Tuesday, February 28, 2012

"Can't Everyone Just Shut Up and Let Me Work?": How to Communicate During Those Monster Project Periods

(I was MIA last week. I'm never MIA, but I was MIA. I'm going to be less gone here pretty soon... adding some new and more frequent blog features. That's right, even more communication advice, so stay tuned! In the meantime, my back was against the wall last week in a way that I haven't experienced in a while. I know my college readers can relate and I'm sure my non-college audience can, too. That's why I felt this topic was most appropriate. I'll be sharing exciting updates very soon about blog changes and book news! Now, let's talk. I've missed you in the past week!)

200+ pages.

When I was in grad school, in one particular term, the number of required papers added up to this number.

Now I remember that semester well. I rarely saw the light of day, my friends, my husband... clean clothes.

Big joke among my colleagues was that you pulled out the least stinky shirt/pants from the laundry heap and wore it without thinking twice. We tried be presentable without being offensive. Our focus? Doing well on our papers (so many of them!), hopefully getting to present at a conference or two, maybe scoring an early co-authorship on a publication, and maintaining high grades to keep our assistantships.

That's right... many of my classmates and I wore two (smelly!) hats: graduate teaching assistants/research assistants and college students writing an insane number of papers!

I remember I didn't necessarily have to ask for time to get my work done because my husband and I agreed together that I would go back to graduate school. We didn't have kids at the time, and we both accepted that sacrificing time from each other would pay off later.

And I wasn't smelling so great, so do you think my husband was really missing me? Just sayin'.

Fast forward 14 years and 10 days...

I was told by my editor of my soon-to-be-published book, "You need to cut about 100 pages from your manuscript." 

(A station break: For anyone reading this space for a while, you go right ahead and just revel... revel in your rightness... I knowwwww that brevity is not my strong suit. I own it. I'm working through it. Counseling is on Thursday.

I'm thinking lots of time away from family and friends to
get this move down... what say you?

Just kidding about that last part. Not that there's anything wrong with counseling. I love counseling!).

These days, taking that "cocoon time" to get work done isn't so easy anymore. I have two little people who demand my attention. I have a dual role on phase 2 of this grant project while I've stepped away from teaching through this academic year.

I'm The Chicklets roller derby carpool organizer. 

I have to exercise 6 days a week or risk gaining 5 more lbs.

My little guy needs a 4th birthday party planned.

We have no bread in the house to make yet another (*&%$#*!) peanut butter and jelly sandwich! (Ooh, did I say that out loud? Who doesn't love making PBJ... again?)

My husband has his own high-octane career and is traveling. Again.  Sigh.

However, I also have a dream. I have had a dream to write a book since I was a teenager.  This dream has slipped out of my hands twice already (I'll explain more in another blog post).

Now the reality of the dream is about 90 days away.

(Which hardly seems possible!!!!!!!!!!).

I had to find a way to close off my real life... and slip into a hole to do that head-down, hands-on, focused editing.

Students, you know what I'm talking about. You have to edit papers, do projects, study for exams.

You need your full concentration.

But your life, and the people in your life, need you.

School needs you, too. And just like I committed to write a book. You committed to college... and all the work and hours it entails. 

So what's the communication lesson here?

Sometimes you need others to leave you alone during those monster project periods! Or maybe you have other needs! But how do you do that? Here are some tips, which I just took myself...

-Tell those close to you exactly what you're doing: "I have to cut 100 pages from my manuscript!"

Saying "Damn, I have this huge project to do!" is too vague. I had no problem telling my close friends, casual acquaintances, Twitter pals, my running buddy, even the store clerk (okay, not quite) the magnitude of my challenge. Every time they said, "Hey, how's that editing going?" I felt a renewed determination, particularly at the moments that I really felt like giving up. I'm not a giver-upper in any sense of the word (hello, pudgy, penguin-y 1/2 marathoner here!), but I struggled... for sure! Those who knew kept me going.

-Ask clearly and directly for the "non-negotiables" to support your goal: "I'll need to be in my room where it's quiet so I can concentrate. I'm going to need about 20 hours to work on this, so you won't be seeing very much of me."

Be very specific about your needs! Saying, "Why can't you just give me some time to work?" or "I need quiet!" is too vague of a statement.

-Don't forget to ask for help at the second you realize you need it, and definitely give updates along the way: "I think I'm on track to meet this deadline. Here's what I've gotten done so far. I'm a little bit stuck on this other part, though, and I need help." 

My editor and I had largely been communicating via e-mail, but after a few back-and-forth's, I totally picked up the phone and asked for her help in the places I became stuck. If can put my tail between my legs and do it (does that quote ever get old?), so can you!

