Category Archives: Profhacks

How I make screencasts: Chapter 0

Since I started to put serious amounts of time and effort into screencasting last summer, I’ve gotten a lot of requests to blog about how I go about making these things. Starting with this post, I’m going to do a multi-part series here about making screencasts — or at least how I make screencasts, which is a long way from perfect or canonical, but it’s what people asked for! I hope it’s useful for people who are interested in this kind of thing and need some pointers; and I hope too that those with more experience and better ideas than I have can share.

First, let’s start with a few FAQ’s.

Q: What is a screencast?

A: A screencast is a video of stuff that is happening on your computer screen. There is often, but not always, some kind of voiceover happening in the background as well. So a screencast can be a lot of different things: A recorded Prezi or PowerPoint slide presentation; a demo of computer software; a “whiteboard” lecture with audio capture; a video of you playing Angry Birds; or any linear combination of these.

Q: What’s the point of a screencast?

A: I suppose you could do just about anything with a screencast, but mainly the point is to instruct. Some people make short screencasts to show a remote collaborator or student how to do some little task on their computer, like this one I made on the fly in Linear Algebra class last Thursday morning to show students how to get MATLAB to produce \LaTeX code. Or you can record partial or entire lectures (like many of the ones I did for my department’s YouTube channel) for students to watch outside of class. Or you can record lengthy demos of software usage like I have done in my ongoing series of MATLAB screencasts. Or you can record every level of Angry Birds you play. Suit yourself.

The screencast is just a means of conveying some process or stream of information that can be represented on the screen and therefore captured using software and disseminated on the web. It’s a pretty much wide-open medium.

Q: So what kinds of software and hardware and other stuff do you use?

This is a good question, but at this point I have to stop the FAQ’s and explain why there are going to be multiple posts in this series. I have a toolbox of software and hardware items that I use, but the exact combination that I use depends on the kind of screencast that I am trying to make. Basically, there are three different kinds of screencasts that I make:

  • Lecture capture screencasts, where I am going through a Prezi or slide deck and giving audio narration;
  • Whiteboard screencasts, where I am using an input device to hand-write things on the screen so that it looks like a typical whiteboard presentation; and
  • Demo screencasts, where I am doing a straight-up screen capture of something happening on my computer (as opposed to a presentation or “whiteboard” work) in real time.

Each of these kinds of screencasts requires a different set of software and hardware tools, as well as a different set of approaches for actually making them. So I’m going to spend at least one post on each. Actually, most of my screencasts are really combinations of these; for example a lot of the MATLAB screencasts start and end with a lecture capture and have MATLAB demos in the middle.

In the next post, I’ll start things off by focusing on lecture capture screencasts and how I work with those. They’re probably the simplest of the three kinds I make.

Do you have any specific question or topic you’d like me to address as part of this series?

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Filed under Inverted classroom, Profhacks, Screencasts, Teaching, Technology

Technology FAIL day

This morning as I was driving in to work, I got to thinking: Could I teach my courses without all the technology I use? As in, just me, my students, and a chalk/whiteboard with chalk/markers? As I pulled in to the college, I thought: Sure I could. It just wouldn’t be as good or fun without the tech.

Little did I know, today would be centered around living that theory out:

  • I planned a Keynote presentation with clicker questions to teach the section on antiderivatives in Calculus. As soon as I tried to get the clickers going, I realized the little USB receiver wasn’t working. Turns out, updating Mac OS X to v10.6.5 breaks the software that runs the receiver. Clicker questions for this morning: Out the window. Hopefully I’ll find a useable laptop for tomorrow, when I’m using even more clicker questions.
  • Also in calculus, the laptop inexplicably went into presenter mode when I tried to give the presentation without clicker questions. Most of the time when I try to get it into presenter mode, I can’t do it. This time I couldn’t make it stop.
  • The Twitter client on my laptop got stuck in some kind of strange mode such that clicking on anything made it go to Expose.
  • I lost the network connection to our department printer halfway through the day.
  • GMail went down.

Fortunately everything I had planned could be done without any technology aside from the whiteboard. But when the technology doesn’t work, I have to improvise, and sometimes that works well and sometimes not. In calculus, I just had to revert back to what is often called the “interactive lecture”, which means just a regular lecture where you hope the students ask questions, and it was about as engaging as that sounds.

I do believe I can teach without all this technology, but the kind of teaching I do with the technology is, I think, more inherently engaging and meaningful for students. I ask better questions, interact more freely with students, and highlight the coherence and the big ideas of the material more adeptly with the technology in place. So when the tech fails on me, things seem odd and out of place and contrived. Students pick up on that. Maybe I’m simply addicted to the tech, but I don’t like teaching without it, and my classes aren’t nearly at the same level without it.

