Teaching Tactics: A Simple Hack for Maintaining Personal Connections to Students

By Matthew Charles Wilson, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, University of South Carolina 

This blog was originally published by the Incubator for Teaching Innovation at the College of Arts and Sciences/University of South Carolina: https://incubatorforteachinginnovation.wordpress.com.

Teaching Tactics: A Simple Hack for Maintaining Personal Connections to Students

With virtual instruction being the current norm and physical distance separating instructors and students, it is imperative that teachers seek out ways to foster personal connections to students.  There are a variety of ways that instructors might do this—including live-streaming classes and engaging with students through discussion forums on Blackboard—, but class sizes and obligations can limit the extent to which professors can interact with every student.

There are relatively simple ‘hacks’ that can help personalize your communication with students.  This blog post outlines, in just a few steps, how to send mass emails that are unique to each student.  This enables teachers to write and send only one email but tailors it to every student.  Adopting this practice can help to augment students’ learning experience by maintaining personal communication, albeit with the help of Microsoft Office.

As an instructor, I have found that communicating with students in larger classes in this way encourages them to be more engaged. Students often respond to the messages not only to indicate that they have received the information, but sometimes expressing surprise that the professor took the time to send a personal email. Their appreciation for personal attention has also come across in student evaluations of teaching effectiveness.

Beyond helping to cultivate a feeling of personal concern for students, the Mail Merge feature provides a helpful way to distribute links to assignments that may vary by student (such as circulating peer drafts of writing for review). As teachers work to conduct class online in an isolated environment, this simple feature offers one additional way to recognize students individually and to remind them that they matter.

(aka How To Do This For The First Time)

Step 1: Prepare the spreadsheet.

The first thing to do is to create a spreadsheet in Microsoft Excel that contains, at a minimum, the students’ names, emails, and whatever you want to convey.  Blackboard enables you to download information from the class gradebook, such as names and student IDs, as a spreadsheet (Figure 1).

Figure 1
Figure 1. Basic gradebook information provided by Blackboard.

Create new columns to add in personalized comments (as shown in Figure 2) and use the student IDs to generate their email addresses.

Figure 2Figure 2. Create new columns to add comments for individual assignments or personal notes.

This is the same as their ID, plus ‘@email.sc.edu’ (Figure 3).

Figure 3Figure 3. To generate emails from student IDs, add ‘@email.sc.edu’.

This gives you all the input fields that you might want to send a personalized message (illustrated by Figure 4).

Figure 4Figure 4. Input fields necessary to create personalized message.

Step 2: Write the message.

The second thing to do is to open a blank document in Microsoft Word. Selecting the ‘Mail Merge Wizard’ that is available under ‘Mailings > Start Mail Merge’ (Figure 5) will walk you through the process of drafting and sending a message that includes the input fields from the spreadsheet.

Figure 5Figure 5. Select ‘Step-by-Step Mail Merge Wizard’ under ‘Mailings > Start Mail Merge’.

The Mail Merge Wizard first asks you want kind of document you would like to create.  For email messages, select ‘E-mail messages’ and continue to the next step (Figure 6).

Figure 6Figure 6. Select ‘E-mail messages’ and continue to the next step.

Then select ‘Use the current document’ and continue (Figure 7).

Figure 7Figure 7. Select ‘Use the current document’.

To connect the spreadsheet to the document, select ‘Use an existing list’ and then use ‘Browse’ to locate the saved spreadsheet on your computer (Figure 8).

Figure 8Figure 8. Select ‘Use an existing list’ and then use ‘Browse’ to locate the spreadsheet.

Click through to select which students to message (Figure 9).

Figure 9Figure 9. Click through to select which students to message.

To personalize the message, draft the email and then select ‘More Items’ to choose input fields that refer to student-specific information, such as their name (Figure 10).

Figure 10Figure 10. Select ‘More Items’ to embed input fields into the message, then continue.

I like to further ‘personalize’ the message by adding a scanned image of my signature (Figure 11).

Figure 11Figure 11. To add a handwritten signature, save your signature as an image and insert.

Clicking through the Mail Merge Wizard allows you to see the individualized messages for each student, as illustrated by Figure 12.

Figure 12Figure 12. Clicking through enables you to view each student’s personalized message.

To send the messages, move to the next step by clicking ‘Complete the merge’ and select ‘Electronic Mail’ on the right-hand side (Figure 13).

