Should Graduate Students Unionize?

Last month, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that graduate students from private universities could legally form unions (see this short article from the New York Times), and commentators have subsequently asked whether graduate students actually need protection from their institutions. Graduate students already receive fee and tuition waivers, stipends, and healthcare from their universities whereas medical and law students pay for their entire educations. Why, then, should graduate students complain about their labor conditions when many other students and employees at the university level potentially suffer from even more clear-cut exploitation?

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The case for graduate student unionization follows two central principles: 1) Graduate students do not receive adequate compensation for their skilled academic labor. 2) The use of underpaid graduate students for college courses not only prevents universities from hiring tenured faculty but also lowers the wages of adjuncts and other nontenured instructors. Based upon personal experience, graduate students typically work over fifty hours per week and must divide their time between their own research (which will determine their long-term success) and their instructional responsibilities. Graduate students must therefore prioritize between their careers and their students whenever they manage their schedules, which inevitably weakens either their research programs or the curriculum and administration of their courses. While these trade-offs certainly apply for tenured professors, graduate students experience similar pressure from their departments for original research but generally receive less protection from campus administrators who expect well-designed classes from their instructors.

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Recent Study Finds Handwritten Notes Improve Retention

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I recently came across this NPR article (one of my former coworkers from OU posted the link using Facebook) about the cognitive differences between handwritten and electronic notes. The article summarizes the results of a recent study from two psychologists from Princeton and UCLA showing that handwritten notes significantly improve how well students synthesize complex information. Notes serve two primary functions: they help us process material while we write down critical details and later provide records of these details when we study for exams and translate face-to-face meetings into products and documents. The authors of the study believe that although electronic notes help students and professionals transcribe more content than handwritten notes, these verbatim records actually prevent note-takers from identifying the main ideas and possible applications of lectures, conversations, etc. Even having more electronic notes did not help most of the students from the study, who took short exams after hearing various Ted Talks; the students with handwritten notes received higher scores regardless of whether or not the two groups studied for the tests beforehand. Click the link below for more information: NPR Handwritten vs. Electronic Notes Article.

NewsELA: Science and Current Events Written for K-12 Students

Since I started working with AJ Tutoring over the summer, I have regularly needed fiction and nonfiction material designed for middle-school students so I can provide diagnostics, reading comprehension exercises, and writing assignments for my clients. Whereas high-school students can generally read political and scientific news from sources including The New York Times, Time, The Economist, and Scientific American, these periodicals sometimes cause difficulties for younger students who would clearly benefit from their real-world content. Unfortunately, some media outlets specifically directed at children either oversimplify complex problems or focus upon trivial subjects which do not accurately represent current events or recent scientific discoveries.


The education website NewsELA has solved this problem with its own writers who read and revise articles from credible journals, newspapers, and magazines for multiple grade-levels. Each NewsELA article includes three or more difficulty settings so teachers can choose the reading-comprehension level most appropriate for their students, and these settings range from elementary school to high school. My students and I have successfully discussed the recent Tesla autopilot accidents, the controversy over whether or not athletes with prosthesis should compete against their “able-bodied” counterparts, and a scientific study concluding Greenland sharks may live for around 400 years. While you cannot read full articles from the site without registering your email address, the investment more than repays the cost of another weekly newsletter. The site also follows one of the central principles of technical communication: it evaluates the needs and capacities of its intended audiences and designs its content accordingly. You can explore the website yourself using this link: NewsELA Homepage.

How to Increase Your LinkedIn Traffic

Online social networks have become increasingly significant for professionals searching for employment opportunities and accruing social capital, but the recent graduates and young professionals who need these networks the most usually receive the least traffic from potential employers. I have compiled eight recommendations for the content of LinkedIn profiles and the activities of highly-visible users that can help you increase the amount of visitors you receive and the quality of the matches between your own objectives and those of your viewers.