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Filed under Educational technology, Life in academia, Math, Profhacks, Teaching, Technology

Course evaluations: The more, the merrier

This post at ProfHacker reminded me to write about something I’m trying this semester in my calculus classes (the only freshman-level class I have right now). I’m giving not one but four course evaluations during the semester. I’ve given midterm evaluations on occasion in the past, but it seemed to me that even twice a semester isn’t really enough. So, I’m giving evaluations at the end of the third, sixth, ninth, and twelfth weeks of the semester.

The first three of these are informal and very loosely structured. They each have three basic questions:

  1. What do you LOVE about this course?
  2. What do you HATE about this course?
  3. If you could change ONE THING about this course, what would it be?

The 6- and 9-week evaluations have two additional questions: What’s changed for the BETTER since the last evaluation? and What’s changed for the WORSE since the last evaluation? In week 12, students will do the official college evaluation for my course which has all the usual questions on it that probably are found anywhere.

To give credit where it’s due, I stole this idea from Eric Mazur in his book Peer Instruction: A User’s Manual, wherein he steals it again from another professor at UC Berkeley. I modified the idea and form so it works for a series of evaluations rather than just a one-time evaluation. I really like the questions, even though they’re loaded and ambiguous, because the elicit only the one or two most strongly-held opinions about the course from students rather than a laundry list of minutiae or slogans that often show up on written evaluations. When you bring students to the point, the things they often complain about the most are not things that they really feel all that strongly about — certainly not strongly enough to call it “hate”. Similarly for “love”. It’s easy to write about nice little things that happen in a class, but students aren’t often asked to reflect on what they “love” about a class.

We’re about to start the eighth week of the semester, so I’ve already given the first two of these evaluations. I posted them as a questionnaire on the course Moodle site and let students fill in their responses over a Friday-Monday period. They were not required to do so, but I ended up with nearly 100% participation. What’s been great about the results is the change in the responses from week 3 to week 6.

In week 3, the responses were all over the place. The students — mostly freshmen, some of them still unpacking from moving-in day — loved a lot and hated a lot. About half the class loved the technology focus of my class. The other half hated it and wanted it all gone. Many students hated that I wasn’t collecting homework from the book and grading it, hated that the class didn’t consist entirely of examples being worked on the board for them and that the tests weren’t exactly like the homework, and so on — in other words, they felt strongly about how the class was going, but it sounded a lot more like the ongoing struggle to cope with college intellectual culture than it did a serious beef with me or my teaching.

I took the results from the week 3 evaluation and discussed them with our associate dean, who works with faculty on teaching issues, to get his perspective on things. After we met, I blocked off 25 minutes — half a class — before the week 6 evaluations to debrief the students on their responses. The responses on Moodle were anonymous, so I just put them all up on the screen for students to see. This allowed students to see two complementary things: That some of the things they thought everybody hated were really just issue that they alone had, and that some of the things they thought they were alone in loving were actually shared by others. The anti-tech faction saw that there was a significant pro-tech faction, and vice versa, and so the notion of abolishing all technology and using only pencil and paper (one of the actual “one things you’d change” repsonses) became suddenly complicated. During this debriefing session, I showed them some of the things I’d done to respond to the things to change that made sense to change, and I made my case for not changing the things that didn’t make sense to change.

After the week 6 evaluation, it was clear I hadn’t made everybody happy, but the “love” section of the evaluation almost doubled in size, and the “hate” section was about half its previous size — and consisted in large part of the response “I don’t really hate anything about this course”. Given that it’s freshman calculus and I have a reputation, well-deserved, for being a hard professor, that’s kind of shocking. The statements in the “hate” or “change” section that were substantive took on a different tone: Instead of “We should stop using WeBWorK!” it because “I wish WeBWorK weren’t so hard to use.” Through this reflection and evaluation process, and my responses and ongoing conversation related to it, students are refining their ideas about what they like and dislike about a course.

These shifts are crucial for getting students to think clearly on the official evaluation of the course, which is coming up in week 12. I’m not guaranteed to get all-positive evaluations, but I think that after three practice rounds of informal evaluations, after each of which I demonstrate my seriousness in listening to their concerns and doing things about the stuff that can or should be changed, students should be able to write on the official evaluations in a serious, mature, and meaningful way — rather than latching onto one little thing in the course that bugs them and turning it into a wholesale rant, or letting feelings get the better of their judgment.

