Teaching in Germany and Poland: Challenging, but Rewarding!

– Miguel Olivas-Luján

Miguel Olivas-Luján in the well-equipped classroom at UCMS (Lublin, Poland)

Of the many ways universities internationalize, teaching abroad might be one of the most surprisingly challenging, yet also most gratifying (though not necessarily in a monetary sense). In 2017-2018, during my sabbatical, I enjoyed working abroad on each of the three legs of the proverbial academic stool: service, research, and teaching.  Let me share with you a few memories of the challenges and rewards of international teaching.

I had three intense teaching periods, two in Germany and the last in Poland. In October 2017, I taught a Diversity in Management course at Technische Hochschule Deggendorf (Deggendorf Institute of Technology [DIT], in Bavaria, Germany), then two International Management courses again at DIT in March-April 2018. These are courses I have taught before and areas I publish research in. This background made it easy for me to identify sources and support materials, use instructional activities with which I am familiar, and thus reduce my preparation time.

The sites of Miguel’s teaching assignments

In May, I taught at Uniwersytet Marii Curie-Skłodowskiej (UMCS), a comprehensive university in Lublin, Poland. The courses I taught there at the undergraduate, masters, and doctoral levels were on subjects that I knew well because of my doctoral-level research, but I had not taught before. In other words, class preparation at UMCS was not insignificant. I am used to being able to find a balance between my scholarship and research; unfortunately, external funding that my colleagues identified demanded a heavy teaching load. If I could do it again, I probably would teach one-half of what I did, so I could do more research with local colleagues.

I had to adjust my delivery to an audience of non-native English speakers at each location; this is something I had not experienced since I started teaching at Clarion. Because the program in Germany is taught in English, it attracts students from many countries from all inhabited continents. According to my informal poll, students in my classrooms had passports from Albania, Brazil, Colombia, Cyprus, France, Mexico, Nigeria, Peru, Portugal, Russia, Ukraine, South Korea, Spain, the UK, the USA, and Venezuela, in addition to Germany and Poland. In Poland, I had students mostly from Central Europe, but others hailed from Ukraine and Russia. There were a few Western Europeans in my classrooms. English fluency was greater for the doctoral and masters’ students, but weaker for the undergraduates.

There were a few challenges

A team of DIT students in October 2017 (Deggendorg, Germany)

Expecting all of these students to have a similar level of English fluency would have been a big mistake, but most had a functional level. A few of them had little trouble expressing themselves in English, but others clearly struggled to put their thoughts into words. I had to more closely monitor my students’ understanding of lectures through their nonverbal signals (e.g., stares, nodding, facial expressions) and ask more questions than I am used to; sometimes I had to suggest words to help them express their ideas. I often had to “over-pronounce,” and even remind myself that many of them learned English from non-American sources with a different vocabulary. For example, British “turnover” is “revenue” in American English, and US “turnover” is “redundancy” on their side of the Atlantic. Sharing such differences in vocabulary was an unexpected part of the class, but one that prepares these students for future international assignments. Asking them to write three lessons learned at the end of the session was a helpful way to check, after class, how much they had understood the session.

Paraphrasing one of my colleagues, I learned that “students in Germany are not willing to spend money on books.” Students in most German institutions of higher learning seem unaccustomed to paying more than a few dozen euros for printing handouts made available through library reserves. Instead of relying on a textbook that all students would have, I had to find a suitable textbook available through one of their library subscriptions; I was very fortunate to do so a couple of days before I started classes! In fact, I was lucky that this textbook had an online version available to multiple students at the same time – though no more than a handful. I did have to encourage students to work on their assignments as early as they could, so that they were adequately prepared for our sessions in my flipped classroom.

At Clarion, we get used to teaching a familiar and regular schedule. Compressing what I normally teach in 15 weeks into five weeks was not easy, especially when students have semester-long courses running simultaneously. I did not have a predictable MWF or TuTh schedule, but had to meet with students at times that had no discernible pattern: a few hours on Wednesday afternoon, then all morning Saturday, and so on. I could have taught long sessions after hours or on Saturdays and even Sundays, but I declined Sundays, both to stay sane and to enjoy the surroundings.

At Clarion and in other institutions on this side of the Atlantic, I had used proprietary learning management systems like Blackboard and D2L. In this trip I encountered Moodle, an open source (i.e., low-cost, no-frills) alternative. Using Moodle reminded me how easy it is to get used to bells and whistles. Moodle required me to occasionally include html code (the web’s formatting language) if I wanted to make sure that pages would look specific ways. This was not a huge adjustment, but it helped me remember life without premium technology and appreciate what I have at Clarion.

At DIT, the grading system is on a 1- through 5-scale, with 1 being the equivalent of an American A+. This system did take a little bit of getting used to. Most of the time, I used a points system to give students an idea of how each of the assignments would affect their final grade, but at the end of the term, I had to change those points into a percentage that would then be converted to their final grade.

The institutional flexibility needed to bring in international adjunct faculty is impressive. I am very grateful to my colleagues who found affordable housing for my family close to campus. One of them even lent me a couple of bicycles to make the commute in Deggendorf smoother.

