Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Last Week, Dropping a Class. This Week, 'Pausing' a Class: Behind the Scenes of the Incomplete

My father unexpectedly died just three weeks before I finished a fall semester at my former community college.

My father was 51. I was 21.

I was extraordinarily close to my father, even though we no longer lived together at that time.

His death sent me to my knees.

I was a good student. Then this happened.

Then I became an unfocused student.

I tried to continue with my two classes, but I couldn't. Even with only three weeks until the end of the term, my motivation died with my dad.

I went to see my Public Speaking prof, who was appropriately empathetic. The prof supported me dropping the class. 

I recall that the History prof had been out ill, so I was unable to meet with him.

Like some students I've now had over the years, I simply faded away from that term... and college.

Little did I know that I wouldn't go back for six--yes, six!--years.

When I returned to college at 27, I was serious about it, once again. I had a mission that I didn't have when I attended earlier:  To get the degrees I'd need to become a community college prof. 

I got into the University of Nevada, Las Vegas's Post-Secondary Education program (a Bachelor of Science degree). At the same time, I returned to my community college to pick up some inexpensive 100 and 200-level classes that I still needed.

What was waiting for me at the community college?

Not one, but two Big. Fat. "F"s.

My transcript told the tale from those classes that I abruptly left!

The "F" in my Public Speaking class? No problem. I happily retook that course.

History 102? Not so simple. There were other courses to fulfill the core requirement and scheduling issues made that particular course impossible.

The "F" was going to be a big problem for my GPA. On top of that? The prof had retired, so there was no easy way to get him to reverse the grade.

I'll fast-forward to say that everything worked out. I had to jump through some administrative hoops, but my GPA ended up back to its healthy self.

The main point here is that there was another option, one not presented to me at the time:

I could have taken an Incomplete.

What's an Incomplete?

I'll give you an example: Let's say you are watching a movie on your DVR or on a Netflix DVD.

You hit the pause button.

You go to the bathroom.

You go grab some Mountain Dew, maybe some Doritos--the new "Naga Viper" flavor that dissolves 1/3rd of your tongue.

(Just joking about that last part, but really, what's left to create in the Doritos franchise?)

You settle back in to watch your movie and the phone rings. It's your long-lost friend from 3rd grade! You have a million years to catch up, so this call will take a while! The movie will have to wait for tomorrow... or a week from now... or six months from now. Doesn't really matter when you get back to it. Your DVR has plenty of memory; Netflix won't charge you for being late.

Taking an "I" for a class is just like your experience with this movie (but you get to keep your whole tongue):

-You essentially "pause" your term.
-Your grades and work remain (temporarily) intact.
-You sign a contract with your prof outlining the terms of the work left to complete.
-You discuss a timeline for completion.
-You do not re-pay for the class.
-You do not attend class again (although some "I" contracts will require you to sit in on a class or two, depending on the work you missed and the agreement with your prof).
-You do not fail the class.
-Your transcript grade is an "I".

You might be thinking, "Hey, what a fantastic solution! I'm crapping out on a class and all I have to do is get my prof to give me one of those 'I's so I have some more time."

The "I" isn't all good news. You can't keep it on your transcript forever. In fact, in most cases, colleges will give you up to one year to reverse it. Other colleges may require you complete the "I" by the very next term.

What happens if you don't complete the incomplete? Very simple:

You fail.

(In other words, your grade reverts back to what it would have been if the prof would have submitted your grade with your unfinished work).

Here are some official incomplete policies from a few institutions:

University of Arizona 

and the first college I taught at: 

College of Southern Nevada

and just for randomness, the University of Toledo (Ohio!)

Important disclaimer: If you are already failing the class, don't even ask for an Incomplete--the Incomplete is not for redoing work, but simply having an extension to do more good work in addition to the good work you've done.

So what's the communication lesson?

Ask your prof about an "I" grade the minute you have a situation that warrants it. Here is what you should have in order to start that conversation:

-A copy of your college's official "I" grade policy (your prof likely knows what it is, but good for you to investigate yourself)
-Your current grade standing, either hard copy or expert knowledge of it if you ask the prof to bring it up on his/her computer to look at it in the course management system
-A list of the work that you have left to complete
-A date or schedule that you will complete the work (I'll get back to this one later--the words are bolded for a reason!).

Say, "I have had an unexpected crisis. I do not want to drop this class. According to my records, I currently have a B-average. I see that I have assignment X, Y, and Z still due. I would like to ask for an 'Incomplete' so I have a little more time to finish this work. I have a proposal for the dates that I can finish this work."

Making your case in this way sounds so, so much more professional than what profs usually hear at the end of the term: "Guess I'm going to fail!" or "What can I do?" Your professor will be impressed that you are taking responsibility for your actions and approaching the situation in an assertive, fact-based manner.

Let's talk about the prof's perspective for a minute, particularly if that person isn't doing backflips over your request.

Why the lack of love for the "I"? In my personal experience, for all the work that goes into drawing up the contract, keeping track of the student's grade possibly two terms down the road, here's a fact:  Less than 3% of students actually do the work to reverse their "I" grade!

Again, just my experience (Colleagues reading, weigh in?). I have submitted very, very, very, very few grade changes over the years to reverse an "I". The idea seems like a life-saver in the moment, but students mentally move on and forward. Or, sometimes they decide to retake the class anyway. Or forget about the class entirely and keep their F.

Regardless of the prof's perspective, the "I" policy is there for a reason. And, I was a student for whom the "I" could have made a big difference. You might be one of those students, too.

So, I say, pose the question and listen to what your prof has to say.

Then, commit to a schedule to finish the work so you can reverse the "I"!