Figure 13Figure 13. Indicate the recipient by selecting the appropriate input field from the spreadsheet.

Make sure that the input field containing students’ email addresses is selected to designate the recipient (‘To’).  You can also title the message by adding words to ‘Subject Line’.

Once you are ready to send the message, open the Microsoft Outlook application on your computer and click ‘OK’ to send individualized messages to each student listed in the spreadsheet.  The Microsoft Outlook application must be open on your computer for the messages to be delivered, or it will ‘queue’ them until you open the desktop application.  Figure 14 shows the type of message that each student will receive.

Figure 14Figure 14. Example email that students will receive.


Matthew WilsonMatthew Wilson received his Ph.D. from Pennsylvania State University and is a proud faculty member in the Department of Political Science at the University of South Carolina. Dr. Wilson is also involved with the Varieties of Democracy Institute in Gothenburg, Sweden.  He is interested in the interactions of autocratic leaders and institutions, particularly with regard to regime change and conflict outcomes.  His focus on regimes deals with literature on sources of regime instability and democratic transitions, which are particularly salient issues in the developing world.  Some of the courses he has taught include theoretical approaches to studying dictatorship, Comparative Politics, and governments in Latin America.  As a comparativist scholar, Dr. Wilson has a special interest in the politics of Latin America and historical development.  His profile focuses on comparative political institutions and includes advanced skills in quantitative methods and additional languages. Dr. Wilson also has a passion for international travel and language; he has traveled to nearly fifty countries and hopes to add many more experiences to the list in the near future.

Adjusting/Adapting Assignments for Flexibility and Engagement in Online Instruction

By Diane E. Schmidt, Ph.D., California State University, Chico, Political Science

Adjusting/Adapting Assignments for Flexibility and Engagement in Online Instruction

Online instruction, especially with students who are unfamiliar with online learning, requires balancing teaching across the familiar to the unfamiliar so that assignments are challenging but also support/reinforce what students already know.  Such linkage seems especially important for helping socialize and engage students in the learning process by scaffolding from what they know to how to understand and apply new material.  In addition to having engaging exercises, creating assignments that faculty can easily adapt from face-to-face delivery to online delivery reduces the disruptive impact of sudden shifts in course delivery due to unanticipated interruptions from traumatic events such as devastating fires or pandemics.  The expected learning outcome of this approach is three-fold.

First, and foremost, such assignments provide an opportunity for an informed, yet thoughtful discussion that engages students in using class concepts with applications to events in their community or environment.

Second, depending on the level of engagement expected, the assignments can create opportunities for students to engage in a shared experience to help them develop an interconnectedness with the material, as well as with each other.

Finally, by creating a safe space for interacting with the substantive course material, it can foster or help develop students’ confidence in working collaboratively with other students as well as developing a level of trust between students and faculty.

The following demonstrates the parameters for adapting class discussions to online discussion board interactions.

  • It is recommended, as part of the learning process, that faculty provide students with opportunities for face-to-face discussions with their classmates, but also provide, early in the semester, an opportunity for online discussions through the discussion board. In face-to-fact classes, this would be possibly a pair and share exercise; online it can be managed with breakout “rooms” through programs such as Zoom.
  • The online discussion question needs to incorporate an application of assigned reading concepts as well as a current events or field application.
    • Each question should be provided to students at least a week in advance of the discussion.
    • Student responses should be due on a specified date and time.
    • The student answers should be written and posted to a discussion board or to an assignment tab; students should not be able to see other students’ posts until they have posted an answer themselves.
    • This assignment should be a low point value assignment and graded on compliance with the assignment standards rather than on the quality of the analysis.
  • The questions should be anchored on commonly known information and lead students into relating concepts to hypothetical, field, or community applications.
    • Provide internet links in the question to assist students in connecting what they think they know with a context at the community level.
    • Alternatively, have students link what is known in their field of study with an application of a concept.
  • The question should be structured so that students know the expected context of the question, as well as the expectations for academic discourse. These include expectations for proofed, grammatically correct, full paragraphs, sourced/authoritative descriptive analysis, as well as number of paragraphs, lines, and/or word count.
    • The secondary outcome here is to train students to write based on sourced information and informed opinion.
    • This simplifies grading and keeps it focused on skill building and self-expression as a form of engagement.
  • For class engagement, all students post their answers and all other students must respond/comment on at least two other students answer stating that they either agree or disagree with them and give an authoritative reasoned opinion. The responses should also have parameters including number of words/sentences and expectations for a paragraph development.
    • In class, that could take the form of teams for collaborative work so that they identify where they agree and disagree, and reasons for similar and different perspectives, and write the results collaboratively.
    • Online, that should take place in a discussion board forum.