This entire process is just an example of using both formative and summative evaluations in a class, which is a mirror of the kinds of assessments we should be giving students. The formative part — my informal evaluations — let the students act as “spotters” for the course while it’s developing and running its course. The summative part — the official evaluation — is for students to look back over the entire course and evaluate it. I think that without at least one, preferably two or three, formative evaluations, it’s hard for novice learners like (most) college freshmen to know how to write a good summative evaluation.

I’m tenured, so I’m only doing this to make my students’ learning experience better. If you’re not tenured, this kind of formative-summative evaluation scheme is even more important. Having been on my college’s Promotion and Tenure Committee for five years now, I can definitely say that evaluations of a single course don’t usually provide much meaningful data. It’s the changes from one course to the subsequent ones that matter. Every instructor is going to have one course every now and then that just doesn’t work out, and the evaluations are miserable. The question that the P&T committee has is: What did that faculty member do about it? Did the same complaints crop up over and over again? Or was there some effort expended to address the issue (if the issue is worth addressing)? By giving multiple evaluations in a semester, faculty get the chance to scale the multiple-evaluation process down to fit within a single semester rather than across semesters.

Do you have a similar experience doing something like this? How did it go?


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Filed under Education, Higher ed, Life in academia, Profhacks, Tenure

Random observation about workflow and life

It used to be, in graduate school and in my early career, that I really couldn’t get any serious work done unless I had large, uninterrupted slabs of time to work with. I had to have 3-4 straight hours, at least, if I wanted to read a journal article, work on research, or get grading done.

But increasingly, it seems like, in my work at a small liberal arts college, this ideal of monolithic slabs of time with which to work has become unlikely. There’s always the out-of-nowhere fire to put out, the meeting that gets scheduled in the middle of a big block of time, the unexpected student dropping by, and so on. Having kids makes the fragmentation of time even more common and pronounced.

However, I’ve noticed something since being mostly at home with my 6-, 4-, and 1-year olds this summer so far: Not only can I count on frequent interruptions if I try to sit down and work on things, I actually need those interruptions to stay focused. It seems counterintuitive, but my attention span is such that I have a hard time staying truly on task for longer than an hour. When I have to stop and fix lunch for the kids, or break up a fight, or change a diaper, every 30-or-so minutes, it actually provides me with a break I didn’t know I needed, and I end up getting more done with the interruptions than I would in an equal stretch of time without them. (In fact this blog post was interrupted about half a dozen times in the writing and editing of it.)

So I’m not so sure about the advice that new professors often get about making sure to carve out big slabs of time in which to work. You have to go with the flow of how you work and how life impinges (in its own wonderful way) upon your work.

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Filed under GTD, Life in academia, Personal, Profhacks, Vocation

Five reasons you should use LaTeX and five tips for teaching it

Over the weekend a minor smack-talk session opened up on Twitter between Maria Andersen and about half a dozen other math people about MathType versus \LaTeX. Maria is on record as being pro-MathType and yesterday she claimed that \LaTeX is “not intuitive to learn”.  I warned her that a pro-\LaTeX  blog post was in the offing with those remarks, and so it comes to this. \LaTeX is accessible enough that every math teacher and every student in a math class at or above Calculus can (and many should) learn \LaTeX and use it for their work. I have been using \LaTeX for 15 years now and have been teaching it to our sophomore math majors for five years. I can tell you that students can learn it, and learn to love it.

Why use \LaTeX when MathType is already out there, bundled with MS Word and other office programs, tempting us with its pretty point-and-click interface? Five reasons.

  1. \LaTeX looks better. Seriously. MathType is getting better at visual appeal — it doesn’t look appalling any more — but nothing beats \LaTeX for refinement and polish.
  2. \LaTeX is the mathematical typesetting standard in all technical disciplines and in many related fields. Most, if not all, major publications in math, computer science, engineering, and physics use \LaTeX as the preferred typesetting system. arXiv prefers \LaTeX over all other formats.
  3. \LaTeX is becoming a standard elsewhere, especially on the web. Last year, Google Documents added an equation editor that is basically a stripped-down \LaTeX editor with a point-and-click interface. The wildly popular online presentation tool Prezi has said that \LaTeX integration is coming. blogs like Casting Out Nines can do \LaTeX, and so can Wikispaces and several other web services. Online \LaTeX typesetters abound, and more are popping up. The web likes open standards, and since MathML is all but impossible to use, \LaTeX fills a gaping need for free, open-source mathematical typesetting. Which brings me to the next point:
  4. \LaTeX is free. Free as in beer and free as in freedom. You can download it right now for just about any operating system imaginable, and have the full strength of the system available to you at no cost. And this is a system that has been around for 40 years (if you count TeX) and has millions of users, many of whom actively contribute to the further development of the system by writing specialized packages and macros. This is in stark contrast to MathType, which is proprietary and closed, and although you get the “Lite” version bundled in with office software, the full version will set you back at least $37.
  5. \LaTeX is what you make it. You can use \LaTeX with a point-and-click IDE, or you can type everything out by hand with a text editor and compile from the command line, or anything in between. You can tinker with the low-level creation of fonts or just quickly type out a letter. It’s up to the user. Other proprietary programs force a menu-driven point-and-click approach upon you, which you may like but may not like.