(Hint: You usually have a break right after your last day of school. You asked for an extension:  You could finish your work over that break and then be done with it, submitting it to the prof right when you both return to school.)

One other disclaimer:  If your prof refuses to entertain the "I" and you feel you have a strong case, you might have to take the situation to your prof's division chair for an outside perspective. You don't want to play this card unless you have to, but sometimes it is necessary. Your prof may refuse for a valid reason--such as that he/she will be on leave for the next term or academic year--and the division chair might be able to find someone else to take the "I" over. It may be uncomfortable, but you can say to your prof: "Can you and I take this to the division/department chair for more help with my situation?"

My heartfelt wish for all of my students is that they don't go through a loss like I did when I was in college. I'd much prefer that a student take a hiatus for a happy event, like the birth of a baby or a loved one coming back from deployment.

Regardless of the reason, if life thwaps you upside the head while you are trying to "do school," an Incomplete may save your hard, almost-earned college credits.

(Addendum:  For my situation where I failed both classes, "Academic Renewal" was another option. Academic Renewal--may be called something different at your college--erases an entire term from your transcript. Look into the official policy at your college. There are usually some pretty tight rules around it and the ramifications may not be as pleasant as the idea, but something for you to know).

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Summer and Fall College Students: Do You Have an Exit Strategy for Your Classes? Rethink It!

Update  5/24/2011, 3:12 p.m.: Just an FYI that this post is a compilation of numerous similar student situations. Many logistical details have been altered to protect student privacy. Some seemingly distinguishing facts remain the same every quarter: I have been teaching a night course for many years now, same time format. Every one of my courses requires speeches. My first required speech is always on a topic with which the student is pretty familiar (a career speech or other area that is fairly easy for content connection and research). I attend at least two to three conferences per year. I will always match students who miss work in this class with other students who have had unexpected emergencies so they can pair up and record their missed presentations. And, finally, it is not unusual for students to come see me several times before they actually drop, even come to class and request the drop there. I actually feel good that this happens so much since students obviously feel comfortable enough to be honest with me!

"I'm going to drop this class."

Student made this statement with no harsh tone, no subliminal message of "I can't stand you, your family, your cat, or your Mom minivan."

Just matter of factness.

"Why?" I asked. "We're over halfway through the quarter. Why drop now?"

"Because our next assignment seems really hard. Like you're really strict on what you're looking for."

"Well, I am. A good outline provides a solid foundation for your speech," I said. "But we have plenty of time to work on it and if you get started early, I'm glad to work on it with you. Also, your other work has gone well. Why throw it all away?"

Student didn't respond, but seemed to think about what I was saying--for the moment.

Next conversation, I reminded Student of the personal experience that Student had with the topic. That all Student needed to do was find some sources and organize the points.

I made a plan with Student: Contact me during the week with the in-progress assignment. I'd give feedback. Student would move ahead.

My plan was not Student's plan.

Student e-mailed me: "I can't do this."

I e-mailed back and simply said, "You can. Here's how."

I offered the same points I discussed during the last class. Now Student had a concrete list. The framework was there. Student had to take the next step, do the research, fill in the outline.

Next communication with Student?

Again, no draft work, but a visit to my office on the day the speech was due . . .

. . . with a drop form in hand.

I waved it away.

"No, no, no," I said. "You're not dropping. You know what you need to do. You know this topic well. Why would you drop?"

Student looked at the floor. "It just seems really hard. I've never been very good at writing."

(For readers thinking, "Fear of public speaking," ironically, Student was truly okay with that. The writing piece was the recurring theme of concern).

"I'm not buying it. You did so well with your last written assignment."

I could tell by Student's expression that my encouragement wasn't working.

Time to get firm. 

"So what are you going to do? Drop the course and lose your money? Lose your financial aid or your parents' money? You're going to have to retake this course, anyway, either here or at the university. You might as well stay in a class where you know everyone and where you have the exact help that you need."

Then my persuasive close (wait for it!):  "You can do this! Now is not the time to give up! You have everything you need to make this happen."

"But I'm already late on the assignment," Student said.

Phew. I'll take concern about lateness over bailing out.

I said, "Another student had a crisis and will be late on this speech. The two of you can work together. We'll figure it out."

(PS:  This class meets once per week for four hours; rest is online. I'm very firm about no make up speeches in class).

That evening, I was thrilled when Almost Dropped Student did connect with Crisis Student and the two of them forged a plan.

I chatted with Almost Dropped Student a bit after class. Small talk, then the conversation turned to Student's family: Student had much support for being in school. 

I shared one of my own college struggles where I nearly bailed: Math. I was nearly 30 at the time; I hired a 19-year-old math whiz with a Mohawk and a spike bracelet to tutor me twice a week. I told Student that for me, not getting through math meant no teaching career that I so desperately wanted. I knew I didn't have to get an 'A'; I just needed to pass.

My conversation with Student was connecting--the type that student retention studies say can make a difference between students staying in college or not.

When I left the college that evening, I felt good. Likewise, Student seemed lighter.

Student said, "I feel better. I know what to do now."

I was hopeful:  If I could just get Student through this particular hiccup, then it could serve as a change agent for other college moments--or even life moments--that seem insurmountable.

Maybe Student would see that when the work gets hard, working harder--with support--is the way to go. In my mind, it's the only way to go.

Helping students with these kinds of revelations (not to mention my freakish love of public speaking and interpersonal communication) is why I absolutely love this career...
But what is equally hard and, dare I say, sometimes painful about this career is the knowledge that some students view their classes like some couples view marriage:

"If it doesn't work, I'll just get divorced."

In other words:

"Class gets too hard? I'll just drop."

Having an exit strategy before going into a class seems crazy to me.

