Category Archives: Career advice

Why Students Need Milestones & Small Wins

In my first year honors seminar, 5% of the grade is earned by making five posts on a webpage Forum. I added this to the course because I was searching for a way to keep the students engaged between class meetings. I invited students to comment on the readings, posts from other students, and anything else relevant to the course theme. I tried to reinforce their postings by commenting on those that I thought were particularly insightful. By mid-semester, I noticed that only about half the students had posted anything. I sent out an email to the entire class, reminding them of the requirement. Nothing happened.

As we approached the three-quarter mark, with about a month ago, I noticed that a few more students had posted. However, only a handful of the 24 students had come close to meeting the five post-requirement. To my amazement, many students had still not posted anything. I sent out another mass email, with an additional targeted group email to those students who hadn’t posted anything. The response was desultory.

With about two weeks to go in the semester, my disappointment deepened: three or four students had completed the requirement, about half the class had posted two or three items, and four or five students had still not posted anything. I made an announcement in class, reminding students that this requirement was sort of like “free money” in the sense that they got credit for simply making a posting, without any evaluation of its content. I then sent out another email, and this time I noticed that the number of postings began to increase.

At our penultimate class meeting, I made one last reminder of the requirement and encouraged students to set aside a few minutes to complete the requirement. I also sent personal emails to all the students who had posted nothing to that point. I was actually beginning to worry that so few students were going to complete the requirement that the grade distribution would be materially affected, as three or four points can make the difference between a B+ and an A-. (My friend Joe told me he would have stopped before going this far, as he saw my tactics as “coddling” the students.)

I watched the webpage intently over the weekend, and I noticed a few more people posting things. About one quarter of the class hit the five posting goal. But there were still many laggards.

On the evening before the last day, the posts finally began pouring in. Indeed, it was almost like watching a video game – – announcements were rolling into my email account, showing me an hourly tally. By the 5 PM deadline, most students had met the requirement. However, a few still had only one or two postings. One very surprised student discovered, after 5 PM, that he could no longer post to the webpage and emailed me. He ended up with only two postings to his credit.

What had gone wrong with my simple plan to increase out of class engagement with the course? When Melissa came to my office hours, I asked her why she hadn’t done the Forum postings until the end of the term and she nonchalantly replied, “It wasn’t high on my priority list.” She explained that with everything else she had to do, posting to the class Forum fell far down the list. Not only did she have work to do for her other classes but there are also lots of extracurricular activities to contend with, such as athletic events, concerts, and clubs. Other things were simply more important at the moment.

She could see that I was puzzled and volunteered an obvious – – to her – – solution: prevent students from waiting until the end of the term to fulfill the requirement by setting a target of one posting per month, which would result in five total postings. She told me that she was personally disappointed that students had waited, as she found the flurry of postings over the last couple of days of the class really provocative and wished that she had an opportunity to talk with the students in the class about their ideas in a more timely fashion.

As she was one of the five or six students who had also waited to turn in their term paper during the eight hour grace period on the last day, rather than the morning it was due, I asked her why she’d waited. She offered much the same explanation: she had lots of other stuff to do and had counted on the afternoon of that final day to allow her to finish up the proofreading of her paper.

Looking back, I realized that the milestones I had built into the course for completing various parts of the term paper assignment were simply not strong enough. Once again, Melissa volunteered a solution: set up stronger milestones and more closely assess compliance with the course requirements, rather than settling for “check plus” or simple peer review of outlines and drafts.

I’ll admit to being profoundly embarrassed by what I now realize was my failure to take account of the larger context in which my course was embedded. I had committed an elementary mistake inexperienced instructors often make: I thought that if something were important to me, it would also be important to the students. I had assumed I could motivate students by setting up incentives and creating a few simple milestones that allowed me to track students’ progress in meeting course goals. I had failed to account for the complex and overloaded life – as they perceive it — of today’s college students.

Students are confronted with an enormous variety of activities from which they must choose, and the priorities they follow don’t always accord with what we as instructors would prefer. The tasks we set for them are often overshadowed by much more immediate and pressing demands, including not only work for other courses but also their desire to live a richer social life now that they are on their own. Often, we are just not salient in the midst of more attractive options.