Others may add to these in the comments. But if \LaTeX is so great, how come nobody ever seems to learn it until graduate school? I’m not sure, but it’s not because \LaTeX is counterintuitive. It’s not totally obvious, either, but with a little guidance, \LaTeX can make perfect sense even to high school students. If you’re a math or science teacher, make it a project to learn \LaTeX yourself and start using it in your classes, then teach it to your students. Here are five ways to make that a painless process.

  1. Use an IDE or a user-friendly text editor rather than a plain, no-frills text editor or EMACS. For Windows machines, use the free TeXNicCenter IDE that gives point-and-click code insertion (or you can just type the code in) with syntax highlighting. On Macs, use TextMate if you have the money and Aquamacs if you don’t; both of these are text editors with tons of great \LaTeX goodies built in. (In TextMate, for instance, typing begin and hitting the Tab key automatically creates an environment with the matching \end{}. ) On Linux, try Kile. These provide user-friendly interfaces and syntax highlighting that take the edge off some of the learning curve.
  2. Have someone else do the installation and setup, or provide a total handholding guide for doing it. The only really hard thing about using \LaTeX is simply getting it to work in the first place. This is one of the advantages MathType has over \LaTeX, but the payoff is worth it. New users will need to be walked through the whole process in high-definition detail. But once that’s over, the fun begins.
  3. Start small and simple, and build gradually. When first getting students to use \LaTeX, restrict them to just a small, relatively simple document, one that’s mostly text with a little bit of math typsetting required. Small, early successes will convince them that learning \LaTeX is worthwhile. I like to give out my training videos to students and have them learn the system on their own; then have a grace period where students get extra credit for doing their assignments in \LaTeX; and then start requiring it after the grace period expires.
  4. Use it yourself. Students will learn from your example. Try writing your next syllabus in \LaTeX; and your class handouts; and your tests (perhaps using the excellent exam package). When you use it, and students begin to use it, they see that they are producing math that looks as good as what the pros do, and they get excited.
  5. When you give a document made with \LaTeX, also give out the source code that generated it. Students can then look at what you created, ask “How’d s/he do that?”, and get the answer immediately from your code and do it themselves. I myself have learned about half the \LaTeX I know from this method, and adapting/tweaking someone else’s code is a time-honored and very effective means of learning almost anything done on a computer.

Once they are over the initial learning curve and producing beautiful mathematical documents, my students look back on the dark days of MS Equation Editor and wonder, along with me, why anybody would put themselves through something like that. Happy \LaTeX-ing!


Filed under LaTeX, Math, Profhacks, Social software, Teaching, Technology, Twitter, Uncategorized

A simple idea for publishers to help students (and themselves)

OXFORD, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 08:  A student reads...
Image by Getty Images via Daylife

I’m doing some research, if you can call it that, right now that involves looking at past editions of popular and/or influential calculus books to track the evolution of how certain concepts are developed and presented. I’ll have a lot to say on this if I ever get anywhere with it. But in the course of reading, I have been struck with how little some books change over the course of several editions. For example, the classic Stewart text has retained the exact wording and presentation in its section on concavity in every edition since the first, which was released in the mid-80’s. There’s nothing wrong with sticking with a particular way of doing things, if it works; but you have to ask yourself, does it really work? And if so, why are we now on the sixth edition of the book? I know that books need refreshing from time to time, but five times in 15 years?

Anyhow, it occurred to me that there’s something really simple that textbook companies could do that would both help out students who have a hard time affording textbooks (which is a lot of students) and give themselves an incentive not to update book editions for merely superficial reasons. That simple thing is: When a textbook undergoes a change in edition, post the old edition to the web as a free download. That could be a plain PDF, or it could be a  Kindle or iBooks version. Whatever the format, make it free, and make it easy to get.

