WTF: Executive Function

Executive function is the set of cognitive functions that enables you to do things.

In broad terms, executive function covers three areas: working memory, cognitive flexibility, and inhibitory control (including self-control). Together, these three areas make up a lot of what we do. If you haven’t heard the term “executive function” before you might have heard of some of it’s most popular side effects like:

  • Paying attention
  • Organizing, planning, and prioritizing
  • Starting tasks
  • Staying focused on tasks until they’re done
  • Keeping track of what you’re doing

We know that ADHD, OCD, ASD, Anxiety, and Bipolar are all entangled with decreases in executive function.

Many of the most talented academics I know are plagued by executive dysfunction either on its own or as a symptom of one of the above. As a result, we spend a lot of time yelling at our brains to

giphy-1

In fact, problems with executive function are why I spent ten (10) minutes looking for the *perfect* gif for this piece when a search instantly revealed half a dozen gifs that would be just fine.

While problems with executive function might be part of neurodiversity on your part I’ve long thought that the current structure of PhD programs in the humanities breeds executive dysfunction. After all, part of executive function is being able to prioritize tasks but every humanities PhD student I know feels torn between prioritizing their teaching, research, writing, activism, and self-care. So many of us are doing too much with too little it’s not at all surprising that deciding what to focus on for the hour or the day or the week can seem so challenging.

That is why we are so excited to debut our two-part series for December!

The first part of the series will take place here on the website, with articles about how executive function might be impacting your progress towards your PhD.

The second half of our series will take place on Instagram (search abd2phd) where we are having a Productivity Advent. Every day we will post one small, easily doable goal designed to move you towards measurable progress on your dissertation by Christmas.

Join us!

Fall Break

Hi All,

Here in the states we’re approaching Thanksgiving break. Thanksgiving is a heap of white people bullshit but it is a break built into the academic calendar so we’re going to take our own advice and take the week off to rest after finishing up our two month long series on teaching time management.

Wherever you are and whatever you’re doing this week we are wishing you the very best.

If you need to procrastinate, check out our revised Services page and let us know what you think.

Also, don’t forget to book your end-of-semester coaching session a.s.a.p. ! First time clients get a 20% discount on an individual session!

Bring Your Work to Class

Humanities PhD programs will pull you in a lot of different directions. Almost every humanities PhD student I have ever met is trying to be their best researcher-self, teacher-self, activist-self, and human-self.

It’s a lot.

We’ve talked before about learning to balance these multiple desires and multiple expectations. One part of balance is recognizing that all these aspects are unique expressions of who you are. Your researcher-self informs your teacher-self and both are probably motivated by experiences your human-self has had.

It can be helpful, for both your sanity and your students, to bring your researcher-self into your classroom.

Advantages to you include, but are not limited to:

  • Getting feedback from an educated layperson (your students)
  • Learning your own material better through teaching it
  • Getting some free editing

Benefits to your students include, but are not limited to:

  • Seeing you as a scholar
  • Seeing the process of how scholarship happens
  • Helping them think of themselves as scholars
  • Practice in editing
  • Learning more about your specialty

Often graduate instructors don’t have the luxury of teaching an upper division class related to their area of research. It can be difficult to imagine bringing your highly specialized research into a survey class but there are several ways you can do it.

One former professor of mine would bring in a couple of pages of her work in progress (WIP) the first day that her students had to turn in a paper. She would have students spend the class editing the document looking for everything from unclear arguments to comma errors. Her reason for doing this was to help anxious students relax about turning in their work by seeing, in real time, that even professor’s need help to make the work excellent.

When I taught public speaking, I employed a similar strategy. I would bring a short section of my own WIP and have students work on turning it from a written argument to an oral one. First, they would convert the long-form document into an outline. Then we would work on how to appropriately cite sources and why I used the sources I did. For them, this was a conversation on different sources for different audiences. For me, it was preparation for how to orally present my work at conferences

giphy

These are not the only ways to bring your work into your teaching. In a composition class you can have your students edit your work. In a disciplinary class you can have them analyze your methods.

