Course Design Elevator Pitch

One of my favorite sources for class activities is Gamestorming. While targeted at business and leaders of businesses, many of the activities can be easily adapted for the classroom and committee work (see my review here). I’ve talked in previous posts about how to use user stories for personal planning, and Agile Faculty covers course and assignment design as well. In this post, I want to introduce your to another format from Gamestorming – the elevator pitch.

When we think about elevator pitches, we probably think of that under 30 second synopsis an entrepreneur or sales person uses to get in the door with a funder or buyer. The Gamestorming version of the format is clearly for a business, so let’s reimagine for a course. I sincerely dislike the student-as-customer concept, but that doesn’t mean we can’t frame our courses in interesting and persuasive ways for students.

Thinking about a course you are planning or redesigning for the new academic year, how might you complete the following pitch in a way that helps students understand the value of the course to you and to them in their education?



As I’ve discussed before, the retrospective meeting is the last in the sprint cycle, a time for the team to reflect on their performance in terms of process rather than product. I like retros because they are a built in opportunity for reflection and there are so many activities you can do to keep reflection fresh.

Doing a retrospective on the last academic year or the last run of a course can be a great tool before you start planning for the new year. Most of us know the standard SWOT analysis – strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats. I don’t believe SWOT is a good retro activity because it really isn’t about process. It’s more about profit really.

So instead I recommend a SOAR analysis – strengths, opportunities, aspirations, and results. Let’s break that down for a specific course retrospective:

  1. Strengths – what readings, assignments, activities, etc. were most effective the last time you ran the course?
  2. Opportunities – Where in the course are their opportunities for improvement, maybe a different unit or assignment that could be upgraded?
  3. Aspirations – What is your vision for the course in the future?
  4. Results – What heuristic can you use to measure how successful you are in building on strengths and opportunities to achieve your aspirations?

This worksheet from the libraries at the University of Missouri offers a very detailed set of questions to encourage you for each aspect of the analysis.

Time to Face the … Changes

OK, so that’s not quite the Bowie lyric, but the changes I want to talk about aren’t strange. They are totally normal career and personal growth changes that I made rationally for my health and my family’s well-being. Sounds dramatic, but it seems like academics need to justify every career move that would be considered perfectly reasonable to non-academics.

As I’ve mentioned, I’m coming out of an episode of clinical burnout that upended everything I thought I knew about myself and my career. Once I could admit and deal with the reality of the impact my workplace was having on my mental health, I was able to admit without shame, finally, that I wasn’t happy any longer. Hadn’t been for a while.

It took a real wake-up call to admit I was done and that I wanted to do something different. And to see that not as a personal failure, but as a natural stage in a (hopefully) long professional life.

It wasn’t one situation or one experience or one specific person that contributed to my need to move on. It was a slow revelation over time that I simply fought against tooth and nail because, honestly, I had a perfect job – tenured, great colleagues and students, respected institution, etc. So I pushed myself harder and harder, trying to achieve some sort of escape velocity from those feelings. Yeah, that didn’t work.

In some ways, the burnout was like facing my own professional mortality and making peace with the fact that I was not going to spend my entire career one institution. And that was OK. I could find something different, closer to the type of work I really want to be doing now. Part of getting over my burnout was realizing I couldn’t manage everyone else’s emotions and needs over my own.

A colleague once told me years ago that academics are more mobile than we think we are. I didn’t believe them. But it stuck with me. So I tested the waters by applying for a couple of jobs in faculty development just to see if I was marketable and if I should make a full move to be on the market in the next academic year. I didn’t expect to get one of those jobs. But I did, and it felt right for me and my partner, and I made the call.

I’ll be moving to Atlanta and starting my new role in the Center for Teaching and Learning at Georgia Tech in a couple weeks. Transitions are hard, but I’m excited to see where this new start takes me.

To wrap it up, here’s that Bowie I promised you.

For a long time, my scholarly mind has been focused on being knowledgeable and achieving excellence in my field and profession (see last week’s post on values). My goal was to be the go-to, recognized expert for something – ultimately, that became Scrum in student collaboration and faculty development. Publishing Agile Faculty was the cherry on top of that quest; I never imagined I’d write a book in the first place.

After that, I felt like I needed to be an expert in everything I was working on, especially with design thinking, innovative program design, and an edited collection on innovative programs in liberal education that came out of that work my co-editors and I had under contract. It took me almost 10 years of research, teaching, facilitating, and observing to write Agile Faculty, so pushing myself to be the best in these new areas was actually really stressful and brought my productivity to a grinding halt for a while.