What to do? I suggest being much more mindful of the need for building frequent and graded milestones into your course that give you the opportunity to provide feedback on how well students are meeting course requirements. Management theorists talk about the power of “small wins” that give people a sense of making progress toward a goal. When people feel that they are making progress toward a goal, they feel more positive about the process and the positive emotions feed back into the amount of investment they make in the activity. Motivation increases and people began looking for the next small win in the process.

For example, when I enact milestones requiring monthly postings, I give students a periodic and highly visible reminder of the course themes. Because this particular requirement just assesses whether students have posted, rather than the content of their posting, it is also an easy win. An added advantage of requirements that involve highly visible activities is that students also gain public confirmation of their progress.

Small-stakes assignments also mean that students don’t put a lot at risk with any particular submission. Sim Sitkin described this strategy as one of “small losses.” Either way, it can be effective in motivating students to focus on completing assignments.

Term project milestones are bit more complicated, but they too provide opportunities for small wins. Students might simply get a check for turning in a proposed theme or a plan for researching the paper. Turning in outlines and drafts involves higher stakes’ assessments, and I believe instructors should provide fairly detailed written feedback for such assignments. Again, if it is to be a “milestone,” then students must not be given the impression they have passed the milestone until you, as the instructor, give them the go-ahead.

When students fail to keep up in our courses or turn assignments in late, we often accuse them of procrastination. But I’ve argued in this note that part of the problem is our failure to provide incentives powerful enough to motivate students to keep up. By building “small wins” into the milestones we set, we can rely on positive motivation, rather than draconian punitive measures, such as late penalties. If the milestones are simple and clear enough, students will do their assignments on time.




Teaching a class? Be the 1st to arrive

When I leave my office and head for class, I’ve noticed that my step quickens noticeably. I feel excited about the class I’m about to teach and eager to share with the students what I’ve learned about the day’s topic. However, I also walk briskly because I want to arrive in the classroom before my students do. My goal is always to be the first to arrive so that I’m there to greet the students as they enter. This may seem like a minor detail in the greater scheme of all things pedagogic, but I actually have a well thought out plan for this tactic.

Workers in the Great Depression

Men arriving at work

First, arriving early gives me the opportunity to engage in small talk with individual students about the course and how things are going for them. Information gleaned from these discussions may generate a question that I bring to the general class discussion or may lead to modifications in an assignment I had planned. For example, students might point out some better contemporary examples of the principles discussed in a reading or they might have seen something in social media that’s worth mentioning to the whole class. I also find out about what’s happening in their other classes, which is information I can often work into our class discussion. Some students will be motivated to show up early because they want to hear what I’m telling other students – – they don’t want to miss anything.

Second, chatting informally with the students who have arrived early gives me a window into college life in general. Has sorority rush started yet? Is anybody in the class a candidate for election to student government? Are students excited about an upcoming appearance by our women’s soccer team in the conference tournament? Some of what I learn can be used subsequently as examples in the class discussion. For example, issue-oriented student groups are very active on my campus and their organizing tactics make for great examples in a social movement course. Generally, I get a good sense of the pulse of the campus and the rhythm of students’ daily lives.

Third, students are often willing to share things with me before class starts that they would not mention when their peers are seated around them. For example, did they find the readings for the day difficult? Why? Are they worried about meeting deadlines for the term paper? Revealing such anxieties to everybody, once the class is underway, can be a daunting experience for shy students. By contrast, as I walk around the room before class starts, engaging in small talk, I find they are more likely to open up and reveal such concerns. Speaking to students individually, or in small groups prior to the start of class, is particularly helpful for students who are nervous about speaking during a large class session.

Fourth, my students often use this time to ask me questions about how I spent the weekend, how I feel about recent political events, and so forth. Students often seem surprised that I have a life outside of the classroom, one that includes children and grandchildren. Sharing – – but not over-sharing – – some recent events in my life helps to humanize me as more than just their instructor. In my experience, this also helps in making students feel comfortable about coming to visit me during office hours.

