Wednesday, February 21, 2018

10,000 unread emails? I can solve your problem!

Do you have an unsightly number of unread emails in your inbox? 500? 1,000? 10,000? More?

You’re not alone. I see many people struggle with the same plight. Others seem proud of the number. Regardless, the good news is that there’s a solution.

That’s right. You can cease worrying right now. You no longer need to hang your head in shame when people ask whether you’ve received their email. Or when they ask when you’ll reply. You can jettison your anxiety about encountering an overwhelming volume of email—which only grows larger, not smaller, in the wake of your inertia.

The solution? Stop using email. That’s right. No more email! Set up an autoresponder.  Inform people who choose to contact you by email that you no longer respond to it. Provide an alternate means of reaching you (assuming, of course, that you want them to reach you. Which you certainly may not, depending on your financial status, fame, professional achievements, etc.).

Then delete everything in your email box. Every last email.

You’ll feel an overwhelming sense of relief. You won’t be greeted every day by an ever-increasing number of inquiries. You’ll no longer spend precious time thinking about what might be in your email box.

Email will no longer matter to you. You’ve banished it from your life altogether.

Then again, allowing emails to accumulate unanswered already has been communicating that message. You’re simply formalizing it by your latest action. You’ll rest easier. And the people trying to reach you? They’ll either figure out a different means of connecting, or they’ll give up altogether. In any event, that’s their problem not yours. Right?

Delete all your email today. Deactivate your account. You’ll feel a lot happier.

Friday, February 2, 2018

I Don't Know What It's Like (And Neither Do You)

My friend’s mother passed away recently. As he’s hard to reach by phone, I sent him a text when I learned the news. Here’s what I wrote:

I am so very sorry. Having lost a parent, I can relate at some level. Yet I know your grieving experience will be your own. Seek all the support you need. You cannot get enough.

I don’t know exactly what it’s like for my friend to have lost his mother. I don’t know the intimacies of their relationship. I cannot in good conscience say “I know what you’re going through.” I know better.

My father died in 2015. It was hard to wrap my head around the sequence of events that led to his death. I was in shock. At times I still find it hard to believe that he’s no longer with us.

When I beseeched my employer to scale back on his angry emails given that I was struggling to cope with my father’s death, he replied, “we all have our issues to deal with.” When I made plans to spend time with my mother afterwards, he was glad as “it would allow me to get some closure.”

Undoubtedly the two comments reflect how he deals with death. I didn’t ask for elaboration. I didn’t care. All I knew was that they were insensitive and hurtful. All I needed was the recognition that I was hurting. I didn’t get that.

Similarly, I don’t know exactly what it’s like for my friend. I can sympathize. I recognize his circumstances are unique, however. The best I can do is be there for him.

That’s all any of us can do. None of knows exactly what it’s like to lose someone near and dear to us even if we’ve experienced something similar. In these circumstances, I believe the best we can do is to extend our condolences. That’s it. Projecting our own experiences onto those of others is doomed to fail. Attempting to bond via a presumably shared experience may or may not work.

In short, I know I don’t know exactly what it’s like for you to lose someone. I believe you don’t know either.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

13 Strategies to Help Adjunct Instructors in Higher Education to Stay Fresh, Engaged, Excited, and Effective

“I am a teacher at heart, and there are moments in the classroom when I can hardly hold the joy. When my students and I discover uncharted territory to explore, when the pathway out of a thicket opens up before us, when our experience is illumined by the lightning-life of the mind—then teaching is the finest work I know” (Palmer, 2017, p. 102).

Parker Palmer’s words summon lofty questions for instructors in higher education. These questions loom even larger for those of us who are adjunct instructors. We remain engaged in universities. But we don’t have the benefits that accrue to tenure-track faculty members. Our contingent status colors everything we do. Our most critical challenges lay in the opportunity to teach the same class year after year. Sometimes that means multiple sections per semester. The risks of staying in our pedagogical comfort zones are significant in these cases. Where and how do we find the motivation to succeed? How do we maintain our energy from class to class, from semester to semester? How do we remain engaged? In short, how do we experience the enthusiasm and joy that inspired our initial decision to teach?