In isolation, each of these adjustments is rather insignificant. But taken together, within a short period of time, while trying to include family experiences and meet professional deadlines in the research and service fronts, is more difficult than meets the eye! But I also stated that this was a rewarding experience.

Rewarding? How so?

Meeting these students from diverse latitudes, who were willing to take classes in a second or third language and leave their comfort zones to prepare themselves for a better future, was a unique, inspiring experience that is not easy to replicate. In addition to advancing my professional development, these activities gave my family and me an opportunity to interact with people whose worldviews are very different from ours. When we now read about the Syrian refugees “overtaking” Europe, we have faces and acquaintances that earned our respect by adjusting to different languages; we also experienced first-hand the deference that people give to their American visitors, even when they are astounded by our national “leaders.”

My children have now experienced that not all Germans (or all Poles or all Spaniards, etc.) think or act alike, which gives me hope that they will be better able to deal with international –and national—coworkers, customers, suppliers, etc. We saw landmarks and historical places that would have been too expensive and difficult to see if I had not taken this sabbatical. Together, we created powerful memories from shared experiences.

I hope this inspires my colleagues and friends the way that other colleagues’ sabbatical experiences have inspired me. Despite the challenges, I definitely feel ready to do it again!

Miguel R. Olivas-Luján is a Professor in the Management & Marketing department at Clarion. A Past Chair for the MED (Management Education and Development) division of the Academy of Management (AOM), his research has appeared in journals and scholarly books on international HRM, information technology, diversity, and related fields. He serves as Senior Editor for Emerald’s Advanced Series in Management as well as on several editorial boards. In recent years, he has also taught and collaborated with colleagues in universities in Argentina, Colombia, Germany, the Netherlands, Malaysia, Mexico, and Poland.

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Advising: Start with the Why

– Joseph Croskey

Joseph Croskey

I was working with a student* who had no real idea what work he wanted to do, although he knew that he wanted to travel and enjoy a sense of freedom. He was meeting with me to change his major, but had no idea what to change it to.

We played with the idea of what he thought would be fun. He knew he wanted to travel, so we looked at taking courses that he was interested in and curious about. We looked at courses that would build certain skills and expose him to different ways of thinking about people and his world.

I find this type of conversation much more interesting than only focusing on what students need to take to fulfill a requirement on the check-sheet and graduate. It takes a little more time, but, boy, is the time worth it! One place to begin an important conversation like this is to start with the why.

Start with the why

Viktor Frankl discusses why we should encourage people to stretch, to aim higher, to find something ‘deeper’ than just pursuing a job because of the money they might earn. He argues,

If you don’t recognize a young man’s way to meaning, man’s search for meaning, you make it worse, you make him dull, you make him frustrated. You still add and contribute to his frustration. While if you presuppose in this man … there must be a, what do you call, spark or search for meaning? Let’s recognize this, let’s presuppose it, and then you will elicit it from him, and you will make him become what he in principle is capable of becoming. – Frankl, in a 1972 speech

Instead of beginning by talking to our students about what they should take, start with the why. Recently, Simon Sinek (2009) has argued that one should ‘Start with Why’ when considering any course of action. Why should students take General Education courses? Why should they take Statistics – or whatever course in their major they see as challenging? Why should they take a range of courses rather than only the ones they imagine themselves using “when they grow up”? Having a why can provide the motivation to complete what might otherwise be perceived as a boring task. It can focus our attention and make the work meaningful.

There are many questions that we should consider before even meeting with our advisees. Why is a liberal arts education valuable? How can we express this more simply, more clearly in our classrooms? How can we express the value of a liberal arts education in our advising conversations? How can we express it so that they not only get it but that they are happy to tell others about why it is important? How can we share our knowledge so that students get closer to knowing themselves and their purpose/meaning?

Should these conversations be only between advisors and their advisees? Should this conversation only occur during advising appointments? Maybe these conversations should also happen during inquiry seminars and General Education courses. Maybe early courses in a major should help students recognize and understand the circuitous paths they’ll likely travel and the purpose of the journey. Maybe later courses, courses where students are considering their future, should help students recognize their whys, consider their goals, and identify the skills they gained over the course of their educations.


We know that many jobs don’t have specific degrees leading to them. There aren’t, to my knowledge, majors on how to interact with customers to design and install furniture for buildings or key card swipe security systems. Yet, I recently worked with two professionals making a good living doing this.


We know that companies are dealing with a world that is, in the military vernacular, VUCA – Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. Companies need people who are capable of adapting to situations, people with skills that are applicable to a wide variety of situations. Many students are much more comfortable with Stability, Certainty, Simplicity, and Clarity (SCSC). We often want the top path in the cartoon, but life is more like the bottom one.

Our society needs citizens with an understanding of the natural and social worlds that they will inhabit and, in fact, create. Students need a variety of ways of thinking, feeling, and doing that will help them become successful personally, interpersonally, and professionally. Businesses need employees who are creative, excel at communication, and solve problems well. These are things that liberal arts courses provide and that students benefit from experiencing. And, as Ralph Leary would say, “Taste everything from the Thanksgiving buffet!”

Frankl is most noted for writing about the importance of searching for and discovering one’s meaning. You can find many books that help people find their purpose. Many of these argue that people will be happy and productive when they are working from their purpose, their ‘why’ for being.

