Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A New Question and "Old" Updates: Revisiting the Skittish Speaker and the Problematic Professor

(This will be my last post until 2012 since I have some rare time to spend with my school-age child. I want to express immeasurable appreciation to every single person who has followed and/or shared this blog, and particularly to all who have offered encouragement and feedback. I remain honored and humbled by the response to and support for my message. I wish you the utmost abundance for your holiday season. I can't wait to share more student-professor communication conversation in 2012! Now, on to the updates...).
I had great comments from my last post regarding what to do when you fail a class--questions that can definitely help other students who are struggling. I'm going to continue the discussion a little longer. I welcome more questions ( if you have them!

I also wanted to bring you up to speed on the outcome of two other student questions:

First, remember the student from this post who was worried about speaking in front of a large group, but did great when speaking one-on-one or up to five people?

The follow up:
The student delivered the next presentation in class and survived. The student stated, "It didn't go as well as in my practice sessions. I forgot some of my lines and got flustered." (The student was not allowed to use notes for this particular presentation). The good news was that the student felt like the Q&A section went extremely well: "I handled it better by focusing on each person asking the question, much like having a conversation with that individual."

We will celebrate this student tackling the speaking experience head-on and reframing the public speech as one big conversation. Hopefully, the confident places will propel the student into the next successful speaking opportunity. 

And the next update: 

A couple of weeks ago, I answered a student question in this post regarding a professor displaying some unprofessional behavior in the classroom. The student questioned whether to see a department chair and if the complaint would be taken seriously.  

The follow up: 
The student did go see the department chair, the meeting went well, and the student feels much better! The student states, "The department is now looking closely at the professor's behavior. I feel that the issues will not continue again next semester." The student added: "I know that in the future if I need to speak with the department chair about a serious issue that I will be able to without feeling terribly nervous." 

That situation was tough, so I'm extremely impressed that the student self-advocated. These difficult conversations provide valuable experience for future conflict management. I know the student will draw on the courage that it took to get through this situation and feel more confident about navigating future challenging communication issues. Hopefully, the professor will get some support and future students won't have the same experience.

Now, to one of the follow-on questions from the "You Failed Your Class" piece: 

I'm going to paraphrase the crux of the question: 

"Do you have any suggestions for bringing your GPA up to par when you can't seem to find your feet at the college level?"

What a brilliant question, and one that I'm certain many students are facing right now. Just the asking means that this student is very motivated to figure out the struggle and get to the bottom of it. I say bravo! Asking the right questions is huge!

I have a lot of suggestions, and some of them involve more asking yourself more questions. Here's a list:

1.  My first suggestion is both reactive and proactive. First, reactive:  Talk to any professor from whom you didn't get a grade that you were hoping. Say, "I didn't do as well as I'd hoped in this class. Can we discuss some of the assignments that brought my grade down and see where I needed to improve?" (I'll get to the proactive in #3).

2.  If possible, try to pinpoint the specific component of classes that you're struggling with. So often, students say, "I don't get it!" or "This is just too hard!" The language we use fuels our anxieties and stress. So, define "it" and "this." Is "it" test-taking? Writing research papers? Trying to find proper sources? Math equations? You probably have numerous tutoring centers on campus that can assist you, such as writing centers, math resource centers, etc. Of course, the library can help you with information literacy. Pinpointing the parts of assignments that are reducing your grades will help you trigger the right support systems.

3.  Now, your proactive approach:  Meet with the professors for your upcoming term nice and early, or send an e-mail. Say, "I've been struggling with my GPA while in college so far. My test-taking skills seem to be fine, but my grades on my papers haven't been strong (or whatever the problem is... try to define it, if you can). I would like to do well in this class (also define what "well" means... is it an 'A'? A 'B-'?). Will you review my papers early? What strategies can we put into place?"

4. Look for unconventional types of help in addition to on-campus resources: I struggled in a college Algebra class and hired a high school math genius to come to my house twice a week and help me with homework. Sure, I was a non-traditional student and had some funds to pay him, but even a few hours of tutoring at $10/hour can do wonders, if you can swing it. You may even ask your parents or grandparents if they know any retired college profs or high school teachers.

Another option? Find another student with strengths that you need and barter:  They help you drill for a few tests, you wash their car, pick up a pizza, or offer to clean their apartment. Last, but not least, don't forget about your local library, which may also be able to help with some basic assistance.

5. Be strategic in your class planning. This is where your adviser and even some trusted professors can help you a great deal, but you have to work through this tip early. Schedule classes so you are not taking three extremely hard classes at once.

"Hard" is a subjective term, of course. For some, English/writing classes are considered difficult and math is considered easy. For others, the reverse is true. If you can, organize your classes so you have maximum time to focus on the elements that are difficult. Remember, you can always "interview" a prof in advance about his/her class. Say, "I am considering taking this class next term. Do you have a syllabus I could look at? An older one is fine." (I've said before that there probably won't be radical differences from term to term and you can get a feel for the class even with a document that is a term or two old). You can also be honest with the professor and say, "I really struggle with writing research papers. I want to try not to take all writing-heavy classes at once so I can do my best."

6.  Determine what GPA you really need. Does every student want to receive straight A's? Possibly. But not every student needs straight A's to reach goals. I don't want to say that grades don't count. They do in many situations, such as if you want to get into a particular program, go for an advanced degree, or if your employer will ask for a transcript because it's your first job (but they may confirm degree only, not necessarily look at individual grades).

7.  If necessary, you can re-take classes to raise your GPA (it's true that financial aid likely won't cover that), or, if an entire term is shot, you can consider academic renewal. An incomplete may also be possible, depending on the reason.

However, if you can still reach your goals with a 3.0 GPA, this gives you leeway to have a few blooper grades that can average out with some stronger grades. The organization YouTern has an amazing blog that discusses other attributes required of you in internships/the workforce: Personal branding through extracurricular activities, having a strong elevator pitch, etc. You'll find that there is more to your marketability than grades--and this may lighten some of your angst.

Remember, wonderful students, the beauty of college is that every single term is a true "academic renewal":  You can re-evaluate what's going well, re-tool what's not going well, and strive for better grades. Just because you have one (or two or three) "off" terms does not mean that your entire GPA will be shot.

Stay connected with your professors because your communication with them is so key to your success (no-brainer that I'd say that, right?). I realize many of you are on winter break or heading into winter break. It's not too early to send some e-mails scheduling appointments and start your next term off with a new support system.

I look forward to hearing awesome news about grade increases!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

You Failed Your Class... Now What?

Yes, a friend of mine just died.

Yes, the construction next door continues... starting at 7 a.m. this morning, in fact.

So, I'm thinking that you may be thinking, "The Chatty Professor is bringing me down! Just look at the title of this week's post!"

And, indeed, while I've written about some challenges of late, I still have my practicality about me.

During a run a few days ago, I mentally replayed all of the "get ready for finals" tips I'd seen via blogs, articles, etc. over the past week or so.

Let's just say more than I can effectively count.

And many of those tips are very useful.

But what few people talk about is what happens after the grades come in.

That's right:  When students say to profs:

-"Is that really my final grade?"

-"But I can't fail! I really needed a 3.5 in this class to transfer."

-"I can't have a 0.0 and still get financial aid!"

...when finals are already finished, and grades have been calculated.

Then you just might have to pick up the pieces of "I didn't get the grade I wanted/needed. Oh, crap!"

What do you do then?

Let's talk about it...

First thing's first:  You have to meet with your professor, even if your inclination is to take the knife with which you carved your Thanksgiving turkey and scratch it alongside his/her car.

Ideally, your meeting with the prof should take place before official grades are posted. I don't want to give you any false hope that the failing grade will change, but in case your discussion with the prof reveals some new opportunity, it is far easier for the prof to alter the grade before an official grade change form is required.

Where do most students go wrong in this "I failed" meeting? (Aside from the fact that barely any students actually take the time to have this meeting...): 

-They are angry and blame the professor for the failing grade:  "Your class was too hard! I could have done better if there was less work/more time/fewer tests."
-They are frustrated and express disbelief that the failing grade is happening:  "I don't deserve this and I wasn't expecting to fail this class!"
-They suddenly wake up and take notice of their grades after not giving them a second thought all term:  "I thought I was doing better. I only missed a couple of assignments."
-They beg (and possibly bribe) for a last-minute save to avoid the ominous fate of failure: "I have to do something... Extra credit. I'll redo work. I'll wash your car, mow your lawn... anything."