Here’s a slightly different scenario. You’ve been asked to teach a class for the first time. You don’t know if you’ll have the opportunity to teach it again. It’s normally taught by a tenured faculty member. As an adjunct faculty member, your time and attention are limited. How do you manage this uncertainty? How do you marshal the time and energy needed to prepare? How do you identify and tap into the internal resources you need to teach a class even if it’s only once?

I’ve grappled with these challenges repeatedly over the 20 years I’ve taught in higher education. I’ve used several of the strategies listed below to remain fresh, engaged, and excited. Others have been shared with me by colleagues over the years.  
  1. Attend, and if possible, participate in professional and personal development events relevant to your subject area. For example, join Toastmasters if you teach public speaking or business communication.
  2. Read literature (both trade and scholarly) related to your subject area. I’ve set up alerts so I know what will be published in key academic journals covering research on topics that interest me (i.e., crisis management and communication, leadership, organizational behavior, and management communication).  
  3. Identify and incorporate innovative ways to teach specific topics. For example, I research and experiment with ways to teach impromptu speaking techniques. This effort includes reviewing books like this one.
  4. Invest your limited class development time into specific topics and/or teaching tools you enjoy. In my case, I add to my PowerPoint skills. I also return to review teaching classics by Barbara Gross Davis and William McKeachie to see how I can apply their advice to current teaching challenges. A more recent work by James Lang, Small Teaching, also offers invaluable insight in this arena.
  5. Invest your class development time on topics and tools you can employ outside the classroom to maximize the investment of your energy. Write a journal article, teach at another school, or deliver training programs in the private sector. For example, I’ve develop and deliver Webinars for organizations outside academia on workplace communication, effective meetings, and other topics. These are based on materials I first delivered in the classroom.
  6. Write about how you developed your course, including specific teaching techniques you used. For example, see my article on how I developed a course on crisis communication.
  7. Present at teaching conferences and other professional association events. For example, I am facilitating a panel at University of San Francisco’s Adjunct Faculty Conference on February 28, 2018. It will focus on the themes addressed in this blog post.
  8. Take courses at accredited educational institutions or online (e.g., Udemy) in related disciplines or to help you develop teaching skills (e.g., using PowerPoint). 
  9. Incorporate a nonacademic interest into your teaching toolkit. Consider my experience in teaching organizational behavior. I gave an assignment where students had to analyze song lyrics using course content (a technique I learned about from Dorothy Marcic). 
  10. Do a deeper dive into prerequisites and/or other courses in the sequence or degree program you teach for. In turn, you’ll make connections between what students are learning now and how they will need to apply it elsewhere. For example, as a faculty member for the MBA program at University of San Francisco I taught my management communication course in the same quarter students were enrolled in a course on quantitative analysis. I reached out to the instructor. We shaped a presentation assignment so students could apply their quantitative analysis skills through it. It truly was a win-win-win (me, the other instructor, and students).
  11. Observe other faculty members as they teach. Take copious notes. Reflect on what you observed. Determine what makes sense for you to incorporate into your teaching. Leave the rest behind. Before I started teaching at the Naval Postgraduate School, I visited another class in the MBA program. I found it especially helpful for learning how students engaged each other and the instructor. As a newcomer to teaching adults in the military this exposure was critical. My observations helped me immensely as I prepared for my first class.
  12. Take advantage of faculty development resources offered by your institution. Invite someone knowledge about teaching and pedagogy to your class to observe and provide feedback on how you can improve. Alternately, check out resources on teaching (like the ones listed on this page). In other words, many institutions invest in the teaching skills of their instructors. Why not take advantage of what they have to offer?
  13. Dig deep into end of semester evaluations completed by students. In what areas do you score especially high? In what areas do you not score as highly as you’d like? What themes come up in the narrative comments? What changes do you think you need to make? What’s involved in making those changes? If needed, how can you get help to improve? In short, be open to any and all feedback from students. But remember to treat a comment from one or two students as interesting, but not necessarily reflective of overall sentiment about your class. 
The bottom line for me is that I look forward to the beginning of every course. More importantly, I’m able to maintain my energy and enthusiasm throughout its duration. These 13 strategies have played a major role in enabling me to do so.