I don’t think there is a silver bullet or cookie cutter answer to the question of how to best advise students. It depends on the student and often depends on the circumstances the student is facing. I do think it is important to help students do more than choose classes to meet a requirement; we need to do more than hand them a list of courses required for the major and tell them to register. Perhaps when we are aware of our own why, we can help students intuit and clarify theirs. Sinek boldly asks us to

Imagine a world in which the vast majority of us wake up inspired, feel safe at work and return home fulfilled at the end of the day.

Advising while understanding our own purpose with clarity and maintaining a commitment to help students understand their own purpose may be challenging. This is especially true when the student has not yet been exposed to such a perspective; nonetheless, pursuing such advising conversations is beneficial for both student and advisor in the long run. Students and the community will benefit when we start with why.

Want to know more about the student from the beginning of my essay? Check out his story: http://www.clarion.edu/news/2015/december/viva-italia.html

Joseph Croskey is a faculty member in the Student Success Department responsible for the University Advising Services Center in Becht Hall. He is also the Director of the Act 101 Program and Associate Director of the Honors Program. He currently serves on the Faculty Senate and as CAP Chair for APSCUF. He enjoys working with students in and out of the classroom as they develop and grow. He has recently been certified as an instructor for the UN Peace on Purpose program and the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Program. He and his wife Kathy have a wonderful 2 yr old dog, three grown children, and five grandchildren.

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Mixing It Up in the Classroom

– Jeanne M. Slattery

JMS 0814
Jeanne Slattery

Like you, I am already overextended: I’ve been making large revisions to one course, writing a second edition of one of my books, serving as secretary and a committee chair to my state association, writing/co-editing Hand in Hand, as well as working on several other large projects.

With this in mind, I approached James Lang’s (2016) Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons From the Science of Learning thinking about how I can tweak my courses to strengthen them – that’s all I can afford right now. Luckily, this is exactly how the book was intended to be used. What am I already doing well and how can I do it better?

Small Teaching is a thoughtful book that describes the what, how, and why of teaching, especially the “small changes” that we can make to make our teaching and our students’ learning more effective. I was reading Small Teaching as part of a faculty development project led by Leah Chambers and Rich Lane and am grateful to them for introducing me to it.

Mixing it up…

A number of things caught my eye as I went through the book, although one of these was interleaving, an intentional sort of “mixing it up” in order to strengthen our students’ ability to recall and use material later (rather than doing a “brain dump” at an exam, where students never return to that material). Lang (2016) identified two aspects as important:

  1. Spacing out learning across time (i.e., distributed rather than mass practice). For example, my online class this semester has five tests and 15 quizzes (three quizzes for each test). By necessity, their learning cannot be crammed, as they must see material at least twice
  2. Mixing up the practice of skills you are trying to develop (e.g., discussing Chapter 1, then 2 and 3, returning to Chapter 1). Many faculty use cumulative exams in this way.

I have already been doing some interleaving without referring to it as such. Some examples:

  • Most of my courses have themes that I develop and refer back to over the course of the semester. For example, in Abnormal Psychology, I repeatedly refer back to earlier discussions of risk, as assessed by the Adverse Child Experiences Quiz, in later discussions on substance abuse and antisocial personality disorder.
  • I often use the same or similar PowerPoint slides when I’m talking about a theme that I want my students to recognize, revisiting and enlarging ideas we discussed earlier in the semester.
  • I often refer to topics from previous courses that my departmental colleagues – or the rest of you – have discussed. For example, when discussing childhood disorders, I show this video drawn from Funniest Home Videos, then ask students how they would explain the child’s behavior using things they’ve previously learned. (My answer can be found at the asterisk, after the References.)
  • I also use previous cases in different contexts. For example, in my Intro to Counseling class, I discuss Andrea Yates repeatedly and in different contexts. Initially, they see her as horrific. By semester’s end they see her behavior that way. Repeatedly circling back to this case allows us to approach our ideas in greater depth at different times.
  • img_0262
    The last time I taught Psychology of Personal Growth, I explicitly asked students to make connections in end-of-class writing responses between what we had discussed and what we had been discussing earlier in the course (here’s one example of a response). Typically, I asked three questions: (a) What was the most important thing for you from today’s class? (b) What would you guess I would say was most important? and (c) How did today’s class expand on or develop what we’d talked about in the past weeks? Identify at least three connections.

So, I’m already doing interleaving in all sorts of ways, but I want to do so more intentionally to help my students recognize what I see as important. I want to do so more intentionally so my students’ learning and recall become more effective.

My tweak?

I suspect interleaving is more effective when we tell our students what we’re doing and why (as I did with my in-class writing assignment). In fact, I think we should generally tell our students what we’re doing and why more often. I plan on telling my students in our syllabus that at least 10% of each exam will be drawn from previous sections of the course – and why.

When I first started teaching, I “taught”: I had the information that I planned on sharing with my class. Across time, my focus has shifted from that type of teaching to student learning. I want to take the small step of using interleaving to help my students learn more effectively.


Lang, J. M. (2016). Small teaching: Everyday lessons from the science of learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

*I would describe this child’s behavior in terms of operant conditioning, specifically that he has previously received positive reinforcement for tantrumming in the form of parental attention and laughter.

