Orientation Week Reflection

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Since discussing my disdain for icebreakers, I figured I might as well share how the orientation week went. Let’s dive right in!

Table of Contents

Schedule

For me, orientation week kicked off the week prior to the beginning of courses with the following schedule:

  • August 14th, 2018
    • 1:00 PM – 2:00 PM: UCAT Orientation Welcome
    • 2:20 PM – 5:00 PM: Introduction to Teaching and Learning Part 1
  • August 15th, 2018
    • 9:00 AM – 12:30 PM: Introduction to Teaching and Learning Part 2
    • 2:00 PM – 3:30 PM: University Policies and Procedures
    • 3:45 PM – 4:45 PM: Teaching Resource Fair
  • August 16th, 2018
    • 9:00 AM – 10:15 AM: Fair and Efficient Grading
    • 10:30 AM – 11:45 AM: Developing Effective Presentation Skills
    • 1:00 PM – 2:15 PM: Facilitating Classroom Discussions
    • 2:30 PM – 3:45 PM: Designing Assignments, Quizzes, and Tests
  • August 17th, 2018
    • 9:00 AM – 9:30 AM: Welcome to CSE
    • 9:30 AM – 10:15 AM: So, You Think You’re Ready to Do Research!
    • 10:15 AM – 11:00 AM: Writing, Citing, and Plagiarism
    • 11:45 AM – 1:00 PM: CSE Graduate Degree Requirements
    • 1:00 PM – 1:45 PM: Graphics Lab Lecture
    • 1:45 PM – 2:15 PM: Artificial Intelligence Lab Lecture
    • 2:15 PM – 2:45 PM: Software Engineering and Programming Languages Lab Lecture
    • 2:45 PM – 3:15 PM: Systems Lab Lecture
    • 3:15 PM – 3:45 PM: Networking Lab Lecture

To be honest, this was only the initial schedule. We had a few hiccups along the way which I’ll chat about later.

The Scheduling Mishap

The schedule in the previous section can be broken down into two main orientation segments: UCAT Orientation and CSE Orientation.

UCAT—also known as the University Center for the Advancement of Teaching—hosted my teaching orientation. Meanwhile, CSE—also known as the Computer Science and Engineering department—held my research orientation.

At this point, you may be wondering “when did this guy finally find out what he was teaching?” Well, I was wondering that myself.

When I first showed up to fill out my I-9 form, they asked me if I was comfortable with teaching C. If you’ve been following along, you probably know how much I prefer to stay away from lower-level languages like C/C++. As a result, I had to decline.

Unfortunately, the department already had me signed up to teach C. To be honest, the gig was pretty sweet. All I would have to do is teach a single two-hour lecture a week with minimal guidance. That said, I just couldn’t do that to my students, so I decided to ask for Java.

Naturally, this stirred up a lot of scheduling conflicts. In fact, I didn’t actually find out which course I was teaching until the night of August 15th. Fortunately, it was Java.

By the next morning, I found out that my Java course training would be that day. In other words, I had to miss a few of my teaching sessions: Facilitating Classroom Discussions and Designing Assignments, Quizzes, and Tests.

UCAT Orientation

Of course, we can talk all about that Java course training later. Let’s back up a minute and talk about the UCAT orientation.

Impressions

As a summary, UCAT hosted a three day orientation on teaching skills like presenting, lesson planning, and grading. Naturally, I felt I could benefit from all these skills, so I signed up.

Day 1

To kick things off, every new graduate teaching assistant (GTA) met up in an auditorium. Right away, I found out just how massive Ohio State is. Apparently, I was among roughly 500 GTAs getting ready to teach their first courses.

From there, we broke off into smaller sections by role and discipline. In terms of roles, a GTA could serve as anything from a grader to an independent instructor. I happened to be fortunate enough to land a role in the latter category.

As a result, I ended up in a classroom with other independent instructors in my field as well as the environmental sciences.

Immediately, I was reminded of something that is remarkably unique to the college environment: the sensitivity. To be honest, I was kind of put off by it at first. Perhaps because most of the training focused on diversity and inclusion when I was really just looking for strategies to help with my teaching.

Either I drank the Kool-Aid or this diversity stuff is really important because I started to see the value in it immediately. Instead of focusing on teaching methods, I learned to connect with my students to help them learn in their own ways. I learned to harness the culture of the classroom to guarantee engagement and learning.

Who could say no to that?

Day 2

Much of day 1 was focused on diversity and preparing for the first day of class. By the second day, we were much more focused on teaching methods and strategies. In fact, we even got to implement some of those strategies in a live group lesson.

