Thoughts on a Snow Day

For the purposes of this discussion, let’s set aside the fact that the amount of snow that we received overnight definitely did not live up to the excessive hype of [insert clever nickname for the snowstorm].  I agree: school should not be cancelled for 6″ of snow in the upper Midwest.  The upper Midwest should be prepared to handle 6″ of snow.

What I take issue with, however, is the University’s rationale for NOT canceling classes for inclement weather.  To wit: “We basically never cancel classes because we’re a residential school,” [University spokeswoman Kelly] Cunningham said. “People can get here.”

Let’s look at the numbers, shall we?  In 2010, there were 58,089 enrolled students and 40,712 staff members (including grad students employed by the University).  11,000 students, or 27% of the student body, live in campus housing.  Another 8% live in Greek houses or cooperative housing.  By those numbers, 35% of the student body lives on or immediately adjacent to campus.  The remaining 37,757 students – 65% of the student body – lives off campus.

So if 37,757 students and 40,712 faculty and staff members live off campus, then who are the “residential” “people” who “can get here”?  20% of the campus population.

What about the rest of us? The 41% of the campus population who are employed by the University must “make a reasonable effort to report to work as scheduled, using good judgement about the risk of travel”, to quote an email I received yesterday. If you’re unable to get to campus, you can take a vacation day, paid time off, or unpaid time off, depending on where and for whom you work.

The unspoken message here is that the University is far more concerned with the happiness and safety of those who live on campus – again, 20% of the population – than that of the 78,470 individuals who commute for work, school, or both.  Those of us in that second camp can obviously afford to absorb a day of pay if we choose comfort and safety over driving to work or taking the bus in bad weather.  And I think that’s ridiculous.

Some thoughts on presentations to an academic audience

After attending several presentations this week and what felt like a bazillion at GW – plus giving presentations at professional conferences and job interviews myself – I have a few words of advice for those unavoidable times when you find yourself giving a talk to an academic audience.  Please heed these words of advice, or consider yourself forewarned that someone in the audience will be snickering at your mistakes.  It happens.  And it ain’t pretty.

1.  Practice your talk.  And then practice again.  And then maybe run it through a third time, maybe for an audience, just to be sure.

2. While you’re at it, practice your TECH.  Invariably something will go wrong, like the projector won’t work or your file will get corrupted or you will forget your dongle or you’ll be on an unfamiliar machine.  So make sure to control whatever variables you can, and have a back up plan for those you can’t.

3. Don’t read your slides.  If you’re reading your slides, then the audience doesn’t need to read your slides, so then you don’t really need slides, now do you?  The point of the slides is to complement your talk, not to BE your talk.  And for god’s sake, don’t have OTHER PEOPLE read your slides.  I mean, it’s their job to quietly read the slide content to themselves while paying attention to your talk – not to stand up and read portions of the slide to the rest of the audience.  That’s just laziness on your part.

4. Maybe you should think about practicing your talk again now that you’ve rethought your slides.  Make sure those slides are in the right order.  And then generate a PDF of the final copy in case your slide program of choice breaks or the version on your presentation computer isn’t compatible with the new/old one on your machine.  Also maybe you should email yourself a copy or post it on Slideshare or your home institution’s repository.  Maybe you should do all of these things.  And then practice again.

Let’s talk about presentation content for a moment now, shall we?

5. Don’t rely on or even show videos unless they are central to the point of your talk.  Yes, I did just make that both bold and underlined.  This includes funny soundbites intended to make people laugh.  Really unnecessary.  Especially when the videos don’t work.

6. No handouts.  Handouts should only be distributed during your session if they are going to be used during the session.  Handouts should only be made available period if they contain materials that supplement your talk – and then you shouldn’t require anyone to take them who doesn’t want them.  Save the trees, man.

7. If you’re doing activities during your session and will be directing participants to online materials, make those links available online as well, NOT in a handout (see #6).  Don’t make your poor participants type in a bunch of mile-long URLs.  That’s just asking for trouble.

8.  And while we’re talking about mile-long URLs, please, for the love of god, check your links BEFORE your session.  Not during your session.  I guess during the session is better than not checking at all, though.

9. And on the topic of activities?  Don’t include them just to kill time.  A well-conceived activity can make a huge difference in the quality and relevance of a presentation.  A lousy one just makes you look like you don’t have enough material to fill your time slot.  If that’s the case, create more material or end early.  No one ever minds ending early.

10. The following things do not need to be explained in the context of an academic presentation:

  • what a keyword search is and how to conduct it
  • how to conduct any search where the search box is clearly labeled
  • how to click on a link
  • how your site works.  Explaining where things are or what your site contains are OK, though.
  • that something is “online on the internet” or “online on a website”

And finally:

11.  Don’t wear tight-fitting slacks made of any soft fabric.  Trust me on this one.  Have someone whose fashion sense and honesty you trust give you a once over before you leave the house.

So Norman Finkelstein was denied tenure this week. This was reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education, along with 134 other sources cited by Google. In light of the Finkelstein-Dershowitz feud, this is not surprising – both are high profile scholars with a very high profile, very long-standing battle underpinned by each party’s research, values, and philosophies. At the same time, it’s not every day that a tenure decision is reported at the top of Google News – this story is the top left story on my page, higher than reports about Sarkozy taking the majority or the end of the Sopranos. I’m not really sure what to make of this – I just thought it was interesting, and I wonder what will happen next for Finkelstein.

When I was an undergrad, one of my favorite professors referred to me as a “reluctant medievalist”. I think she was convinced that one of these days I would come to my senses and follow what was then just a deep curiosity about Anglo-Saxon England. I never went down that road – clearly – but the paper I’m working on right now has allowed me to dig back into my roots as an English major with more than a passing interest in the medieval. I mention this because this article (caution: loooooong) had me all choked up earlier, as I read about all the priceless, absolutely irreplaceable manuscripts that were destroyed in a fire in 1731.

Maybe Colleen was right.

On an actually related note, I came across the following job posting while Googling said favorite professor. It’s very close to exactly the kind of job I imagined for myself, and if I had the requisite experience, I would probably apply:

Director of the Library, January 2007

The director will lead the college in developing and implementing long-range and strategic plans for the broad range of functions associated with the contemporary academic library, including the traditional library functions as well as information literacy and teaching and learning with technology. As a principal representative of the college and essential participant in its teaching and learning mission, the ideal candidate will be an enthusiastic leader, experienced financial manager, and collaborative administrator. Tenure-track status remains to be determined. Requirements include an MLS or MLIS from an ALA accredited institution, with additional degree strongly preferred; a minimum of five years of library experience; experience with and understanding of current and emerging teaching and learning technologies. Send materials to Colleen Page, Ph.D., Chair, Department of English.