But what should you say?

Before you say anything, calculate your grade yourself and make sure that your totals match the professor's. If your calculations aren't revealing a failing grade, then your first question is, "Can you show me how you arrived at this number of points? I see that I have a D, but you show that I'm failing."

(Hey, a D may bust up your GPA, but you can still usually pull your credit out of the class. And GPA's can be averaged up later, or you can retake the class).

Now let's say you get confirmation that you did fail. You'll want to determine the reason why before you continue the discussion--hopefully before you even walk into your professor's door.

In my experience with hundreds and hundreds of students, failure takes some work, even if the "work" involves wrestling with the decision to do nothing. If you tried your absolute best and just didn't cut the mustard (who cuts mustard, anyway? I actually Googled the origination of this phrase--give it a try. I found that the originator may have meant "mustard seed", which is, indeed, hard to cut. But that just doesn't quite have the right ring, does it? Hmm...), then you did do something.

What you likely didn't do was see your professor enough for help or check your grades earlier to find out how your average was coming along. No judgment in that statement whatsoever, but being honest about the why is the quickest way to figure out how to change things for next time.

In this case, you would say to your prof, "I have failed this class. Based on my grades, it may appear that I didn't even try, but I did. Where I went wrong is not asking for help when I really needed it and checking in with you to see what I could have done differently." 

(If, in reality, you did very little work and the "F" is no surprise, the conversation is still worth having. Definitely own up and say, "My habits were not ideal this term. I made some mistakes and I'm going to pay for them now, but I'd like to do better next time.")

You can add, "I realize there is probably nothing I can do at this point, but I wanted to meet with you anyway just to confirm my grade and ask for your suggestions as to my next steps." 

What are those next steps?

Well, your prof could investigate how close you were to a passing grade and offer you some extra credit. But he/she may not do this, and is certainly not required to. You can ask, but really, it's likely too late for that.

More than likely, your prof will discuss your retaking the class. Then, you'll have to figure out if you can repeat the class (particularly if you used financial aid to pay for it, you will probably have to pay yourself on the second go-around), and if you want to stick with that prof when you do.

I have definitely had students either drop my course or fail it (the latter is a far, far fewer number) and then return a term or two later and they are actually ahead of the game. They know about the assignments, they know my expectations, they know what they have to do. Familiarity with a prof/class is one large benefit to retaking a class. Don't discount it! Even if you switch to another prof in the department, you'll still have a leg up on the subject matter.

Other things you can ask:

-"Would I be eligible for an Incomplete in this class?" At many colleges, an Incomplete is usually not available for an academic reason, but it's worth checking into.
-"Is it too late to drop this class so my transcript shows a 'W', rather than a failing grade?" Again, probably not possible, but can't hurt to ask.
-"Are you teaching this class again next term? What recommendations would you make so I have a better chance of passing?"

I know you will probably want to run off your campus and stay away for a while. But an "F" does not mean that you can't or won't reach your educational goals. Many great students have failed a class (myself, included... remember this post?) and went on to overcome it and excel. With the idea that you will return and thrive, I want to encourage you to have three other campus conversations before your next term starts:

Financial Aid Department: "I failed my class. How will this affect my financial aid?" Of course, you'll need to see what financial ramification the "F" has and how that will affect your future aid. This also applies to any scholarships you've received. 

Counseling Services: (Typically free on campuses and especially important if a life or other crisis situation got in the way of you doing your best) "I failed my class because I was going through X. I would like some support to make sure that I do better next term." Why not get as much help in place as possible? Then follow up with your appointments!  

Your Academic Adviser: "I failed my class. I was on track to graduate in (month/year). How does this affect my plan? Do you recommend changes to my upcoming class schedule?"

And, if you failed every class this term, ask your adviser: "What is the college's policy on academic renewal?"

Academic renewal is a one-shot opportunity that many colleges offer to erase a term from your transcript. Different colleges have different rules about academic renewal:  Some colleges require you to wait for a period of time before making the request. Often, you wipe out the whole term; you can't pick and choose a couple classes that you didn't fail and ask to keep that credit.

Your Parents:  As a parent, myself, not intentionally putting this one last, but you probably will have to come clean to your parents. Will they flip out? Quite possibly, but if you own up to your mistakes quickly and have a ready plan for improvement, the blow might be lessened:  

"I failed my class this term. I want to be honest with you. I know you'll be disappointed and I'm disappointed in myself. The only way I can do better is by changing the way I did things this term. So, here's my plan: I saw my professor and he suggested ___________. I went to see my academic adviser and she suggested _________ (mention any other pre-emptive measures you've taken). I feel more confident about going into next term and am confident that with this support in place, I'll be able to turn this around. 

Of course, don't miss this opportunity to ask for any specific help that your parents could give you!

Wonderful student (and, yes, you're still wonderful, even if failed a class!), I'm going to step out of the practical advice for a moment and get a little psychological/emotional on you:

Your "F" grade does not have to define you.

Failure is part of your journey right now, but you are not a failure.

Yes, it's time to get really honest with yourself about why you failed the class. Too many students blame all sorts of external forces. By owning up to what went wrong and specifically what you did or didn't do that contributed to the outcome, you can take steps to make positive changes for next time. If you truly believe that the failure was something done to you, then one of the conversations above will help you find a remedy.

For now, strategizing your next move and communicating with those on and off campus who have signed up to support you is your absolute best measure.

Be truthful, be humble, be open.

People are more inclined to help you when they see that you genuinely want to create change.

I'd love to say that this is the last time in your life that something won't go the way you hoped. One of my favorite books is When Bad Things Happen to Good People by Harold S. Kushner. Full disclosure: It is somewhat more religious than I am (Kushner is a Rabbi whose own faith was challenged when he lost his son to a rare, terminal illness), but the core message resonates with me:

"Why did this happen to me?" is the wrong question to ask.

The right question is, "What will I do now that this has happened to me?" 

Digging deep to answer that question, dear student, is, in my opinion, the opposite of failure.

Students, have you failed a class? How did you overcome it? Colleagues from all parts of education and business, what is your advice for getting past a failing grade?

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Student Question: What Do I Do When a Professor Behaves Badly?

(An unexpected rocking of my world delayed this post... and I'm not referring to the construction next door as I wrote about here. I did mention in that post that two people in my life were battling cancer. One of them, a fellow preschool parent, died--very prematurely--of breast cancer last week. Cheryl Colehour was not only my friend and the mother of one of my son's closest buddies, but the master editor who helped me wordsmith and tighten my book proposal. Cheryl not only championed my message, but she picked up the tone and voice of my project in an uncanny, quick-fire way. My proposal would have never been what it became without Cheryl's heart and head. I only knew Cheryl for a short time--my son is just 3--but that was enough for me to agree with her husband's words: "There is a gaping hole in humanity." 

Although she had been years out of college, herself, Cheryl supportively followed my blog and she was definitive in her agreement that students need communication skills to empower themselves. In Cheryl's honor, today's post seems extremely fitting because it is, indeed, about empowerment. I'm responding to a student question again (Keep them coming!). This was a complex and sensitive issue and I asked the author if I could retool the question to help other students. I was given permission, so here goes...)

Dear Professor Bremen:

My classmates and I have had issues with a professor all semester. This professor behaves in an unprofessional manner, speaks about inappropriate activities outside of class, issues with other professors and students (anonymously, but enough where we can figure it out). The professor became very angry when the class didn't complete a recent assignment. My classmates and I feel as though this behavior is unprofessional and unacceptable.

Should we speak to the department chair about our concern with this professor? Other students have had the same issues. Or should we just let it go? If you do suggest speaking to the department chair, what exactly should we say?
And, in a follow-up e-mail... 
We had professor evaluations today and I know a majority of my classmates addressed the issues in their anonymous evaluations, but I am not sure if our concerns will be taken seriously through the forms.


Before I get to my response, I will say... wow, this is a hard situation! Many students have experienced a professor who was downright unprofessional, and the experience is disheartening on so many levels: First of all, students feel powerless to do anything about the problem, or they don't feel like they have the right to speak up. Secondly, students can become stunted in their learning due to anger, frustration, fear, or just feeling uneasy in the class. Naturally, this can have an extreme impact on grades. I am glad the student reached out. Here is my response:

Thank you so much for writing and I'm going to give you the most thoughtful advice that I can. I am very sorry that you and your classmates are going through this.