For example, I knew I needed to write the introductory chapter for our edited collection, but I put it off for months. I’d tell myself or my co-editors I wanted to wait until I saw author drafts, or I needed to do more reading, or I just had to interview some leaders in higher education who were far more informed than I was on the topic.

This was happening in a few of my projects, including a book proposal I’ll talk about soon, Because I’m trying to be more verbal about my struggles like this, I was open to talking about it with my coach, Katie Linder, and others. But Katie said a sentence to be that honestly fundamentally changed the way I was thinking about the work. She said

“What if you could come from a place of vulnerability instead of strength?”

Vulnerability isn’t a word I like, but I’d been on a path to understand myself better for the last year which included reading more Brene Brown vulnerability and shame research than I care to admit. It took me a while to process what Katie meant, but once I realized I didn’t have to be the end-all know-all of liberal education to write the book introduction, it suddenly made much more sense. I wasn’t trying to prove to my audience that I was an expert – I was trying to show that we three co-editors are normal faculty interested in exploring this topic with others. We didn’t have all the answers when we started, and what we put together is a set of interesting case studies from like-minded academics.

Once that switch clicked, I was able to write the intro to the edited collection very quickly by simply writing to my peers. So in this case, trying to be the strong expert was getting in the way of thinking about myself and connecting with my audience. When I cast myself as their peer, the chapter and the book made total sense.

What are your thoughts on the ideas of strength and vulnerability in faculty work?

I’ve been thinking about values a lot over the last year. Well, rethinking values. My values. I’ve been working with a few professional and personal development groups, and each of them asked us to articulate our values and how they show up in our lives and work.

There are lots of activities you can do to think about your own values, as I talk about in this earlier post (here’s one good list for a quick exercise, and here is another for a more in-depth look).

Honestly, doing the values exercises is always frustrating for me. Because it makes me confront the fact that the majority of my values are associated with success, excellence, being the best, achievement, etc. As much as I want to be able to say things like integrity and happiness and community are my core values, that would be a stretch There’s some shame associated with that, to be so externally motivated.

But I wouldn’t be surprised to find that other hardcore academics might feel the same way. It’s trained into us, even if it wasn’t part of our natural disposition pre-academy.

When the values activities became part of the homework for my personal development group, I was reluctant to do it yet again and see what I already know about myself. After explaining the exercise, the facilitator asked if there were any questions, and after a second of hesitation, I asked, “So what if your values are the problem?” One of the other members laughed aloud because she had been thinking the same thing. The leader smiled and asked us to just lean into that uncomfortable thought and see what happens. Yes, I rolled my eyes (internally) at first, but the more I thought about it, the more I began to realize that I didn’t like what my values said about me because I was thinking about them as all externally motivated. And in the past, they were.

As I’ve been working on understanding myself better, I realized that my impulses to excellence and achievement are tied to being useful and contributing to a community. If I could define excellence and success for myself, instead of looking for outside validation, those values can be strengths. I could finally say to myself that I had accomplished everything I wanted to as a faculty member and that I was really ready to take the first step into a new career (more about that soon).

So, I encourage you to think about your core values – Can you define them? Can you identify them? How do you feel about the values that rise to the top? How do those values motivate you? Can you turn seemingly “negative” values into positives? Give it a try.

One of the things that really attracted me to Scrum beyond the project management framework was this attention to humanistic values. While grounded in empirical control theory and based on the core tenet “inspect and adapt,” Scrum practitioners are guided by five core values that, when felt and lived, are supposed to strengthen Scrum teams, empower them for success, and lead to professional and personal development for each team member. These values align with many of the things faculty care most about, because faculty work IS collaborative and value(s)-driven.

Below is each value in bold, the value statement from the Scrum Alliance web page for each value in quotes, and my own quick interpretation as a preview to the five more in-depth posts to follow. Feel free to skip to the end of this post for a video overview of the values.

Focus. “Because we focus on only a few things at a time, we work well together and produce excellent work. We deliver valuable items sooner.” The luxury of focus in often difficult during the semester. For example, I teach undergraduates in mostly writing-intensive courses, so my students tend to be my focus throughout the semester, and research and writing can fall by the wayside.

Courage. “Because we work as a team, we feel supported and have more resources at our disposal. This gives us the courage to undertake greater challenges.” I think it takes courage to walk into a classroom every day, perhaps less so into classes that are going well but definitely more so when they aren’t.

