very unique. I’m told that I should expect to have the same students for both classes. While students have to register individually for both classes (fall and spring), I can view the spring class as a continuation of the fall class.

You can view the spring class any number of ways:

  • as a continuation of topics (improve breadth)
  • an opportunity to go deeper into topics and perhaps extend breadth a bit
  • pretend these boundaries don’t exist and seriously play with competency based education

Yes, boundaries do exist between the courses, but they are artificial. It’s the typical semester divide. The course number changes between fall and spring. But, particularly in this case, who says I have to work within that structure?

Thinking about Competency Based Education

I haven’t gotten too far down this path yet because the first step is for me to decide what the course objectives are and what students need to learn. Given that I’m waiting on books to arrive (and my current job takes priority) this will move at a slightly slower pace. But that’s ok. I’ve got time. I think it is possible here to create a master syllabus that

content creationImagine if you had an academic year and could focus on students demonstrating competencies. You want, of course, for your students to demonstrate that they have learned specific things, and that’s what competencies are intended to do. I could see how I could identify a number of things for students to demonstrate. Within a given competency, I could provide students the opportunity to go deeper (this is a way to level a competency to use a gamification principle). It’s not that you have to be advanced on every competency, but I could see how getting a particular grade would require some competencies to be at a basic level and others at a more advanced one. Students could then have options.

You could do this inside a semester. There’s obviously a very definitive deadline for students to demonstrate what they have learned. I could start all over again with different competencies in the second semester even though it’s an extension (Part 2) of the previous one.

Ok. That’s an option to consider, but I kinda like something else….

What if students were presented with all the competencies for the entire year at once. For this class, a masters class with teachers in it, this is actually a very reasonable approach. You can work on a given competency as it makes sense for you and your students. For example, if I have you working on how to teach vocabulary in the spring that’s fine, but maybe you really needed that in the fall. Well now you can pick and choose, go back and forth, as it makes sense for you as the student.

But What About Grading?

Of course these classes still sit inside a traditional university system. At the end of each semester I still have to award everyone a grade. This is simple actually. All I have to do is make a particular grade (A, B, C, etc…) about competencies learned in general. I don’t say you have to have completed XYZ competencies. Instead, I might say that you have to complete a specific number each semester (the student chooses). To get a specific grade, a certain amount of those competencies would have to be more advanced – a higher level if you will – than others. I think this is actually pretty easy.

The Downfall

I’m sure there are multiple downfalls, but the one that popped in my head first was the fact that I will teach this course every other year. What that means is that any cleaning up and revising I want to do based on Year 1 won’t happen until I’m in Year 3 at my position. I don’t like that so much because I like to make changes/revisions in my courses while they are fresh and useful. However, I am thinking about how I can take what I develop and put it into an online platform that would be useful for others outside the university. This allows me to continue to develop the course while offering others an opportunity to dip in and take what they like. It’s a thought worth exploring.

One Year Ago

Two Years Ago


Setting Writing Goals: Three Easy Steps

We’ve discussed the importance of getting organized in your writing and how often you should write. Today I want to get a bit more fine grained and discuss why and how to set writing goals.

Your Overall Goal

Your overall goal is that big piece you are wanting to get done. It could be a specific manuscript. It could be a dissertation proposal or a piece of your dissertation. Start here. What is the big piece you want to finish?

Next, consider when you need to have this done. Some things might come with deadlines (like a book chapter) but often these deadlines are self-imposed. It’s good to create deadlines for yourself on a large scale (when the piece will be finished) and on a smaller scale (baby steps to getting it done). Consider what is a realistic amount of time to getting your piece finished, and consult with others if you need feedback on this.

Set Weekly Goals

Once you know what you are working towards consider each week what you will do to get there. I like to sit down on a Friday and identify what I want to get done the following week. I map out when I will be writing and schedule it into my planner. Then I think about what I want to have done by the following Friday. Obviously this will vary depending on what you are doing and where you are in the writing process. But some examples of weekly goals could include:

  • revising one or more specific sections
  • drafting a new section
  • reading background information relevant to your project
  • creating an outline and getting started

These broader weekly goals will then feed into how you craft your daily goals.

Set Daily Goals

Daily goals are even smaller and more specific than your weekly goals. This is what you are going to do each day that will get you to meet your weekly goals. Over time, these small specific tasks will add up and, before you know it, you are done! Small daily goals are the secret to getting your writing done and out for publication.

Here’s an example from something I am currently doing. I’m working on a conference proposal that is due in about a month. I have a fixed deadline for submission. I’ve got it about 75% drafted at this point, and it’s looking ok in some parts and like garbage in other parts. In thinking through to some daily goals I have arrived at:

  • revise the methods section (Wednesday)
  • revise the findings section (Thursday)
  • draft the conclusion (Friday)

I gave myself 60 minutes to work on the proposal for each of these days. If I finish a goal in less time than I might move on to the next, take a break, eat some chocolate, or start doing something completely unrelated. It’s up to me. On Friday, I will evaluate the quality of my work and decide what I want to do in the upcoming week.