This would be a win-win-win for publishers, authors, and students:

  • By charging the regular full price for the “premium” (= most up-to-date) edition of the book, the publisher wouldn’t experience any big changes in its revenue stream, provided (and this is a big “if”) the premium edition provides significant additional value over the old edition. In other words, as long as the new edition is really new, it would cost the publisher nothing to give the old version away.
  • But if the premium edition is just a superficial update of the old one, it will cost the publisher big money. So publishers would have significant incentive not to update editions for no good reason, thereby costing consumers (students) money they didn’t really need to spend (and may not have had in the first place).
  • All the add-ons like CD-ROMs, websites, and other items that often get bundled with textbooks would only be bundled with the premium edition. That would provide additional incentive for those who can afford to pay for the premium edition to do so. (It would also provide a litmus test for exactly how much value those add-ons really add to the book.)
  • It’s a lot easier to download a PDF of a deprecated version of a book, free and legally, then to try your luck with the various torrent sites or what-have-you to get the newest edition. Therefore, pirated versions of the textbook would be less desirable, benefitting both publishers and authors.
  • Schools with limited budgets (including homeschooling families) could simply agree not to use the premium version and go with the free, deprecated version instead. This would always be the case if the cost of the new edition outweighs the benefits of adopting it — which again, puts pressure on the publishers not to update editions unless there are really good reasons to do so and the differences between editions are really significant.
  • The above point also holds in a big, big way for schools in developing countries or in poverty-stricken areas in this country.
  • Individual students could also choose to use the old edition, and presumably accept responsibility for the differences in edition, even if their schools use the premium edition. Those who teach college know that many students do this now already, except the old editions aren’t free (unless someone gives the book to them).
  • All this provides publishers and authors to take the moral high road while still preserving their means of making money and doing good business.

Some individual authors have already done this: the legendary Gil Strang and his calculus book, Thomas Judson and his abstract algebra book (which I used last semester and really liked), Fred Goodman and his algebra book. These books were all formerly published by major houses at considerable cost, but were either dropped or deprecated, and the authors made them free.

How about some of the major book publishers stepping up and doing the same?

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Filed under Apple, Life in academia, Profhacks, Teaching, Technology, Textbook-free, Textbooks

Handling the opening moments of a course

Classes started for us this week. It’s gotten me thinking about what profs do on the first day of class and their overall concepts for how to approach the first few days of a class, where students form those crucial first impressions about the course and the instructor. Here’s my overall approach:

  • I prefer a quick, energetic launch directly into the course material. I spend maybe the first 7-10 minutes on course structure. Then we start right into the course content through a lecture/activity combination.
  • To help with the first point, I will often create screencasts for some of the course management stuff (like this screencast for how to navigate Moodle) and email students the links to these, often before the first class meets.
  • I do not go in for icebreakers, get-to-know-you activities, exercises intended to discover students Myers-Briggs types or learning styles, or any of that. Not that I think such things are not useful. But I’d rather the students get to work and get to know themselves and each other in the context of working, rather than get to know each other instead of working.
  • I give a full-bodied assignment on the first day of class to do for the second day of class — something that would really take about two hours outside of class to do, if the class meeting took one hour. Here’s the assignment list, for example, for my calculus class. That’s about 2 hours worth of work, although if you look closely, a lot of it is watching instructional screencasts and playing around with course software, so it’s less work than it looks like. But still, students have to do stuff.

Students form their conceptions of the class — and keep that conception through the whole semester — in these first few moments of the course. I want to give students the impression that the class is something they need to take seriously, and there’s a workload that has to be managed carefully, and they cannot expect to succeed if they hold the course at arms’ length. I think jumping in, rather than easing in, to the coursework is a good way to accomplish this. A potential downside of my approach is that students often get shellshocked by the initial workload and give up before they even get started. I always get a few students coming by with drop forms, saying “I just don’t think I’m going to have the time for this course.”

How do you approach the first day, and next few days, of a course? Or, if you are not a teacher, what was the best or worst approach you’ve seen to the initial few days of a course?


Filed under Education, Life in academia, Profhacks, Teaching

Daily routines

John Cook shared this interesting article on Twitter the other day. It lists 25 great thinkers and their daily rituals. This got me thinking about my daily routine, the little rituals that I observe, and how the rhythms of a routine help me find balance, stability, and productivity in my life and work. I’ve seen the value of a routine through my kids (ages 6, 4, and 1), who early on needed routines to help them learn day from night and know when to eat and nap, and who still need to stick to a routine or else become incorrigible.