In most cases with student-professor disputes, if you go to the department/division chair before seeing the professor personally, the department/division chair will typically say, "Have you gone to the professor about this?"

In this particular case, because of the prof's continued reference to questionable outside activities, I'm concerned about a one-on-one meeting to discuss the issues. Really, all three of the issues you mention are more "behavioral" than "procedural" i.e., the inappropriate disclosures, talking about other profs and students, and the extreme reaction over the incomplete work. Given that, this is above the "go see your prof and hash it out" type of conversation. A third party makes total sense.

The first thing I would do is make an appointment with the department/division chair. You can have your classmates do the same, but do it individually. Often, students will complain, "Everyone feels this way" and the argument is much stronger with a number of singular voices.

I would say, "I am extremely concerned about my experience in Professor Jones' class this semester. I am not typically a student who complains. I have not spoken with Professor Jones directly because of the nature of these concerns. I feel that if I am to go to Professor Jones, I could use some advice about how to discuss these issues and I'm hoping you can help me."

Based on what you've described, I'd actually want a third party there whenever you meet with the prof. If you feel this way, you can say, "If I am going to meet with Professor Jones and discuss these concerns, I'd prefer to have a third party present." Chances are, the situation is one that the chair will respond to without you being there. That would be my guess.

Then, be very specific about your concerns:

"I have three issues that have become a pattern this semester. First, the professor makes continued references to inappropriate outside activity, which is uncomfortable. Second, the professor is publicly disclosing issues with other students and professors. While this is meant to be anonymous, we can figure out who the professor is talking about. Finally, the professor was very angry when our class did not finish an assignment. I can see why this would be upsetting to the professor, but the way it was communicated seemed extreme."

I think it is critical for yourself and the other students to not let this problem go. The chair is not going to know that there is an issue, and the professor will not get the help that is obviously needed. Also, your semester is not finished yet. Negativity can spiral out of control with a poor classroom dynamic, and this can unnecessarily affect grades. We don't want that.

Speaking of which, two other notes:

-You are within your rights to request a follow-up meeting with the chair so the matter doesn't just "fade away." You won't be privy to their discussion with the professor, but you should get some assurances of what the next steps are for your class. I would ask, "What do you recommend in terms of my following up with you about this situation?"

-If the chair does not respond to your concerns in a way that is satisfactory or comfortable for you (I don't anticipate this will happen, but we shouldn't ignore the possibility), you do have other options:  You can contact your school's counseling services office and tell them what is going on. They would have responsibility to follow up with the chair or the dean. Or, you could contact the student affairs officer, student services officer, or the academic dean in charge of the department/division chair. Of course, in all of these cases, you will probably be asked if you already went through the proper channels i.e., the department/division chair. Let's hope your situation doesn't come to that.

This is an exercise in self-advocacy for you as a student, as well as your classmates, and I know it can feel uncomfortable and intimidating. However, as I've said many times in the blog, you are an adult and so is your professor. You have rights regarding a comfortable classroom climate and a professional classroom leader.

Please keep me posted on how things are going. I'm sending you lots of strength!

I always appreciate reader comments and I'd particularly be interested to hear feedback for this student... from students or colleagues!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Have to Publicly Speak? You Freak! One-on-One (or One-to-Five)? You Thrive! What Do You Do?

(Happy almost Thanksgiving, all! I'm going to lighten things up since some of you may be prepping for presentations after the holiday. This week and next, I'm going to tackle some student questions. Be prepared for next Tuesday when I answer a question on profs behaving badly. In the meantime, I hope your holiday is incredible! PS: In follow up to my last post, I'd be glad to update with a photo once the construction next door is finished. For now, the building continues!).
I love, love, love student questions! Keep them coming!!!!

Here's one I just received and, boy, if I only had a quarter for every student who feels this exact same way! 

Dear Ellen,

I'm a university student from another country, an extrovert, and an eloquent, humorous person when with my friends, or networking with unfamiliar people (groups under 5 people are no problem). My problem with speaking arises only in a public context, for example when participating in a classroom discussion, or when forced to give presentations. I get so nervous that I'm physically unable to speak coherently. My heart beats really fast and I can't catch my breath to articulate my words. I sweat and tremble, and my mind also goes blank so I don't have the words to begin with. The bottom line is, people I interact with outside of class often assume that I'm a confident and fluent communicator, only to be surprised when I have to speak in class.

I know I have the verbal skills and wit to perform, but it's just the psychological/emotional aspect of speaking to an audience that really gets to me. How do I overcome this obstacle? I've already been practicing a lot, but it seems to be of no use once people's eyes are turned on me. I have a presentation coming up to a very large class. Help!!!!!!!!


Wow, I have had many students who are extremely articulate and comfortable in interpersonal settings, but put them in front of a group? Their entire persona changes and nerves set in.

Let's start by celebrating what's awesome:  This student (and so many other interpersonally comfortable students...) are eloquent, humorous and innately extroverted. This says that the skills, dynamism, and personality are there... we just need to comfortably transition these qualities to a larger crowd (and, preferably, while standing!)!

Here are my suggestions for the student, and questions that you can ask yourself: 

-I completely empathize with that feeling of being physically unable to speak and having those physiological signs take over. So, to start, what anxiety-reducing strategies are you trying? We need to get your body working with you, rather than flying away from you in panic. The best method I know of is called "cognitive reciting." So, when you start to feel symptomatic before the speech, go off to a quiet space (outside of the room, etc.) and begin to say (even whisper) everything you see in front of you out loud i.e., "There's the door. It's painted peach and has a silver handle. The room number is on the outside, number 14..."

The actual act of talking takes a lot of effort from our minds and bodies. Therefore, if you can try this technique, the physical symptoms may very well abate. I did a guest post on this subject for a public speaking coach's blog called Speak Schmeak.

-When you approach your speaking area, what do you typically do? Do you put your notes down and just begin? Where are your eyes? On your notes? Or on the audience? Believe it or not, setting down your notes, taking a step back, dropping your shoulders, and looking at your audience for a second or two (and smiling, of course) can decrease nervousness. Nervousness is typically far worse when a speaker looks at notes and then suddenly decides to look up:  Whoa! A flood of eyes, which would freak anyone out!

-Speaking of notes, tell me about them... Are you using note cards? Full text notes? The notes you use can be the single biggest stressor for you as a speaker, and can definitely create more apprehension and physical symptoms. Think about it:  If you're looking down and grappling for what to say next, or if your font is too small, your heart will start racing, you may have trouble breathing, and you'll find it difficult to actually squeak words out.

I always recommend that speakers use key word, large font notes and only practice from those notes. This way, you are more conversational with the audience, less scripted, and you don't feel the stress of having to remember every single word. The key word notes free you up to ad-lib and embrace natural conversational (extemporaneous) flow. I have a Camtasia presentation on how to use this technique in this post.

-You mentioned that your mind goes blank immediately. I will reference the key word notes here, once again. It's totally fine to look down and get your first word to trigger you... the audience won't have a problem with this as long as your eye contact returns to them... quickly! If you would feel more comfortable saying something like, "Welcome, everyone!" or "I hope everyone is well today!" or even "I'm so glad to be here" to break the ice a little bit, that's also just fine. It may feel more comfortable than launching right into your speech content.

Let's also talk about a quick reality check because mind blanking is one of the largest fears a speaker has:  Remember, the audience has absolutely no idea what you were going to say. So, whatever you say, in the audience's mind, will sound like it was supposed to be there.

-How much are you moving around during your speech? It sounds like you have a lot of physical anxiety happening and more movement i.e., deliberate steps--maybe two or three--and hand gestures can help your body work out some of that nervous energy. It will also give you a feeling of talking "with" your audience, rather than "at" your audience.

-I hear you saying that you are very comfortable in interpersonal situations, even with as many as five people. How can we turn the perception of public speaking (or even class discussion) into one big conversation for you? Is there a way to reframe the energy you're giving it? Because, really, depending on your delivery style (conversational is ideal...), you are having one huge conversation with your audience. Sure, they may not be talking back, but they are giving you those nonverbal signals... smiling, nodding, upper torso leaning forward to indicate interest, etc.

-I think your upcoming persuasive speech angle sounds fascinating and like a lot of fun (I omitted this in the question for anonymity). Be a little selfish about your speech content: Add some of the wit that you mentioned; phrases that you will enjoy sharing and feel excited about. Getting a positive reaction from your audience can help your confidence in the moment! 