Fifth, showing up early carries significant symbolic value. It signals to the class that you take teaching seriously and are prepared to put in whatever time it takes. When students realize that I will be in the classroom 15 minutes before the official start of class, they start showing up early as well. Often, almost all the students are seated several minutes before the “beginning” of class. Few people walk in late, where “late” is defined as not being seated at the official starting time. In contrast, were I to set a bad example by coming in just before class started, I would be encouraging my students to do the same.

Sixth, setting aside time in your daily schedule to leave your office early to head off to class will give you a bit of extra time for those unusual circumstances that sometimes disrupt your schedule. If a student visiting your office hours has an issue that needs more time or if an emergency phone call keeps you in your office for a few extra minutes, you will still arrive well in advance of the starting time. Do not treat arriving early as an option or you will end up finding the time occupied and you won’t ever get to class early. However, on rare occasions when “stuff happens,” you will still arrive on time for the start of class, given your new routine.

I strongly suggest you try out this practice at the beginning of the next term. Make it a routine practice for all your courses. Arriving 10 to 15 minutes before the published start time will make a dramatic difference in how much you know about your students, how much they know about you, and in creating a more comfortable and positive classroom atmosphere.

Professional meetings: act like you’ve been there before

Many professional associations have their annual meetings this time of year, and thousands of attendees will mingle in the corridors of super cooled hotels, many for the first time. When newbies ask me for my advice on what to do at these meetings, I’m reminded of a quote variously attributed to John Wooden, Bear Bryant, or Vince Lombardi: when you score, “act like you’ve been there before.” In other words, don’t make a fool of yourself. As a professional, you were supposed to score in that situation and so don’t make a big deal of it by excessive celebration.

Robert Davidson sculpture

Meeting at the Centre, by Robert Davidson

Now, very few interactions at professional meetings carry the same high-stakes outcomes as a sports competition, but Wooden’s advice is still relevant. Understanding what kinds of questions are appropriate and potential openings for productive conversations with more experienced participants is a key to having a good time. In this post, I review the kinds of questions that I think are conversation stoppers and clearly mark someone as either a first-time attendee or possibly socially inept. I then offer suggestions about more appropriate conversational openers.

At a national professional meeting, you are quite likely to meet a senior scholar whose work you have read and admired. You will be anxious to make a good impression on the person. You probably know that Professor Proteus works at Ivy League University, and so two questions immediately pop into your mind: “are you still at Ivy League University?” And “do you like it there?” The first question reveals that you appear out of touch with the current literature, as Professor Proteus’ affiliation is always prominently displayed right below her name in publications. The second question is fundamentally flawed in two respects. First, it can be answered with a “yes/no” answer, which gives Professor Proteus a chance to terminate the conversation and walk away. Second, if Professor Proteus has been at Ivy League University for several decades, what is she to say? “No, I hate it there, but I just can’t get a job anywhere else.” Or, “now that you mention it, I guess I should begin to look for better jobs elsewhere.”

Professor Proteus has probably answered this question dozens of times before, and thus she will resist the temptation to give a snarky answer. However, she will begin casting her eyes around the room, looking for more interesting conversational partners.

Another apparently obvious opening gambit has similar hidden dangers: “so, what are you working on now?” First, like the earlier question, it reveals that you evidently are not paying attention to recent literature, or else you would know what Professor Proteus is working on. Second, it gives Professor Proteus another chance to terminate the conversation, as she can say “oh, I have organized a session on the apocalyptic consequences of Brexit at this meeting. You should attend.” Third, the question is likely to remind Professor Proteus of those early days in her career when she was explaining to potential employers, over and over again, the contents of her research portfolio. There is no satisfactory short answer to such a question, especially if Professor Proteus has no idea how much you already know about her work.

Finally, a third problematic opening remark is more nuanced: “in my graduate seminar, we read your paper on the semiotics of transcendental strategic growth initiatives, and I didn’t really understand it. Can you explain it to me?” At this point, you will notice Professor Proteus glancing at her watch and making her excuses for why she has to be somewhere else as soon as possible.