Jeanne M. Slattery is a professor of psychology at Clarion University. She is interested in thinking about what makes teaching and learning successful, and describes herself as a learner-centered teacher. She has written three books, Counseling diverse clients: Bringing context into therapy, an Empathic counseling: Meaning, context, ethics, and skill, and Trauma, meaning, and spirituality: Research and clinical perspectives. She can be contacted at jslattery@clarion.edu

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Pell Grants and Our Graduates’ Success

Jeanne Slattery and Randy Potter

– Randy Potter and Jeanne M. Slattery

Recently, Third Way released a report on the financial outcomes of US institutions of higher education, specifically, they examine three measures of success: 1) college completion; 2) post-enrollment earnings; and 3) loan repayment. They argued, if colleges and universities are successful, most students should graduate, earn a decent living, and pay down their loans over time (Third Way, 2019, para. 2). These are good outcomes, but we believe they can be evaluated more meaningfully.

Clarion University’s success, if we are using these outcomes, is near the bottom of that for the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE). (The data discussed are drawn from this spreadsheet, with Clarion in row 1525.) Third Way reports 68.2% of our students graduate in 8 years (only Edinboro and Cheyney are lower). Only 56.68% of recent graduates earn more than $28,000 (what an average high school graduate in the US makes). Of State System schools, only Edinboro, Cheyney, and Mansfield have lower earnings. And, only 67.8% of Clarion graduates have paid at least $1 toward their student loans. Of State System schools, only Edinboro, Cheyney, and Mansfield are lower. Finally, 39% of Clarion University students receive Pell Grants. Federal Student Aid (n.d.) observes that Pell Grants are reserved for students with “exceptional financial need.” Only six PASSHE schools have 39% or more of their student body receiving Pell grants: Cheyney, California, Clarion, Edinboro, Lock Haven, and Mansfield.

Looking more closely at these data, we found some interesting things. We have omitted Cheyney University from these analyses, as Cheney is a notable outlier on many of these variables. Correlations are even higher when Cheney is included. We found very high correlations between the percentage of students receiving Pell Grants and other financial indicators:

  1. Percentage of students receiving Pell Grants and eight-year graduation rates (–0.93)
  2. Percentage of students receiving Pell Grants and rate of loan repayment (-0.968)
  3. Percentage of students receiving Pell Grants and reported salary of graduates (-0.898)

In other words, schools with a large number of students hailing from financially-challenged families have more graduates with poor financial outcomes.

To put these correlations in some context, we can look at two measures of what appear to be the same thing in the same realm. Lo, Ho, Mak, and Lam (2011), for example, reported substantial although much lower correlations between self-reported and actual height among Chinese teens – correlations of about .75. We would argue that the four variables in the Third Way data are so highly correlated because they are simply different measures of the same thing, that is, financial stress.

Correlation ≠ causation

Figure 1. The correlation between graduation rates and Pell Grants in PASSHE schools.

We cannot infer a cause-and-effect relationship between two variables solely on the basis of the correlation between them – but these data do suggest that the variability among PASSHE schools in eight-year graduation rates is quite highly related to financial issues and the relative advantage of the student body. A more advantaged student body – at least as measured by the number of students receiving Pell Grants – experiences greater success.

Figure 1 shows the percentage of Pell recipients plotted against eight-year graduation rates and brings this point home quite well. All 13 schools cluster quite tightly around the regression line, with schools with more Pell recipients having poorer outcomes (as assessed by Third Way, 2019).

Clarion University’s success, at least as measured by graduation rates, is on the low end for the PASSHE system, but our students are facing greater economic disadvantages coming into school. These pre-existing economic disadvantages probably explain a large part of the problem Clarion University has in post-graduation outcomes. Given our student body, we do as well as expected, as well as more privileged schools in the System would be expected to do if they had the same sort of student body (see Figure 1).

What can we do?

Some of these disadvantages can likely be mitigated by making college more affordable, but it is likely that there are additional social and environmental factors affecting our students that negatively impact graduation rates, employment, and loan repayments.  Our students frequently face significant financial stressors, often are attempting to financially and emotionally support their parents and siblings, and likely have relatively lower rates of financial literacy. Financial difficulties make it difficult for students to schedule for classes on time, attend class when a car breaks down, and study if they also need to hold down one or more jobs. If we are going to examine the success of our schools in a meaningful manner, we should look at schools with similar populations rather than compare very different schools using the same rubric.

We could improve our numbers by gaming the system – by restricting the number of financially-challenged students we admit. PASSHE’s mission is to make a university education accessible and affordable to the population of Pennsylvania. Choosing to game the system would be advantageous to Clarion, but we believe it would also be wrong-headed and betray our mission and the people of Pennsylvania.

Instead, we believe that if we value creating an equitable society, one where opportunities are available to all, barriers to academic success must be addressed in a serious, ongoing manner. Rather than throw up our hands and give up, we can do things that will increase our students’ success. We can:

  • send text messages to prod students to start and stay in college;
  • use data analytics to identify students at risk;
  • offer experiences that promote resilience, growth mindset, and a sense of belongingness in the university community; and
  • revamp courses that are frequent stumbling blocks for students (Kirp, 2019).