My group decided to teach the concept of an algorithm by asking the class to come up with a recipe for scrambled eggs. Since we didn’t have time to plan, the lesson pretty much flopped as students were arguing about the recipe.

After the teaching session, we had a policy session which involved a panel and some skits. To be honest, the session was a bit long, but the skits kept everything interesting. In fact, the session got me interested in potentially helping with academic integrity cases.

Finally, we went to the teaching resource fair which I thought was great. Unfortunately, I wasn’t a fan of the food choices, and the room was far too small for the amount of people crammed in it. That said, I learned a lot about the various activities I can get involved in on campus.

Day 3

By the final day, everyone was scheduled for their preferred classes. I had four of which I was only able to attend two. After all, I had a Java orientation to attend.

Of the two courses I was able to attend, one was excellent and the other was mediocre. The amazing lesson was on presentation skills, and I felt the presenter was both good at teaching the skills as well as using them. In fact, I’d recommend anyone to take that session.

The other session was on grading, and I just wasn’t that interested. Of course, I had just found out about my Java orientation, so I was focused on learning that material first. Perhaps the presentation would have been better if I was actually engaged.

Critiques

Overall, I was very pleased with the orientation. In fact, I’d go as far as to say nothing needs to be changed. That said, there’s always room for improvement, so here’s my two cents.

My main complaint was just the length. I felt like the orientation was great, but it was very long. Of course, I had the option to skip sessions as my department didn’t care, but I didn’t want to miss anything. Perhaps credit is due to the UCAT team for stressing the importance of their training and services.

By the last day of the orientation, I was almost totally checked out. Keep in mind that I’ve been completely in control of my own life for the last six months, so I’ve been pretty spoiled. Sitting and engaging in a classroom for 3 straight hours is tough for me.

If the orientation needs to keep its length, perhaps it would be beneficial to add breaks. It’s just not healthy to be sitting around for several hours at a time, and I tend to lose focus after awhile.

Programming Java Orientation

Near the tail of of the UCAT orientation, I had orientation for my Programming Java course.

Impressions

As mentioned already, I had a surprise orientation for the Programming Java course I’ll be teaching this semester. Overall, the training ran about two hours and covered everything from course policies to grading.

In order to prepare for the meeting, I wasted one of my morning classes reading a 7-page PDF on course policies and expectations. By the time the meeting arrived, I felt a little nervous about teaching. After all, the expectations outlined in that PDF were very strongly worded.

For instance, the PDF stated that we’re not allowed to cancel class. If we need to, we have to find a substitute. In addition, if we suspect any form of plagiarism, we have to notify our course coordinator. On top of that, all course grading policies are mandatory. In other words, we cannot accept late work even under extenuating circumstances.

When I arrived to the training, I found out very quickly that many of these policies are not set in stone. In fact, most of them exist for legal purposes, so that was a huge relief. I prefer to work with people on a case-by-case basis, and the stated policies just didn’t allow for that.

At any rate, the remainder of the training went over our teaching duties and schedule. At least now I know what I’ll be teaching. Overall, I feel much better about teaching, but I’m still worried about managing 40 students. I guess we’ll see how that goes.

Critiques

Overall, I wouldn’t change anything. I felt like the orientation was extremely informative, and I really like the course coordinator. They did a wonderful job of sharing all the information we need to know as quickly as possible. I can’t complain.

CSE Orientation

During the last day of orientation week, I had a CSE-specific orientation which brought together all new CSE students.

Impressions

At this point in the week, information was starting to become a bit redundant. For instance, I heard the terms Piazza and Carmen thrown around probably 10-20 times. So, I was pretty excited for the change in scenery.

Unfortunately, a lot of the material during CSE Orientation was also redundant for whatever reason. For instance, half the orientation was spent on research groups which were covered during my visit in the spring. In fact, many of the PhD students should have already been familiar with most of this stuff as they had to indicate their preferences during applications.

Of course, there was plenty of other redundant information. For instance, we spent a ton of time on degree requirements for the various tracks. Again, this is something we already had to know to schedule courses, so it felt like a waste of time.

That said, there were a few good talks. For instance, I got to learn a little bit about the typical trajectory for a PhD student. According to my department, I can only teach for about two years before I have to become a Research Assistant. After that, I’ll likely finish in the next three years. In total, I’m looking at a 5 year program.

I also learned a little bit about writing, editing, and plagiarism as well as funding which are all great things to know.