Yes, the drop policy is there for a reason. Like if some life situation happens and going to class is literally no longer feasible (or you've been hauled away by aliens who don't support your college education and won't pay for it.).

But I do not count disliking the professor, finding the work too hard, too much, or not getting the grades that you deserve as good reasons to drop. And these are some of the most common reasons that students drop classes.

If you don't like a professor, guess what? "Like" in the student-professor relationship is a wonderful bonus (and a bonus that you will probably have, more often than not!), but not a given.

You are supposed to learn from a professor, be treated fairly, and have a comfortable working relationship. That relationship is finite. If you are bored or just plain don't click with the person, this is still not a reason to drop. A term is only 10-15 weeks at most. You can deal with almost anything when there is an end in sight.

If you aren't getting the grades you feel you deserve, there are also ways to deal with that. You first  communicate with your professor (yes, even if you don't like them!). That doesn't work? You advocate for yourself and take your argument higher (saving this discussion for a later blog post). Still, you don't drop the course.

Why? First and foremost because of the practical reasons I told Student:

-You will likely lose money--or someone will lose money--if you're past a certain date;
-Depending on the class, you delay the inevitable. You will have to take the class again!

But most of all, you will gain far, far more by dealing with that frustrating prof/assignment/class-as-a-whole head-on than if you simply bail out.

Look at sticking with the class as a selfish move, if you have to:  Every day is one less day that you never have to see this prof, class, or topic again. Why on earth would you want to start over?

Enough with my diatribe. Back to the story...

I didn't see Student the following week because I was attending a conference.

When I returned and moved into my usual crazy morning routine, wrangling a 3-year-old, keeping an 8-year-old in check, suddenly it hit me:

In a week and a half, I hadn't heard from Student. Again, Student was going to run the outline by me before recording with Crisis Student.

I had a heaviness in my stomach, that "knowing."

(My stomach is very wise. It could have its own psychic hotline.)

As my kids started to argue over who was going to get the Nemo fruit snacks and who was going to get the Scooby Doo fruit snacks (when neither should be having fruit snacks at 8:15 a.m.), I couldn't help myself: I grabbed my laptop, hopped on to the college website, and logged into the master roster for the class.

My mind was saying, "Noooooo!" 

But my telepathic stomach already gave me my answer. 

There it was:  The big, fat "W" next to Student's name.

W = Withdrew.

(Ironically, Crisis Student's missing work was waiting for me in my Outlook in-box. So, one half of the duo held up the agreement).

I don't remember saying much to my kids on the drive to their schools. They were too busy chewing fruit snacks. (I was in a weak point. What can I say?).

This one hit me hard.

And, I suppose I should be thankful that after 13 years of teaching, losing a student can still make me feel that way.

I was flummoxed. I couldn't shake the feeling of defeat.

This post would be so much easier to write if Student failed to talk to me, neglected to share the real feelings about wanting to drop the class.

Then I could say:  So, what's the communication lesson here?

But from a communication standpoint, Student did almost everything right.

And for every student reading this, I would advise you to:

-Go to your prof at the very first sign of trouble and be specific with your problem. Don't just say, "I'm so confused and don't know what to do."

Say, "I'm starting to feel a little confused about X concept or X chapter and am concerned that I may not get through this class." You can also say, "I got totally lost when you went over X."

If you missed work (hopefully you deal with the problem before this happens!), tell the prof, "I missed the last assignment because I did not understand it. I should have come to you sooner and I will next time. I can have the assignment to you by Tuesday. Will you still accept it? Will you help me 'get it'?"

-Tell your prof if you have a life situation that threatens your success in the class. But do it the second you know that there is a problem! I can't tell you how many students tell me that a disaster was unfolding after the fact! E-mail your prof, call them, make an appointment, but tell them! You never have to disclose what is going on, you can say: "I have had an unexpected life emergency and I worry that it will threaten my success in this class. Can you help me figure out if I can still pass?" (Or get ____ grade, if that is your goal).

If you are taking an on-campus class, maybe you can transition to an online class to finish up your term. Maybe you can take an "Incomplete" in the course, depending on your school's policy or how the rest of your work has gone. But don't just drop without investigating all of your options!

-Remember the other support services at your college ALL designed to help you:  Your counseling center, tutoring centers, math resource centers, even your librarians. Utilize these people and put them on your "stay in class" team. It's what they are there for!

-Keep the feedback loop going with your prof. Follow through! Say, "I did what you recommended. Would you please take a look again? I am still feeling unsure."  Go ask for help as many times as you need it. Just because you had one conversation doesn't mean that's the end. Follow up on your plan.

The one disclaimer to these recommendations:  If you have not attended class all term or you have missed a ton of work without contacting your prof, catching yourself back up and having your prof's support to do that is going to be extremely difficult. Then, unfortunately, you may have to drop the class or take the grade consequence, if you've passed the drop date. If a major life emergency is the reason that you didn't go to class and you do end up with a failing grade, your Registrar's office can help you identify your options. You will likely have to retake the class, though. 

I e-mailed Student a few days after I saw the "W". I connected with this student. Closure, in my mind, was important. 

I told Student I was sorry to see the drop, that I respect some things need to happen in one's own time, and that I wished Student would have investigated other options to avoid this outcome. 

I told Student I hoped that this experience could be a "teachable moment"--that Student had all the tools needed to succeed and that one "off" assignment (if that even happened) would not have ruined the other good work already completed.

My final words? "You learn so, so much more from fighting through what is perceived as difficult, than what ends up being easy. It's what builds character :-). But again, you're going to learn that in your own time. I wish you well."

I found myself extremely unsettled, even after this e-mail.

Student didn't respond.

I expected that.

But maybe something will stick.