Here is an assignment example for a Personnel Class using current event applications, low point value:

  • Read the case below and share your response; refer to the identified reading at least once.  Reply to at least two other student posts.
  • Your response must be at least a full paragraph with a topic sentence, at least one reference, and at least 4 to 5 sentences long. This should be about at least between 100 and 150 words, minimum.
  • You will need to provide at least 2 replies to others that are thoughtful comments at least 3 sentences long.  If you agree or disagree, you must say the reason and support it with evidence.  This should be at least between 50 and 75 words, minimum.
  •  Your response must be submitted by 7:30pm, and your replies to others’ responses must be submitted no later than 9:50pm.

Question:  In response to California Governor Newsom’s mandate to citizens to stay-at-home and for all nonessential businesses and organizations to shut down, employers in public, private, and nonprofit sectors have shifted nonessential personnel to either telecommuting positions, staggered reduced hours, or furlough either with or without pay.  Even before the mandate, telecommuting presented public managers some wicked HR issues in adapting their performance management systems for measuring performance outcomes of remote work.

  • Explain the disadvantages of a performance management system that is not adapted for employees shifted from full time face-to-face office work to telecommuting or staggered reduced hours for a) employees, b) managers, and c) the organization.
  • Suggest which characteristics of performance management systems should be targeted for adapting existing performance management systems for improved measurement of employees who have been shifted to telecommuting or staggered, reduced hours.
  • Students will need at least three paragraphs or more to answer this question.  Please review the ancillary materials posted on the class website, and review the materials linked to the question in this box (in blue font-just click on the blue, underlined text).

Here is an assignment example based on a field application, with higher expectations and point value:

Instructions:  The following format is required for all answers to the questions for each chapter.

  • The answers to the chapter questions need to be in full paragraphs and have at one paragraph per part of the question. Most questions have at least two parts, and many have three or more.
  • Each paragraph must be at least 3 to 5 sentences long. Do not submit paragraphs that are shorter than 50 words or longer than 250 words.
  • Students must reference where they found information from both the textbook (with page numbers) and from outside the textbook sources IN EACH PARAGRAPH. That means each answer must have at least 2 references and a reference list in full bibliographic citation using a standard author-date format (APA, CMS, etc.).
  • Each assertion made must be fully explained, and backed up by evidence as is necessary to support the assertion.
  • No alternative facts allowed (i.e., undocumented opinion/evidence). All evidence must come from the textbook, academic, government sources, and/or reputable experts.  Please do not use blogs, tweets, Facebook, Snap Chat, or other social media.
  • All keywords provided must be used and underlined in bold so that I can see that students used the prompts. Some concepts and keywords have internet links to assist students.  These links are found in text indicated in blue font.
  • Do not quote directly from the textbook or other source; just summarize or paraphrase. Plagiarism will result in a failing grade for the assignment for the first offense, and a failing grade in the course for repeated problems with plagiarism.
  • You will need to provide at least 2 replies to others that are thoughtful comments at least 3 sentences long.  If you agree or disagree, you must say the reason and support it with evidence.  This should be at least between 50 and 75 words, minimum.
  • Your response must be submitted by 7:30pm, and your replies to others’ responses must be submitted no later than 9:50pm.

Question:  Define the term faith-based initiative.  Consider the faith-based initiatives that operate within your field.  Are they more or less effective than public or private services being delivered?  Should they be held to a different standard?  Do these initiatives violate the First Amendment establishment clause, which creates a wall of separation between church and state? (key words: faith based, First Amendment establishment clause, church, state).  Students will need at least four paragraphs to answer this question.