Really, it sounds like there isn't as far to go as you might think. If you had severe communication anxiety in all settings, then I would say we need to determine other strategies. However, there are many strong communication attributes in place to draw upon for speaking.

Believe it or not, if you could find a way to feel even 1% better about your upcoming presentation and own that excellence, it will create further confidence for you and you may find that you actually enjoy presenting to more people. 

I'm going to think good thoughts for your next presentation!

Students, how are your presentations going this term? I'd love to hear about this... or any other class-related challenges! Other public speaking aficionados out there? What advice do you have for students who are interpersonally comfortable, but publicly hesitant?

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

When the Walls Go Up, How Do You Avoid Getting Down?

(I'm taking another little birdwalk from student-professor communication to talk about some life "stuff". Many of you tackle so much while you are in college. Does it ever feel like while you have the best intentions to "do school", and do it well, life just keeps threatening to get in the way? If so, read on... and enjoy my first inclusion of pictures!)

As I sit here in my dining room writing this blog post, there is building pandemonium just feet away from my window.

I never knew that banging could come in so many different rhythms:

Machine-gun:  Ch-ch-ch-ch-ch, ch-ch-ch-ch-ch, ch-ch-ch-ch-ch

Steady cadence:  Tap... tap... tap... tap... tap

Intermittent:  Pound (extended pause). Pound-pound (another pause). Pound. (You get the picture).

Baby tap:  (light) pop-pop-pop... pop-pop-pop

Impending disaster: KABOOM (Please let that be a piece of wood, and not one of the construction folks!)

A little back story:

I've lived in Seattle, Washington for seven years.

I live high on a hill next to an empty lot (See pic below. My first picture included in my blog--so exciting! Okay, I digress...)

B.U.M. (Before Ultra-Modern): The view of Vashon Island from my front door. Most of our windows face this direction.

The view from my front door now.

My house is on the left.

A.U.M. (After Ultra Modern): My house is still on the left. Ultra-modern has one more level to go.
My husband and I went into this home knowing darned good and well that at any given time, the lot next door may be sold. Sure, the owner (ironically, the son of the original owner of my house) tried to get us to buy it, but my husband and I didn't have an extra $200k just hanging around.

Really, most of the time we've lived here, there's been zero activity. Just an empty lot with raspberries by summer, snowman crafting some winters, and incremental young kid exploring in all seasons.  

Then, this summer, the lot was sold.

We learned that an ultra-modern house would go in. Although more of these homes-made-to-look-like-small-office-buildings are going up in our 'hood, the style really doesn't fit with its complexion: basement ramblers, Craftsmans, and "old world charm" abodes.

Something else about this ultra-modern house:  It's going to be an ultra view killer for us.

I am not writing about this to incite pity, by any means. I know about perspective:  I have two good friends going through cancer treatment right now and one friend losing a home.

Those are crises. Losing a view is not.

However, it is a shift, a change, an adjustment from the physical and emotional comfort I'd grown accustomed to in my home. We did not buy our house for view; we liked the fact that it was newer than other houses we'd seen. I do love the light and airy feeling from 10+ windows on that side of the house.

Right now, I'm looking at the ceiling of a first floor... and workers standing atop of it. Soon, I will be looking at a fixed structure. A large and tall fixed structure.

I had been surprisingly calm about the building, figuring there's not one damned thing I can do about it (and that's totally NOT like me!).

My husband woke up last night with bad heartburn and said, "I'm thinking about the house" (and that's totally NOT like him!).

My 8-year-old had a meltdown over the weekend. "Tween angst", I'm surmising, but at the end of her diatribe, she said, "...And they're building a house next door!" (and that's totally JUST like her).

My 3-year-old seems to be the only family member not only unfazed, but utterly enthralled! Really, how often does a little guy get to see Bob the Builder happening right outside his front door... diggers and all?

So, between the bangs, I'm supposed to be finishing my book. I'm on paid sabbatical this term for that. Of course, there was no way to know that during my sabbatical, this would be going on.

There have been a few days that admittedly, I've stared at my laptop screen for longer than I should have. I try to filter and ignore what's happening next door, but suddenly the audio and visual reminders are thisclose.

While I'm staring, I'm also fighting the anxious messages that inevitably bubble up in between hammer slams and  buzzsaw bzzzz's:

"How will this structure affect our home?"

"Will our minds forget 'the way it was' and simply adjust to what is?"

"What if we're terribly uncomfortable in our house after this modern monstrosity goes up? The market is not great right now... we wouldn't be able to sell. Then what?"

(As you can see, there is no end to the mental chatter spiral... Can anyone relate to this?).

I realize by now you are asking yourself, "What on earth does this have to do with college?"

For the first time in my authoring of this blog, I actually wondered that, too. But then I thought about the various distractions that I know many of my students live with every day:

-People coming in and out of their houses at all hours
-Unstable places to live
-Parents that suddenly resurface and "move in"
-Originally supportive family members who changed their tune now that they realize what you're being in school means for the disruption of the household and their lives
-And, of course, external, environmental noise... just like what I'm dealing with right now.

For all of us, the same truth exists:

We can't control what's going on outside of us. We can only control what's going on within us.

If I stop writing and waste this precious sabbatical (Not to worry, College. Won't happen!) and fail to finish my book, is that going to stop the building of this house? Is it going to stop the noise? Am I going to feel better about the situation?

No. There will be an ultramodern house residing right next door to my house and I won't have a finished book.

So what's the communication lesson? (Yes, there's one, even here...)

I am working with my intrapersonal communication. That's right: The messages within myself.

I tell myself that I have choices:  I can choose to work elsewhere while this building is going on, although working at home is most comfortable and everything I need is easily accessible. However, Seattle has enough libraries and coffee shops where I can take up residence. Students, you can do your work elsewhere, too. Give yourself permission to change locations if necessary, even to a quieter corner of your house, or the bathtub! Let's not forget that there are all sorts of quiet nooks on your campus.

I talk myself into continuing the things that get me out of my head... and this house for an hour and a half every day: Running, Zumba, walking with a friend. I'm far more productive when I return. Students, same goes for you. Be a little selfish. You can do something for yourself, even for :15 a day, that will get you through the day.

I talk to others: I haven't shared what's going on with my non-local friends, but I did start an accountability check-in with a friend who is also finishing a book. I have to report my progress to her every Friday. Students, if you are struggling to finish schoolwork due to external factors, tell someone else that you need a check-in, too. This will mean that regardless of what else is going on in your life, you have to stay accountable to your goal:  Your college education! (PS: Your prof may even be willing to serve as your check-in.)

I tell myself that while this is a very unsettling and unknown situation right now, it's temporary. The construction will end. My family will adjust to the changes, or we will make some new decisions. We've overcome far, far, far greater challenges than this.

Students, whatever is getting in your way of your studies is likely temporary, too. Rely on your past history of facing challenges to get you through the present challenge, and don't lose sight of your goal:  Completing this term! 

If you are dealing with a very new challenge, don't be an island. I bet your campus has free counseling to help you deal with obstacles threatening your education.

The walls are going up... still... as we speak. Bang bang. Pound pound.

I'm going to close this post with one of my favorite quotes from Randy Pausch:

“The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough. They’re there to stop the other people.”

I don't think this ultramodern house will have any bricks, but the sentiment is still the same. I refuse to let the literal and figurative "noise" of those walls get in my way! Who's with me?

Students... all readers... are there "walls" hindering you from reaching your academic goals? What strategies have you found helpful to "climb over", so to speak?

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

"Investigating" a Prof Ahead of Time? 5 OTHER Things You Should Know

(It's been a while since I felt the need to speak to another outlet's blog post about professors. When I saw 5 Things You Should Know About Your Professors from the TalkNerdy2Me blog (National Society of Collegiate Scholars), before I even clicked the link, I had a feeling I'd have something to say. So, here goes!)

"Investigate your profs before taking a class."

This is the primary advice of the above-mentioned piece, as well as what to look for once you meet the prof. While I have some thoughts from the "other side," I appreciated the NSCS article a great deal. The author, a student, correctly encourages to students to take their time with professors thoughtfully and seriously.

I love, love, love that idea! (Of course!!!)