I have actually started to question myself over this situation. Why? Because I have a pretty great retention track record. But I wondered, have I been out of school too long? Am I no longer able to think like a student? To see things from a student's perspective?

I asked two superstar students who were not always superstars i.e., students who overcame some serious situational odds to transform themselves into mega-Honors students/scholarship winners heading to amazing universities soon, about their perception of dropping a class. They said I could quote them:

From Spencer Wright: "I think the ONLY time when it's alright to drop a class is when someone's personal life is negatively affecting their school performance. If life is going well, keep the devotion to your classes, right?"
From Serenity Carr:  "In my opinion, a student should figure out if they want to stay in a class within a week. But that's me, the overly ambitious student. And, it affects financial aid if you don't also add the same number of credits, so I have never dropped a class. (cried and swore I would? Yes. But dropped, no.) I would say that you should do it before the date you can get a full refund. If you wait too long, you waste money, and even longer, you get a W. No good no matter how you look at it. I learned the most from the classes I wanted to drop. But I stuck it through. It's good for students." 

I feel better reading their responses. 

An exit strategy for a college class? Bad, bad idea.

Their quotes led me to think about a quote that I absolutely love and live. 

It's from John "The Penguin" Bingham, a back-of-the-pack runner (like me) who went from being an out-of-shape couch potato to marathoner, but a sloooow marathoner:  

"The miracle isn't that I finished. The miracle is that I had the courage to start." 

I'll add:  "And the courage to stay." 

Monday, May 16, 2011

How A Class Discussion on Losing Friends Versus Lovers Led to a Technology Fast... And a New Idea

“I don’t really feel like any of my friendships are so deep that I'd feel that sad if I lost them.”

This comment came from one of my students in my Interpersonal Communication class last quarter.

Don't worry. The comment was in line with the day's lesson: Friendship and romantic relationships.

(I know, sounds like a mega-Oprah session, but we cover theory:  Knapp’s model of relationship development and dialectical tensions, to be exact.) 

I read a sidebar passage from an old Beebe and Beebe interpersonal communication textbook called, “Loss of a Friend Can Hurt More Than a Romantic Split.” The content discusses exactly what the title says.

After the reading, my class was quiet and seemingly introspective.

I broke the silence, “So... losing a friend versus learning a lover. What do we think? Does losing the friend really hurt more? How can that be?”

Still silence. Not typical for this class. So, I succumbed and shared:

"I lost a close friendship about five years ago. This friend's husband died, and then she started dating. Once she built her new life, we tried to hold things together, but we drifted apart. I really had to lick my wounds for a few weeks. I took walks by myself. I replayed our conversations in my mind. I let myself feel sad. It did feel like I was losing a significant other.”

Still silence. My students' faces appeared appropriately empathetic, though. 

Here's where a student piped up and made the comment that started this blog post. Other students nodded in their agreement.

I was shocked. My friends have been my lifeblood for years and the few losses of friends I've had have cut pretty deep.

Before I could inquire further, another student said, “Everything happens on text or Facebook. It’s short and it’s just like, ‘Hey, what are you doing?’ Then when you get together, you just do whatever you’re doing. It’s not like a lot of big talking about feelings.”

After the experience in that day's class, I was hardly surprised when I read a Chronicle of Higher Education article last week called “No Cell Phone? No Internet? So Much Less Stress".

I’d highly recommend that you read the article, but briefly, four higher academicians (one, ironically enough, from my own backyard, UW!) studied how students feel about their use of technology. The answers were not necessarily what one would expect:  The majority of students didn't love their own use of technology, citing that they lose time when stuck in the cyberspace vortex (I know Bejeweled Blitz from Facebook recently kept me up until 1 a.m. I am not proud!).

Another finding that struck me and gave me solace at the same time was students' recognition that their online contacts "don't feel real" when compared to face-to-face interactions. 

My own students' comments also make me wonder: When online interactions move "off line," how “real” and “deep” are they--particularly when the communication that precedes those interactions occurs in short bursts over Facebook, text, or Twitter? (Or Tumblr or Formspring, etc., etc. etc.)?

Off topic for a second:  I'm in my early 40‘s. Social media and technology are “additives” to my current relationships, and I was a latecomer to all of them (like we’re talking joining FB in April 2011).

I personally despise texting, though I realize to communicate with some friends and family members, I have to do it.

I just started on FB, but admittedly, it was a professional choice, not a personal one.

I'm writing a blog. I want my blog to connect with students. Students are on FB.

(Okay, yes, it is nice to see what family members and friends that I rarely-to-never see are doing--at times. But it still feels far more superficial than if we were to pick up the phone and have a real conversation. Though I guess FB could lead there. The question is, will it?).

I know myself: I need authentic connection.

Plus that, freaky as it may sound, I love the "unknowns" of a phone call. I don't think I really knew that until phone calling started to seem so "out".

I love not knowing what other side conversations will emerge in a conversation.

I love knowing that impromptu plans can be made while actually talking to another person.

I love hearing others' voices.

I love getting the straight story about a message through vocal cues--not having to scratch my head and then send four more text messages clarifying what I "think" the person said.

I have no intentions of giving up my phone habits and truly connecting with another person. Or using technology simply to determine when my next real conversation or face-to-face connection will occur.

Of course, my perception is not my students' perception.

I worry about that.

I worry about my students losing the overall art of verbal communication, say, for their ability to work a room...

...to network
...to schmooze
...to mingle in unfamiliar situations

Case in point: When people are by themselves, how many do you see making eye contact with others, which can transform into some great impromptu conversations?

No, instead we (I'll include myself; I'm guilty now, too!) bury our faces in our phones--and likely start texting.