However you decide to do it, bringing your scholarship to your teaching will benefit both you and your students!

It’s OK to Be Wrong

Earlier this week we addressed the topic of expertise. Specifically, that you have it.

Your expertise doesn’t require you to know everything in the class you are teaching.

Rather, your expertise is in your knowledge of how to learn.

Many new teachers feel an immense amount of stress around needing to know every detail of what they are teaching in order to seem like credible experts. A nightmare scenario for many teaching assistants is standing in front of a class and being asked a question they don’t know how to answer.

Remember, though, while a good part of your job is to teach your students content you are also teaching them the very act of how to learn and how to problem solve.

As you know, an important part of learning is being able to be wrong.

This is what we do as scholars in every discipline. We start out with a research question, we design a study to find the answer to that question (whether it be rhetorical analysis or a mathematical proof), we evaluate our data, and we revise our research question based on what we find. We cannot go through this process if we don’t allow ourselves to be wrong.

All of the elements of being wrong, from knowing how to find out if we’re wrong to revising our opinions in the face of contradictory data, are crucial to learning.

When a student asks you a question you don’t know the answer to it’s a great opportunity to model how to learn for them. Below are three ways to model how to learn through not knowing.

  1. Say you’ll find out. If a student asks you a question you don’t know the answer to just tell them you don’t know but that you’ll find out. Then, in the next class, follow-up by reminding them what question was asked and tell them what you found and how. This is a great opportunity to have a conversation about types of sources (e.g. a recent newspaper article on the issue says X but if you look at data from [academic source] there are some nuances to consider). This establishes your credibility as someone who can be trusted to find the answer to tough questions, makes the students feel involved in their learning, and is a teachable moment regarding sources.
  2. Ask them to find out. This is a strategy I’ve used with my upperclassmen. If a student asks a complex question you don’t know the answer to you can say something along the lines of, “I haven’t considered that angle but I’d be interested to read what you can find on it.” This works best, of course, when you can offer students credit for their research. If they’re asking a question it’s because they are interested which provides you an opportunity to capitalize on their intrinsic motivation. This isn’t an opportunity to abdicate your responsibility of leading the class, but rather an opportunity to empower your students as researchers. If you ask them to find out the answer to something you don’t know follow up by supporting them in their research. Let them know a few places to start looking or help them refine their question.
  3. Tell them what you think. Though you may not know the exact answer to a question you’ve been asked you might have some educated guesses. This is a time when you can tell your students, “I’m not sure but what I think is X and I think that because of A, B, C.” This is another opportunity to model how scholarship is done for your students. In this answer you let them know that, even though you aren’t exactly sure, you have some ideas based on the things you do know. This models how researchers make hypotheses to fill the gaps in existing knowledge.

Don’t stress yourself out with trying to know everything. Nobody can know everything. Instead of setting yourself an impossible goal embrace the times you don’t know as a learning opportunity for your students.

Expertise: You Have It

My MA program, like many humanities PhD programs, came with a teaching assistantship. I taught two sections of public speaking and, in return, the university waived my tuition and paid me a (very) small stipend.

I was nervous about my first teaching assignment for several reasons. Like many students entering a graduate program I had just moved across the country to a new place where I didn’t know anyone or anything. I had just finished my Bachelor’s degree and while it was in Communication I had never even taken a public speaking class.

How, I wondered, was I supposed to establish expertise in a class I had never taken in a classroom of students who were about my age? Would I even be a good teacher? What if my students didn’t learn anything? What if I was too easy or too harsh in grading?

There were a thousand overwhelming “what-ifs” that were compounded by not having a support network in the area.

What all of these what-ifs ultimately came down to was “how do I get students to believe I’m an expert in this subject when I don’t feel like an expert?”

Every single time I’ve taught a brand new class I’ve had an anxiety attack about how dare I think I’m enough of an expert to teach anyone anything outside of my very narrow little field.

I know I’m not alone in this. Most graduate students, and almost every woman graduate student, I’ve talked to has felt the same way when confronting a new class.

People have also developed some intriguing coping mechanisms.