Palmer, P. J. (2017). The courage to teach guide for reflection and renewal. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Offer Job Seekers Opportunities and Support, Not Advice

I know the look. It’s the crestfallen facial expression. The drooping shoulders. There’s an aura of defeat around them. A tinge of anger, bitterness, and frustration in every glance, in every word.

I’m talking about the job seeker. The one who, despite their best efforts, finds the new, exciting professional opportunity elusive. You know they’re exceptionally talented, even gifted. They have valuable industry experience. They’re not resting on their laurels, either. They’re working hard, doing all they can to chase the next promising position. They know you have a lot to offer but no one seems to notice. Interviews are hard to come by. After a while, solid leads for jobs suited to their skills and interests become scarce—or so it seems to them. 

I feel their pain. I know their pain. I’ve been there. More than once in my search for a full-time job. It’s a horrible place to be in. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.

Know someone in these circumstances? Here’s what you can do. 

Offer your unqualified emotional support. Sometimes a shoulder to (literally) cry on makes all the difference. 

Even better, provide leads to specific job opportunities at organizations where you know someone. Offer to introduce the job seeker to your contact. However you can provide access to something real, i.e. an actual job opening, the more you make a difference. Granted, it may not result in a job offer. The engagement itself nonetheless helps immensely to buoy the spirit. It highlights the real opportunities that do exist for even the most beaten-down job seeker. 

Please don’t offer advice. Yes, I know, you think you’re being helpful. But offering the job seeker guidance about what they should be doing, whom they ought to reach out to, etc. only makes it worse. They already feel the weight of the world on their shoulders. They may be carrying around a boatload of shame, which your suggestions only add to. Besides, they already believe they’re doing everything they can while at the same time feeling they’re not doing enough. Don’t add to their woes by offering your opinions on the ideal job search process. 

Sunday, January 14, 2018

"But I'm Just a Volunteer!" (no, you're not)

I've written before about the importance of volunteers for nonprofit organizations. Apparently, little has changed in the two years since my initial observations. So here we go again. 

I arrived early to the location of workshop I was facilitating. I entered the main entrance and looked to my left. I saw two women wearing smocks. I concluded they were representatives of the organization hosting the workshop. I introduced myself as the workshop leader. I then asked about obtaining supplies and a list of attendees.

The taller of the two women responded, plaintively, "I have no idea where these things are located. I'm just a volunteer."

Slightly stunned by this response, I proceeded to the workshop space. I had work to do and precious little time to do it. I pressed on, making a note to seek out someone else to help me obtain what I needed. 

About 30 minutes later, I finished my preparation. The supplies I needed gradually made their way to the workshop space, thanks to the efforts of others we enlisted in helping us. The list of attendees was nowhere to be found, however.

Throughout this time I was drinking coffee and, inevitably, I needed to visit the men's room. I thought I recalled where it was located, as I had been at the location before (but not for some time). I checked with a volunteer (the second woman whom I had met when I arrived). She instructed me to leave the building and "follow the blue arrow." I did and came upon a locked door. I headed back to the main entrance where this same woman was still standing. 

"I followed the blue arrow and came upon a locked door," I said to the woman. "Now what do I do?"

The woman looked at me, deadpan, and replied, "well, you can find someone with the key. But I don't really know, because I'm just a volunteer."

That's twice in under an hour I heard "I'm just a volunteer" when I asked for assistance.

Just a volunteer
Just a volunteer
Just a volunteer?!

No, you're not just a volunteer. You're a representative of an organization. You're part of the face it shows to the outside world. You're a vital member of the team. You're indispensable. People look to you to help them solve problems. They may not know (and often don't care) whether you're paid or not. 

If you didn't know your role as a volunteer, the organization has failed you. They owe all staff members the information and training they need to succeed. 

If you knew your role as a volunteer but simply considered yourself less qualified, resign immediately. If you simply felt less responsibility because you weren't being paid, resign immediately. Find something else to do with your time. The organization would be better off without you. Leave the volunteer opportunities to those committed to service. Let individuals unwilling to make excuses help out. Everyone will be better off.