-When your project is done, use some repair words if you've neglected someone a bit too much, "I'm sorry I got a little short with you. I felt really stressed and worried about how I was going to get this done and I didn't mean to take it out on you." 

After literally not seeing me most of last week, my 8-year-old expressed considerable discontent. She missed me, and when she tried to curl up next to me quietly to do her homework or read, she was... well... distracting. Too distracting for the intense editing I needed to do.

Once I turned my "skinnier" manuscript in at 9:47 last Friday evening (on my 16-year wedding anniversary--talk about an on-board spouse!), on Saturday morning, I cuddled my little girl and tried to liken her third-grade teacher to my editor, and her Writer's Workshop stories to my book. I asked her what would happen if she had to cut 100 pages from her stories, and she said, incredulously, "That would take me three years!" After I explained myself, we did some reading, more cuddling, and I believe all was forgiven.

Have I had other big, "testing" deadlines or projects in the past 14 years that have forced me to shut myself away? Of course, I have. 

But, like my graduate work, this book feels intensely sacred, and so incredibly personal.

It represents many twists and turns in my life... failures and successes... and finally, after conceiving of the idea eight years ago, a full-circle moment.

And, just the idea of being the recipient of so much--gulp--criticism... brings me right back to those student years.

So, wonderful student, just like my editing marathon, and the next one that I'm sure will follow (and the one after that) won't last forever, neither will your current papers, exams that require hours of studying, or projects.

Talk about all the support you need:  Time, a well-lit, quiet room, a "check-in buddy" to ask how many more sources you found for your research paper...  a hamburger.

You just might get it.

And, hey, ask for a little help with the laundry, should you find that it's piling up.

Students, how do you get the time, space, and quiet that you need to get your studying or writing done? Colleagues, what recommendations do you have for students who don't have lives that seem to support the hours or environment needed for college work demands? 

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Are You Sure it’s About You? Try a Perception-Check!

(A day late on blogging... juggling a grant project and continued book deadline—more exciting news on that very soon! Before I get into this week’s topic, which is back to some interpersonal communication fun, I want to give an important shout-out. First, a qualifier: I don’t stick my neck out quickly or easily. I never recommend anything or anyone I can’t fully wrap my heart and head around. So, if I’m ever “promotional” in this space, it is never in blithe spirit.

In that regard, I am excited to share news about Isa Adney’s countdown to her book release—Community College Success. This is an exciting day, not just for Isa, but for community college students everywhere. Community colleges are hugely under-represented in the college success book market! Isa, a Jack Kent Cooke Scholar, who faced many obstacles to her college education, is a true testament that community college students can end up with literally endless possibilities. Follow her countdown to her book launch at: http://www.communitycollegesuccess.com/2012/02/how-can-you-tell-if-you-want-that-job.html I’ll be happily reviewing Isa’s book in a future post. Now, on to some perception-checking!)

When was the last time that you got into an argument with someone and you were absotively, posilutely certain that what they were saying was about you?

Let’s face it…

When you see a friend on campus and they suddenly don’t say hello to you or make eye contact, that has to be because they don’t like you anymore, right?

When you go out with someone for the first time, and they don’t ask you out again, it must be because you’re unlovable, right?

When the server at your favorite restaurant acts put out because you said your burger was too rare, they must think you’re a total pain in the ass, right?

Look how happy they are! On a slide and
I bet they've done a perception-check!
It all has to be about you!


What if your campus friend is just having a bad day, or he didn’t see you?

What if the girl you went out with lost your number or got really sick? (She’d better have gotten sick if she didn’t call, right?)

What if the server is having back problems or financial issues, or a co-worker just snapped at them?

Hmm… each of those scenarios have absolutely nothing to do with you!

When bad communication exchanges happen, we are hard-wired to make knee-jerk judgment calls: We think something negative about ourselves, or something negative about the other person.

(Psst… Usually, we start tearing ourselves down first, unless we’re angry at the other person.)

Then, what do we do? We usually lash out because we’ve been triggered! Arguments ensue and relationships become damaged… unnecessarily.

So what’s the communication lesson here?

Try a perception-check!

With a perception-check, you try to determine at least two alternate reasons why the person did what they did or said what they said.

You attempt to get away from the reason being “all about you.”

My students actually write a journal pondering about this. Want to give it a try? I know… how fun! Blog homework… here goes:  

We've all been in a communication exchange with someone where we automatically jump to conclusions over something that was said. Maybe you became triggered and responded in a way that you wish you could take back. Think of a time that you either did or could have done a perception check and answer the following prompts: 

1. Briefly discuss the situation.
2. Describe your initial (knee-jerk) perception (which is typically something negative about the other person, or something negative about us).
3. Describe two OTHER possible, but different, interpretations of the exchange?
4. Describe how you could confront the situation in a positive way to gain an accurate perception check.