Diane E. SchmidtDiane E. Schmidt is a full professor, has a PhD in Political Science from Washington University, and has taught courses in American institutions, political behavior, public policy analysis/evaluation, public administration, collaborative management, planning, and comparative government for nearly 40 years.  Dr. Schmidt has been teaching online classes for over 10 years and is trained in best practices for online teaching and Universal Design for Learning.  She also works as a professional policy analyst and community consultant and has experience working on federal, state, local, and nonprofit grants and contracts.  Dr. Schmidt has published in peer reviewed journals and presented policy research for forums in policy history, public administration, community development, political science, and labor history.  Dr. Schmidt has recently published the 5th edition of her book, Writing in Political Science (2019).

This blog has been adapted from one originally created for a faculty development workshop on supporting First Generation students, at California State University, Chico, May 2020. 


Rethinking the Political Science Major – MPSA Roundtable (audio)

Image - A classroom without students

This roundtable Rethinking the Political Science Major (audio), chaired by John T. Ishiyama of  University of North Texas and featuring J. Cherie Strachan of Central Michigan University, Whitney Lauraine Court of College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University, and Amber Dickinson of Oklahoma State University, examines trends within the discipline rethinking the structure and function of the undergraduate political science major in the context of shrinking enrollments within the major, changing student demographics, and evolving workforce demands.

Topics include:

  • Discussion about ways the major can revitalize itself in the face of changing times, growing undergraduate participation by female, minority, and non-traditional students, and declining political ambitions among female and minority students uncomfortable with the combative climate of modern-day politics.
  • Ideas about how the discipline can restructure itself and engage in strategic planning to meet the needs of diverse student populations and encourage political participation by underrepresented groups.
  • Conversation about ways that the major could better prepare students with in-demand skills required by employers and re-brand itself to emphasize workforce relevance and encourage increased interest from undergraduate students.

Listen in!

MPSA Members can log in to access a variety of recordings from highlighted MPSA conference presentations.  



How to Thrive in Graduate School (Whatever That Means)

By Colleen Wood of Columbia University

Photo by Charles DeLoye on Unsplash

In addition to thematic panels, the 77th Annual MPSA Conference offered a wide range of roundtables on professional development including practical discussion of fieldwork and research tools and bigger debates on pedagogical practices and public engagement. Here I want to focus on the “How to Thrive in Graduate School” series and highlight common themes and advice that came up across panels.


Coming up with worthwhile research questions, conducting research, and writing up results is a major draw to the academic lifestyle. While many political science PhD programs offer coursework in research design and methods, it’s not exactly clear how to ask a good question and make sure people hear the answer. Allison Quatrini of Eckerd College assured the audience that there’s no single best way to do research, but that when choosing a dissertation topic, it’s better to pose a big question than to show off methods skills to address a narrow topic.

To figure out what the big questions are, several panelists suggested keeping either a digital or analog journal with ideas that come to mind while reading for coursework and comprehensive exams early on in the Ph.D. process. Cynthia Duncan Joseph from the University of South Carolina explained that she writes a daily “wonder list” where she jots down anything she’s wondering about – academic or otherwise. She mentioned coming back to her wonder list every so often for research ideas.

For those who have found their question and have started collecting data, panelists discussed the best ways to promote their findings. While some are concerned that political scientists aren’t doing enough to communicate their research to the public, strategies for becoming a public-facing academic were a popular topic throughout the series. Gregory Collins from Yale University said that translating academic research for the public or policymaking communities is important, especially for theorists.

But how to do that? No format is necessarily better than the rest, according to Kimberly Turner from Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. Op-eds, academic blogs, and podcasts can all be excellent platforms for sharing your ideas. “You get to tinker, so play — enjoy yourself and explore different formats to see what grabs your attention,” she told the audience at the Friday morning session.


While research is often the focus of conversations about graduate students’ work life, panelists agreed that teaching is just as important and deserves as much attention.

When it comes to deciding whether to pursue a Ph.D. at all,  Allison Quatrini suggested asking what the teaching assistant (TA) experience looks like. There is a wide range of potential teaching assignments, from only grading assignments for a professor to organizing recitation sections or building your own class entirely.

At the graduate students’ perspective session, multiple panelists emphasized the need to pursue your own professional development. Luisa Turbino Torres from the University of Delaware explained that she is proactive about sitting in on undergraduate lectures and asking professors she admires to share their syllabi. Turner agreed and suggested that graduate students attend teaching and learning conferences, whether organized specifically around questions of teaching or sessions contained within bigger conferences like MPSA or APSA. Turner said she learned a lot about writing a syllabus and learning how to control a classroom, both of which she described as “crafts no one teaches you to do.” These skills are especially crucial for political scientists, given that we are talking about “something as incendiary as politics.”