While having three kids this young makes routines and rituals more a matter of probability than anything and routines hard to follow, there are a few rituals I like to keep around no matter what happens:

  • I get up at 5:00, and from 5:30-6:15 I do Matins from the Treasury of Daily Prayer, eat breakfast, and get all the stuff the kids need for school that day assembled and ready to go. Then I get the kids up (if they aren’t awake early, as is all too often the case) and we’re out the door for school by 7:15.
  • I try to get to the office by 8:00 or a little after and reply to messages for no more than a half hour. Anything messages I don’t get to wait till the afternoon or later. I don’t even use Entourage or a “push” email client; I use the web access to our email server so that I’m only alerted to new messages when I ask it to alert me.
  • On Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays I try to take 8:30-9:30 and do something scholarly and/or creative. This might be working on a computer program, watching part of a video from MIT OpenCourseware or iTunesU, reading a journal article, working on a blog post, or the like. When I first became a professor I was instructed that I needed to find large chunks of time in which to do research, but this approach simply hasn’t worked for me. Instead, I try to take a page from Teddy Roosevelt’s playbook,  shoehorning intellectual work into my busy schedule one 30- or 60-minute segment at a time.
  • On Wednesdays, I usually don’t teach at all (it’s a feature of my college’s scheduling). So I give myself until 10:00 to do my GTD Weekly Review. Then I take the entire remainder of the day and try to get every single course I teach fully prepped through the following Tuesday. That way there is no preparation work to be done through the week, and all I have to do is pull out my materials and walk to class when it’s time. This doesn’t always work, but no ritual works all the time, so I don’t let it bother me as long as I am prepared for at least tomorrow’s classes.
  • I almost always make dinner for the family, and I eat with them and then play games or horse around or what-have-you until it’s bedtime for the kids, which is 7:30-8:00 at our place.
  • From 8:30-9:30, I like to spend time walking on the treadmill while I am watching a course video from iTunesU on the iPod Touch. (Right now I’m doing Gil Strang’s linear algebra course at MIT; also on my “course schedule” is an intro biology course at UC-Berkeley and a basic statistics course from a community college.) I do that 3-4 nights a week. On the other nights I will try to practice my bass guitar (through headphones, of course), work on blog posts, or something else fun.
  • I always read in bed until I fall asleep, usually by 11:00 PM.

And I try extremely hard never to bring work home — no grading at nights or on the weekends for me unless it’s crunch time. This is a commitment I made to myself and to the family early on. I eventually became a GTD disciple precisely because I’ve found that particular approach to work to be very amenable to a satisfying family life, uninterrupted by work tasks that could (should) have gotten done earlier had I been more focused.

Now it’s your turn. What are your daily routines and rituals? How do they make you happy and productive?

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Filed under Family, GTD, Life in academia, Personal, Profhacks, Vocation

Ten rules for financing a transition to academia (Rerun/bumped)

This post is a rerun from December 2008, which was itself a re-posting from an article I wrote for the Young Mathematicians’ Network. If you’re headed to the Joint Mathematics Meetings this month to interview for academic positions, or if you’re one of the lucky ones who have already lined up a job for next year, or if you just want some ideas for New Year’s resolutions about money management, maybe this will fit the bill. Enjoy, and Happy New Year.


Right now, if you are on the job market, you are thinking of two, maybe three things. The top attention-getter, if you’re in graduate school, is getting your thesis done. Next down the list, you’re probably wondering what all those search committees are thinking, particularly what they are thinking of you and where they put you in the pack of applicants for their positions. And third, you might be thinking about the Joint Meetings next month, where you’ll likely get your first dose of interviewing.

But what many job applicants, particularly those still in graduate school, don’t think about at this time of year is how things are going to unfold after the interviews have been done and the job offers extended and accepted. Very soon, you’ll be done with your thesis and signed on to start a new position in the fall. And the gap between finishing school and starting a new academic job has to be paid for.

A failure to plan for this gap can create a huge financial mess, as you can tell if you look at my story. I accepted a job in April 1997 and defended my dissertation in May of that year, but not once did I plan for the interim period between finishing school and starting my job. When the summer following my defense came, I had virtually no income and absolutely no savings. So when I made my move from Tennessee to Indiana, I had to put everything — groceries, apartment deposits, and so on — on credit cards at 15% to 18% interest. My indebtedness went even deeper when I discovered the simple fact that my first paycheck wasn’t due to arrive until the middle of September. So I had to live for two months on my own with no money, living like a graduate student, racking up high-interest debt, after telling myself I’d finally be able to afford nicer things once I had a job. I absolutely failed to enjoy the new, comparatively luxurious income that I had earned by getting my job, because I had to spend the plurality of it paying off the debt I incurred while moving to that very same job! It took me the better part of four years after starting my job to pay off the debt I incurred from May through September.