One semester, when teaching in a new department, I was required to attend their TA orientation and a *very* successful professor said that the key to establishing your expertise in the classroom was to get there as early as possible so that the students were walking into your classroom rather than you walking into their classroom.

And . . . just . . . what the actual fuck?

Later, at a bar with senior graduate students in that department, I shared how outrageous this idea of authority was expecting them all to laugh along with me and say, “That’s just Dr. So-and so.”

But they did not.

Instead, I was met with a variety of blank stares until someone meekly said, “Well, yeah.”

Readers, this man had indoctrinated dozens of graduate students with the idea that your expertise is based on when you enter a room.

Now, certainly, there is a feeling of authority that comes with being prepared and that can involve getting to the classroom early so that you’re organized and ready to go when class starts.

Even if you get to class late, though, you are still the teacher.

If an eager student gets to your office hours before you do they are not suddenly the instructor.

Your credibility in the classroom is not based on your location or the time of your arrival.

Your credibility is located in the expertise you’ve gained.

If you’re anything like me this would be the time when your impostor syndrome starts yelling, “BUT I DON’T HAVE ANY EXPERTISE??? HOW COULD THEY PUT ME IN FRONT OF STUDENTS???”

You do, though.

Even if you aren’t a subject expert on every single subject your survey class touches, even if you’re teaching a class you never took, you still have valuable expertise to share with your students.

What you know, what your expertise is in, the only expertise you need to teach is how to learn.

You have more experience learning in a formal educational setting than anyone else in the room.

You aren’t there to be the first in the room or to know more about absolutely every subject.

You are there to show your students how to learn and by the very virtue of being in a graduate program you’ve proven that you have that expertise.

From Students to Collaborators

Don’t be afraid to make your students work.

I know, it sounds obvious, but I often meet graduate student instructors who feel comfortable testing their students but not making them work.

Your students are one of your best resources in teaching and you should use them so that your job is easier and they learn better.

Let’s revisit the issue of coverage, which we talked about in an earlier post. No class is ever going to get perfect coverage but, you can significantly improve your coverage if you let your students do it for you.

For instance, I used to teach an Intro to LGBTQ+ Studies class. I knew going into it that my understanding of LGBTQ+ issues was very US based. I also knew that making dissertation progress and educating myself on global LGBTQ+ issues were not things I could do justice to if I did them simultaneously.

Instead, I set aside a week in the syllabus to have the students present on global LGBTQ+ issues. Students picked a country to present on and put together a five minute presentation on LGBTQ+ rights in the country of choice.

Not only did this introduce the class to the status of LGBTQ rights in 25 countries (something I, as an individual instructor, could never do in a survey course) it also helped students learn.

By allowing students to pick their own country I tapped into the power of their intrinsic motivation. Some students picked countries they had family in and some picked countries they had been on mission trips to. Others picked countries they had seen a documentary on or were just generally interested in. Whatever the reason they picked the country they had at least a non-zero level of interest in it that helped motivate their research.

In addition, as many of us know, teaching something to others helps you learn it better yourself.

Not only did incorporating my deficiency into the syllabus save me work but the class as a whole learned more than if I had tried to teach it myself AND individual students learned better through presenting on a subject they were actually interested in.

This semester (as in every semester) I’m behind on grading. I woke up with an anxiety attack at 3:00 this morning because my students have an assignment due Friday but I still haven’t gotten them grades from their last assignment.

This was the first issue I brought up in class today. I gave my students two options: push back the due date for the assignment or convert their four-part assignment into a three-part. My students had a few questions about how each option would work. After I answered those we voted.

Again, by allowing the students to shape their own experience I have confidence that we are reaching a solution that serves all of us, maximizes their intrinsic motivation through reflecting their values, and it significantly eases my stress.

Making your students your collaborators helps empower them. Many of our students come from a world of endless assessments in which they are measured by the quantity of what they learn. When you let your students be active partners through helping shape the syllabus, teaching their peers, or decide on course policies you are doing the most important work: teaching them how to problem solve.