What are some better ways of beginning a conversation with senior scholars whose work you have admired? First, after telling them your name and where you’re from, resist the temptation to immediately begin explaining in great detail what you’re working on, unless they ask you. Even if they ask you, keep your remarks short. Turn the conversation back to their work. Second, show them you are familiar with their work. A good opening question would be something along the following lines: in the last issue of JoIR (The Journal of Irreproducible Results), I read your paper on the semiotics of transcendental strategic growth initiatives and I found it really interesting. Are you working on a follow-up to that paper? I’d love to read a draft, if you are interested in circulating it, and send you comments if you wish.”

Professor Proteus will be pleased that you are aware of her recent work and that you didn’t ask her to explain it to you. More importantly, because she gets few invitations from others to make comments on her draft papers, your voluntary expression of availability might pique her curiosity. If she indicates even a tentative willingness to send you a draft, do not – – I repeat, do not – – ask her for her email address. Any competent user of Google these days can find her email address on the web and conversational time is better spent on more substantive matters. (This is another way you show that you’ve done this before.)

Third, if you attend the meetings pre-armed with a short list of people whose work you admire and whom you would like to meet, then go ahead and prepare a question or two for them. The question should not be answerable with a simple “yes/no” answer, and indeed, it should not have an obvious answer. Senior people hate questions with obvious answers, as it appears that you are just trying to flatter them. You will notice that their answers to such questions are quite short.

Here is an example of a possible challenging question: “I have always thought of your work as questioning our assumptions about the power of human agency, but I noticed that your recent work seems to back away from that view. In your recent paper in JoIR, your explanation heavily privileges not just collective but individual action. Am I reading you correctly?” Okay, I know this seems like it permits a yes/no answer, but it is not a simple answer – – the way you frame the question shows that you are familiar with her work and are looking for deeper explanations. Even if Professor Proteus has no time to engage you in a full exploration of this question, she may actually set up an appointment to meet with you later.

So, what are the principles underlying my advice? First, show familiarity with a scholar’s work. Second, ask more than simple yes/no questions. Instead, make the question challenging, perhaps by pointing out what you perceive as contradictions in recent work. Third, don’t act like a tourist. Questions about the weather and complaints about the hotel are best discussed with the concierge or doorman. Fourth, spend some time preparing a short list before you go, listing not only whom you’d like to meet but also the kinds of questions you’d like to ask. At the meeting, ask senior scholars whom you know for introductions, if you are too shy to introduce yourself.

However, if you follow the advice given here and avoid the nonstarter questions, you need not worry about making your own introductions.



If you don’t have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over?

One of my favorite expressions is “if you don’t have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over?” I believe that the legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden was the first to use this expression. How does this apply to academic writing? After a little thought, I came up with these five examples of putting things off that would have been better accomplished had they been completed at the appropriate time:

John Wooden

John Wooden quote from

First, not doing a full outline before beginning to write a draft. Even in my senior honor’s seminar, open only to the best students in our program, many students give me a funny look when I ask them whether they do an outline before they began working on their papers. Okay, you say, those are undergraduates, what do you expect? However, when I ask the same question of graduate students and even faculty, many say they can’t be bothered, offering various excuses including “it takes too much time,” “I like to discover my central theme as I write,” and my favorite, “it hampers my creativity.” I liken this practice to hikers walking into one of our large national forests on a week long track without a map. What do we call such people? Lost. Somebody will eventually need to rescue them. In academic settings, the rescuers are often editors and reviewers.

Second, skipping a difficult section while writing a draft. Assuming that you prepared an outline, you have an end goal in mind and so the problem is just to execute. However, the only way to test whether the outline actually represents a coherent narrative for your story is to go through it from beginning to end, in order. The difficult bits that you skip over, assuming that they can be written later, might actually be the points where you eventually discover that you can’t get there from here. When writing an outline, it is fairly easy to convince yourself that, as seen from the mountaintop, there is a walkable trail from the park entrance to the creek. On the ground, however, the unbridgeable chasm that was concealed by the tall trees becomes readily apparent. It is much easier to do it right the first time than to walk back to the entrance and start over again.