We mathematicians are so good at quantitative ideas and yet many of us miss the boat when it comes to real-life personal finance. Here are ten pieces of advice about money and finances that I wish I had gotten prior to my last year in graduate school.

Things to do BEFORE interviews

1. Use a good online salary/cost of living calculator to get an estimate of monthly living expenses in all the areas you might live. You can Google and find a whole lot of these. Find out what the average starting salary is for the position to which you applied, and start plugging and chugging to find out what that compares to in different places.

2. Starting NOW: Save up for two months of living expenses based on the average monthly cost of living in your potential new locations. Those two months are August and September. This is very tough, because moving to a new location involves lots of one-time startup expenses that can mount up very quickly: deposits for a new apartment, fees to turn on utilities, tags for your car, and so on. Add to that the fact that many employers issue paychecks only once a month in the middle or sometimes (like my current college) at the end of the month. That means that the big, fat paycheck you’re looking forward to is not going to come your way until potentially 6-8 weeks after you actually begin working, and you will have a lot of expenses in the meanwhile to deal with. You have to have a cash reserve that is sufficient to handle these expenses and get you through to your first paycheck.

3. Starting NOW: Procure summer employment and benefits. In light of #2, it’s especially important to try and get some income sources for the time following your completion of school and (hopefully) your thesis defense and prior to your move. Fortunately, summer employment is usually easy to find if you are willing to get outside your comfort zone. There’s a good chance that your current university can hire you on as an adjunct to teach a four- or eight-week summer course. Adjuncting is a gig that usually pays fairly well, doesn’t involve as much grading during the summer as a regular-term course, and keeps your classroom skills fresh. Community colleges are also a good source of these kinds of jobs. If you don’t want to teach, there are always seasonal jobs in retail; or you could tutor; or you could babysit; or whatever. The point is that most graduate school assistantships run out at the end of the academic year, and you will need an income stream once this happens in order to save up for living expenses in August and September. The time to get busy finding such a stream is now, particularly for teaching jobs, as most colleges plan their teaching schedules out 4-6 months in advance. And don’t forget benefits, either, like health insurance; if you carried health insurance as a part of your graduate student assistantship, and you’re no longer a graduate student, then you should look into getting a COBRA or finding a summer position that has health insurance as a benefit.

4. Starting NOW: Pay down or pay off credit card debts and make a pact with yourself to use credit cards only if you know you won’t carry a balance. If you can pay off your credit card and personal loan debts now, then you can use the money you are pumping out to the credit card companies and salt it away instead for your living expenses later in the year. And since the use of credit cards and personal loans is easy to justify when you have to scrape income together to get by, you have to be serious with yourself about using them sparingly, if at all — or else you’ll end up with debt that takes years to pay off, like I did.

Things to do DURING and AFTER interviews

Once you start having phone interviews and/or Joint Meetings interviews, and then go on to on-campus interviews and eventually job offers, it’s time to be more precise:

5. When you are able to make a short list of schools under consideration, do detailed research on the cost of living in each area and revise your calculation from #1. You’ll have between two and ten schools that are holding your interest and which are reciprocating that interest by now. Look at each school in turn and find out: average monthly rent on apartments, average cost per square foot for houses, property tax rates, car and health insurance rates, and so on. You now have to consider the prospect of actually living in one of these places. And the cost of doing so is at least as important of a factor in considering job offers as anything else. If a school in central Indiana (one of the most affordable places to live in the USA) offers you a salary of $50K per year, that’s much different than getting an offer from a school in San Francisco or New York City of the same amount or even $20-30K per year more than that. You can find out information on most of these things online at your salary/COL calculator, local real estate web sites (which let you search for apartments and homes in the area), and Chamber of Commerce sites.

6. When doing on-campus interviews, take time to explore the area to check out housing prices and neighborhoods, rent for apartments near campus, going to grocery stores, etc. While you can do much of your cost-of-living research online, there’s no substitute for pounding the pavement and putting yourself in the actual location in which you might be living. That college’s web site might make it look like an idyllic, forested setting, but maybe that’s just good photography — and the reality is that the college’s town is run-down and crime-ridden. On my first job interview, the college actually loaned me a college vehicle and paid for the gas so I could spend an afternoon on my own driving around to see the place, and that was a major factor in my taking that position.