Let's jump in by talking about the realities of meeting your prof early, particularly when registration occurs months ahead. Not to mention, you're probably mired in classwork for your current term and pretty busy! I know that waiting is a risk, too: If you get into your classes and can't stand a prof, you may find yourself without a class to take.

Here are your options if you want to try and meet your prof now: 

a) Go visit the prof during office hours and ask for a syllabus (the current one is fine; you can learn a lot about the flavor of the class from the tone); or,
b) Sit in on a class before you register (another great idea, if your current schedule allows); or,
c) Ask previous students what they thought of the prof (a questionable approach--everyone has their opinion, right?)

And once you meet the prof...

I'm going to give some recommendations behind the five criteria the author discusses.

Translation: Five criteria that students should stay away from.

As you take this advice, you will benefit from some back-story.

Otherwise, you may be left with very, very few profs from whom to take classes... and you might miss out on a ton of valuable learning from others... and about yourself!

5.  Flexibility
Yes, you do want a prof who is flexible... where it counts. The author says that profs should realize students are taking more courses than just theirs. We do! And we teach more than one class, too. However, we have objectives to cover. Those objectives are not typically just chosen by us, but rather by a department, committees, and administrators. We have to teach a certain amount of material. It's college--it's meant to be rigorous!

Where I do agree that students want flexibility is in scheduling, such as if the entire class isn't "getting it" or if some other issue happens that requires a democratic revisiting of the syllabus. Unfortunately, unless you ask the prof straight out, "Hey, let me give you a scenario: Whole class falls behind. Do you stick to the schedule? Or change it?", you just aren't going to know just how flexible the prof is until you're already knee-deep in class.

What can you say? Once you're in the class, ask for a schedule change if it's warranted: "Can we re-look at the schedule since we seem to need more time covering this material?" Have your other classmates ask individually, too. There is power in many single voices... more power than you saying, "Everyone's not getting this!", which can water down your argument/request.

4.  Personality.
Ugh. Hollywood, reality TV, and celebrities are not good for profs. We are on a "stage" every day and if we don't have enough personality, then the recommendation is to avoid us! Once again, there is no way to know about personality until you are in the class. Even a rock-star prof can have an off day or two... sometimes an off-term!

The author of the TalkNerdy piece suggests that if a prof calls on students at random and "makes them feel uncomfortable," this is another personality warning sign. My wonderful student readers, let's trade places for a second: Picture yourself standing in front of a class, asking a question, and waiting out three minutes (or more) of stone cold silence. We don't call on students to make them feel uncomfortable; we do it in the desperate hopes of engaging students in discussion. Also, we want all students to have a voice, rather than those who always speak up. Some profs don't know students' names; it's a bonus if they care enough to know yours and try to get you to talk.

What can you do? Speak up in class so you don't have to worry about being called on! Your thoughts don't have to be perfect like I discussed in this post. Your prof have an unpleasant personality? Guess what? A term is only about 10 to 15 weeks. You will learn a great deal about yourself by working with someone who doesn't entirely click with you. It's going to happen sooner or later with a boss or co-worker, so think of your no-personality prof as great work experience!

3.  Clarity
I fully agree that students should understand their professors and not feel perpetually perplexed by what they are saying. But this is where students need to advocate for themselves. Your prof needs to know that you are confused--it will make him a stronger educator. How he responds to your request for clarity is what you need to look at, not so much whether the prof is consistently clear to begin with. Once again, there is no way you are going to know how comprehensible the prof is until you are in that person's class a time or two.

What can you say? Ask a ton of questions in class, such as "Before you go on, could you please clarify...?" even if it holds up the lecture. Chances are, other students will be so glad you did! If you are still confused, go see your prof during office hours or send him/her an e-mail saying, "Professor Jones, these concepts are not coming across clearly. Can we send you some questions that you will address at the beginning of class? Can we have a Q & A session at the beginning or end of the next class?"

2.  Relevancy
The author is dead-on that profs should not assign busywork, nor should they "birdwalk" too far away in their lectures. But, how will a student know if what they are doing is busywork? Many of us assign smaller, incremental assignments to a) give students practice; and b) so we can offer feedback before a more high-stakes assignment/exam. Something else to think about: How many exams/quizzes are you assigned in your class? Not many? Your prof has to spend your points somewhere. If he/she isn't going to test or quiz you a bunch, then he's going to need you to write, speak, analyze, discussion forum post, etc. Again, make sure that what you are calling busywork... is.

With respect to getting too far off-topic in class, profs are definitely guilty of this. If it happens once or twice, that's fine and a little frustrating. A habit is unacceptable. 

What can you say? If you are concerned about how the work you are doing relates to the overall course objectives, then say, "Professor, can you explain how this assignment fits in with what we're learning right now?" If your professor can't answer that question, then you can either do the work anyway and take the points offered, or you can challenge having to do it in the first place.

And the tangent? Interrupt your prof's narrative about her last vacation and ask questions directly related to the material. You can get another classmate to do the same. That should get your prof back on track. If this doesn't work, then self-advocacy comes into play again. Say to your prof (or write it in an e-mail), "I'm afraid we're getting off track in class and I want to make sure I understand the material" or "It seems like we're behind and I'm concerned" or "I noticed we didn't cover Chapter 12 today like it says in the schedule. Will we be getting to this tomorrow?" If you remain backlogged the entire term and this ultimately affects your grade, then you can take the issue higher to a division chair or dean. Chances are, your prof will make the adjustments. He/she doesn't want to fall behind either.

1.  Approachability
The author has it right on all counts here... and you can learn about a prof's approachability early by a quick visit to his/her office before you take the class. Hopefully, you'll get a warm, welcoming, fuzzy feeling, but if you don't, the person could be rushed or having an off-day. Don't let this be a deterrent to taking the class. Instead, make sure the prof is available to you when you need help.

What can you say? "What are your office hours?" "Do you respond to e-mails in 'off' hours, like nights and weekends?" "What's your policy on reviewing work early?" A prof's responses to these questions will give you insight into her approachability. But remember, the prof is required to have office hours. Even if this person does not review work early or answer e-mails at a time that you'd need, you can still go to their office hours or set an appointment to make contact. So, essentially, you have the right to make the prof approachable... by approaching them.

I have said before in this blog that "like" is a bonus in the student-professor relationship... nice to have, but not a requirement. Your prof is required to deliver sound instruction, engage you in the learning process, and assist you when you need it.

Do I want you to love every prof you come into contact with? Of course, I do!

Loving a prof means that you will hopefully love or like their subject matter and love learning!

But the truth is that you're not going to love or even like every prof.

The good news is that you can deal with some of the "unlikeable" qualities and get through your term successfully!

The better news is that, like I said before, the term will, indeed... end. And, you will be so proud of yourself for getting through it!

Students, have you researched your profs ahead of time? How has this helped you? How have you previously gotten through a term with a prof that you didn't click with? Faculty, what do you think about the advice in the NSCS piece? I'd love to know! 

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Did You Get Stood Up This Week? So Did Your Prof! What You Should Know About Office Hours

(Before I start with my regular programming--I'm sure I'll write about relationships again--I wanted to say a heartfelt thank you for all the public and private words about my last two posts. Many posts are my head. Those were clearly my heart. They were therapeutic to write and I hope equally so for you to read. I'm in reflection mode... still. I imagine you are, too, and I wish you gentle thoughts on that journey! 

Okay, back to it: In so many of my posts, I am a big promoter of seeing your prof during office hours. I thought it would be a good idea to devote a post to the subject and what really happens behind the scenes of that scheduled time.)

I've been stood up.


I'm beginning to wonder:  What is it?

My Bath and Body Works Enchanted Orchid lotion? (Too many floral notes?)

My clothes? (I don't have spit-up on my shoulder. My son is 3!).

My personality? (Not possible!)

Oh, wait...

It can't be any of those things.

I'm not waiting for a date (my husband wouldn't like that, would he now?);

I'm waiting on a student!

And the student didn't show!


Students would be surprised that on a college campus, more "no shows" happen in the student-professor relationship than in their romantic relationships/friendships.


I've had students frantically call or e-mail, sounding the alarms that they MUST come talk to me. They set an appointment, and, well, let's just say I'd still be waiting for them to show up.

No call.

No e-mail.

No carrier pigeon. 

No follow-through.

If you're thinking, "Oh, here it comes... she's going to say, 'Don't stand up your prof!'", that's pretty obvious. Courtesy and manners dictate that you give a prof--or anyone!--a heads-up that you won't make an appointment... unless you've been taken out by a freight train or lifted by aliens and you have no cell phone service.

