Mind Blown: Mind/Cognitive Loads at Home and Work

You know those days when something becomes so clear to you that it is like when the eye doctor switches those lenses and everything that was previously blurry and dark becomes perfectly clear and strikingly bright?  Yeah, that just happened to me in a way that makes both my personal and professional life so much more clear and bright that I had to share. It seems especially poignant in my year of “making a home,” since it focuses on how much mental effort is really expended (mostly invisibly) in making a home.


So, the first thing that popped up in my Facebook feed earlier today is this Real Simple article, shared by Working Moms Against Guilt.  The article focuses on the “invisible workload” that women carry in their brains:

Walzer found that women do more of the intellectual, mental, and emotional work of childcare and household maintenance. They do more of the learning and information processing (like researching pediatricians).

They do more worrying (like wondering if their child is hitting his developmental milestones). And they do more organizing and delegating (like deciding when the mattress needs to be flipped or what to cook for dinner).

Even when their male partners “helped out” by doing their fair share of chores and errands, it was the women who noticed what needed to be done.

The article struck a chord with me, not only because it quoted a poem written by a favorite blogger of mine from back when I first realized what having a chronically ill child was going to mean to my life, Ellen Seidman at Love That Max.  My daughter is not in any way comparable to Max in all that he (and therefore his family) has to deal with on the medical front, but she had a way of making me feel better about myself as a mother and she offered guidance for how to deal with all of the doctor’s appointments and anxiety and hospital stays and so much more.  But, back to the article…I recognized our own family, where my husband often asks me to “give him a list of two or three things to do” as if he can’t see the laundry piling up or the dishes sitting dirty in the sink or the garbage that needs taking out, etc., etc.  I make and record all the medical appointments.  I deal with most of the pharmacy issues for medication.  I schedule babysitters and dog sitters.  Now that our dryer isn’t working, I do loads of wash and then pile them in the car and take them to the laundromat to dry.  I then bring them home and fold them and put them away.  I keep our calendar.  In the day-to-day, it doesn’t seem like much, but as the article indicates, it takes its toll.  And as the author of the article includes, it isn’t just all the household management that we are having to think about:

It’s about housework, yes, but it extends to having to consider what neckline, hemline, height of heel, and lipstick shade is appropriate for that job interview, afternoon wedding, or somber funeral, instead of relying on an all-purpose suit; it’s about thinking carefully about how to ask for a raise in a way that sounds both assertive and nice; it’s about worrying whether it’s safe at night and how to get home; for some of us, it involves feeling compelled to learn feminist theory so as to understand our own lives and, then, to spend mental energy explaining to others that the revolution is unfinished.

I must admit that I’m not one for changing my neckline or hemline or heel height.  I am lucky to work in academia where I am not going to be the best-dressed faculty member, but I’m also never going to be the worst dressed faculty member.  But, as a female debate coach, I know what it is like to have to think about how to approach a conversation with others.  And yes, the revolution is unfinished, although now I figure I can just show this cover of Washington Post’s Express in response to anyone who challenges that notion:


So, I can’t say I feel “good” about the article’s findings, but I do feel somewhat vindicated in feeling overwhelmed and exhausted much of the time and a bit frustrated some of the time.

But, it didn’t end there.  That was me noticing my own pain and suffering.  The real turning point came when I then read “Enhancing Learning through Zest, Grit and Sweat,” in Faculty Focus and I came to this last advice under the “sweat” section:

Mind cognitive load. Complex assignment instructions, confusing website navigation, and disorganized course materials increase unproductive cognitive load. Cognitive load should focus energy on the subject, not on the periphery.

And I thought about my prior classes.  I thought about how I have now realized how poor some of my navigation was designed on our Learning Management System.  I realized how at times, the course materials were disorganized and sometimes late being delivered.  I realized that, in the same way that I am suffering from a heavy mind cognitive load at home, I am placing my students in a situation where they are suffering a heavy mind cognitive load because of ME!  And I realize now how important it is to relieve that load.  I realize that, in the past, I have expected my students to “let things go” or I have told them to “remind me to post materials because I might forget” and that, my friends, is really not fair to them.

So, although I have already done quite a bit of reorganization and increased the clarity and focus in my classes and the assignment instructions, etc. I have a new understanding of the WHY.  I have a personal connection to my students’ frustration.  I am able to see like I have not been able to see before.

To conclude, thinking is hard work.  I am sure that I will continue to carry the load of thinking jobs at home.  But, I can now be more aware of when it is starting to wear on me and I can be more able to voice my concerns about it.  I will also work at ensuring I do what I can to allow my students to focus on their learning of the subject matter and not the peripheral “unproductive” cognition caused by my lack of preparation or awareness.  In the end, I hope that we will all have a year with less of a mind/cognitive load.