Intrinsic Motivation

In education, as in anything else, there are two types of motivation: extrinsic and intrinsic. Extrinsic motivation is, like it sounds, motivation that is external in the form of rewards of some sort. In teaching, rewards correlate to an increase in grade in some way.

Intrinsic motivation is, like it sounds, motivation that is internal to the individual. If you’re getting a PhD in the humanities you are probably highly intrinsically motivated. In other words, you like learning for learning’s sake. While this is great for you it might make it harder to relate to students who don’t have a deep well of intrinsic motivation to pull from.

In education, intrinsic motivation is something of a paradox. We know that students learn better when they are intrinsically motivated (aka, when they want to learn) but when we create a mechanism to encourage a student’s intrinsic motivation we have, in that act, converted that motivation from intrinsic to extrinsic.

If you can tap into your students’ intrinsic motivation you can make your life, as an instructor, much easier. There are two reasons for this.

First, because people work harder when they are intrinsically motivated. There’s tons of research on it. You can look it up if you want.

Second, and far more importantly for our purposes, everything that makes up extrinsic motivation requires you to do work. This is fairly obvious, yet, somehow, people over look this point.

Do you want to motivate your students to attend an event by offering them extra credit? Congratulations. You now have to grade that shit.

Do you want to motivate your students to revise their work and turn it back in for a better grade?

Congratulations. You now have to grade that shit.

Any form of extrinsic motivation you offer your students will create a disproportionate amount of work for you.

In contrast, creating ways to tap into your students’ intrinsic motivation will decrease your workload while actually increasing how much they learn.

The magic question then becomes: how do you tap into intrinsic motivation without converting it to extrinsic motivation?

There are several ways to do this and we will be highlighting strategies you can use from the first day of class to the final grade.

For now, there’s one thing you need to know.

If a student is in your class then they already have a base line of intrinsic motivation because they chose to be there.

There are, of course, a few exceptions to this rule. At the institution I work at now there is one History class that absolutely everyone has to take before graduation. The professor that teaches that can’t really draw from an untapped pool of intrinsic motivation in his students because they are all forced to be there.

For every other class on this campus, though, students have some level of intrinsic motivation to be there.

On the first day of class this semester I had students go around the room and say one thing they hoped to get from the class. One student said that they wanted to get their mandatory diversity credit. Perhaps that’s not *the* most inspiring reason to take a class but what that tells me is that student looked at the half dozen diversity credits being offered this semester and chose this class. That means they wanted to be here more than they wanted to be anywhere else.

At my previous institution, students had to take one half of the history survey as a graduation requirement. Even though they only had a choice between two classes, they had some kernel of intrinsic motivation, some preference, to take one over the other.

And that’s all you need. I promise you, we can work with that.

 

What Does It Mean To Learn

It seems like a simple question: we all know what it means to learn. We’ve been learning our whole lives and, if you got into grad school, you’re probably pretty good at learning.

Sometimes, when we are good at something, we don’t think much about how that thing works.

Addressing the question of what it means to learn is the core of your teaching philosophy and practice, your pedagogy, and it’s worth taking some time to think about.

Everything about teaching flows from how you conceive of learning.

For instance, what will you use to grade your students? Well, that depends on what they need to learn. If they need to learn the specialized vocabulary of your field it would make sense to have a test or quiz on vocabulary.

If you want to see if they can put what they’ve learned into practice then it makes sense to have a practicum.

If you want them to acquire research skills then it makes sense to assign a research paper or annotated bibliography.

In my classes we use the following definition of learning:

Learning is the process by which you connect new information to your lived reality.

For me, as an instructor, this means that I want students to feel that the skills and knowledge they are acquiring have real baring on and connect to their every day lives.

This definition of learning shapes almost everything about how I teach from my attendance policy to the texts I assign to how I grade their work.

I primarily teach Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and Political Science so there are a variety of skills I want my students to acquire. I want them to learn media criticism, textual exposition, research methods, and rhetoric.

There are a variety of ways I could help them acquire these skills from quizzes and tests to essays to community services.

The reason it’s important to think critically about what it means to learn for your subject and your students is because understanding what learning is helps you decide where you can cut back on time intensive tasks like grading.