Critiques

That said, I was very unhappy with the CSE orientation, but it does no good to just complain. Let’s look at some ways the orientation could have been improved.

Food

My chief complaint with the CSE orientation was being bound to our seats for 8 straight hours. It felt a lot like being in a corporate environment, so I wasn’t a huge fan. Add to that the questionable meal and snack choices, and you end up with a tired and frustrated populace.

For lunch, they fed us typical American boxed meals which included typical American meal choices like wraps and sandwiches. I decided to play it safe by grabbing a sandwich because they’re easier to dissect, but I think I made the wrong choice. Unfortunately, the sandwich was made with white bread and had a generous amount of mayonnaise on one of the slices.

In addition, the meal box contained a questionable salad cup filled with a mysterious white liquid—presumably mayonnaise or ranch. And to top it all off, the meal contained a brownie which had candy pieces on top. Needless to say, my blood sugar shot through the roof. By one, I was ready for bed.

Fortunately, they had unhealthy snacks to keep my blood sugar up. I grabbed a KIND granola bar, a bag of peanut butter RITZ Bits, and a pouch of fruit snacks. In total, I consumed roughly 25 grams of sugar in one sitting. By that point, my body was pretty upset with me. Luckily, I knew not to even touch a can of pop.

It would have been nice if they provided some sort of healthy option. I would have been happy with fruit for the snack and a salad for the lunch. Those alone would have been a step in the right direction.

Elitism

As an added complaint, some of the professors presenting were less than respectful. I can think of two professors in particular that I intend to avoid moving forward simply because of their behavior during their presentation.

One of the professors was actually not that bad, but they did give off this elitist tone that I think was meant to scare us. They mentioned things like:

Don’t use a paper I published two years ago to get my interest. That’s OLD news. Tell me something new and interesting.

If you come to my lab and don’t speak to any of your lab mates, you’re out of there.

Their comments reminded me a lot of a professor I contacted while applying to universities. I mentioned to them that I was interested in software engineering and explained exactly what topics, and they responded “oh, I’m not interested in that at all.” Thanks for your input.

Meanwhile, the second professor was much more irritating. They had the last slot of the day, and they went over by nearly a half hour because they wanted to feel important. In other words, when they finished their presentation on time, they said “I’m last so I can go over” and then forced us to ask questions while making comments like:

In grad school, learning to ask questions is a good skill.

Now is the best time to ask questions because it becomes much harder later.

Of course, this statement went without explanation. They just tried to scare us into asking questions when many of us didn’t even know what to ask.

Eventually, they went on this odd rant about how we’re all talented, but we’re not all going to be successful. I really didn’t understand what they were trying to explain.

Between the two professors, I did learn that there’s a serious culture of narcissism in academia. For example, I was told that I should network with certain people, so I would have people to write me recommendations letters. That seems like an odd reason to befriend someone.

Organization

Based on my complaints in the impressions section, I’d like to propose a change to the CSE orientation structure. For starters, Masters and PhD students should have separate orientations—at least in terms of degree information. I was starting to feel bad for the Masters students as many of them were headed straight to industry, and most of the orientation was geared toward research.

From there, I’d organize sessions by interest. If a student doesn’t want to learn about networks, why should they have to come to the networks session? I’m not against broadening horizons or anything, but forcing everyone to slog through everything was a bit ridiculous. Perhaps students could pick their top three and only go to those sessions.

If everything goes smoothly, the orientation time could be cut in half. The only downsides would be that professors might have to present their content a couple times, but at least their students would be engaged. This also allows for more one-on-one time if necessary which I think is valuable.

If possible, I’d even advise moving as much of this information as possible to a living document. Whenever we have questions, we’re supposed to share them on a forum, so everyone can see the answer. But, how are we supposed to know what we don’t know? I found this very frustrating as information was nearly impossible to find. As a result, I was constantly asking question on Piazza like:

  1. What is a BuckID? When/where do we get one?
  2. Where do we go to fill out our I-9?
  3. What are we supposed to wear as professors?

These are just some of the questions that I wish made it into a living FAQ instead of a questionable forum, but that’s just me.

Biggest Takeaways

Since this article has already grown out of control, I figured we can finish things up with some of my biggest takeaways from orientation week.

  1. Diversity and compassion matter
  2. Teaching styles don’t matter
  3. Teaching methods do matter
  4. Feedback is important
  5. Rubrics are important
  6. Plagiarism is not okay

And finally, I’d like to state that my goal for this first semester of teaching is to learn as much from my students as they learn from me.

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