Panelists across the sessions agreed on the importance of triangulating mentorship. They spoke about developing vertical and horizontal ties, emphasizing the importance of diversifying the range of perspectives and opinions. When it comes to picking an official advisor and building a committee, panelists recognized the need to balance department politics with interpersonal dynamics. “You don’t have to pick the obvious person,” Hannah Alarian from Princeton assured the audience. “Choose a mentor and be willing to fire them.”

In the Friday morning roundtable highlighting graduate students’ perspectives on succeeding in a Ph.D. program, panelists mentioned building relationships with grad students at other universities. Twitter and MPSA working groups like the Midwest Women’s Caucus, the Midwest Latino/a Caucus, and the Caucus for LGBTQ Political Science provide a great space for horizontal networking and creating a feeling of home in the discipline.

Mental health

The psychological stress of balancing imposter syndrome, teaching loads, research projects, and side hustles takes a serious toll on graduate students. Collins said that there are less frequent validations of success in graduate school, compared to other professions; this adds serious psychological weight to completing graduate study, he said.

The conversation about mental health continued into the Friday morning panel. Michael Widmeier from the University of North Texas lamented the stigma surrounding mental health challenges in academia. The energy and vulnerability required to communicate with one’s advisor and department administrators about mental health make it especially difficult to accommodate. Turbino Torres agreed and said she felt a huge relief after meeting other students and professors who are open to talking about anxiety and depression.


With so much advice about conducting research, teaching, and taking care of your mental health, anyone in the audience should be able to thrive in graduate school just as the series title promised, right? But success is hardly a fixed concept, and panelists stressed the importance of setting your own terms for flourishing in a Ph.D. “Success looks different for everyone,” Alarian. “But shared tenets exist.”

One of those shared tenets: building a personal life and identity beyond your department. Widmeier’s comment that “Personal life is… a thing” was met with laughter, but the panelists tried to offer concrete suggestions for developing a healthy work-life balance. Pursuing hobbies, making friends outside the university, and focusing on family can all offer perspective and alternate sources of validation.

The “How to Thrive in Graduate School” series was certainly not the first time these conversations were hashed out, and it hopefully won’t be the last. Open discussions about struggles and success like this are crucial for uncovering academia’s hidden curriculum, and it is reassuring that MPSA continues to revisit these questions year after year.

About the Author: Colleen Wood is a Ph.D. student at Columbia University. Her research focuses on identity, migration, and the state in Central Asia. She writes about Central Asian society and politics for The Diplomat and is also a blogger for the 2019 MPSA conference in Chicago. Get in touch with Colleen on Twitter at @colleenewood or email at c.wood@columbia.edu.


Two Paths to the Palmer House: Planning for the #MPSA19 Conference

By Colleen Wood of Columbia University

Two Paths to the Palmer House: Planning for the #MPSA19 Conference

Being a first-timer at MPSA is often synonymous with attending and presenting at any political science conference for the first time. For those graduate students who will be presenting their research for the first time, the weeks leading up to MPSA are intense and exciting all at once (or at least, that’s how I’m feeling).

It would be convenient to gather all the “how-to’s” and “best practices” in one powerful post, but grouping all this advice together misses out on potentially powerful cleavages that divide the young academic community. After all, there are a million ways to divide humankind into two camps: morning people and night owls; inbox zero zealots and those who regularly run out of space on their Gmail; over-planners and the rest of us with a more “seat-of-their-pants” approach to the world. Normally any one of these differences is enough to undermine a working relationship; but since we first-time MPSA attendees have to stick together, I offer advice for preparing for the conference according to two different philosophies of time.

Three Weeks Until MPSA

In the deliberate planner’s mind, there’s no time like the present to build an MPSA schedule. She searches the All-Academic website for interesting panels (based mostly on buzzwords from her dissertation prospectus and random sub-sub-subfields she read about for comps once) and carefully records all the panels of interest in her bullet journal. There’s a color-coding schema involved, but that’s beyond the scope of this post.

At this point, the extemporary grad student knows MPSA is coming up but has too much on his plate at the moment to worry about the future. He thinks about his conference paper for a while in the shower one morning and plans out the perfect intro paragraph, but loses his train of thought immediately after sitting down to write. No worries, he’ll finish the paper later (but definitely by the March 22 deadline).