Our students have poorer financial outcomes than we would like – which is understandable given their backgrounds. Nonetheless, there are things we can and should do better.


Federal Student Aid. (n.d.). Federal Pell Grants. Retrieved from https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/types/grants-scholarships/pell

Kirp, D. (2019, July 26). The college dropout scandal. Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from https://www.chronicle.com/interactives/20190726-dropout-scandal

Lo, W. S., Ho, S. Y., Mak, B. Y., & Lam, T. H. (2011). Validity and test-retest reliability in assessing current body size with figure drawings in Chinese adolescents. International Journal of Pediatric Obesity, 6, e107-13.

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Dear Mentor

Ms. Scholar at work.

Dear Ms. Scholar, I am worried about the new faculty in my department and want them to be happy. I want them willing to stay here and be productive members of our department. Any suggestions?

Dear Mentor, The university is a strange beast. Henry Kissinger is reputed to have said:

“Academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.”

This apt description of university life is perhaps more accurately attributed to William Sayre; regardless, Ms. Scholar believes we can either be part of the problem or part of the solution. We can approach university life from a perspective of each one for herself – or intentionally create a more supportive community for students, faculty, and staff. Those faculty who feel supported emotionally and financially are more likely to make positive contributions to their university and respect the university’s mission (Walmsley, 2016).

How can we help our new colleagues feel supported and respected and meet their professional values and goals?

Recognize new faculty members’ needs and concerns

Like first generation students, new faculty may struggle to fit in their first year. New faculty may question their competence, have a weak support system, and feel that they are the “only one” not fitting in or having difficulties in their new environment and with their new tasks. Some of these fears and concerns are normal and will subside when their fears are acknowledged.

A mentor’s listening and support can be invaluable, especially when that mentor helps the new faculty member problem solve, identify resources, network, and recognize that their problems are typical for this point in their career – and will change.

Communicate clear expectations

What are we communicating to new colleagues (and our older ones) through our words and actions? That they are where they are (fixed mindset), can get stronger (growth mindset), or don’t matter? Are we being supportive or competing with and feeling threatened by them? How might these responses influence their careers and the culture of our department?

Expectations for some parts of our job are clearly outlined, but other expectations remain unclear. Does your department expect faculty to focus on teaching, service, research, or all three? How does your department define effective teaching? What kinds of service does your department value? What kinds of publications?

Are you intentionally communicating departmental and university-wide expectations? Just as a good syllabus can help students succeed in class and in college, such intentional communications can level the playing field for new faculty and increase the probability that they will stay, be tenured, and be promoted.

Walk the walk, too

When we are mentoring well, we are also modeling the kinds of behaviors we expect. Don’t just say that good teaching is expected – put in the time and effort, too. If research is expected, engage in research yourself. Engage in meaningful service.

Ms. Scholar had people who intentionally mentored her, but she also had people across campus who she watched to consider what they did. She learned from the best – and worst – both what to do and what not to do (and still is). Help your mentee find such models.

Offer your new colleagues opportunities, especially opportunities for success. Point to grants available, suggest good committees to serve on, and ask them to join you on research projects. Invite them to dinner or university socials. Such sharing is one way of telling your colleagues that you care about their future. Such sharing creates a more supportive atmosphere in your department or college.

What makes a good mentor?

Good mentoring doesn’t just happen. Good mentors commit the time necessary for effective mentoring and are willing to devote the energy to reviewing their mentee’s work (Columbia University, 2016). They have the skills and willingness to share their understanding of university life and can help mentees develop an effective vision and goals for the future. They have the resources in teaching, research, and service to help new faculty succeed – or know where to find such resources. They can help faculty network within and outside the university. Perhaps most of all, they work from where their mentee is; listen to their mentee’s values, goals, and concerns; and frame their responses to what their mentee is ready to hear at a particular point in time.

Providing faculty members mentors, training, and a clear path for career advancement is a win/win strategy for all parties: good for the faculty member, the department, and the university. And, intentional mentoring is important for new faculty, but is arguably as important for faculty approaching tenure and promotion – and for mid-career and senior faculty considering career transitions and new directions (Columbia University, 2016).

Maybe you’re thinking that you have not been assigned a mentee. You don’t need to have been formally assigned to be an effective and appreciated mentor to a new faculty member. We can each support each other. – Ms. Scholar


Columbia University. (2016). Guide to best practices in faculty mentoring. Retrieved from https://provost.columbia.edu/sites/default/files/content/MentoringBestPractices.pdf

Walmsley, A. (2016). Improving the ties between faculty and administration. The EvoLLLution. Retrieved from https://evolllution.com/managing-institution/operations_efficiency/improving-the-ties-between-faculty-and-administration

If you have questions or comments/suggestions regarding teaching, student/faculty issues, or other university-related topics, please write to: Ms. Scholar c/o Jeanne Slattery <jslattery@clarion.edu>

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A Special Moment

– Suzanne Boyden

Suzanne Boyden

This speech was given at Clarion University’s Freshman Convocation, 2019.

Good afternoon, everyone.  I’m happy to have this opportunity to welcome our new students, and to say a few things on behalf of the faculty.  I have been struggling with what exactly to say today, because in addition to the normal bits of advice and welcome, I’ve been asked to address a more serious topic: sustainability and climate change.  I hope I am up to the challenge.