More importantly, let me take you behind the scenes of office hours. Because that's what I'm here for, right? To demystify some of the professor-student happenings. And office hours can be pretty mysterious, all right!

When the Hell Are They There?
Profs are contractually required to hold a certain number of office hours. Yes, there are times that we are taken away from those office hours due to meetings or other on-campus obligations. However, if we simply miss office hours (and, to be fair, I know many, many students show up during a prof's office hours only to find that the prof is a no-show--and that's not okay either), then there should be a note on our door saying why we're not there and when we'll return. If the prof uses a course management system, sometimes they will e-mail their classes and let them know that office hours are canceled. Lesson here is that it's a good idea to always check your e-mail!

The number of office hours varies, based on the prof's contractual obligation with the college. At my college, five office hours are required. At other colleges, twice that number are required. A prof usually has flexibility to select when their office hours occur and, ideally, they will come at a time that also works for students. Many profs put in "unofficial hours"  because their office serves as a basecamp to do other college-related work. I've seen my colleagues in their offices late at night, on weekends, and on their "e-mail office" seemingly 24-7. I realize that latter does not help a student who shows up at a prof's door, but recognize that the term "office hours" can mean virtual. One of my colleagues even holds office hours some Sundays on Elluminate. Still, many colleges do require actual in-person presence for at least some hours on campus. If your prof is never there, find out what's required (any department/building secretary can tell you). 

And When the Prof is In-Office...
Most profs will see students outside of their office hours, by appointment, and some by drop-in, if they aren't tied up with a meeting, other students, class prep, or a particular project. If the prof has set a meeting time with you, then he/she has probably already worked around any possible conflicts, such as committee meetings (another contractual obligation with the college). If the prof knows that your time is limited and you've set an appointment to meet, he/she may have walked out of a meeting or rushed over from across campus... which is all fine, as long as you show up!

Your Prof Has Personal Obligations, Too.
I know some profs who have to be out the college door at 2:30 to get their children by 3 p.m.  Sometimes, the prof is part of a carpool that leaves at a particular time, or he/she may have to drive to another campus. If you set an appointment with the prof, especially at an "unconventional" time i.e., early morning, later afternoon/evening, etc., then that person may have jumped through personal logistical hoops to meet with you. All the more reason why you should honor that appointment!

So what's the communication lesson here?

First, when you set the appointment with your prof, be 95% sure that you can make it. You can say to your prof, "My schedule is clear, but if something comes up and I cannot make this appointment, how should I get in touch with you?" I'm not suggesting exchanging cell phone numbers, but if you and your prof both get e-mail on your phones, that may be a way to confirm the meeting. It's also good to be open about what the constraints are i.e., childcare, your job, or potential traffic if you are leaving for the college at a different time than usual.

Speaking of which, it is not a bad idea to confirm a scheduled meeting with your prof. By e-mail is sufficient. Say, "I have an appointment scheduled with you tomorrow at 2:30. Just making sure this still works." Once you're confirmed, be on time! You never know if your prof has another appointment right after yours. The same goes for your prof:  He should be on time, too, or have left word with the department secretary giving you a heads-up if he's running behind. If you are meeting right after your prof's class, know that he may have been held up by a student who needed immediate consultation. Give him/her about 15 minutes to get there, and then leave a note with your phone number if he still doesn't show.

If you have to leave work or make alternate arrangements to meet with your prof, let her know that:  "I am going to take off from work an hour early so I can make this appointment" or "I have to get a babysitter in order to meet you." This way, the prof will know that she shouldn't let any issues get in the way of meeting you.

So let's say that you did stand up your prof. If a crisis arose, tell the prof as soon as you know you can't make it. E-mail is probably best since he may get that sooner if out-of-office. Back up with a phone call to the person's voice mail and also press "0", which should take you to the department secretary and enable you to leave a message there, too.

If you simply forgot the appointment, you don't have to admit that you forgot, but be apologetic: "I'm sorry that I missed my appointment with you. I will not let this happen again." You may want to just use the prof's office hours next time or make another appointment, but be darned sure that you will be there. Two no-shows would be, well, let's just say very, very bad.

And if you're the one feeling stood up? 
Let's get back to the "My prof is never there!" issue. If this is the case, tell the prof after your next class, "I have tried to come to your office three times during office hours and seem to be missing you. I need to meet with you. What would be a good time to do that?"

You can also ask the department/building secretary, "When is Professor Jones usually in her office? I've tried to see her three times now and the office is always dark. Do you recommend another way to get in touch with her?"

When you do meet with your prof, if you need to see him/her again, ask, "I would like to come back. What times are you generally here because I must have missed you during office hours a couple of times?"

If you are finding that you habitually cannot get to your prof during office hours, catch her after after class and commit to a meeting time, but more importantly, note this on your student evaluation.

Remember, while face-to-face interaction is ideal in many instances, profs are typically connected to students in all sorts of other ways, like I said before. Some profs are even using new programs to make student scheduling faster and easier: YouCanBook.Me was discussed in a blog post by a colleague of mine and some faculty on my campus are singing its praises.

Bottom line? An appointment is an appointment. Keep open communication with your prof about your need to interact and the way you'd like to do that. Ask directly about his/her availability. Most of all, show up.

Leave the stand-ups and no-shows for the dating world.

(For others in the dating world... you wouldn't do that, right?).  

Students, how much do you feel you want/need to see profs in person? Do you rely largely on e-mail for your communication? What topics do you think are more appropriate for face-to-face conversations? Faculty, what office hours insight do you have for students? 

(Updated 2:16 p.m. Tuesday: Addendum: Another important perspective from an anonymous reader who gave me permission to share:  "Thank you for the recent rant on being stood up. There’s one thing I noticed that you didn’t cover but irks me. I schedule appointments for students to come see me regarding resumes, work study, financial aid, etc. I set aside that 30 minutes for that student. If that student doesn’t show, they’re taking away precious time that another student could have used. I can only see so many students a day, so when a student no-shows, I feel bad for the student I had to schedule next week (as I’m only part time) and they desperately need a job."

This reader is SO right! The time that is taken up with waiting could have gone to someone else!)

(Updated 12:05 p.m. 11/7: Another addendum! My colleague who writes the Technology for Educators blog just wrote in recommending these programs so students can keep track of their appointments: will send you an email reminder whenever you want it. (Read more here: If you live by text message try this service: Thanks, Sue Frantz!)

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

When Relationships Change, How Do You Know When to Let Go? Part 2

(Wow, so I guess I wasn't alone in thinking about changes in relationships! Part 1 garnered quite a response. I received some great notes on Twitter along the lines of making the difficult decision to let go, and, conversely, how to transform/transition a relationship into something different. Let's continue the conversation!). 
When we left off last Tuesday, I discussed taking some time and listening to your feelings about your friendship, both physically and emotionally. That task is both easy and difficult:  
Easy because you don't really have to do anything that involves the other person. Yet. 
Difficult because once your eyes are truly open to feelings of dissatisfaction or discomfort, it's extremely hard to close them again and move forward like things are normal. (A good friend of mine has a wonderful saying, "You can't put the toothpaste back in the tube.")
So what's next? 
Well, here comes the really challenging part:  Sorting out your feelings, dealing with them, and taking some action. Here is an initial step that was a recent epiphany for me:

-If you believe you want to hold on, ask yourself why.
I'm certainly not the only one with parent issues out there, so I'll tread lightly: When a parent-child relationship has a challenged history, I have realized that the child may not give himself/herself permission to do the choosing in friendships. 
I know that I have ignored my own desires to ask for certain needs to be met, or to reduce/cease contact with a friend, but I didn't listen to those signs. I didn't think I "deserved" to make such a decision.  
Maya Angelou has a quote that I love, love, love:  "When people show you who they are, believe them the first time." I have not always paid attention when others are sending me that message. Where does this blind eye come from? My past, for sure! If you have family of origin issues that made you feel "less than" as a child, as an adult, you have a right to choose relationships that make you feel, well, "more than" (for lack of a better contrast!). Think about if you are holding on to a friendship because you don't feel that you have the right to decide that it's no longer appropriate for you.  
The next action step involves talking with your friend. I'll preface by saying that these are the conversations that no one ever wants to have, but have the greatest power for us as healthy and connected interpersonal communicators! As you bring up your concerns with your friend, you are going to learn a ton about yourself and about them. This conversation may help you transform your relationship more positively...  or it may give you the facts you need to make a needed break. Here goes:
-Schedule a conversation to share your truths/concerns about the changes you're experiencing with the friendship.
Like I said in part 1, you've experienced a bunch of changes as a college student. Whether or not you've physically moved, you are exposed to many new things. I get this because I've been there. My husband and I have been married for 16 years, and I went back to school years ago as a non-traditional student. We experienced several relationship adjustments when I was in college because my experiences and even the makeup of my days radically changed. His life stayed the same. He wasn't exposed daily to the flooding of mental stimulation that is inherent on a college campus. My husband did end up going back to college later on, so the dynamic shifted again.
Even if there are no actual changes, but you are the change, this conversation is an important one. Find out the other person's availability and when they will have the time to devote to the conversation. Decide the same for yourself. This talk is also best in person or on the phone, not on text, e-mail, or Facebook. 
You can start by saying, "I need to say some things that feel risky/scary for me. They may be uncomfortable to hear and they are also uncomfortable to say." Keep your feelings in "I" language: "I am struggling with..." or "I am noticing..." 
Try to speak about what's going on for you... within you... rather than blaming the other person or telling them how they "make you feel." I'm a pretty firm believer that others can't put feelings inside of us that don't already reside within us. That said, if a friend is continually triggering you, you do need to examine what that's about for you... and if your response makes you uncomfortable enough to question the viability of the friendship. 
Of course, you want to ask your friend if they've noticed changes in your relationship and how that's affected them. You may learn that your friend feels threatened about you creating a new life for yourself. Maybe they think you won't need them anymore. Your friend may feel worried about moving forward in his/her own life. Rather than looking at you for inspiration based on the changes you've made, your friend is unintentionally saying things that are not supportive. Like I said, you're going to learn quite a bit from opening up this discussion (and bravo, bravo, bravo to you for taking the step!).

Important sidebar: If the person refuses to talk with you, tells you they aren't capable of doing so, or changes the subject, this is critical information. When communication breaks down, the friendship, as a whole, will typically follow suit. For me, I believe so steadfastly in open communication that I know I can't have a healthy, trusting friendship with someone who is absolutely unwilling to "do conflict" or have tough conversations when they are necessary. That characteristic would render us as incompatible friends.

-Untie, rather than cut, if possible.
A dear friend shared this quote recently. I tried to find the original author, to no avail. In truth, I'm a cutter. If something feels badly to me, I can be very black and white. I am not good with riding out discomfort, although when I have, I realize that the shades of gray are rich with possibilities I would have otherwise missed.

You are in a significantly different phase of life. Your friend is also experiencing a different phase of life. Each of you is no longer connected in a way that was familiar. Each of you are growing... at your own rates... in your own time. Maybe you need some simple space to be who you are, to adjust to all of the excitement and possibilities that are before you... alone (or, rather, with the new people who are with you).

I have read many stories of people going through scares on airplanes and have been seated next to complete strangers who held their hand, supported them, and acted lovingly toward them in that moment. Then they never saw the person again. People are in our lives for various reasons at different times. Some relationships come to a natural conclusion. Others are meant to go on indefinitely. A break, or an "untying," can give you the space to figure it out. 
Another sidebar: I believe that breaks are negotiated, rather than abruptly or covertly applied. If a friend has held meaning in your life, they deserve a little closure, even if the closure is temporary. It might feel painful to say, "I think we should take our own time for a while," but knowing is the full battle. We can deal with what we know, but wondering why someone is suddenly unresponsive or behaving differently is far more painful.
-Continue or end with love.
I know this sounds really cheesy, but I firmly believe it. If your friendship can withstand some boundary shifting and morph into a bigger, better bond, then acknowledge the courage that you both showed by talking things out and gaining a better understanding of each other. At the very least, you can say, "Thank you for your openness and willingness to talk this through with me. I appreciate you." I also recommend taking a "temperature check" from time to time to ensure that both of you are still feeling good about the way your friendship is progressing. This way, if things need a tweak, you can revisit the original conversation seamlessly without it being another big "We need to talk" event. 
Certainly, if you decide that you need to cut ties completely (or if your break ends up being lengthy... as in for good), there is no getting around that this is a hard move. Once again, open communication is key, particularly if contact persists. Ending friendships in meanness and anger doesn't honor the history that was. You don't want to have a situation where you can't see each other in passing without dagger stares. It is more humane to say, "I think we need to reconsider remaining in each other's lives for now. I wish you all good things" and ending on as much of a positive tone as possible. 
As I said in Part 1, I wanted to write this piece to reflect on some changes in my own relationships. I'm thankful that I had the opportunity here to do so and very appreciative that you've shared this with me. I'm always so thankful for your comments! 
I'll be back next week with more student-professor communication goodness!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

When Relationships Change, How Do You Know When to Let Go? Part 1

(I'm going to divert from my student-prof communication message this week and delve into my interpersonal comm background. Never fear, my regular message will return. This particular topic is close to me right now and I was thinking about college students who are progressing with new situations, perspectives... and how that's affecting "old" relationships. Read on!)
When my students are no longer my students, I will typically accept friend requests on Facebook. I've only been on FB about six months and it's far more business than personal... (though I did just lament about needing my first pair of reading glasses, so that felt a little expose-y).

A wonderful former student of mine, Scott Hamlyn, recently posted this quote on his wall (He gave me permission to share): 

"It happens to everyone as they grow up. You find out who you are and what you want, and then you realize that people you've known forever don't see things the way you do. So you keep the wonderful memories, but find yourself moving on."

Now I know Scott just moved from Washington to Hawaii to pursue a degree at the university there (yes, every single one of us in our CMST 220 class wanted to join him!). I am sure Scott left behind family and friends, and his status update tells me that he might be undergoing some relational changes. Based on some related changes in my own life--not going to college, but some relationship alterations--Scott's words resonated with me at just the right time.

(Don't you love when that happens?)

I thought about the many, many college students I've met over the years who have, themselves, started anew in a fresh location. I've met countless other students aching because they were "left behind" while a friend or significant other went on to a university in a different city.
Figuring out where old relationships fit into a shiny new life is extremely challenging, emotionally distressing, and can be downright painful. Maybe you don't have a new life, but you suddenly have a fresh perspective, a renewed knowledge of yourself. Maybe you're realizing that an old friend is immobile, unchanging, or not-as-supportive of the newer you.

I have had to face this very situation recently. At 42 and an only child, my friendships have always been the touchstone of my existence. I hook into friendships loyally, deeply, thoroughly. I foster my relationships with an open heart and open communication. I try to be a friend who is steadfastly supportive, and one who owns my wrongdoings when necessary.

For these reasons, I am proud to be someone who can sustain friendships for many years. 
For these reasons, I'm also a person who doesn't always see the ready signs when it is time to let a friendship go.

With some recent eye-opening relational changes in my own life, here are some realities I can relate to you, a college student, who may be wondering, "Has this relationship reached its shelf life?", now that you are in a different space:

1.  Listen to your body when you communicate (or anticipate communication) with your friend.
Is your stomach knotted up? Do you feel generally uplifted when you are in conversation with this person? Do you find yourself anxious over whether this person will or won't call or text you? Do you look forward to speaking with this person? Most importantly, are your physical signs holding you back from experiencing what's in the moment? For instance, are you skipping that party or study session--or lacking the ability to "be present" with new friends--because you're feeling nauseous about your contact (or lack thereof) with your at-home friend? If so, your body is speaking to you. Listen to it.
2.  Watch for signs of jealousy or raining on your parade
There is never, ever, ever any guarantee that friends or lovers will grow together at the same rate, and in the same time. However, each person will hopefully support each other in successes, rather than feel threatened by them. If you share that you aced an exam, made a new friend, became an officer of a campus club, then your old friend will hopefully celebrate and applaud that right along with you. If not, this could be a red flag that your friend is unable to grow with you.