Two Weeks Until MPSA

Both the go-with-the-flow and hyper-methodical attendees manage to put the finishing touches on their conference papers to upload to the MPSA website and submit to their discussants by March 22. Philosophies about planning and the order of the universe aside, everyone is in this to get feedback on their work, which even the most chronically-late student can appreciate.

Riding the high of submitting something before a deadline, the spontaneous student scribbles out a few goals for her first MPSA on post-its she’ll attach to her desktop for motivation. She’s not too nervous about her panel, though, since it’s so far away.

Submitting his paper awakened a fire in the organized student, who got to work immediately researching the venue and planning out a walking tour. Even after walking around the hotel in Google Street View and downloading an app to reserve parking spots for cheap far in advance, though, he craves more information. This grad student registers for an online orientation for first-time attendees (the one on March 18th looked good but the one on March 26 at 11am Eastern worked better for his schedule) and rests assured knowing all his questions will be answered.

One Week Before MPSA

With only a week left to prepare for his first conference, the procedure-oriented student has decided to get serious. She organizes her thoughts using DAGitty in place of her more traditional vision board. There, she carefully charts everyone she wants to ask for coffee or lunch meetings against a list of carefully curated spots with a good vibe, that aren’t too close to the hotel (the lines will be long with conference-goers who just googled “coffee” before their panel), and are also friendly to a grad student budget

After seeing a friend of a friend post on Twitter that they’ll also be in Chicago next week for the conference (all thanks to the #MPSA19 hashtag), the planning-averse student remembers to reach out to other friends and a few scholars whose work he admires to meet up.

Three Days out from MPSA

The first-time attendee who takes life as it comes realizes he is relieved to be participating in a Junior Scholar Symposium, mostly because it means he doesn’t need to play around with Beamer templates for a few hours before actually building a slide deck. He hunkers down to finish reading and jotting down comments on the other panelists’ papers.

Meanwhile the hyper-organized student has had her slides ready for so long it feels like the content is tattooed on the inside of her eyeballs. She continues to practice the talk, trying to shave off an extra 37 seconds to get her presentation to fit neatly in the 15-minute allotment.

The Morning of MPSA

The more spontaneous grad student screenshots a map of the Palmer House while on the train from the airport to the hotel; she circles the room where her presentation will be and figures she’ll look through the program later that morning to choose panels to attend based on proximity to her new home base.

Before checking in to the hotel, she stops by a grocery store to pick up some snacks – cold brew concentrate, energy bars, dried fruit. As she’s standing in the checkout line, she’s proud of thinking to buy food ahead of time; none of these snacks make too much noise to eat, so she won’t embarrass herself in a panel, and it’s a way to save money since she already maxed out her department’s travel reimbursement fund for the year.

By this point, the planning-intensive student has already organized his store-bought snacks by calorie count and color in his hotel room and is heading to the conference. On the walk from his room to registration, he practices his elevator pitch introduction in anticipation of all the people he’ll meet that day.

Fortunately, there are no hard and fast rules for making the most of your first MPSA. Whether you’ve got backups to your backup plans or intend to roll in with an off-the-cuff attitude, remember that we are all descending on the Palmer House Hilton for similar reasons: to make connections, learn something new, and get productive feedback on our work.

About the Author: Colleen Wood is a PhD student at Columbia University. Her research focuses on identity, migration, and the state in Central Asia. She writes about Central Asian society and politics for The Diplomat and is also a blogger for the 2019 MPSA conference in Chicago. Get in touch with Colleen on Twitter at @colleenewood or email at c.wood@columbia.edu.

Previewing the 77th Annual MPSA Conference Program: A Selection of Professional Development Panels for Graduate Students

By Charmaine N. Willis of University of Albany, SUNY


As panelists frantically completing their papers and presentations are acutely aware, the 77th Annual MPSA Conference is fast approaching. In addition to some excellent topical panels, this year’s conference offers a bevy of roundtables on professional development, ranging from pedagogy to research to the job market. In this post, I preview several roundtables and series that may especially be helpful for graduate students. I highlight the “Student” professional development series (with the exclusion of the “How to Thrive in Graduate School” series, to be covered by fellow MPSA blogger Colleen Wood). Additionally, I preview other professional development roundtables regarding research that may be helpful to graduate students. Please note that this list does not contain information about all of the professional development roundtables, so it may be worth perusing the professional development offerings in the online program on your own.

