Friday, November 14, 2008

Itching for the Semester's End - A Post about Teaching

Really, this semester has gone, with a few exceptions, very well. And yet, well, this semester has been one of the roughest on me in some ways since my first year at this job. Part of that is real life stuff that's caused static, part of it is the tenure/book business, part of it is that it's the first time I've been back teaching four courses in a few years, which is an adjustment (though I will say the fact that I'm not doing a traditional comp class, let alone two, has made the burden lighter). I also feel like maybe the reason it's felt rough is that I do feel like I've been growing as a teacher this semester, and realizing some things that I need to change to make my life easier. So let's look at the courses I'm teaching, and how things are going.

The Web-Based Course:
Well, this was my first ever time doing it, so there are some glitches. First, I assigned myself way too much work to ever keep up. In terms of prep the course has involved exactly nothing (did it all before the semester began) but in terms of keeping up with graded assignments and in terms of being "present" in the course, things fell apart for me around midterm. I'm glad I'll be teaching it again next semester, because I've learned a lot from these problems. Some things I'll change: 1) I'm going to cut the number of scheduled real-time interaction opportunities in half. Because while the requirement for student attendance is reasonable, the requirement for my attendance each and every freaking week totally isn't. 2) I was sort of... well, let's use the more neutral word... "encouraged" to include an assignment sequence in the course in which I don't really believe and that is a total time-suck. I'm not going to eliminate it altogether (as I think that would be bad politically) but I am going to scale it back to make it less of a time-suck for me. 3) I need to be stronger on giving instructions for certain tech things early, because STILL certain students seem just not to get it. While for me this stuff is intuitive, for some students it apparently isn't. I also need to state more strongly up front that if you don't understand the INCREDIBLY CLEAR assignments, perhaps you shouldn't be taking an online class. This class is not populated with distance students for the most part, but rather with students from a wide range of ability backgrounds who think online = easy. And at least a few of them really can't handle the independent nature of the course medium. The fact of the matter is, I can't walk an individual student through each and every assignment any more clearly than the assignment sheets do. As far as I can tell, the problem with this method of course delivery (for me) is that it cuts out the multiple kinds of delivery and reinforcement that are possible in the "traditional" classroom. Actually, in that regard, I feel like this method of delivery is more - not less - "traditional" than what I do in my other classes. Not all students can handle that model for learning, and with four classes, and I can't handle the time required to do the basic work of the course and to get the outliers (over and over again) up to speed. Anyway, all of this is good to know as a teacher, and I think it will really help me to improve my performance in the course in the spring. Finally, if I've learned anything that's not totally about me but that would be useful to others, I would strongly discourage anybody who's thinking of trying to teach online for the first time to wait until they're in a position where 1) they can really devote themselves to learning the medium without fear that it will negatively affect performance reviews, tenure outcomes, etc., 2) they will have the opportunity to teach the course repeatedly over the course of multiple semesters in a row, so that they can really fine-tune the course and think about their pedagogy as they do so. I'm glad that both of those things are in place for me, and I can't imagine doing this if they weren't.

Gen Ed. Course #1
This course flies along with the greatest of ease, perhaps because I've taught it every fall of my life on the tenure-track. Sure, I've changed texts in and out, but the assignments are set and my schtick for what I do in each unit is like second-nature. I've become much stronger in terms of my ability to engage students of varying ability and interest levels, and I feel like I have the freedom to experiment in there. I also was very excited to see VAST improvement on their second test, so they really are learning. I could teach this course every fall until I retire and I'd be completely content. Is it my most favorite course to teach? No. But I really love teaching in the Gen. Ed. curriculum, and I really love that doing so allows me to introduce students to my field.

Gen. Ed. Course #2
In contrast, this course is feeling a bit stale. I've taught it four times in a row now, and I'm bored. It doesn't help that I'm also in a wacky classroom for the course, which has messed with the dynamic of how the students interact and of how I interact with them. I won't be teaching it next semester, which I think is a good thing, and so I'm going to change it up a bit before I teach it again in the fall. I need to change one assignment, and I need to think about changing some texts, I think. If I haven't done so to this point it's because this course is very well designed (if I do say so myself), and so I've felt like changing it would be a lame move. However, if I'm bored, I'm a less good teacher. So some changes are in the offing for it.