3.  Is the other person there to support your anxious, frightened, stressed moments?
In your "former life", you may have had a consistent support system and a relatively stable existence. Now, you have plunged yourself in a totally unfamiliar situation, whether it's another city/state or just that you are going to a different school with all new people. You may feel triggered in ways that you haven't experienced before. You may react differently to your feelings than you have before, which is surprising and possibly unsettling to others in your life.  
This will put your friendships to a test: Will your friend be supportive of you? Change the subject when you try to bring up your fears? Criticize you for feeling the way you do? Will the person become triggered, themselves, and then you end up having to help them? 
If your relationship is solid, it should be able to withstand some situational turmoil that you are going through... and some funky moods you're experiencing. 
However, if you have to constantly be okay in order for the friendship to remain, then this is a problem.

There are other signs that you may have outgrown a friendship, of course, but this is a start. 
Now you're probably wondering:  What if thinking about these things signals that there should be an end? How do I know? What do I do?  
My answer? 
(For now).
Just observe and listen... to your heart, to your body, to your mind as you continue your new communication interactions, and your former ones. 
Taking inventory of relationships is not a quick and easy process, but it is an introspective one. Part 2 of this discussion will come next week.
In the meantime, I'll mention that my Interpersonal Communication students do a journal assignment based on social exchange theory. Essentially, they complete a "cost-benefit" analysis of three friendships. While the complexities of friendships can't easily be broken down into a simple "here's what I'm getting vs giving/here's what I'm not getting vs giving" list, you may be able to see some patterns emerging or areas that are overdue for change. In your week of reflection about your friendships, give this strategy a try... take some notes. 
I look forward to continuing the discussion, and, as always, I'd love to hear your thoughts! 

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Let's Chat About... Your Must-Do Move After Mid-Terms

(Wonderful readers, as fall pushes forward, so does the college term. Here in Seattle, students only started classes toward the end of September, but many of you are in mid-terms already. Whether you're still transitioning into college or actively experiencing your first major exams, my advice this week is going to seem like a no-brainer. Take my words to heart: I'm making this recommendation because too few students actually do it and the impact for not taking this tip is huge! Read on and I hope you will comment at the end). 

"But I needed a 3.5 in this class!"

"Is that really that my final grade?"

"Is there anything I can do about this?"

If I only had a quarter for every time I hear some variation of this statement at the end of a term! The subtext is pretty transparent:

"Oh, crap! I didn't get the grade that I needed/wanted and now I am in deep doo-doo." 

I am continually amazed by how many students allow themselves to be blindsided by grades at the end of a term. Now that it's mid-term time, do not let the blindside happen to you! Right now, you have plenty of time to either:

a) Keep working at the awesome grades you've already earned; or,
b) Nudge a grade slightly higher to reach a certain goal; or,
b) Try to save yourself from a poor grade or failure.

So what's the communication lesson? (Yes, we're back to it!)

It's time to make an appointment with your prof and find out where your grades stand!

Here's what you do:

First, get your mid-term grade back, if you have a mid-term. If you don't have a mid-term, then you can move right ahead...

Next, go to the syllabus and look at the points possible to date. Calculate your grade, either on paper, or go to the grade book in your course management system.

Take a breath... Are you celebrating? Are you freaking out?

Remember:  If your grade is a heart-stopper in a bad way, there are still things you can do, but you must act now (more on that in a second).

The bottom line is that you have to know where you stand at this moment--while there is still time to make a plan of attack.

Now, it's time to to talk to your prof... regardless of where your grade stands unless you are 100% certain that you are going to be able to maintain the grade you are desiring without any additional assistance or guidance. Not 100% certain? Keep reading...

E-mail or go up to your prof. Say, "I would like to make an appointment with you to discuss my grade. When is a good time to do that?" You can certainly also visit your prof during office hours, although in one case, I'm going to advise against waiting for that.

Now, you're sitting in your prof's office and one of three conversations is likely going to go down:

Talk #1--"My grade is fantastic! How do I keep it?" 

You are probably doing just about everything right at this point--studying hard, turning in your work for early review, communicating with your prof... So, before you have this conversation, look ahead at what's due. Do you see a particular assignment, major paper, etc. that could threaten your grade? Time to discuss it!

"Professor, I checked my grade and things are looking good for me so far. I'm happy with my grade and intend to keep it. Do you have any particular advice so I can meet that goal?"


"I'm a little concerned that my grade might go down because of the term paper/final exam/assignment #3, etc. I'd like to do what I can to make sure that doesn't happen. What do you recommend? When should I check back with you to ensure that I'm on track?"

Talk #2:  "My grade is not what I was expecting. What the heck's going on?" 

Before you enter into this conversation, prep your documentation: You should have your assignments in hand, particularly any down-graded work (obviously, it's far better to talk about a less-than grade at the time that you receive the less-than grade, but having this discussion at mid-term is far better than at the end of the term).

Say, "I calculated my grade and it is lower than I was expecting. Can you double-check to see if my calculations are correct?"

A variation of this conversation may be: "I am currently slightly below a 'B', which is what I'm trying to get in this class. I'd like to discuss how my work needs to improve to increase my grade."

You can also say:

-"Am I missing any assignments?" (This definitely happens and the onus is always on you to follow up! The prof is not going to chase you down wondering why you didn't turn in work. Also, if you are uploading or attaching to e-mail, technology can fail! The onus is still on you to make sure your work is in!).

-"Can you be more specific on why I received a lower grade on assignment 3? I should have asked you about it at the time you returned it, but I didn't and I'm sorry about that."

-"I'm hoping to still earn a ___ in this class. Do you believe that grade is possible? What do I need to do to make this happen? Can I have you look over work before I turn it in?"

-"I'd like to follow-up to see where things stand in a few weeks. Is there a particular assignment that should be graded first before I meet with you again?"

Talk #3:  "My grade stinks. Can I save myself?"

Before this conversation starts, be realistic with yourself. Your chances of acing the term may well have passed. A "C" might be your celebration (like I talked about in this post). Depending on how much work is left, an "I" (like I discussed in this post) might be another possibility. Or, you may make the decision, with your professor, to drop the class entirely. Regardless, if you don't meet with your prof, you won't know what your options are.

The success of this conversation is going to lie in what you are willing to do to remedy the situation. Your words have to indicate that you intend to be proactive between now and the end of the term.

Start by asking your prof:  "Can I set an appointment with you to go over my grade? I think I might be failing the class or barely passing and I want to discuss my options."  I wouldn't leave this particular meeting to office hours. Be direct about the nature of the meeting.

Two things you need to do to prepare:

-Have a list of your existing grades in hand so your prof can look at them with you. You will both need to analyze what assignments are left, and what you would need to earn in order to pass;

-Look at the schedule of upcoming work and make sure that you will be able to bring yourself up to speed, especially if you were behind on work.

Now, to have the discussion:
If you were completely confused in the course or your work just wasn't up to par, now's the time to get serious about getting help: "Professor, I've been struggling in this class and my grade shows it. I need extra help, if I can still salvage this class and pass it."

If you slacked off and have decided to get serious, the reasons why don't matter, so don't make excuses. Instead, state intentions: "Professor, I haven't done my best to this point, but I'm determined to finish this course and hopefully pass it (Make sure you are clear that you realize your time may have passed for a high grade). I've reviewed the schedule and I've made notes about what is due and when. I would like to see if I can check in with you to stay on track as I'm meeting my deadlines." 

You can also say:
-"Will you accept any work even though it is already late?" (Mention the late policy that exists in the syllabus. No promises here, of course, but you can ask). 

-"Do you believe I can still pass this course? What kind of grades do I need to get on the rest of the work?" (Disclaimer: Your prof may not be able to answer this for you right now--you may need to check in again after a few more assignments are turned in).

 -"Do you think it is in my best interest to drop this course?" (Only take this option if you and your prof determine that there is no possible way to recover! Read this previous post about exit strategies and why they are usually a bad idea).

As important as it is for you to be proactive, it is even more critical that you are accountable. Remember, the prof doesn't have to give you any latitude whatsoever if you've just decided to care about work that you hadn't given a second thought to previously.

If you get help, an opportunity for a do-over, or a willingness for early review, do not miss one deadline and continue to follow up!

All that said, it is your prof's job to help you figure out your standing. Believe me, he/she will be so much happier to analyze the situation with you now, rather than pick up the grade pieces when the term is ending and nothing more can be done.

So, are you ready? Get through your mid-term, and make that appointment. I'd love to see a slew of comments at the end of this post saying "I did it!" (Meaning, you checked on your grades and discussed anything that you needed to with your prof. I'd even be happy if you just make the appointment!).

You're still reading? Don't you have some office hours or an e-mail address to look up? Hmm? Hmm???