What to Expect at a Job Interview at a Teaching School
The student professional development panels kick off with a session of “What to Expect at a Job Interview at a Teaching School” on Friday, April 5, from 8 to 9:30 am. This session may be particularly relevant to advanced doctoral students who are getting ready to go onto or are already on the academic job market, although it could be useful for doctoral students early in their programs. As several authors note, the hiring process for “teaching schools” such as small liberal arts colleges (SLACs) is different from that of research-intensive institutions and job candidates must think about how to package themselves and their research accordingly. Therefore, this is an important panel for those interested in teaching-intensive positions. Another session is offered on Saturday afternoon from 4:45 to 6:15 pm with a different set of panelists. Note that these sessions are not sequential.

The Non-academic or Alt-ac Job Search
A single session of “The Non-academic or Alt-ac Job Search” panel is on Saturday, April 6, from 9:45 to 11:15 am. This session is particularly useful for graduate students interested in jobs outside of academia or those considering a wide range of jobs after grad school. Graduate students and other scholars are increasingly considering jobs outside of academia, often due to the well-documented perils of the academic job market or the challenges of working in academia. That said, the hunt for jobs outside of academia is different: how does one translate the skills learned in grad school to the “real world”? This panel will be invaluable to students in providing insights from those who have navigated the non-academic job market with a Ph.D.

Preparing for the Job Market – CV to Teaching Statements
For those interested in applying for academic jobs, the “Preparing for the Job Market – CV to Teaching Statements” panel is on Sunday, April 7 from 9:45 to 11:15 am. This session could be useful for graduate students at any level, though especially for students preparing to enter the academic job market. Both well-organized and well-executed CVs and teaching statements are important for success on the job market. However, they can be difficult to do well. As such, insights from the panelists on how to create solid job market documents will be invaluable to graduate students.

What to Do/Not Do at a Job Talk
The final panel in the student professional development series is “What to Do/Not Do at a Job Talk” on Sunday, April 7, from 11:30 am to 1:00 pm. Job talks are a crucial part of the academic job interview process. Potential future colleagues not only evaluate candidates’ research but also their presentation skills and ability to think on their feet. Unsurprisingly, there are several considerations in delivering a good job talk presentation. Graduate students interested in the academic job market should attend this panel and take advantage of the opportunity to learn through others’ experiences.

There are several other panels on professional development topics that may be useful for graduate students; I discuss one of them here.

The Research Professional Development Series
There are several panels in the research professional development series that will be useful for graduate students, especially doctoral students before and during their dissertation research. This series offers several useful sessions on data collection methods including: “How to do Fieldwork” (April 4, 9:45-11:15 am), “How to Use Text as Data” (April 5, 1:15-2:45 pm), and “How to Conduct Surveys” (April 6, 9:45-11:15 am). While many graduate students read about these data collection methods, they can be very different in practice as my recent fieldwork experience has taught me. Therefore, getting insights from researchers who have used these methods will be invaluable to students in conducting their own research. Additionally, there are a few panels about one of the most important parts of research: procuring funding. Unfortunately, both “Small Grants and Private Foundations” and “Grant Opportunities & Strategies” are offered at the same time on Saturday, April 6 (1:15 to 2:45 pm).

About the Author: Charmaine N. Willis is a PhD Student in the Department of Political Science at the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy at the University at Albany, SUNY. Her research focuses on civil society and contentious politics. Her current project examines the role of framing in anti-US military contention in East Asia. You can also find Charmaine on Twitter and her website.

Juggling Academic Time and Technology: Advice from a Millennial

By Garrett Pierman of Florida International University


The digital age is in full swing, especially in academia. In class, our students, if they are allowed, are browsing, tweeting, liking, and sharing across the web. They are also, one can hope, occasionally taking notes. Maybe you’re doing much the same – a like here, a comment there to break up the research sessions or avoid awkward small talk in the elevator. At home, our phones are our constant companions as we compulsively check for email replies, student concerns, and notifications from the academic and public political worlds. Technology has enabled us to do more. More work with more information, citing more literature, and reflective of more data, more of the time. This looks, from a distance, wonderfully efficient: we’re reachable at a moment’s notice, our inboxes are tidy, and our instantaneous information spigots are always open. But is more, in terms of the use of technology, always better?