I am an ecologist, so I study how natural ecosystems – specifically forests – function, and also how humans are changing those systems, and how to best manage and restore them.  Sustainability is central to managing our forests, and our planet.  So, what is sustainability and why are we talking about it? 

Each year Clarion hosts a series of events tied to a particular cultural theme, called the Mary Seifert Series. This year’s theme is Conservation and Sustainability.  I hope that many of you read and discussed Falter this morning, our Common Read by Bill McKibben about the crisis we face in a warming climate.  For this talk, I’d like to think more broadly about the theme of sustainability.  Something is sustainable if it can continue to exist in perpetuity, if the natural, human, and cultural resources required to support an activity or a population, are not depleted faster than they are naturally renewed, and can therefore meet the needs of future generations.  Globally, our earth systems depend on sustainable use of the planet’s resources: energy, clean water and air, land, and soil that can grow us food.  The fact that four planets would be required to meet the needs of humans if they all lived like Americans, is the opposite of sustainable. 

I also believe that our needs are not just about subsistence.  The human spirit needs nature, and the knowledge of wilderness- of the existence of wolves and whales, of mountain streams and dense jungles, to not just survive, but also thrive.  The ultimate goal of sustainability is to maintain and enhance our existence in balance with the natural resource capital of the planet.

Why talk about sustainability?

So why we are asking the University community to engage in this conversation?  I’d like to take this question in two parts.  First, why are we asking you, as new college freshmen, to have a conversation?  Second, why is this conversation, about sustainability, so important?

The answer to my first question is that we want you to engage.  You are about to embark on a new academic journey, and one that hopefully continues long after you graduate from Clarion.  Even in our best school systems, it is likely that you have been passive recipients of information for most of your lives.  Teachers talk, and you listen, memorize, and give them back the facts they considered important.  Parents have taught you in a different way. They have shaped your beliefs, your values, have laid a foundation of who you will become.  But here’s the exciting thing.  That future self is not predetermined: starting now you have the opportunity to take over the reins and to determine your own path and define your own values. 

The key to that journey is knowledge.  Knowledge is understanding gained through education and experience.  In philosophy, it is defined as beliefs based on truth rather than opinion.  Yes, we want you to be smart, and have skill sets that allow you to get a good job and have a meaningful career, but we also want something more.  We want you to seek knowledge, and truth.  This is more urgent than ever because we live in a time, in a society, that seems filled with opposition and disagreement and unwillingness to listen and hear those who don’t share our opinions.  We face so many challenges, climate change being one of them, and do not seem to be pulling together to solve them. 

How can you contribute?

How will you contribute in a meaningful way to the solution to those challenges?  Knowledge.  To understand the facts, to engage in dialogue with people who have different interpretations of those facts or different opinions of what we should be doing about them.  Just because we can agree that the climate is changing does not mean we will all agree about what we, as a society, should do.  We want you to create informed decisions not because an authority figure told you what to believe, but because you have weighed the evidence and alternatives, and ultimately made a deliberate choice.

What I describe is not easy for any of us at any age.  It is our job, as educators, to help you start developing the tools and critical thinking skills to seek knowledge, in its truest sense.  What better way to begin than by asking you to show up today to discuss a topic that many of us have banned at dinner parties and family holidays because it might offend somebody?  Climate change, welcome to college, everyone! 

So, as for my second question, why this particular topic?  Our rapidly changing climate, in addition to the depletion and degradation of resources caused by an exponentially growing human population, threatens the earth system that we rely on.   So this topic is critical, and is increasingly – finally – becoming the focus of not just environmental scientists, but lawmakers, military leaders, urban planners, CEOs, you name it.  The facts of our environmental crisis are overwhelming, paralyzing even.  I worry that so much about our current world; if you even pay a little attention to the news, it could make your generation feel powerless.  It could make you want to crawl in a hole, go about your daily life, and ignore all the bad stuff.  That is the final thing I’d like to address today.  ­­

Bill McKibben wrote an article many years ago entitled, “A Special Moment in History.”  The special moment he referred to is the tipping point we are approaching where we will learn exactly what the limit is to the size of the human population.  Dire stuff.  However, that title, “a special moment,” makes me think of something more hopeful.  You live in a special moment in history where I believe we will see the next great transformation of our society, and you will be the agents of that change.

The greatest examples of social change have been born from need, from a sense of urgency, from facing what appeared to be insurmountable challenges. Those social movements happened not because of our government or leaders, but because people came together to work towards a common goal, to raise their voices and demand change.  Unions sprang from workers demanding protections and a piece of the wealth they created for their employers.  Mothers and wives fought and sacrificed to secure my right to vote.  The NAACP was founded in 1908 by activists, and battled over a century to secure civil rights for people of color. When people are passionate, and care about a common goal, I believe that anything is possible. The amazing thing is that all of the movements I mentioned came from a minority, a group of people who were disenfranchised, but who nonetheless prevailed. 