In our previous post we talked about how most new instructors tend to put too much time and effort into teaching for a variety of reasons. Even if you want to take our advice to stop working so much and start timing your teaching tasks it can be difficult to know what to cut from your teaching to-do list.

To figure out what to cut compare what you are doing to how you want your students to learn.

If you need your students to learn vocabulary then it might make sense to set up a Blackboard or Canvas quiz tat is automatically graded rather than you individually grading vocan quizzes.

If you want to promote engagement with reading it might make sense to have your students turn in a written response that they simply get credit for doing. You can pull a few to read to get a sense of how the class is relating to the readings but don’t fall into the trap of reading them all.

These are only a few possible solutions, but the point is to limit what you do to what benefits your students rather than doing all the things you think you should be doing.

Hopefully you can take some time this weekend to think of ways to limit what you teach not to how you’ve been taught to teach but what is best for your students and for you.

On Monday, we’ll begin talking about how to promote intrinsic motivation an how this can make your life easier.

Stop Working So Hard

You are working too hard on teaching and you need to stop.

I know you think you’re not doing enough, but I promise you that you are doing too much.

How do I know this?

Because all new professors do too much. (And, yes, if you have yet to defend your dissertation I’m counting you as “new.”)

I think there are a lot of reasons why PhD candidates work too much on teaching. In part, it’s because teaching is significantly clearer than dissertation work. You have a time that you show up at a place and you do a thing and then it’s done in stark contrast to dissertation work which you can start whenever you want and never feels done. It’s significantly easier to measure your progress in teaching. If you have twelve papers to grade and grade six of them then you are halfway done in contrast to dissertation work where you may write 600 words but how close is that to done, exactly? Perhaps the most seductive thing about teaching, though, is that it lets us feel like experts because when you teach you are automatically viewed as the expert in the room whereas, with writing a dissertation, we are constantly thinking about how to prove that we know a thing.

Teaching, as we’ve said before, expands to fill the space you give it and many, many ABD students give teaching too much of their time because, for the reasons mentioned above, teaching feels good when other parts of the PhD process do not.

As always, there is something about the type of person who wants to get a PhD in the first place that lends towards the teaching-too-much problem. If you are getting a PhD you probably love learning and you probably want other people to love learning which means you’re going to put a lot of your time and energy into making your classes a space where students can love learning.

These are all the reasons why I know you are teaching too, too much and you need to stop it.

Here are three ways to help you teach less without short-changing your students:

  1. Let go of the idea of coverage. It’s not possible to cover everything in a single class particularly if, like most graduate students, you are teaching an intro level survey class. You will want to cover everything, but you can’t. The professor who first gave me this advice used this example, “So what if you teach a class about the 20th century and don’t cover World War I?!” This was from an historian. Her point, however, was that when putting together your syllabus you have to let go of the idea that you will cover everything. Instead of trying to cover everything include a mix of what you think they absolutely need to know and what you find interesting.
  2. Limit your teaching time. Again, teaching will expand to fill the time you give it so one of the absolute best ways to do less teaching is to limit the amount of time you allow yourself to teach. I mean this literally. Set a timer when you work on teaching tasks. The timer shouldn’t be for longer than an hour. When the timer goes off you stop doing teaching things.
  3. Time your teaching. Set a time limit for how much teaching work you will do per week. The general assumption is that you’ll spend twenty (20) hours a week on teaching things and the same amount on research and writing things. In reality, most people work far more than this on both their research and teaching. However much you actually work commit to spending absolutely no more than half of those hours on teaching things. The important thing here is to make sure that you count ALL of your teaching hours. This doesn’t just mean you count the hours you spend grading. It means that you count the time you spend in the classroom, in office hours, prepping for class, and grading. Time all of those things, add up how much total time it is and when you reach half of your working hours for the week it’s time to cut off teaching.

If you practice these tips you will reduce the amount of time you spend teaching which will give you more time to dissertate. I know first hand, however, that it can be difficult to put these tips into practice because it can feel that limiting our time on teaching will, somehow, short change our students.