LinkedIn Profile

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Sabbaticals for K-12 Teachers

This editorial from Jessica Anderson, the 2016 Montana Teacher of the Year, claims K-12 teachers should request sabbaticals so they can learn new technologies and instructional methods for their classrooms. Unlike professors, who often arrange sabbaticals for their academic research, K-12 teachers usually seek professional development over the summer and during the school-year. K-12 teachers must accordingly balance between their daily classroom administration and curriculum design responsibilities and their experiments with virtual reality software (Google Expeditions), online flashcards (Study Blue), content management systems (D2L, Moodle, etc.), and practice-problem applications (NoRedInk, IXL, etc.). The limited time and resources teachers can allocate for these “side-projects” necessarily reduces their usefulness, and Anderson states teachers cannot draw their classes into the twenty-first century until K-12 educators and districts properly facilitate the long-term improvement of their employees.

Anderson also addresses the reservations many teachers have about leaving their classrooms for a year. Anderson believes teachers underestimate how much sabbaticals may improve their skill-sets and insists teachers should not feel guilty about temporarily leaving their schools with the long-term objective of returning with applications and techniques that they can share with their coworkers. Many public-school contracts already have options for sabbaticals, and Anderson feels these opportunities are underutilized because teachers cannot see themselves outside the classroom. Those who assume expert teachers always belong inside the classroom may disagree, but I side with Anderson: if one year of research, conferences, and trying new applications yields three-five years of meaningful returns for students, then the K-12 education system should not merely allow but promote sabbaticals for its instructors. I also wonder whether colleges should more-actively support the use of sabbaticals for instructional purposes instead of focusing so intently upon articles and book projects. Click the link below for more details.

Anderson K-12 Sabbaticals Editorial

Why We Never Read Mass Emails

My last post discussed the characteristics of successful emails, and my comments helped me recognize why students and employees seldom read organization-wide messages. If we briefly review the principal criteria for audience-centered emails, we learn useful emails should:

  1. Provide clear subject lines.
  2. Include the expected conventions.
  3. Use short paragraphs and minimize length.
  4. Quickly summarize their objectives.

Mass emails, particularly company newsletters and university event messages, do not satisfy any of these requirements. Because mass messages usually supply information from multiple sources, including different employee teams and campus organizations, these emails generally provide generic (ex. “OU Mass Message” or “Hewlett Packard October Newsletter”) or overlong subject lines. Those who receive mass emails often cannot anticipate their content from reading these subject lines and accordingly either scan any relevant information too quickly or discard the email altogether.

These emails also reject most expected conventions; mass messages rarely have clear senders and recipients and often leave out the salutation and polite close expected from other online correspondence. This impersonal style makes the audience of these emails review their content even less carefully, and mass messages worsen these problems with unclear subject lines and disorganized first paragraphs. Students and employees will read most emails with relevant content, but mass messages bury their information inside several unstructured paragraphs with different intended audiences.

Perhaps organizations should invest the infrastructure, personnel, and time so students and employees can filter the content of their mass emails. While this plan would reduce the coverage of these emails, more of their recipients would probably read and hopefully act upon their content. Sometimes, especially with business correspondence, fewer words and fewer readers means improved communication.

Writing Professional Emails

We write and send emails more frequently than any other document, but I still receive messages from students, coworkers, and executives with unclear and unprofessional content. While we can and should write emails quickly (particularly when we receive hundreds of them every week), we should make sure our emails politely achieve their practical objectives.

1) Provide a clear subject line. Your subject line should immediately inform your reader about the contents and purposes of your message. Compare these examples: “Security Warning” vs. “Security Warning: Do Not Open Messages from Sender X.” I have occasionally received emails from students and full-time professionals without any subject line at all, and these messages not only require unnecessary time and effort from their readers but also prevent their recipients from easily processing their included information. We expect headlines from newspaper articles for the same reason; these synopses help us decide whether we should read the text and frame its content.

2) Include the expected conventions. Whenever we write emails without salutations (Dear Mr. Rochester), polite closes (sincerely, respectfully, etc.),  and signatures, our messages may feel hurried and impolite. While you can certainly remove these formalities when you correspond with your friends and family, you should always choose the most polite approach when you address your professors, managers, clients, and anyone else who directly impacts your long-term success. This default approach can and should change if your correspondents indicate that they would prefer more familiar conversations.

3) Use short paragraphs. If your email lasts more than 200 words, than you should almost always subdivide your message into paragraphs with different requests, arguments, and information. Emails, like other business documents, should let your coworkers and managers easily scan the included content without reading every word of your message. Even if some of your recipients carefully review the whole email, most of them will briefly skim the message for relevant details and action-items.

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