Essentially, I worry about how technology and social media is encouraging students to confidently and articulately find and craft their “multifaceted communication selves” by honing their verbal and nonverbal “voice.”

How can I not worry when my wonderful students so earnestly told me that the brief words/sentences they punch on phone keypads and laptop/iPad keyboards don't translate into relationships that they would be sad to lose?

I left that class feeling low, so I did something about it. Not my most innovative move, but under the guise of an assignment--and it is a communication class, after all--I forced my students into a technology fast. Here were the rules:

-No e-mail, texting, or Facebook for three days.
-They had to pick up the phone or go see someone in person instead.
-Then, report the changes (positive ones, hopefully, with the addition of communication “richness”) in their interactions.

I can't say that my students gave me a "Woot! Woot!" when I told them of my plan. Their responses (which I've altered slightly to disguise the originator) did tell me that maybe the assignment opened their eyes:

-“An hour phone call would be sufficient in comparison towards say, a 6-hour or all day text session. I think I am probably going to pick up the phone more to call and talk to people to be clear on information and stuff. It's more direct and a lot less confusing to understand."

-“At first, it felt lonely during the times we could've communicated, but I chose not to (for this experiment). But when we finally called or visited each other, it felt so satisfying.”

-“Texting definitely is like a shield but having to pick up the phone and talk is hard.”

-“We found out the gender of our baby. Only three people actually answered their phones! One friend called us twice wondering if something was wrong because we called rather than texted.”

-“Two things happened I did not expect: One was that it was not very difficult to make conversation or think about topics to talk about. Second, I enjoyed the type of connection that I was getting. It had ACTUAL emotion behind it. I could hear the tone or dialect in his voice when he talked about things he liked and didn't like.”

“The good part was I felt like I was communicating to a real person, rather than just typing the message to the phone. Thirty text messages would take like half an hour or more to finish a story, but 5 mins in a phone call can do the same story. In addition, any misunderstandings and uncertainty are dealt with ease. Furthermore, I can use body language to describe our thoughts and moods. The bad part about this was it's very hard to hide our feelings.”

Did students say they’d change their habits? Not necessarily. But they did say they’d try to at least add more “real” interaction opportunities.

I'll take it.

So, what’s the communication lesson?
The lesson is probably implied. I hardly suggest that we “give up” technology in our communication because that's just plain unrealistic.

What I wonder is this: “Flexitarians” are people who are vegetarians most of the time, but give themselves latitude to eat meat.

Can we become "fleximediums"? 

(Or something like that).

In other words, if the majority of time communicating is spent in front of a cell phone, computer, iPad, or laptop, is it possible to be flexible about our habits?

Can we devote a percentage--5%? 10%? Even 1%?--of our communication time to real dialogue, which includes more communication richness, such as verbal and nonverbal communication? A phone call? A face-to-face meeting?

After all, keeping the art of verbal communication (hopefully face-to-face) fresh and honed for times when technology just cannot substitute--like in an interview, at a networking event, even at a party--is vital. The study presented in the Chronicle article, and even my students' reactions to their assignment, told me that there was satisfaction and some confidence to be gained by disconnecting... and reconnecting in a more meaningful way.

I found an awesome example of how we can put those "fleximedium" goals in place:

Gregory Graham, another blogger (go visit his blog by clicking here), who teaches at U. of Arkansas, and researches the impact of technology on student literacy/critical thinking skills has a personal credo--a “digital philosophy”--that maybe we can take as our own, or modify. 

(By the way, before Oprah Winfrey leaves the air, I wish she would promote this philosophy, similar to the way her “No Phone Zone” contracts went viral in a millisecond).

I'll copy it here, but you can also link directly:

Gregory Graham’s Digital Philosophy
My digital philosophy is really a personal philosophy…
I refuse to allow new media technologies to interrupt my face-to-face interactions with others.
I refuse to allow new media technologies to interrupt my quiet times or sacred spaces.
I refuse to allow my interaction through these technologies to replace real-life, real-time experiences.
I will utilize new media technologies to supplement and complement my existing relationships, to communicate with others when no other way is practical, and to acquire and pass on information.

If we turn those statements into questions, beginning with “How will I...?” then we can hatch a true plan.
Even though, comparatively speaking, my communication via technology is minimal compared to my students, I am going to make the following plan:

-I'm going to pull my face off of my phone when I'm idly waiting in a public place. If there are people around, I'll go back to people watching like I used to. Or maybe I'll strike up a conversation with someone. (I won't stalk. Don't worry.) So, for example, if I'm waiting for someone to arrive or come out of the bathroom, they won't find me distracted while I furtively finish a text or e-mail on my phone.

Along that line, my second goal: 

-I'm going to re-focus on being fully present when I'm in face-to-face interactions. At times, I am guilty of sneaking peeks at my phone for e-mail or texts. Yes, sometimes it's necessary, like if my husband can't pick up kids or if I am telecommuting and I need to stay in contact with students. But, very often, it's not necessary, and I know that.

What 1% (or more?) measure are you willing to take to start your fleximedium-ism? I'd love to hear about it in an e-mail or a comment at the end of this post.

But after you do that, go see a friend.

Go make a call.

I'm going to do that right now.

(I hope they answer the phone!).

Monday, May 9, 2011

A Suit for A Phone Interview? Use ALL of Your Communication to Rock the Call

(Personal note: My blog started just one month ago. I want to offer deep appreciation and thanks for the support and feedback! Over 1700 hits in four weeks--that's just crazy in an awesome way. This is an exciting adventure and I hope the information will help many! Students who are reading, time to look at the e-mail to the right of your screen and send me some questions! What issues do you face with professors? If you are coming into college in the fall, what concerns you about working with professors? Your name will be omitted from your question, of course. Back to the point:  Immense thanks to all... now on to phone interviewing.)
It's job hunting season for so many. Time to talk about communication with an employability twist once again.

