Time Savers

I am crazy. I just want to lay that down before I tell you my plans this semester.

I am broadcasting my office hours live every Wednesday afternoon this semester. This semester I have over 400 students and I have to do something to try and make myself more available. Each week, during face-to-face office hours I only interact with 0 to 5 students. My hope is that I can raise this number substantially by making it dead simple to start a dialogue with me.

How To Hold Online Office Hours

I will be using a Google+ feature called Hangouts on Air. Hangouts allow up to 10 people to video conference (in a manner very similar to Skype). Hangouts on Air broadcast the video conference live online and after the broadcast the video is available for students to watch on YouTube. The amazing part of Hangouts on Air is how simple it is to pull off. The recoding, broadcasting, and archiving on YouTube all happens automatically; you just click one check box. If you’ve ever Skyped with someone, you have almost all the skills you’d need to broadcast your office hours. I promise you, if this becomes a pain to manage, I’ll be right back here to tell you about it.

Students will be able to “hangout” during the recording (i.e. appear on air with me) using their Google+ accounts. Georgia Southern University, where I teach, provides all students and faculty with Gmail accounts which come with Google+ accounts built in. For students who are camera shy, they can send their questions by email, tweet, or instant message.

I’ve created a handout for my students that explains how this whole thing works and how they can get their questions answered. You can download it and adapt it to your class.

More Examples

I am not the first to try this. John Boyer aka the Plaid Avenger at Virginia Tech has been holding online office hours for his mega-classes of 2,670 students. Boyer’s approach is far more animated and humorous than mine, but if you are thinking about holding online office hours, watching a little of his work might help you. I studied his Ustream feed to pick up on the mechanics of broadcasting, receiving real time questions, etc.

Wednesday 1:30 EST You Can Watch Live.

I am crazy for doing this. Not for hosting online office hours; that will become far more common on a long enough timeline. I am crazy for broadcasting my first live office hours right here in front of all of you. Check back on Wednesday at 1:30EST and you can watch the live stream on this very page. It will be embedded below and we’ll do it live.

Writing letters of recommendation (LOR) can be a tedious and time consuming process if you let it be. Boiler platingLOR text is unethical in my opinion. However, the divide and conquer strategy that I’ve discussed throughout the Getting Through the Hay Series can still be applied here even if each LOR you write is unique.

To Whom It May Concern Written on Typewriter

We can easily split up this task up between the part requiring humanity and the parts requiring tedious busy work. The honest writing about the personal and professional qualities of the student requires humanity on your part. Looking up the proper name of the school or institution receiving the letter or gathering info about the students accomplishments on campus, is busy work and should be done by the student requesting the LOR.

To this end, I created a Word document that I require my students to fill out completely before I’ll write a letter on their behalf. It’s a series of questions including, “Why did you ask me to write on your behalf?” and “What would you, ideally, like me to discuss in your letter?” This takes the guesswork out of the process and dramatically reduces the time to completion.

I get a lot of these, so I used Gmail’s Canned Emails to save a pre-written response email to a LOR request. I placed the email on a server, so that I can hyperlink to it in my email’s text. This keeps me from having to even find and attach a file. Also, it allows you to use the same file and link location in your emails. Here is my Canned Email:

I’d be happy to write a letter of recommendation for you. However, before I write on your behalf, I’ll ask you to fill out this letter of recommendation request form. This helps me write the best letter possible, so please return it to me ASAP. You can download the request form here: http://gsu-bucket.s3.amazonaws.com/Letter_of_Recommendation_Form.doc

Please fill out this Word document in the spaces provided and then attach it to your reply email.

Let me know if you have any questions or if I can help in any other way.

Prof Palmer

Below is the letter of recommendation request form:

Letter of Recommendation Request Form

Once you’ve separated monotonous busy work emails from requests for a human connection, you’re ready to plow through the former as quickly as possible. Boiler plating, or using prewritten email messages, can save you buckets of time. “But every email is a unique snowflake!” you may be thinking. Well here are just a few of the emails that I’ve boiler plated:

  • I’m sick did I miss anything important?
  • What’s my grade?
  • I’m Bobby’s dad what’s his grade (a FERPA request)
  • Can I email you my paper? (Answer: No)
  • When are your office hours?