7. When an offer comes, negotiate for relocation expenses. The cost of actually moving your stuff from your current location to the new location is a significant expense that can be a huge one, if you have more to move than just yourself and a small amount of stuff. Many colleges automatically give some sort of relocation allowance and are happy to do so, but you want to do the research beforehand to estimate just how much it’s going to cost you to actually move (How big of a truck will you need? How much mileage and gas? Will it take one day or multiple days? Do you need movers to handle your stuff?) and then make this a point of negotiation during the offer. If you are attractive enough of a candidate to get an offer at all, most colleges would have no problem spending a little more on a one-time basis to help you move there. (And if they are not willing to help you on that, turn the offer down — who wants to work at a stingy college?) This is a summer expense that you can totally avoid if you have hard data to support your estimate and halfway-decent negotiating skills.

8. Consider living in an inexpensive apartment or rental house for one year after moving, rather than buying a house. There are a lot of reasons in general to prefer owning a home over renting. But when you are moving to a new location, renting for a year will free up income (since rent is typically less than a mortgage payment) and will allow you to do four important things:
(a) Research the housing market in your area, figure out where the good and bad neighborhoods are, and figure out just how much you can really afford per month on a mortgage payment.
(b) Set aside money towards a down payment on the house that you really want (if you really want one). The magic number is often 20% of the house’s value, which will allow you to avoid mortgage insurance costs later.
(c) Build up an emergency fund of at least $1000 that will give you a cushion if something unexpected comes along.
(d) Continue to pay off debts.
Also, since it might be expensive just to travel to a place to look for housing, getting an apartment first doesn’t involve so much guesswork (apartments are pretty uniform in quality whereas houses can look great online but turn out to be terrible in person), and setting up your apartment can be done online or over the phone without having to travel.

9. Make a pact with yourself that you will not splurge on nice stuff until you actually have an income from your new job. This is very tough, because you’ve been living for 4+ years on a pauper’s income and eating Ramen noodles for two meals a day, so you really, REALLY want to go out and buy an iPhone or a new car. But you have to tell yourself that just having a job doesn’t mean you have money — not yet. I think a good waiting period on new stuff would be one semester after you start. By then, you’ll have an idea of just how far that paycheck will stretch each month and you can avoid getting in over your head. Some items, I agree, you have to buy right away — like furniture for your apartment. But you can often get multiple-years same-as-cash deals on things like this and defer payments until after the first semester is over.

10. Continue to educate yourself on personal finance matters. I highly recommend, and have largely stolen from in this article, the work of Dave Ramsey as a good source of learning about financing. He will challenge you to change the way you think about consumerism and debt, and if you listen, you will get on a sound financial footing for the rest of your life. His best book is Total Money Makeover, and his Financial Peace University classes are offered all the time in churches and community centers, usually for free or a small fee. He also has a radio show, web site, and podcast on money matters.

The point here is that you not only want to get a job you love, you also want to give yourself the ability to enjoy it to the fullest by not having to worry about money or how to pay off all the debt you gathered while finishing up.

Do you have other ideas or advice for getting financially ready to transition from grad school to the working world? Leave a comment!

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Back to Jott

After trying either to live without Jott or to use an alternative speech-to-text service like reQall (which seemed very unwieldy to me), I finally decided to go back and give the new, for-profit version of Jott a spin. And actually, it’s fine.

The service is still the same — you call 866-JOTT-123 and leave a message, and Jott transcribes it to text — and it appears to work just as well as it used to (which isn’t always so great, depending on the signal strength and your enunciation skills). What made Jott the killer app for me, before it went out of beta, was that the text transcription of voice messages was sent directly to GMail. (Or your choice of several other links.) Some of the links from Jott to the rest of the web are still free (such as Twitter) but the others, particularly all the Google apps, are “premium links” which you can have for $3.95 a month. Having to go to a web site to retrieve my tasks from Jott was just one or two steps more in the collection process than I wanted to do.

But as I said, as it turns out, it’s still OK: Under the “basic” (free) plan, when you leave the voice message, the transcription is placed on the Jott Desktop (a website), but there’s still an email notification sent that contains a link to the appropriate message. I have my email set up to send to a GTD label in GMail, so when I check my GMail inbox, there’s my task, just as it always was — I only have to click a link. It’s not like I have an entirely new inbox to add to my list of inboxes, and that was the main sticking point with the Jott Basic plan.

I don’t know if there was anyone else out there as anal-retentive about GTD as I am who might have been ditching Jott for the same reasons as me, but if so, I’d say it’s OK to go back.

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