The Most Fantastic Course Ever
Oh, how I will miss this course, and these students, when the semester is through! This is my second time teaching a version of this course (it used to be focused on three authors - now just two), and in many respects this is the paradigm of a course that many would argue a) would never fly at an institution like mine and b) that students at an institution like mine would hate with a fiery passion. But no! It is perfect! The students are on fire! It is amazing! Now, in part this is because I've got a solid core of frequent flyers in the course, and they set the tone early in the semester for the level of discourse. In part this is because I've learned enough about my own teaching since I last did the course that I my expectations are a lot more reasonable - both for what I can achieve and for what will work for them. (Note: that doesn't mean dumbing down the material at all - it just means I'm no longer teaching in a weird grad-school-produced vacuum. I've gotten better at making the tough stuff accessible, and they've gotten better about knowing what to expect from me as a professor before they ever enroll in my classes. I was still basically a new hire the first time I taught a version of this course, and that meant that the combination of me being green and them only taking the course because they needed it for graduation and because it fit with their schedules doomed us all to mediocrity.) I also think I'm a better teacher of this course because of bringing the book to publication. I'm no longer teaching this course in dissertation-ese. That makes such a huge difference.

So why am I so looking forward to next semester's teaching and to summer teaching?

The web-based course:
I'll have the chance to do some tweaking, and to really think more deeply about how my pedagogy works within this delivery method. And having done it one time, I do feel like I have a better sense of the challenges of teaching in this medium, so I can head some of them off at the pass. I'm excited to grow into this course.

Gen Ed. Course:
It's my favorite one of these that I teach. I will be teaching it both in the spring and summer, and it, like Gen. Ed. Course #1 from the fall is a well-oiled machine. The assignments are great, the pace is great. I love the things I'm teaching in there right now, and with the changes I made to it in terms of texts last year, nothing feels stale or in any way awkward. And, since I teach it so frequently, it requires like zero prep. Huzzah! It's just a course that is the fun of talking about fun literature with students! Hurray!

Course Required for Majors (my first time teaching it):
I'm a bit trepidatious about this one, though also excited. Reasons for trepidation: how I will teach this course promises to be more... demanding... than the way that some who have taught the course teach it. And if those who have enrolled are anticipating the less demanding version of things, I may face some resistance from students. However, I've got one student from the Best Class Ever taking it, and one student from a few semesters back from the gen. ed. course above who's also enrolled, and that will help with getting the other students on board. Reasons for excitement: I love the set-up of the syllabus, I think I've chosen good books, and I like the way that I've integrated film into the course as a touchstone for our discussions. This course promises to be a world of prep for me, but I also think that doing the prep will be good for my research, and it will energize me toward thinking about taking on a project worthy of a sabbatical, for I do fully intend to apply for a sabbatical next year, which I would take in either fall or spring of the 2010-2011 academic year. I still don't know whether I want that project to be a new book project or whether I want it to be a series of articles. Both options have merits, but the biggest merit of any such project would be that I would get to take a sabbatical! Crazy needs a break from teaching, people! Holla!

Upper-Level Course in My Field:
I've changed out a couple of novels in this course, and now I'm including one that I've not read since grad school, so that will be exciting. I'm also excited about this course because it will be populated with students whom I don't know, for the most part, and I need to get to work on creating a new fan base for my courses since I'm losing my cadre of student-peeps to graduation in the spring. I love this course because it's one of the few they take in our curriculum for majors that gets them reading stuff by Live Authors. (Our curriculum is stuck in like 1960.) Indeed, not a dead one in the bunch. This is exciting for them and for me.

And then in the summer, I'll also be teaching....

Grad Course:
This will be my first time teaching in our M.A. program. So that will provide an interesting challenge, a challenge which will be doubled given the abbreviated schedule of summer sessions. This course will not just be a ramped up version of something I teach at the undergrad level. Rather, I'm taking this as an opportunity to teach all new stuff - indeed, I'll be teaching a lot that I've not read (but have intended to read and which I should have read ages ago) - and to teach around a theme that wouldn't necessarily work at the undergrad level because of the topic. I think it's going to be a neat experiment, and I think I'm going to like the intensity of doing it for the first time in the summer, engaging with this material for (often) the first time right along with them. Also, the grading for the grad class will be easier than doing an undergrad class in the summer, since most of what I'll have to grade will be the seminar papers at the very end, as opposed to grading a lot of shorter assignments/tests with less turn-around time.