Bad at Goodbyes – Ending the Semester

I am bad at goodbyes.  I was always horrible at breakups.  I tend to let friendships fade out rather than end in some kind of fiery glory of true “Fin!”.  And this all equates to my final few weeks of the semester being horrible.  I used to think it was because I was tired of my students or burnt out from all the grading and stress of end-of-year events, etc.  But, no.  I now believe it is really because I’m bad at goodbye.

good in good bye

I want to be the kind of teacher that has that last day of class that looks like a scene from Dead Poet’s Society, where I stand on my desk and provide my students with a life-changing soliloquy of life and love, lost and gained.  But, instead, I drag in, carrying a way-too-full work bag full of papers that need grading, pass out their multiple choice final (which tests little of their knowledge gained during the semester) and then tell them “Have a good break.” as they walk out the door, many of them to never be seen again.  None of them finding the experience life-changing in any way, shape or form.  They may have enjoyed the class (at least some of them say they did), but none of them are walking away from the experience with any real sense of closure.

Its funny in a way, because I teach public speaking and one thing that beginning speakers are usually poor at doing is closing their speech.  You get those awkward endings with people pausing, and the audience wondering if they should applaud or if the person is going to continue, and the speaker has to say, “That’s it.  I’m done.”  That is what I feel like my finals are like.  An awkward pause while the students are thinking, “is this really IT?” and then me saying, “that’s it…have a good break.” and everyone leaves slightly let down.

So, I can’t change it for this semester, but it is something I plan to work on for next semester.  I’m considering doing away with any kind of traditional final exams in my classes.  No more Scantrons.  No more multiple choice questions that fail to capture the true learning that has (or has not) taken place during the semester.  But, I need to figure out something to replace it with.  I like what this Professor from Georgetown has to say (and I don’t think I remember a single final I took – papers I wrote, yes, but finals I took, no): “Meaningful Exams for a Meaningful End.”  My friend reads “Oh, the Places You Will Go,” by Dr. Seuss, but he teaches mostly seniors and I teach a lot of Frosh.  End of the semester conferences, like these discussed in “Ending the Semester on High Note,” also sound intriguing, but a little difficult to fit in those last few weeks (since I have performance-based classes where speeches are being given, etc.).  There are a lot of ideas floating around out there in the internets…I just need to figure out which will work for me and my classes.  But, I am definitely open to suggestion!

So, that is one of my “teacher goals” for the summer.  To figure out how to put the Good in my end-of-semester Goodbyes.

Teacher Talk: Three Things to do Mid-semester

Oh, the dreaded mid-semester mark.  The major holidays are over and everyone is looking down the barrel of the weeks left in the semester.  Instructors are having midterms and midterm projects.  We have inevitably fallen behind the schedule and are trying to play catch up.  The weather is starting to warm and students are looking to revisit their Spring Break rather than their textbooks and notebooks.  So, what to do to keep momentum going and students from rising up?

midsemester meme

Really, we don’t plan these things as instructors, but it would be much more enjoyable if we did.  Especially if we were all followers of Dr. Evil…

But, alas, we are not.  So, here are some things to do:

  1.  Figure out if you can cull anything from the remainder of the semester.  I have started to really question everything I teach each semester now.  It used to be that I taught whatever was in the textbook.  And sometimes there was much more in the textbook than there were days in the semester, but I would try to shove it all in there anyways.  When I switched to not using a textbook in one of my classes, I really had to ask what I NEEDED to teach in order to reach the learning objectives.  After all, the textbook is not often written with our learning objectives in mind, yet, we teach it, without question and often without purpose.  So, no more of that.  This semester we may have a week long strike, so the culling becomes even more important.  Some things are must-haves others, my students can probably live without and still achieve all learning objectives.
  2. Switch it up.  Go somewhere new for class – a computer lab, outside, the student union.  Just get out out of the rut that has become your classroom.  If you can’t do that, switch up the classroom a bit for one or two sessions.  Move desks around or have an activity where everyone has to stand and walk around (I have what I call “public speaking cocktail parties” where people mill about, introduce themselves and talk about their speech topics – no alcohol is included).  Have a guest speaker come in for a class.  Show a Ted Talk.  Anything that will get your students (and you) feeling like everything old is new again.
  3. Start planning for next semester.  It seems kind of counter-intuitive to start planning for the next semester before you’ve even finished this one, but I’ve found if I wait until its all over, I forget what happened in the first half of the semester.  So, I’ve started doing a little “mid-term review” of my own.  What worked?  What didn’t?  What did I want more of and what did I want less of (or even none of)?  It helps to note all this somewhere and it makes me start to feel a little more positive as I can look forward with fixes rather than looking back with disappointment.

So, those are my three things to do mid-semester.  What about you other teachers out there?  What do you do mid-semester to keep the momentum going?