Openness. “As we work together, we express how we’re doing, what’s in our way, and our concerns so they can be addressed.” It’s easy to keep what happens in your classroom private. And it’s just as easy to fall back on the “I’m really busy!” response when someone asks you how you are doing.

Commitment. “Because we have great control over our own destiny, we are more committed to success.” Focus and commitment are closely related for me, and these come from a place of commitment to the ideas behind what we are doing, my desire to help students (and colleagues) succeed and excel, and my own desire for success and respect as well.

Respect.”As we work together, sharing successes and failures, we come to respect each other and to help each other become worthy of respect.” Respect is the easiest value to live when I work with such wonderful colleagues. If we are being honest with ourselves through, in the heat of the semester sturm und drang, we can forget to respect our students and maybe ourselves. We can get caught up in group dynamics, live their stress as our own, and perhaps forget what we need as faculty to remain well, optimistic, and engaged in the learning environment.  we are setting out to do in this program is innovative, unique, intense, but important.

The values of focus, courage, openness, commitment, and respect already align with my values as a professional. With a Scrum mindset, we allow that we are all doing the best we can at a given moment and that helping those around us grow (and being open to that support ourselves) is equally important as productivity.

AF Book Review Round-Up

Looking for a new book to read on Scrum, faculty life, productivity, creativity, or self-care? Here’s a fast round-up of the texts I’ve reviewed so far (in reverse chronological order):

Brainstorming is not the only way to come up with new ideas, especially given that most of us do brainstorming in ways that actually hinder creating better ideas in teams. So here’s one strategy you can use if you want to work with a team or an interdisciplinary group to come up with interesting and extreme ideas – even the unrealistic ideas usually have a kernel of something exciting in them!

  1. Before the session, come up with a question or prompt that you want your participants to focus their ideation on. For example, when I gathered an interdisciplinary group of arts, humanities, and social sciences faculty to think about forming innovative interdisciplinary teaching projects, I used this question: As engaged faculty in the College of Arts and Sciences, how might we leverage existing aspects of the CAS curriculum, both formal and informal, to create exciting, innovative, “immersive” interdisciplinary, team-taught learning opportunities  for our students at 8, 12, and 16 sh?
  2. Print this EEE worksheet for as many people as will be joining the session.
  3. At an appropriate time in your meeting or workshop, distribute the handout and give individuals 5 minutes to silently brainstorm and write ideas on their grid.
  4. Ask small groups or tables to share their ideas and continue the ideation. For example, you might
    • Ask each individual to share and have others comment/add ideas.
    • Do a round robin – ask the participants to pass their handout to the person on their write, give that person 3 minutes to add notes/ideas, then pass again to the right for as many times seems realistic and useful. Then have the groups discuss what they came up with.
  5. Ask each group or table to summarize and share their best ideas, and let discussion flow.
  6. Have teams capture their best ideas in writing either via a summary or notations on their actual handout.

Once you’ve got that all collected, you can use the ideas to move forward with your project!

*I can’t remember where I pulled this activity from so if you know the attribution, please let me know!


Looking for quick tips and strategies? Here’s a roundup of the most practical posts on Agile Faculty so far:

Favorite Tool – Canva

I have never been a skilled graphic designer. Adobe PageMaker was about as good as I could get visually, and that’s been discontinued for years. I’m just not a visual thinker, which I’m totally fine with because there are tools that help me elevate my design abilities without being too cheesy or locked into templates.

I started using Canva a couple of years ago as students in my professional writing courses seemed to start turning to Canva more and more for their  visual assignments. It was really frustrating at first because they were all using the same basic templates with no real rhetorical choices being made. Instead of banning them from using it, I started digging into the tool myself and saw that it was more powerful than the students’ work represented, so I found ways to incorporate it into my courses a bit more.

Canva is a design tool that allows you to create a variety of visual documents – from posters to resumes to infographics to social media graphics – from their extensive library of templates and options for customizing the design. The free templates allow you to edit text and layout, add shapes, chance background and text colors, and choose stock images from their free library (many other images are available for a small fee, usually $1). Because I can use this tool for both work-related documents like course posters and syllabi (see right) as well as for Agile Faculty tasks, I pay $12.95/mo for the advanced version. The best features with the paid subscription are that you can create and reuse your won templates (see below) and you can resize any design into another format, like changing and Instagram post to a Facebook page header. For me, the money is worth it.

So, go to Canva and play around. If you aren’t a graphic designer or interested in learning the deeper features of Photoshop or InDesign, I highly recommend Canva.



(*This is not a paid advertisement/endorsement for Canva. I just like the tool.)