You will notice that over the course of this year I'm teaching eight different courses, two of which are brand spanking new preps. I should note that this is my preference, and not some draconian practice that's common in my department. If I wanted, I could teach the same courses with greater frequency, as opposed to having such a spread-out rotation. If I wanted, I could be teaching sections (like two or three of the same lower-level course plus my upper-level course in my field), but sections make me feel crazy, and not in a good way. See, I'm not one of those people who separates teaching from my intellectual and scholarly pursuits, mainly because I suck at doing that (not because I'm some sort of Super-Academic). When I've taught sections, I feel really irritated by them, partly because of the necessity of keeping the sections on the same schedule, partly because I like to fly by the seat of my pants in the classroom and so I have a hard time keeping track of what I've talked about in one class vs. another, and partly because I ultimately find them boring (esp. when it comes to reading twice as many papers on the same topics). I learned this early on in my time on the tenure-track, and so I've moved toward four preps per semester, in large part because that keeps me on my toes mentally and because I really enjoy doing lots of different things. Also, this has worked for me in terms of combining teaching and research interests, so prep for class ends up being research and thinking for scholarly endeavors. This is actually a reason why I think I wouldn't necessarily thrive at a research-intensive institution: I wonder whether I'd ever produce research if it wasn't tied so closely to what I do in the classroom. I'm inherently a pretty lazy person, when left to my own devices: teaching something forces me to do the work in a way that some abstract idea for a research project doesn't because I feel like I've got a responsibility to my students and I don't feel like I have a responsibility to Deep Thoughts. And teaching provides deadlines: you can't put off reading the novel that is on the syllabus for class the way that you can put off reading a novel that might be interesting for an article that maybe someday you'll write. Finally, teaching provides a forum for conversation. I can't tell you how many times just discussing books with my students has made something click in my head related to my research endeavors. The fact is, given the teaching loads of my colleagues, we don't really discuss our research interests or projects with any regularity, and we don't have much time for the conference circuit. With that being the case, if I don't use my students for those sorts of conversations, I'm operating in a vacuum 99% of the academic year.

Now, if you were to talk to many of my colleagues at my institution, and describe my thoughts on the matter, they'd say that I'm a nut. Many of them would dispute the connection that I draw between what I do in terms of my teaching schedule and scholarly productivity. And my grad school mentors and peeps at more research-intensive places most certainly think that I work in a sweatshop and that I'm either a masochist or a victim. But you know what? The proof is in the pudding. I feel intellectually stimulated, I'm productive, and I'm happiest when I'm not focused on one thing in a single-minded sort of a way (which for me quickly devolves into obsession and actually stalls productivity, cf. the time of doom when I had writer's block during dissertating).

So I kind of think that happiness at an institution like mine, if you care about research, is deeply linked to these sorts of work habits. YMMV and all that, but perhaps as those of you who are on the market think about where you might thrive on the tenure-track, this narrative will be useful to you. I'll say this, though, to temper my thoughts here: it only works because while I teach a lot of different preps, I do teach the same courses over and over again, and so they're not all NEW preps or infrequently taught preps, and a lot of my courses allow me to use similar prep in various slightly tweaked forms. My upper-level courses are always linked to my area of research expertise and use the same basic assignment and course design structure, an important part of which is using student presentations to convey some background info so that I don't have to prep it, and my gen. ed. courses are like well-oiled machines that vary very little from semester to semester in terms of content, structure, and design. And I could not have managed if I started off doing things this way. I needed those semesters with sections in the beginning in order to get my sea legs, as much as I disliked teaching sections. This only works now because I had very reasonable teaching assignments for the first few years. Oh, and it also matters that I have near total autonomy in choosing when I teach: this also couldn't work if I were required to be on campus at weird times, or if I had to change back and forth between a 3-day-a-week, 2-day-a-week, and 1-day-a-week schedule for the same class from semester to semester. So I'm in no way saying that there aren't variables that would make this unworkable, even given my natural predilection for this sort of set-up. There certainly are. But as things actually are, I actually really enjoy the variety I've achieved in my teaching life and it works for me.


gwinne said...

Well, as always, I appreciate what you have to say about your work in the classroom. I also like teaching new courses; even when I teach the same course number the course undergoes a radical reinvention every semester (with one exception). I'm finally at the point that next year in my Upper Divison Course in My Field that I'll cycle back through some material I haven't done in about five years. What I do do to keep things "easier" for me is that I try to teach many of the same texts on a fairly regular rotation (though the context changes). I've taught Cool Memoir, for instance, in two incarnations of a gen ed course in my department, the intro to my field course, and will try it in a new gen ed course in the spring. That will make teaching the 5+ books I've never taught before much more pleasant and manageable :)

Belle said...

I too do 4 preps per semester, by choice. For many of the same reasons, so reading your thoughts is helpful.

One thing for the online stuff: your experience sounds much like my own. For those times when you are saying the same things over and over, have you considered doing podcasts to provide that extra repetition for the .... laggards isn't the right word. Or is it?

I use some that I developed for a course I teach every two years. The students tell me that they use them a lot to remind themselves of what the various steps are, and they like the ability to get answers 24/7. Just a thought.