So, what about the environment?  I believe that politics and economic interests aside, in their hearts, everybody wants to protect this planet, to continue breathing clean air and drinking clean water, to have global stability, and to safeguard that privilege for their children’s children.  That means that all humans, regardless of religion, race, gender, or country, have a common threat and should have a common goal. That makes this a special moment in history.  This new challenge is not just to tackle climate change, but to rethink our relationship with the planet. To redefine what progress means.  To not just consume and grow and expand, but to build sustainable enterprises, schools and business.  To develop sustainable models for how we farm, what we use, how we dispose of our waste.  I believe this will be the challenge underlying every one of your careers, whether you want to major in Chemistry, Economics, Education, or Sociology.

So, what is my hope?  Not to make you think a certain way, or to vote a certain way.  I’d be pretty psyched if you all started recycling and stopped buying bottled water.  Nothing too crazy.  What I really want is to engage you in the conversation.  To have you lift your heads, open your eyes, and understand this crisis.  To gain knowledge, start a dialogue, and debate the solutions.  Knowledge of the world is power, and powerful people can change the world.  So, go get started.

Suzie Boyden received her bachelor’s degree in Environmental and Evolutionary Biology from Dartmouth College. She received her PhD in Ecology from Colorado State University after a three year stint teaching ecology and natural history for a high school on the coast of Maine.  She was a post-doctoral research fellow at the University of Minnesota in the Department of Forest Resources. Her research, done in collaboration with the State and Federal Forest Service, the Nature Conservancy, and Research Institutes in Michigan and New York, focuses on the impact of deer, invasive plants and climate change on eastern forests. She teaches a number of basic, applied, and theoretical ecology courses in the Biology Department.

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Syllabi: A tool to build success

Jeanne Slattery

– Jeanne M. Slattery

I spend a good part of my summer reflecting on last year and looking forward to next. I began editing my syllabi last semester during our course, more seriously edited them at the end of the semester, and now that the new semester is less than a week away, I’m reconsidering my assignments and rubrics, the pace of my semester, and where we’re going. My internship class required few edits, while my capstone course is being significantly redesigned.

I have been part of a national project collecting psychology syllabi for more than 22 years, chaired this project for two years, organized more than a dozen symposia considering syllabi, and have been performing research with colleagues across the country on what makes syllabi effective.

I care about syllabi, but all of us who care about our teaching and our students should also care.

Why do we need syllabi?

On the crassest level, syllabi are a contract between faculty and our students – one that administration holds us to (Slattery & Carlson, 2005). When a student has a complaint, administrators should pull out the class syllabi to consider whether the faculty member had deviated from the syllabus. It helps to identify the late penalty, for example, rather than make this up on the fly.

But syllabi also serve more altruistic and high-minded purposes. They orient students and help our students stay on track. They level the playing ground, helping students recognize strategies for success when they might otherwise fail to understand how they can become more successful (Collins, 1997). They can engage students (Richmond, Slattery, Morgan, Mitchell, & Becknell, 2017). Writing syllabi can help us plan where we want to go and meet our goals (Slattery & Carlson, 2005).

And, they are the first impression of us that our students have. Does this first impression matter? Even half a minute of a video without sound of professor predicts student evaluations at the end of the semester (Ambady & Rosenthal, 1993). That’s not surprising, as by the time our students meet us, they’ve had a lot of time with good teachers (and bad) and can predict what works (and not). Our syllabi can make that same sort of first impression.

What I’m saying is that our syllabi are an opportunity to increase our students’ success in college – and that of a class.

Writing a syllabus helps me consider where I want a course to go and what course and life goals I hope to achieve. My goals for my face-to-face section of Abnormal Psychology include: (a) developing greater understanding and empathy for other people, especially people with psychiatric problems; (b) using psychological principles and theories to understand client problems and direct treatment, considering the strengths and weaknesses of each explanation; (c) building research and information literacy skills for answering questions about psychiatric disorders; (d) building skills in working as a member of a team, writing findings, and presenting ideas effectively; and (e) strengthening career skills consistent with success in graduate school and the workplace and take steps toward making your career goals happen.

Knowing where we want to go matters, but so does knowing who your students are and what they need. You might consider what barriers your students face in this course, how your course design helps your students see themselves as effective and capable learners, how your design choices help your students meet our learning goals more effectively, and how your course design meets the needs of a range of learners, not only students “just like me.”

What should we consider?

There are a number of things that we might consider in our syllabus design that are discussed much more extensively elsewhere (see Gannon, 2019). These things include basic course information (e.g., name and prerequisites), required texts and readings, assignments, grades, and university policies. In this discussion, I’ll focus on tone, strategies for success, accessibility, and our students’ meaning and purpose.


One thing that seems to make a difference in how our students perceive us and our course is the tone we use. My colleagues and I have been doing research on syllabus tone, especially that in learner-centered syllabi – syllabi that build a sense of community, communicate a shared sense of power and control, and use student-centered strategies of evaluation (Cullen & Harris, 2009; Richmond, Morgan, Slattery, Mitchell, & Cooper, 2019). We have found that tone affects perceptions of faculty as flexible/open-minded and creative/interesting (Richmond et al., 2017). Students reading a more learner-centered syllabus perceive the professor as caring for and about their students, having a positive attitude, and being enthusiastic. They rated a learner-centered syllabus much more positively and indicated much higher levels of engagement (Richmond et al., 2017). Tone did not affect perceptions of knowledge, competence, or preparedness.