Today's topic? Using all of your communication skills to rock a telephone interview!

You may be thinking, "Of course, I'll use my comm skills for my phone interview. I'm going to talk, aren't I?"

I'm talking about using your words (verbal communication) and your body language, voice, and facial expressions (nonverbal communication) to enhance those words. 

You're now thinking, "But the person on the other end can't see my face. What kind of advice is that?"

My response:  You'd be surprised just how much your nonverbals can impact the words you say. In fact, nonverbal communication can "count" as much as 90% over the spoken word!

Okay, enough with the stats... I'll kick off with a little story:

Back in 1999 (sounds like 100 years ago, I know!), college budgets were shrinking, just like they are today. Similar to the current job market, initial interviews often occurred on the phone.

(No, not a corded phone. Not that long ago).

Every day, I dreamed about the moment when the phone would ring, indicating hope that I could actually earn the teaching job I so desperately wanted.

As a matter of fact, I was dreaming when that call came. 

You know how when you are really, really tired, you sort of die a small death overnight? I was in that kind of sleep.

The phone rang at 7 a.m. 

“Hello.” I sounded like I just ate gravel.

“Yes, this is Mr. Eastern Standard Time Zone from Early Hour College calling for our phone interview with Ms. Bremen.” (Not their real names).

“Bu… But… our interview is at 10,” I rasped.

“Ms. Bremen, it's 10 a.m. here."

Oh, crap. I didn't say this, but I was sure thinking it.

Before I could utter another word, I slammed water with the hope of clearing my voice.

Water wasn't working after the abrupt wake up from the death sleep. I sounded like Miley Cyrus (or Stevie Nicks... from my day) with a bad upper respiratory infection.

I couldn't ask to reschedule the call, so we proceeded.

This was my first interview for my dream career! It wasn't supposed to start with me in my rumpled flannel pajamas (yes, the yellow ones with cats holding umbrellas), my short hair matted and punk, and my mind as fuzzy as my slippers.

I stumbled through that interview. It was bad. I never heard from that college again.

Don't feel too sorry for me. I recovered from that mess. In fact, because of a certain specialization in my field, I was lucky enough have more interviews than I knew what to do with over the years. And, like that early morning in '99, most of those interviews began on the phone.

Let's talk about how to survive and thrive (cheesy, but true!)--using every communication attribute available--during these sometimes challenging calls. I'm going to start with nonverbal communication. Some of this advice may seem a little strange, but stay with me. It works!

-Dress for it. 
That's right. Treat the phone interview like a real interview and wear what you would if it were in person. From a nonverbal communication standpoint, your clothing says a ton about you. In this case, the message will be sent... to yourself. You will feel more confident and communicate more professionally, even in your business casual clothes, than if you wear your grungies--or flannel PJ's.

Yes, in future calls, I felt a little silly sitting in my kitchen in a suit that I was only going to take off seconds after the interview ended. But I did treat the experience like a business transaction.

-Use gestures, vocal variety, facial expressions--just like you would in a face-to-face meeting.
"Smile before you pick up the phone!" People who work in customer service hear this all the time. Why? Because your smile comes through your voice. In a phone interview, your nonverbals can be "read" and you want them to come off as dynamic as possible. Keep your vocal inflection energetic. Go hands-free if the caller can still hear you so you can use gestures, which will also translate through your voice. If you have to hold the phone, gesture with one hand. Walk around to "work out" nervous energy, which could help if your voice gets shaky. And by all means, let your face match your words. Again, this will come through in your voice. If you are talking about something serious, don't smile through that part of the discussion. See even more on vocals below.

-Become comfortable with silence.
In my communication courses, we discuss the messages that silence can send. In a phone interview, if you answer a question and then there is no response, it's easy to get nervous. Without the head nod or eye contact from the interviewer, you may feel tempted to fill the silence by rambling. Resist the temptation, let the silence lie for a moment, and then allow your interviewer to initiate the next question. Obviously, if the silence feels too long, it's okay to say, "Have we been disconnected?" just to be sure.

-A few seconds of silence on your end is okay, too.
The flip side of silence is that you do not have to pounce on a question the second it is asked. Taking a very brief pause to gather your thoughts is fine. If you want the silence to be less obvious, but you want the mental thinking time, ask the interviewer to repeat the question.

-Work your vocal tones, your pacing, and your volume.
A little more on vocals here: I always tell my speaking students, "When lights go down, your vocals come up." What this means is that when lights dim for a PowerPoint presentation and the audience is in a darkened room, that audience needs even more of a speaker's inflection (the high/low tones of your voice--think about a newscaster's delivery), projected volume, and overall vocal energy keep them engaged--and possibly awake! These same vocal qualities apply to a phone conversation, particularly one as important as an interview. Let the assertion and intermittent "high tones" in your voice tell the interviewer that you are enthusiastic about the position. Make sure you pace your words conversationally, not scripted or too fast (easy to do when you are nervous!). Finally, speak loud enough (but not so loud that you could bust your potential employer's eardrum), and make sure you are in a quiet space. While it can be painful to listen to yourself, recording a typical response can help you know what you really sound like. Then, you can work on one or two elements of your vocality in day-to-day conversation, before it really counts for that interview.

Now let's talk about your words...

-Ask who will be interviewing you. 
When you receive the call telling you about the phone interview, ask who will be on the call. It may be the HR rep, your future boss, or a committee. Try to research your interviewers on the company website or through LinkedIn. Then, you won't feel like you are speaking entirely to strangers. If you read a biography about the person and their background relates to yours, you might be able to refer to this in your interview. The interviewers will be impressed by your "ahead of the game" research.