TextExpander (or it’s Windows doppelgänger Breezy) is a little program that allows you to write blurbs of text that will automagically plop into anything you write when you type a predefined string of text. TextExpander is always watching what you type just waiting for one of these strings. This is super handy for pieces of text you write all the time.

So for instance, I’m always typing the name of my university. So I’ve got it set up so that when I type ggsu it replaces these four letters with Georgia Southern University. TextExpander speeds up all of my emails because I script all of my salutations. To make it easy to remember I repeat a letter 3 times and use t for a generic thanks, p for professional sign offs, and f for a friendly goodbye.

When I type
When I type

TextExpander allows you to add more than just text. You can have returns, it can add into a prewritten block of text what you have copied in the clipboard, and for the super nerds, you can even run code within your blurb. Confused? Check out this video:

TextExpander can be purchased here and it’s PC equivalent can be purchased here. If you use both a PC and a Mac, it’s easy to synch the two up using Dropbox. Finally, if you have an iPhone or iPad TextExpander is available on both platforms.

Canned Emails:

If you’re institution uses Gmail as it’s email client, they love you. Almost all other email clients are absolutely awful for anyone who gets more than 5 emails a day. One of the best things about Gmail is the Labs feature where you can elect to turn on added functionality to your Gmail account. One of my favorites is a feature called Canned Emails that allows you to write boiler plate blocks of text, save them, and then plop them into an email from a drop down menu. It’s super slick.

Always be on the lookout for interactions that can be boiler platted. If you find yourself writing something more than once, try using Canned Emails and/or TextExpander. Remember, every moment you spend on interactions that don’t increase human connection, is an opportunity lost.

I love interacting with students; it’s one of the best parts of my job, however I love some parts of it more than others. I’ve learned that all student interactions can be broken into two groups. The first group fosters a human connection between faculty and students. The second group is tedious busy work that has zilch to do with connection.

Sometimes it’s easy to identify the true nature of an interaction from the jump. “What chapter are we reading this week?” and other questions that could be answered by a cursory glance at the syllabus best characterize the second group. These requests are tedious busy work that the student is attempting to off load from their todo list on to yours. They are asking you to cut their steak for them. Don’t.

“What you said in class today really affected me. Can we talk about it?” while it’s rarely said this overtly, when students approach you with requests like these you should come alive or probably think of getting another job. This is what teaching sociology is all about. When students admit that they have gaps in their knowledge they are showing you their vulnerability. If you shame them or do not properly answer their questions, they will close up for the rest of the semester and perhaps a once in a lifetime opportunity to deeply learn sociology will be lost.

Be aware that sometimes a simple request or question can be a veiled request for connection. For instance, “can you help me calculate my grade,” may really be a cry for help. You have to develop a sixth sense for these, watching body language, listening to intonation, and placing questions in context. I hear a lot of academics talking about student entitlement, but we must remember that students are not a monolithic group. Some expect too much, but others don’t dare to make reasonable requests.

Ruthless Maximization of Human Interactions

The mark of a true pro is the ruthless maximization of interactions that develop human connection and the equally ruthless minimization of those that don’t. You and I have a finite amount of time each day for students. Each moment you spend cutting your student’s steak for them is a moment you cannot spend on developing a human connection with your students. My wife always says, “just because someone throws the ball to you doesn’t mean you have to catch it.”

Always be looking for ways that your students can carry the other half of the board. The more you can put the onus on their shoulders, the freer you are to develop a human connection with them.

Over the years I’ve developed tactics to put this maximization ideal into practice.
If connection interactions are the needles and tedious busy work interactions are the hay, I want to show you how to blast through the hay with as little effort as possible. Over the next few posts I want to share with you the strategies that I use to minimize the time I spend on non-connection student interactions.

The Getting Through The Hay Series:

  1. Scheduling Student Appointments The Easy Way
  2. Boiler Plating Emails
  3. Dealing with a torrent of email
  4. Streamlining Letter of Recommendation Requests