Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Last Hurrah For the Best Class Ever

So, it is over. The Best Class Ever will never meet again. We have had our final, and many of them will be graduating if not this weekend than in Spring. Sigh.

However our last class meeting, our "final" technically, was really, really great. I started experimenting last semester with the idea of doing non-traditional final in advanced classes in which really the research paper should be the culminating major assignment in the course. (Pesky university rules about "every course must have a final except for in 'writing' courses" have inspired this.) So I started thinking about what I actually expect finals to do. And, really, what I expect my students to do in any setting - traditional or non - is to show me what they've learned over the course of the semester and to synthesize the different pieces of what they've learned. Now, is there a reason why this needs to take place in a 2 hour written exam? Indeed, NO!

So what we did in The Best Class Ever was their final was an oral presentation, in which they had to do two things: 1) They had to talk about their paper, its topic, how the topic helped them to understand the ideas of the course more deeply, how they entered into the scholarly conversation in the general area of the course through their paper; 2) They had to define the Major Term around which the course was built, based on what they had read throughout the semester.

It was ridiculously interesting, and it was so nice for students to hear about what other of their classmates were working on for the past month or so, and also, it was gratifying because I heard better explanations for Major Term from them than most professors ever would hope for (or than most professors in my discipline though not in my sub-field could probably themselves give).

And there was even time left over for me to give a warm and fuzzy speech about how wonderful they all were and how impressed with them all I am, which isn't my typical way, but dude, they had earned every bit of praise I heaped on them.

I'm so excited about how much they all learned this semester, about how invested they all were in the material and in meeting my outrageous demands that they push themselves beyond their comfort zones, about the work that I was able to help them to do.

Dude, I blew some minds this semester. And no, I can't take credit for what my students achieved, but that was something that I achieved. And yes, that does make this job "worth it" to me in ways that are immeasurable.

[You know, periodically in response to posts about the burden that falls on tenured/t-t faculty related to budgets (here and elsewhere) people will pipe up that if it's so awful that one should just get another job, that adjuncts are great teachers, and that nobody would lose anything if people in my situation just pulled up stakes and moved on to greener pastures. Now, I'm not a martyr, and I don't think that it's my "vocation" to do this job in some sort of "as a professor I am a monk dedicated to self-sacrifice" sort of a way, nor would I rule out leaving this job (or career even) for another if that were the right move for me. I also don't think that I in some way "deserve" a better work situation than other people (in academe or out of it) because I happen to be a tenure-track college professor. BUT, and I don't think that this is being self-congratulatory, I do think that something would be lost if students didn't have professors (me, but not necessarily me) who were able to invest in them in the way that I am able to invest because I'm not working course by course, piecemeal, with little time to design my courses, with little time to work out the kinks in the classroom, without adequate office space to get to know my students, etc. The conditions of my labor have allowed me to invest in my teaching and to invest in my students, and this is where my privilege benefits my students perhaps even more than it benefits me personally. I could not do the job that I do as a teacher if I didn't have the privileges I have based on my tenure-track employment.

And as conversations continue about how faculty will have to "do more," the more that is often asked often falls into categories that take away from my students in both direct and indirect ways, which is the real reason why I'm so resistant. And the bottom line (for that seems to be what taxpayers and my administration cares about most) is that you want students - whether its you, your kids, your siblings, whatever - to have teachers that have the freedom, time, and resources to devote to them - you want teachers like the one that I have been able to become. Not because I have something special about me that my part-time colleagues don't, but because I have had the material conditions in place that I can devote more and give more to my students. My primary job has been to be to set their worlds on fire. If I were struggling to put together enough courses to make 20K a year? Without health care? Yeah, my top priority would be making ends meet - not blowing people's minds.

And so that's where I feel like my opinions about compensation of faculty fall into line with my opinions about education generally. It's not that I expect to work less than I do, but rather that I want the work that I do to actually be about educating students and about contributing to my field. I want support to do that work, and I want that work to be valued because it has value. I think that the majority of people who teach in higher ed should have that support and be compensated adequately for that work, that work that is central to what universities are supposed to be. You want people who have the resources to be more than warm bodies and grading machines teaching students. Seriously. Just ask my students.]

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