I’ll do the homework, too…

The situation:  My daughter, age 3 at the time, was afraid of physical things, like going down a slide. Her preschool teacher felt that she needed an evaluation from a physician. Her last comment to me was, “Well, you know, she’ll never be a star athlete.”

My initial reaction:  1.  Many curse words in my head that would be inappropriate for me to say in this blog—yes, I’m a communication prof, but I’m a mother, after all; 2. That due to my own personal/family history with obesity, my daughter is going to have problems, too, and it’s already all my fault (she had no weight issue, just FYI).

Other possibilities:  1.  The teacher had no idea about my family history and couldn’t know that her words could trigger me the way they did; 2.  She was trying to be funny and lighten the situation. She wasn’t trying to hurt my feelings.

Describe how I could confront the situation: This is how I actually handled it. For fear of saying something I’d regret in that moment, I told the teacher I’d alert our pediatrician and I walked away. When I felt calmer about a week later, I said,

“Teacher (not her real name), I know you were probably joking when you said that Brenna would never be a star athlete, but I felt really triggered by that and then, because of that statement, I couldn’t hear you anymore. My mother is morbidly obese and I have lost a tremendous amount of weight, myself. I worry about my daughter and I only became a very physical person in my 30s. I realize you had no idea about all of that and probably didn't mean for the comment to have the impact on me that it did.

I also have to respectfully disagree that at 3 years old, we have no idea about Brenna’s physical possibilities—not that I necessarily need her to be a star athlete. But I will say that I really appreciate your care and concern about her physical well-being and I’m going to talk to her doctor.”

The teacher put her arm around my shoulder. I’m not sure to this day if the nonverbal message was that she was patronizing me or comforting me, but I didn’t care. All seemed well with the world again.

(In case you were wondering, my daughter is now almost 9. She was behind the pack learning to ride a bike… she struggles to pass swim tests at our local pool… but she did just voluntarily start “The Chicklets” banked track roller derby. So, she’s trying!)

Before I end this discussion, let me come full-circle to my student-professor communication message:

Perception-checking is huge when it comes to your relationship with your prof. So often, students get a poor grade or they read something negative into a comment the prof has made, and then they send themselves a completely negative message about themselves (or about what a jerk the prof is!).

So, next time you say to yourself, “My prof must hate me for giving me this C!” Or, “Does she think I’m some sort of idiot, based on this comment?”, do the perception-checking exercise I gave you above, and then go to your prof and say (with a smile, if you can):

“I just wanted to check in with you. I’m telling myself all sorts of things about what I think this grade/comment might mean and then I realized I should probably find out what it really means.”

Wonderful students and all of my readers out there, profs (and people in general) are so, so, so (so!) much more likely to set us straight on what they truly mean when we ask them to clarify… rather than when we just react to what we think they said.

The next time that you feel triggered, give perception-checking a try.

Maybe while you’re thinking of the two “other” possibilities, you can hit a park, and in the spirit of my daughter, slide down a slide, or swing on a swing.

If you try this strategy, I’d love to hear how it goes!

Have you Liked the Chatty Professor on Facebook yet? This blog could go right to your Facebook door!

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Really? Six Hours of Research and You Couldn't Find Anything? What to Say Instead!

(Back to our regularly scheduled programming this week! Students, at this point in the term, you've probably had some assignment due that required research. Let's talk about how students often communicate about that with professors... and discuss a different way to approach it that gets you the help you need!)

It was persuasive speech season in my Intro to Communication course.

I always caution my students to avoid persuasive topics that are heavily overdone i.e., abortion, gun control, euthanasia, etc.  

My only exception to this rule? 

If students can come up with a super-fresh new angle on the subject, I'll rethink my position.

If you're spending enough time in the library, you'll be so
tired that you'll need to sit down... just not on the bookstacks.

Even with said warning, I always have one student who submits this topic proposal: "Today, I'm going to persuade my audience to stop smoking."

Or, in Student's case, the legalization of marijuana.

(Groan. That topic. Again.)

I reiterated to Student that a new angle on this idea was badly, badly needed, that there was little to say that the audience hasn't heard. If Student could do some research and come up with a new angle, I'd reconsider. 

So, what did I receive during persuasive speech draft time?

Your standard "why we should legalize pot" outline.

(Did I already groan?)

I sent the outline back to the student via e-mail, ungraded with this comment: "I thought we discussed that you need to find a new angle on this subject."

Student's reply? "I looked for six hours and couldn't find any way to change it!"

Now in the past 10+ years, I wish I had a nickel for every time a student swore that they researched for hours and hours and couldn't find anything.

Then, I go in and do one half-assed search of my own and I usually find something.