-Draw a graphic for yourself.
To go along with the recommendation above, if you are being interviewed by a committee or even more than one person, ask everyone to introduce themselves. Draw a box on a piece of paper (to simulate a conference table) and write down the names, as if you were picturing those people sitting there. Any mental image that helps you feel a little more like you are "in the room" is worthwhile.

-Ask about your allotted time for the call.
I have had phone interviews with five questions and others with 12 questions (My husband faced the same thing when he was laid off in 2008--and he is in the corporate environment). The 12-question interviewer did not tell me that there were that many questions, and I didn't ask. There was less than an hour scheduled for the call! I didn't ask about that either. My responses were too lengthy and before I knew it, the interviewer said, "Your answers are right on, but we must jump to our final two questions.” I wanted to kick myself. If you know how much time you have, and how many questions will be asked, you can monitor your responses and leave enough time for your own questions.

-Practice your responses ahead of time.
After a few phone interviews, you get the standard questions. Just like I tell my speech students to rehearse their oral presentations until they are succinct, crisp, and in line with the given timeframe, I took my own advice and began practicing my interview responses out loud while I was driving, or even in the shower. While you don't want to sound scripted or rehearsed--read:  unnatural or robotic--“talking out” typical answers and editing as necessary can increase your confidence. Then, you can use your energy on the elaborate, unexpectedly challenging questions.

-Let “you” shine through.
Paperwork and a voice can’t represent a multifaceted human being. Weary interviewers who participate in phone call after phone call probably find that answers meld into one giant ball of candidate after a while. So give the interviewer the fabulousness and uniqueness that is "you." Be your creative self. Be your articulate self. Be your witty self. When you "tell" about your experience or an accomplishment, use word pictures, stories, examples that "show" who you are and make you memorable.

-Confirm your time zone.
Are you surprised that this one wasn't listed first? Clearly, I still have nightmares and day-mares over that sad morning of my first telephone interview. After that initial screw-up, I synchronized my watch with any college outside of my time zone, confirming the hour of the interview in their state and in mine. Sometimes I asked twice.

For all its challenges, telephone interviewing offers a few plusses:
-First, when you get that on-site interview, feel quite good that you already impressed the interviewer(s).
-Second, telephone interviews can save you time. A 30-minute phone call may expose what you don’t want in a position, rather than a trek across town... or across the country.
-Finally, familiarity. When a telephone interview prefaces your face-to-face interview, you have "met" someone at the company; you already sort of "know" them. When I had an on-site interview without the phone interview first, I definitely felt the difference in connection, or lack thereof.

So, dust off your suit or nice khakis, chug some water to clear your throat, smile, and charge your cell phone.

Oh, and don't forget about your watch. Make sure you are on the right time zone.

Fabulous masters of phone interviewing, you are ready for excellence!

Monday, May 2, 2011

For Some Things, It's Best to Wait... But Not for THIS Class! (Fall 2011 College Students... Talking to YOU!)

Are you a Fall 2011 college student? Will it be your first term in college? 

BRAVO! This post is for you. 

Is it your second, third, or squillionth term in college? Awesome! You're returning!

This post is also for you.

If you are not in college right now, but know any person who is, this post is for you to SHARE! 

You get it. On to the advice now.

I was thinking today about things that we should wait for and things that we shouldn't:

-Playing your 23rd round of Call of Duty when you told your girlfriend you'd be over at 3 p.m. (and that was three hours ago).

Wait. (Your trigger finger/thumb/pinky will thank you.)

-Taking said girlfriend to rom-com with Natalie Portman, Jake Gyllenhall, Anne Hathaway, or Ashton Kutcher because she's been dying to see a rom-com (and you secretly like saying 'rom-com', but you won't admit that to your friends).

Don't wait.

-Eating a Giant Kit Kat when you're already having a food baby from the super-stuffed crust pizza you just inhaled. 


-Going for a run to burn off offending pizza and Kit Kat.

Don't wait. (Unless you've just eaten. Then wait 20 minutes. Hmm, that's swimming, isn't it?).

-Putting a $150 pair of jeggings on your credit card that your cousin's girlfriend's brother's hairdresser told you Kate Middleton wore on her honeymoon.


-Getting knock-off jeggings at H & M for $30.

Don't wait. (Unless your credit card is maxed or you aren't supposed to be using your credit card!)

Ready for the last one:

-Taking Bionaturonicology 102 when you haven't even taken Bionaturonicology 101 or even 091.


-Taking a required communication class your first quarter of college.

Don't wait!

As much fun as I had writing those previous don't wait's/wait's (honestly, I could have gone on for another hour... how lame is that?), this last one is serious:

Spring term after spring term, many students filter into either my Public Speaking (CMST 220) class or my Introduction to Communication (CMST 101) class with a slight eye-pop and a little bead of sweat that threatens to emerge from their forehead any second.

Why the stress?

Because graduation is looming and they've saved their communication requirement until The. Bitter. End.

On the first day of spring term, I always ask, "Okay, so how many of you saved this class until your last quarter?"

At least 1/3rd of the class typically raises their hand--sometimes more. I'll get to the reasons students wait in just a second...

What's interesting to me is that most incoming college students take English/Writing their very first term. Smart move, right? Strengthening college-level writing skills early before taking a boat-load of other courses that also require college-level writing? Brilliant!

Last time I checked, a boat-load of college courses also require one or all of the following:

1.  A presentation, either alone or in a group
2.  Talking or working with someone else in class (interpersonal communication!)
3.  A group project

Those assignments or projects can be worth a fair amount of the grade in those classes. 

You probably know where I'm going with this...