I can only promise you that it won’t. Putting these tips into practice for the first time may feel scary but I would urge you to try it for a month and see if the quality of your teaching decreases.

In my experience, when I limit the amount of time I spend on individual teaching tasks and the amount of total time I spend teaching weekly my teaching improves immensely. It improves because I have more energy and focus for teaching. It improves because limiting time helps me prioritize my teaching tasks. It improves because I feel less distracting guilt that I’m not working on my dissertation enough.

We hope that these tips will help you save time on teaching and create time for dissertating from now to the end of the present term. For our next couple of posts we’re going to focus on how to set up your syllabus so that you have less grading and less class prep from the beginning.

Just One Day

Listen.

I have something important to tell you.

You may not believe me, but I promise that what I’m about to tell you is 1000% true and it’s important for you to sit with this knowledge:

Every working professor I know is A MESS when it comes to teaching.

No.

Really.

I’m not saying they aren’t good teachers, or even great teachers.

I’m saying that they are a mess.

They all feel overwhelmed by the amount of grading they have. They are all preparing their lectures hours, or minutes, before class. Many of them are reusing a syllabus from the past or changing their syllabus on the fly.

[Fun Fact: Literally as I was writing this piece one of my favorite profs, an award-winning teacher, on campus asked if I could help them organize their graded in-class activities to hand back. This is one of the best teachers I know.]

When I was an undergraduate I revered my professors. They seemed so put-together, so smart, so grown-up. They were clever and funny and gave no fucks–all qualities I aspired to.

I began teaching myself in my MA program. I taught two sections of public speaking and, to prepare for this, there was a four day training on how to use the assigned textbook, and avoid doing things that could get the university sued. For the first semester, all the public speaking TAs met weekly to go over how to grade speeches and so on.

This is more teaching training and oversight than many first-time graduate student teachers or TAs get.

I was incredibly nervous to start teaching. I felt I could never measure up to the amazing teachers I had as an undergraduate. I wasn’t a real adult (TM). I didn’t have my shit together. I didn’t know anything about anything. What if these students saw right through me on the first day?!

I consider myself incredibly lucky to have had an amazing teaching mentor and she said something to me that I want to pass on to you:

You only ever need to be one day ahead of your students. If you’re a week ahead of them they’ll think you’re god. 

Reader, over a decade of experience has taught me that these words are true.

Here’s the thing: The inside view always, always, always looks worse than the outside view.

When it comes to your teaching you have the inside view. You are constantly aware of how much there is to learn and, conversely, how little you really know.

In contrast, your students have the outside view. They are aware of how much more than them you know and how much they have to learn.

My favorite example of this is a grad student friend of mine getting their PhD in History. When they were assigned to teach the second half of the US History Survey (1877-Presentish) ordered several supplementary texts online including one about the speeches and policies of Henry Kissinger.

When I asked why on earth they were reading a book about Kissinger their response was, “Well, I don’t know that much about Kissinger and if a student asks a question about him I want to be able to answer it.”

Reader, that person, now a PhD in History, has taught the second half of the US Survey several times and no one has ever asked a nuanced question about Kissinger that would merit reading a whole book about him if he wasn’t already the subject of your dissertation.

Let go of the myth of the perfect professor who knows everything about their topic. If that person ever existed they don’t anymore. It’s just not how the US university system works these days.

All you need to be is one day ahead of your students. In practice, what that means is you go into the classroom that day knowing what’s about to happen and your student doesn’t.

That’s it. That’s all you have to do.

If you can begin or end the class by articulating how today’s material will connect to the next few classes they really will think you’re god.

Lastly, being prepared for the day doesn’t mean knowing everything for the day.

If you are lucky you will have clever students who ask nuanced questions that you may not know the answer to. That’s ok. It’s perfectly okay to tell a student, “I hadn’t thought of that but let me do some digging and get back to you next class.” Your students know that no one person can think of every angle on a topic and being honest about what you don’t know will often build your credibility.

When teaching, don’t think you have to be able to lay out the whole semester ahead of time. You can take it one day at a time and, for heaven’s sake, don’t read any books about Henry Kissinger.