Note that sometimes things might take longer than planned. For example, I might be very unhappy with my work on the findings section. I could then make a choice. I might continue on with it on Friday (bumping the drafting of the conclusion over into the next week) or I might continue on with my plan as scheduled and take a break from the findings section.

You do not have to stay the course, but you do need to show up and do the work. What I mean is, you need to show up and work on whatever you said, but if you need to modify the goals then by all means do so.

See the full playlist of academic writing tips.

Creating the Discussion Charter

Before we get to far down the rabbit hole about designing and teaching online classes, I want to share something I’ve had great success with in my face-to-face classes (and I imagine a version could be useful in an online class). It’s the discussion charter.

The discussion charter is explained in the book Discussion As A Way of Teaching. It’s a fantastic book if you don’t have it. Definitely get it. I’ve used it for every class I’ve ever taught, and it’s made me so much better at designing and leading discussions. The idea behind the discussion charter is that students come together to figure out what the ground rules should be in a discussion – particularly whole class discussions.

In general, I follow the guidelines from the text. I start by asking students to individually jot down qualities from the best and worst discussions they have ever been in. I also provide them with a list of questions to consider. Recently, I asked them to think about:

  • How would you like to indicate that you are ready to speak?
  • What role, if any, do you believe silence plays in a discussion?
  • Should purposeful periods of silence and reflection be built into our time, should we continuously speak, or should we just go with it?
  • Can I, or anyone, call directly on people even if they have not indicated they wish to speak?
  • How do we respond if someone seems to be talking too much?
  • How do we respond if someone does not talk at all?

This was not an exhaustive list, and they were not required to address these questions. But the questions did give them ways to get into thinking about what they wanted our discussions to look like.

discussionStudents then get into groups of four-five and create some guidelines. These are really notes for what they do/do not want in their discussions, and they are informal. I have everyone add them to a google doc, and then we review and discuss. From there, I write up a class charter and post it on our syllabus. The charter can always be edited at any point in the semester.

Some examples from my classes this semester that appeared on the charters:

  • Come to class having done the readings
  • Be aware of what is happening at each session and make the necessary preparations
  • Practice active listening
  • Use culturally competent language. Try to avoid microaggressions
  • Use “I” statements. Avoid generalizations
  • Disagree in a respectful manner
  • It is important to be able to see one another. This facilitates better interactions.
  • We can experiment with how our seating should look and can rearrange it whenever it is not working.

One of my classes has decided that during whole class discussions they want to raise their hands to be called on. In the other class, raising hands is not required but is seen as a useful tool if you find you are not able to insert yourself into the discussion.

A Few Points of Interest

First, the charters are created because I want students to have input – a serious amount of input – on how they experience our discussions. Creating a class charter, done on the first or second day of class, gives students agency over what these discussions look like.

Second, in writing up the charter I use their language. I might shorten things up a bit – we don’t want something that is so specific it actually restricts discussion – but the words I have used are their’s.

Third, I play a role in this charter too. In both classes students brought up something they did not like. Both said that they did not like it when professors counted how much they participated and expected them to speak a specific number of times each session to get a certain grade. Let me just say this…if my students had said they LOVED this approach I would have nixed it because I don’t agree with it. I’m not turning over my agency in this at all, and I’m not going to participate, or be ok with them participating, in ways that are not conducive to quality discussions.

In this case, I assured my students I would not be counting their participation. Why? Well, discussion-3sometimes you have more or less to say on a topic for any number of reasons. Additionally, saying something in order to meet a number reduces discussion to being about quantity and not quality. Also, if I’m counting and checking things off I am not listening and cannot effectively facilitate a discussion.

Finally, look back at some of the things students wanted on the charter. They all noted the importance of coming to class prepared. They all understood what happens when people do not come to class prepared. I could say this a 1000 times, but I think it’s better that it come from them. They have collectively discussed and agreed on what they need to do to foster good discussions. They know we can modify these expectations at any point should something falter.

The power to have good discussions has been given over to them. I play a role in it, but my role, and my power to make the discussions successful, is small. They have the real power, and I want them to know that the quality of the discussions is largely up to them.

One Year Ago

Two Years Ago


The Job Interview: Part 2

Last week, I shared with you the beginnings of my job interview in Wyoming. Today, I want to highlight some of the things that took place including:

  • my reception
  • the job talk
  • my tour of the local medical facilities

The Reception

I have to admit it. I felt a little fancy-pants when I learned that my first evening was going to be spent at my own reception. I was also terrified because who am I to get a reception??? But it turned out to be a lot of fun. I was blown away that they had the entire thing catered vegetarian. I had explained I didn’t eat meat. I didn’t assume they would cater the entire thing without meat. I saw this as an incredibly polite and meaningful gesture (and the food was delicious!).

The reception was held at the University of Wyoming’s Literacy Research Center and Clinic. I don’t know how long it lasted. I mingled with doctoral students and other faculty. That was it. Everyone was very laid back and nice. It was a great way to get to meet a bunch of people at once and for a bunch of people to meet me.