If I do a full-assed search (because that does exist, right?)--we're talking deep in the online library journal collections, etc.--I can almost always find the research that the student could have found!

Now, I know what you're thinking:  "Ellen, you have degrees. You have experience in research."

And that would be true. 

But, to be fair, every college student has access to people like me... right on the college campus! (And you know who they are!).

So when Student was saying that there was absolutely no new twist on legalization of marijuana--and Student searched for Six. Full. Hours., I took that as a personal challenge!

For the next few minutes, this nice Jewish girl from Brooklyn who has never even tried pot (really, now, haven't you caught on that food is my total drug of choice from my last blog posts?)... was all about pot...

...on my state computer!

(Which I've learned from my IT department is actually fine because, hey, sometimes the Human Sexuality profs have to look up some pretty interesting things, too... as long as it's in the name of teaching, and in this case, it definitely was!).

Within less than 20 minutes, I saw news that California was about to put the legalization of marijuana to its voters (this was a couple of years ago, by the way). Student could put a persuasive speech together giving some background on California's situation, and then doing a compare/contrast with Washington State. Essentially, if the student could find reasonable correlations between California (or even another state putting the option on the ballot) and Washington State, then the newly twisted argument could be that, for these reasons, Washington should follow suit.

So what's the communication lesson here? (Didn't you miss this over the past couple of weeks? I did!)

Don't just blanketly tell your professor, "I did X-hours of research and couldn't find squat!"

Instead, first and foremost... do the research and do it as well as you possibly can! Your prof is not going to want to hear how many hours you spent coming up with nothing; she's going to want to know what sites you've searched, if you've talked to your friendly neighborhood librarian, and any other measures you've taken!

That's right! The first question I always ask my students after they tell me how much time they spent finding nothing is, "Tell me where you've looked."

My next question? "What did the librarians say?"

The student usually looks away and replies, "Um, I didn't go to the library yet. I thought I'd try on my own first and see if I could find something."

By this point, your professor will probably think, "Why would you struggle on your own when you have a campus library and even neighborhood libraries--complete with skilled librarians--who can help talk you through your research?"

What should you say instead?

-First, tell your professor, "I have a list of the resources I've tried to look through already." Having a list of sites you've explored, books you've paged through (remember books you can hold in your hand? They still exist!), periodicals, etc. can help your prof see where you were trying to go, even if you came up empty. Then he can help focus your search.

-Next, keep the time out of it. This is college and you're supposed to spend a lot of time on research. It's what you signed up for.

It's not like your prof is going to give you warm milk and say, "Oh, you poor dear, you spent 10 hours searching and didn't find anything? Let me take that over for you." 

Or, a student who only says they spent two hours on research would hear, "No, no, no! You have eight more hours to go before I'll help you!"

Really, the time doesn't matter. The professor will react more positively to tangible evidence of your search (i.e., the list I mentioned above).

Some students will even print pages of articles, bring them to me, and say, "You know, I'm not really sure this one will work." I definitely welcome that type of evidence of what the student has attempted!

-Now, it goes without saying that before you tell your prof you've found nothing on your own, you will have gone to the library first for help. What happens then is you will likely have something in your hot little hand to show your prof. 

You can say, "I went to the library two days ago and the librarian helped me come up with this information. I'm not really sure how to incorporate it or if the content is even right for my topic. Would you be willing to take a look?" 

There! You've made a specific request and you've shown responsibility by discussing the course of action you've already taken!

While my message may seem a little direct, I do understand that many students have the habit of searching the Internet first before doing any other research. After all, it's convenient... you may already be at home, and you're in your fuzzy PJs (mine have cats holding umbrellas... uh oh... TMI?), and you don't really feel like you want to move from your laptop. 

I also believe that students perceive the amount of time they spend researching as far more as what they actually spend doing so. I know you may feel frustrated and hopeless when you can't find what you're looking for... or when you don't even know what you're looking for.

Wonderful student, I know it's hard to get in the habit of going to a library or a tutoring center for help when you need it. You may feel weak for even having to ask for help (remember this post? It was my second most popular one to date!). But, remember, if you knew all about research, then you should be teaching your classes, not taking them. 

Learning how to do efficient research is one of the most practical tools you'll ever learn in college. 


You may think you'll never use the strategies again, but you will. You never know when you'll be at work and need to find a piece of credible information. Practice in college. You'll be glad you did (and others will think you're brilliant when you can come up with great info quick-fast!).

In the meantime, let your prof help you evaluate research that you've already found yourself. 

Personally, I'd like to not search for the latest news on pot again. 


(Especially on my work computer).

Students, how's your research going? How is your term going? What are you struggling with? I'm always taking questions! Colleagues from all across education, what communication advice do you have for students requesting help with research? If I don't have the answers, I'm glad to do some research and find them!