This section of my online Forensic Psychology syllabus is an example of learner-centeredness, as seen in a syllabus, clearly addressing community issues and shared power and control.

“Office hours.” I am looking forward to working closely with you this semester, and you can expect me to play an active role in the course. Our correspondence will be primarily through the Discussions and Announcements areas. I will post announcements every week, answer questions in the Virtual Office Hours Discussion Board in D2L, and provide detailed feedback on major assignments. I will email you if there is a time-sensitive issue.

If yours is a general question, please post it in the Virtual Office Hours Discussion Board so everyone can profit. Answer each other’s questions if you get there first. If yours is a more specific question, email me. I generally respond to email within 24 hours. If I don’t, I missed your email; email me again. Please reach out to me if you need help—that’s why I’m here!

I will also set up in-person meetings – for those of you in or near Clarion – and scheduled discussions online. If you would especially like to “talk” with me, make sure that I know when works for you. I’ll try to make this work.

Note that some aspects of this syllabus are particular to an online class rather than a class I would meet in the classroom (e.g., the photo at the top of the syllabus and my use of Virtual Office Hours). Write your syllabus to meet the unique needs of your students and class.

Strategies for success.

Our syllabi can include strategies for success. In addition to a list of strategies for doing well, I’ve also begun including Pro Tips throughout my Abnormal Psychology syllabus. I know how to be successful, but my students often do not. Here are two examples from this semester’s syllabus.

Pro Tip: You get the most out of assignments when you make them your own. What do you want to learn? Where do you need help?

Pro Tip: Please don’t text in class. The research suggests that even having your phone out interferes with your learning and that of your classmates (Ward et al., 2017).


When prompted, many of us think about what we can do to accommodate our students with disabilities. Many of these accommodations are things that we can do for all of our students to help them be more successful. DocREADER in D2L will now read a page to students. This will obviously be helpful for students with learning disabilities and recent concussions, but maybe it would also be helpful for others. (My husband and I watch all TV, not just TV in a language we don’t know, with captions turned on. Neither of us has an identified hearing problem.) Rather than only telling my anxious students how to handle the course well, I tell all of my students how to handle anxiety and the course effectively. My resources are always available, not only available when a student gives me a form from Disability Services. And, I offer help proactively, rather than only after my students request it.

Of course, there are other things that are part of a student’s accommodation that I don’t spontaneously offer (e.g., testing in a quiet place). I don’t have time and energy to do this effectively. If student ask, though, I let them take exams in a quieter place in our building.

Finding their why.

I think our why matters – and our students often have difficulty identifying that why. In grade school and high school, their why was ignored. Because they don’t know why they are doing something, they often see the task as busywork – when we know better. I try to prompt them to find their why in my assignments, as with this Media Analysis assignment in Forensic Psychology, but also in my syllabi, as in my first Pro Tip.

Why this assignment? The ability to think critically about what you read and see is an important skill that will benefit you in many different parts of your life, not just your understanding of the court and prison systems. This assignment will help you build this important skill.

There are other ways that we can help our students see their why – and ours. I identify the relationships between my learning goals and assignments in my syllabus. I try to be clear about the progression of assignments across the semester and how earlier assignments build success in later assignments.


Syllabi are not just a document to meet contractual demands (although you can see some of the “contract” language in my syllabus posted in the Cloud), but an opportunity to help our students become more successful. Syllabi can be a social justice document, helping all of our students obtain the skills to become successful – and to help them recognize that we are their allies to help them succeed.


Ambady, N., & Rosenthal, R. (1993). Half a minute: Predicting teacher evaluations from thin slices of nonverbal behavior and physical attractiveness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64(3), 431-441.

Collins, T. (1997). For openers . . . An inclusive syllabus. In W. E. Campbell and K. A. Smith (Eds.), New paradigms for college teaching (pp. 79–102). Edina, MN: Interaction.

Cullen, R., & Harris, M. (2009). Assessing learner-centredness through course syllabi. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education34(1), 115-125.

Gannon, K. (2019). How to create a syllabus: Advice guide. Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from https://www.chronicle.com/interactives/advice-syllabus?utm_source=at&utm_medium=en&cid=at

Richmond, A. S., Morgan, R. K., Slattery, J. M., Mitchell, N. G., & Cooper, A. G. (2019). Project Syllabus: An exploratory study of learner-centered syllabi. Teaching of Psychology, 46(1), 6-15.

Richmond, A. S., Slattery, J. M., Mitchell, N., Morgan, R. K., & Becknell, J. (2017). Can a learner-centered syllabus change students’ perceptions of student-professor rapport and master teacher behaviors? Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, 2, 159-168.

Slattery, J. M., & Carlson, J. F. (2005). Preparing an effective syllabus: Current best practices. College Teaching, 53, 159-164.

Jeanne M. Slattery is a professor of psychology at Clarion University. She is a student-centered teacher, who loves her students, teaching, and learning. She has published three books – Counseling diverse clients: Bringing context into therapy; Empathic counseling: Meaning, context, ethics, and skill; and most recently, Trauma, meaning, and spirituality: Translating research into clinical practice. She can be contacted at jslattery@clarion.edu

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