Doesn't it make sense to take Public Speaking/Introduction to Communication Studies/Basic Communication (or whatever this course is called at your college) EARLY?

Let me be specific here:  I'm talking about taking this class your FIRST quarter in college.

"But wait..." You may be thinking, "I am in my 5th semester at college. Done reading this post... going to check out my recent news on Facebook now."

Don't stop reading! (or believin'--according to Journey, or the Glee kids singing Journey).

Even if you are in Q5 of your college career, and you didn't take that comm class first, I still say take it NOW. Earlier, rather than at the end of your college career, can benefit you in so many ways.

All right:  Let's plow into reasons why students wait to take their communication class:

Reason #1:  They think they know about communication because they do it every day.

Just because we do something routinely doesn't mean we're doing that "thing" the best we can, does it?

If you had one argument this week or last where you or your communication partner walked away angry, frustrated, confused, etc., then maybe learning a little more about communication could help.

If you feel like you wouldn't know where to start if you were suddenly asked to deliver a speech, then you definitely could benefit from a communication course that involves some training in public speaking, or a dedicated public speaking course. 

Like I said before, so many of your other non-comm (rhymes with 'rom-com'!) classes are going to require communication assignments that you will likely be graded on, such as group work, speeches, or participation with others. So, even if you know how to talk, getting official training in how to improve your speaking either one-on-one, to groups, or in public can only stand to help you boost your skills for those other classes.

I won't even remind you that if you've read this post on employability, you know that learning how to better communicate can increase your "competition capital" when job hunting season begins. 

(Okay, I guess I did remind you).

Now let's look at the second reason students wait to take a communication course:

Reason #2:   They'd rather have surgery without anesthesia (or even a leather strap to bite) than deliver a speech.

Public speaking is the #1 fear of adult Americans since 1977 (according to The Book of Lists, which is a book... of lists...). Many colleges and degree programs require all students to have a dedicated Public Speaking course, which is different than a communication theory course that may not require any speeches, or possibly just one or two.

While I realize that public speaking anxiety is far more emotional than logical (and I will blog about some killer strategies to help you manage this fear in the future), let's take make a logical list of why fear of public speaking is not the best reason for saving the public speaking or comm course until the end of your college career: 

1.  Every single person in the class is going to have to give a speech. Does this mean that you'll feel no fear about giving that speech? Hell, no. You might shake in your Sketchers, but other nervous buddies will support you.

2.  Your prof in the public speaking course will likely have a whole lesson on helping you deal with your speech anxiety--it's a natural topic in any communication course. Conversely, your Bionaturonicology 101 professor may require you to deliver a presentation, but that prof will be focused helping you with your bionaturons. Or your icologies. That prof's first priority probably won't be to help you with your fear of public speaking. He/she expects that you worked on that in your comm class! 

3.  The last term before you graduate has enough stress surrounding it. Why save something you absolutely dread until the end? Why not get it over with? Doesn't waiting for anything that you fear just make the fear compound on top of itself? And do you really want to be uber-super-stressed by a dreaded class right before graduation? Let's say you do take your comm class early and it goes horribly (that's unlikely, but let's just say, "What if?")? At least you still have more time to retake the class. If you wait until the end of college, the hard fact is that this one dreaded course could also keep you from graduating. Ugh. Let's not even entertain that thought.

So, what's the communication lesson here?

Get your communication course done your first or next term in college. Here's what you do:

1.  Go look at the core requirements for your Associate's or Bachelor's degree. See what the communication requirement is. Public Speaking 101? Introduction to Communication 101?

If you are in a degree program that has a set schedule, ask your adviser if you can fulfill your Comm requirement early.

If you are in a degree program or college that doesn't have a communication req, don't think that this advice doesn't apply to you! A communication course can likely meet a Humanities or elective requirement and will still give you all the important benefits I've noted.

Once you've found your basic comm class, public speaking class, etc., sign up for that course in Fall 2011!

2.  Pack yourself with some information power! Learn about your upcoming comm course and even your new comm professor!

Visit your intended college's website, do a search for 'Communication' or 'Speech' faculty. You may have to look under the broader term of 'Humanities'. Find your prof, then e-mail or make an appointment to see that person.

Say, "I'm an incoming student who will be taking your Public Speaking 101 course. I'd like to learn about the course early. Can you send me a syllabus? One from the current term is fine." (Know that the prof might change some things around, but the basic course requirements will likely remain the same).

You can also ask/say:
-"What book will I need for this course?" Reading about communication ahead of time certainly can't hurt. The books on communication are--believe it or not--a bit interesting, even as a summer read, and you will be SO prepared!

You can even say:
-"I'm a little nervous about public speaking (or taking this course). I almost saved this course until the end, but it was recommended that I should take it early. Do you have any advice for me?"

Again, any communication prof is going to be keen on the subject of communication apprehension, fear of public speaking, or speech anxiety. (See? We even have three names for it!).

You won't be the first person to express this sentiment, and you will likely get a ton of practical and emotional assistance from both the prof and your classmates. After all, with so many adults fearing public speaking, you are going to have company.

3.  I will blog later on about first-day of college communication tips, but we have summer to enjoy first. So, I'll skip ahead to what you can do once you're in your comm course:  If you love, love, love, love it, sign up for yet another comm course! (Of course, I was going to say that!).

If you took Public Speaking first, try a Communication Theory, Interpersonal, Small Group, Mass Media, etc. course and use it as Humanities or elective credit. Again, look back on my communication and employability post. Too many stuffed pizzas and Kit Kats can hurt. Too much solid training in communication can't!

Be proactive:  Grab those communication skills that can benefit your classes, your entire college experience, your relationships, and your future career NOW.

Wait for other things.

Don't wait for this.