Third, not recording the full reference for a book, article, or blog post when you first take notes on it. It is easy to convince yourself that you can always come back later and get the rest of the reference you need for the bibliography. Moreover, there’s a chance that you won’t actually use the material in your paper, and so why spend extra time writing down all that information when you’ll never need it. Indeed, why bother? The answer becomes painfully apparent when you discover the incomplete references on the morning you plan to submit the conference paper, to meet the announced deadline, and you find that the library server is down.

Fourth, not doing the descriptive statistics before beginning the multivariate analysis in a statistically based paper. I try to teach my students the relevance of this potential misstep when they bring me the first draft of their paper and I point out the implausibility of a coefficient or two. Could it really be true that people with college degrees earn less than those who dropped out of school? Quite likely, somewhere along the way, a coding error or data transformation mangled the true values. Carefully scanning means, standard deviations, skewness, and other basic properties of the data goes a long way toward reassuring me that you actually understand your data.

Fifth, sending out a paper for comments from your friends and colleagues before you have proofread and copyedited it. Nothing says “I don’t care about your time” more than sending a colleague a paper full of typos, misspellings, botched grammar, and other mistakes that could have easily been caught with an hour or so of careful reading. I suggest first running the paper through a standard spelling and grammar checker on your word processor, then printing the paper out and reading it line by line. To ensure perfection, you might try having a very patient and loyal friend read it aloud to you. Here’s your chance to discover the true meaning of a “strong tie.”

John Wooden was surely right: although each of these shortcuts will seem to save you time in the short run, the gains are purely illusory. You have merely embedded problems in your work that will come back to haunt you later, especially when they are discovered by others. Do yourself, your friends, and your reviewers a favor: take the time to do it right the first time.


Use the norm of reciprocity to get constructive feedback on your work

In popular fiction, authors are often portrayed as isolated and tortured souls, locked away in a garret apartment or in a cabin in the forest, producing their great works without benefit of human companionship. In reality, writing is an extremely social activity, highly dependent upon an individual’s network of family and friends. Peer networks play in a particularly important role in moving writing from solipsistic doodling to prose that others want to read. Let me suggest one way in which social relationships are critical: finding people willing to offer critically constructive feedback on the work.

Boston MFA

MFA Boston

When your draft is completed, how will you know what reception it will receive from the intended readers? When I talk to academic writers about this question, I point out that the most risky action an author can take is to submit to a journal a paper that no one else has yet read. Although it seems incredibly shortsighted, I often talk to people who’ve done exactly that – – they claim that they really couldn’t find anybody they thought would be a good reviewer. Thus, to get feedback on their work, they plunged ahead and sent it out for review.

Why is this risky? For most academic journals, the best outcome of initial review is an invitation to revise and resubmit the paper. Thus, the initial submission is not an attempt to get the paper published as is, but rather to convince the reviewers, and hence the editor, that the paper has enough merit to warrant the journal spending an additional round of reviewing on it. If you submit a paper that has not been evaluated by anyone yet, it is quite likely that it contains so many serious problems as to preclude the likelihood that reviewers and editors will see it as worthy of a revision. So, at the very least, it makes sense to seek feedback from others that will enable you to fix major problems with the paper before submitting it, thus increasing the odds that you will get a chance from the journal to revise the paper.

But who should you turn to for such feedback? I recommend thinking first of strong ties and then expanding beyond them in selecting people whom you will ask for feedback. First, you can turn to your local circle of colleagues and mentors. You might join a writing group with others who seek feedback on their work. With others writing about similar topics, you could organize a workshop at which you present your papers. Second, you can locate potential reviewers by attending conference sessions at which people in your field are presenting their own work. Third, if there are several authors whom you relied heavily upon in your literature review, they are likely candidates for providing feedback.