Demirbilek and Talan, in their 2017 study of student multitasking, empirically confirm the suspicions of most instructors (Demirbilek and Talan 2018, 117–29). Students who have the ability to text and use social media in class do so, and their grades suffer as a result of their distraction. This situation is a familiar one – it increasingly seems that our glassy-eyed students can only see the world through an Instagram filter.

We would be naïve to think that this same distractedness that is affecting our students passes us by. On the professorial side of the desk, every distracted moment must be paid back, often from the already spartan reserves of personal time. At family gatherings, in quiet moments of rare leisure, even at the dinner table, we find ourselves as acquaintances in our present moments as we pass from one byte of work to another on our phones. This distracted and alienated state, which increases stress, strains personal relationships, and tempts academics to devote even more time to the already demanding ivory tower, has gotten so out of hand that the French have passed a “right to disconnect law”, forbidding employers from expecting employees to reply to work emails outside of paid hours (“For French Law On Right To ‘Disconnect,’ Much Support — And A Few Doubts.” NPR. February 3, 2017). This attempt to demarcate the spaces of work and leisure is unlikely to pass here in the United States, especially in academia, but has some lessons to teach us.

Here are some of the practices my colleagues and I have developed over the years to more intentionally use technology to work better, have more free time, and increase our qualities of life:

  1. Consider a device ban in your classroom.
    Setting a device ban forces each student to be present in the classroom. While some of them will be skeptical until their grades improve, selling it as a deliberate break from life outside of the present moment, such as many of us do at dinners with friends, has convinced many of my students.
  2. Set email office hours and expectations.
    Set a time (or a few) during the day to check and respond to emails. Make these times known to students and colleagues so they know when to expect replies. At the extreme end, you can sign out of your academic email totally outside of these hours, forcing you to become more deliberate about checking and, as a bonus, less tempted to check during moments of downtime.
  3. Uni-task purposely.
    Teach when you teach, email when you email, and sleep when you sleep. Our brains do better when we focus on one thing at a time, even though we prefer variety over monotony. Thus, spend shorter periods doing a sequence of different things instead of all-day doing a less productive mix of emailing, engaging in the present moment, etc.
  4. Demarcate spaces.
    In addition to the signing off and uni-tasking, consider leaving your devices out of certain spaces entirely. For instance, if you find yourself staying up late checking your phone in bed rather than sleeping, consider putting the phone on the other side of the room. Not only will you be forced to actually sleep in your bed, but you will also have to physically get up to turn off any morning alarms, which makes snoozing less likely.
  5. Embrace your free time.
    Now that you’ve signed off and put your phone away, go do something else outside of work. Sleep. Read. Cook. Spend the energy you would have wasted multi-tasking on pondering instead of a distraction. Taking the time to be rested, engaged, and mentally well, as a mentor of mine likes to put it, is the part of your job you do before you get to school.

In reading this, you might get the idea that I’m a Luddite. If anything, I am the opposite: as a millennial and a scholar, I see the amazing productivity and progress that we can do with technology. But these accomplishments are less likely when we are screen-addicted zombies. To combat that tendency, I simply suggest here that we take a good, hard look at our daily practices with technologies and ask what we can do better. In order to stay productive, sometimes we need to turn off the phones, tune out the email, and drop out of the digital world, at least until tomorrow.

Note from the Author: As educators, we have to consider the environments we create in our classrooms. Our use of technology has to be beneficial and inclusive to make learning possible. Thus, we have a responsibility to take into account that none of these are one-size fits all solutions. While suggesting to some students to unplug during class may well help them, that is not always the case: many students use laptops and other devices to be able to fully participate in our classes. We should encourage them to do so. Any device policies we include should make room for good-faith use of these devices without the student having to disclose anything sensitive, such as disability status, to anyone including us. Instead, any advice I give here is meant to start a conversation about how we want to use technology: inclusive course design must also be part of that conversation (https://www.chronicle.com/article/Should-You-Allow-Laptops-in/245625/).

About the Author: Garrett Pierman is a PhD Student in the Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs in the Department of Politics and International Relations at Florida International University. His research focuses on the ways in which technology affects democratic discourse. His work has appeared in the Journal of Strategic Security, the journal Class, Race, and Corporate power, as well as the Marx and Philosophy Review of Books.  


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