The First Full Day: A Warning of Things to Come

laramieAt breakfast Thursday morning, I was warned to be careful about altitude sickness. Here’s a fact you might not know about Laramie – they sit at around 7200 feet also know as being at altitude. I was already aware of altitude sickness having gotten it once in my twenties (when I didn’t even know what it was, what I was doing, and was running around in the Rockies immediately upon arrival). However, I’d been to this exact altitude, and higher, since then. I used common sense and was always fine.

I wasn’t concerned about getting sick. I’d started hydrating the day before. I wasn’t doing any significant exercise. The only thing I was doing was walking from A to B and that never took more than five minutes.

And still…it came.

I started to show symptoms at my first meeting between 9:00-10:00, and I knew exactly what was happening. It started with a light headache that would flit in and out. I also knew I was in trouble when I thought crawling up onto the table in the meeting room and taking a nap sounded like a reasonable idea.


No….I got this. I can do this. I kept drinking my water and going to meetings. Symptoms seemed to not get too much worse. The fact that I was drinking so much water was far more annoying.

But if I’m being honest, by lunch time I had lost my appetite. I got a salad because I thought I could push it around my plate and get away with eating very little of it. And then, before I knew it, it was time to do my job talk. That’s right. I did my job talk with altitude sickness.

The Job Talk

I wrote a little bit about my job talk, and my approach to it, in a previous post (no one knew because I didn’t link it to Wyoming). In designing my talk, I decided that I didn’t want to give a traditional one. I figured that everyone there knew I could do research. I assumed they even liked my research or else I wouldn’t be there. No one needed me to demonstrate that I could collect data or had a theoretical framework.

So I thought – and I just made this up myself – that if I was going to be interviewing for an endowed chair position that I should step it up a notch and just skip the usual approach.

I set my talk up around the phrase Tell Their Stories, and I used it to discuss the responsibilities we have when we use data to tell the stories of others. I then shared stories based on data I had collected over the years. These stories were grouped around three main themes. I included stories from a variety of participants. I ended by saying the following:

It is my responsibility to tell the stories of others. And it is a responsibility we all share. No matter what kind of research you do, no matter what kinds of methods you use, you are telling their stories. Tell them well.

Now, when I conceptualized and wrote this up I thought I just had the best idea in the world. Then I stood up in front of everyone and freaked out because oh my god…this was a horrible idea…why did i not just do the normal job talk…what was i thinking????

But everything worked out. I was later told that the talk was “well received,” but I never got too much into what people thought about it. I was going down.

Let’s Take a Trip to the ER!

Somehow, I made it through the entire day, and my job talk, without collapsing or so much as sending out a signal that I was battling altitude sickness. I thought if I could get to my room and lay down I would be ok. Surely I just needed a nap. Finally, I copped to my problem. We cancelled the tour of the town along with dinner. I convinced the chair that despite how pathetic I might look I just needed to go back to my room. I did, and an hour later I was calling her to come get me and take me to the hospital.

Getting to the hospital required me to go to the hotel lobby. In no way could I do that. First, I needed to be supervised on my way from my room to the lobby. Things had gotten pretty bad. Second, there was a restaurant down there and no way could I sit in the lobby and smell food. And finally, I was sure I was gonna barf at any moment.

A cone would also have worked.
A cone would also have worked.

The chair comes to my room to escort me (and my trash can) down to her car. The hospital is really just around the corner. The ER waiting room is empty (thank you God). I sit at the check in area and get a proper vomit bag. As I am answering questions I realize that I am going to throw up. Not wanting to throw up in front of the person checking me in, I turn to my left (away from her) and throw up in the bag they gave me.

And I threw up about three feet away from the search committee chair. She held out her hand and directed me to hand her the bag.

I just did it. I had no strength to argue.

And before I knew it I was back in a room hooked up to an IV and passed out and being given oxygen. Occasionally a nurse would come by and try to get me to pee in a cup. I would yell, “No!” and then pass back out.

I wasn’t getting up for that. Not at all.

After about three hours we determined I was feeling much better and could leave. I got some anti-nausea pills for the road and was on my way back to the hotel in significantly better condition.

The Last Day

The last day went off without incident. I had my meeting with the dean (who noted that most people just have to move somewhere and hope the medical facilities are ok instead of getting to check them out first hand), and I lead a one hour discussion section with doctoral students. The discussion was observed by at least four faculty members. This might sound nerve wracking. It had freaked me out when I first heard about it. But after the vomiting and what not I was super laid back and mellowed out. My appetite returned, and I had plenty of anti-nausea pills to get me through the day. I really only needed one first thing in the morning, but they were nice to have when my plane hit turbulence on the way home (my stomach was not up for that).

So home I went wondering what to make of this entire experience. Wondering what everyone else had made of the whole thing. Wondering if I’d be the only candidate to throw up in the direction of the search committee chair….

But I knew one thing. I wanted this job. I knew it with all my heart. I knew it before I got out there. I knew it before I left. As far as the job goes – we’ll just set that little trip to the ER aside – the stars aligned. I thought it was perfect, and I hoped they thought I was perfect too.