When I make such suggestions, especially to graduate students and junior faculty, they almost immediately object. Why would these people be interested in helping you out? Providing feedback is a lot of work and it seems unlikely that people you hardly know would voluntarily give up their precious time to spend it on your draft. Even close colleagues and mentors are mentioned as people evidently disinterested in providing timely feedback. (That could be a topic for another blog post!)

Anthropologists and sociologists have given us the answer to why we might expect these people to help: the norm of reciprocity. How does it work? In just about every culture where the phenomenon has been studied, we observe that when somebody does a favor for someone else, the person receiving the favor incurs an obligation to return it. You can use this norm to your advantage, but you must be strategic about it.

Locally, ask a fellow graduate student or junior faculty member if they are working on any projects on which they would like feedback. Do they have any working drafts they can share with you? At a conference session, stick around after the presentations and speak with the scholars from whom you’d like feedback. Again, don’t tell them that you are seeking feedback on your own work, but rather ask them if the paper they presented has been published, and if not, if they would like feedback on it? For scholars you know only through their journal publications, write and tell them that you find their work very interesting and that you are interested in keeping up with cutting edge findings in your field. Ask them if they can send you their working papers and if they’d be interested in receiving feedback.

If the targets of your solicitation respond positively, take the next step. Ask them to send you a digital copy of their work and ask what specific issues they are concerned about; for example, adequate recognition of prior work, arguments supporting proffered hypotheses, and clarity in interpretations of findings. Find out if they are working to any deadlines and in particular, if the paper has already been submitted for review. It’s important to ask about the status of a paper, as there is little point in sending people comments on a paper that is currently in the review process. Whatever you have to say will be overridden by the editor’s requests of the author.

Now we come to a critical component of my recommendation: in your comments, you need to show the person what kind of feedback you would like for your own work. In doing so, you prepare the groundwork for a working relationship with a constructive critic who can give you the help you need.

How do you teach someone else what kind of feedback you would like? Remembering the norm of reciprocity, you need to show them what a competent and constructive review looks like by doing one yourself. Provide higher order rather than lower order feedback. Critique their ideas and concepts, not their spelling and grammar. For example, point out problems with the flow of the argument or with lack of a connection between the literature cited and the inferences drawn.

Technology is our friend in this case. Microsoft Word makes available two excellent writing tools — Insert Comments and Track Changes — one of which you can use in providing feedback and one that you should avoid.

Do use insert comments by marking blocks of text and then writing explanations to the author for why you have marked them, as I noted above. Do not use track changes by inserting your own words into the author’s text. “Track changes” is for co-authors, not commentators. It is not your job to point out spelling mistakes or errors in grammar, unless someone specifically asks you to do so, and even then, you should resist. In short, leave the copy editing to the author or somebody who is paid to do such work. Your job, as a reviewer of their work, is to provide feedback on the substance of their argument. So, aim high.

The norm of reciprocity is so powerful that it will probably not be necessary for you to enter into an agreement, a priori, with the person whose work you are citing. Instead, by following the above steps, you will have prepared the other person for a subsequent request from you, asking them if they’d be so kind as to provide similar feedback for a draft paper of yours. Of course, there is always a risk that you will be turned down, which is why I recommend only commenting on the work of others whose work you genuinely find interesting and is in fields which you know enough to provide useful feedback.

Start small, with your local circle, and then work your way out to others you don’t know personally. You will be astonished at how grateful even well-known authors are to receive constructive feedback on their work. I have met a lot of good friends this way.

In my own work, I am delighted if I can find five or six people to provide the kind of feedback I’ve mentioned above – – feedback on the substance of my arguments. More than that and I’m ecstatic! This past month, I sent a paper to three friends overseas with whom I previously talked about the topic, and I sent it to three other scholars whose work I admired but whom I never met face-to-face. In their cases, I made clear to them why I was seeking their help and advice on whether I had used their work properly. I sent it to several people with a request that they only look at one particular facet of the paper, and ignore the rest, unless they had the time to do more. As a consequence of these solicitations, I believe the paper improved enormously from the early drafts to the latest drafts, and now I am ready to send it on to the formal reviewing process.

Journal reviewers will be anonymous and brutally honest! Better to learn all you can before the paper reaches their desks