So we are in the middle of week 4 of our 16-week semester, and it’s at about this point that I finally feel like I’m starting to get to know my students and like we’re finally getting done with the “opening of the semester” stuff in my courses and are now really able to start digging into the nitty gritty of the course content. First major assignments are coming up, and in most of my courses we’re moving into reading material that was set up by the first weeks of “background” stuff. This is all good.
But for me, I generally still feel like it’s early days. I haven’t assigned real grades for anything yet. I still don’t know some of my students’ names (though I am feeling like I have a pretty good handle on their personalities and the names will all stick by the time I hand back their first papers).
So what’s weird is that I’ve had a handful of students, independently of one another, volunteer to me how much they are enjoying my classes and how awesome I am as a teacher. And it’s strange.
Students at my institution aren’t generally ass-kissers. So I don’t actually think that they are intentionally sucking up, though maybe I have gotten the few suck-ups in our student population, just all in one semester? But that does seem unlikely. But it does seem odd that they are judging me favorably before I’ve even given them a grade. Am I doing something different this semester?
Not really. Not at all. I will say that I like the “energy” of all of my classes this semester a great deal. I know that sounds very hippie-dippy, but it’s the only way I know how to describe it. Sometimes the “mix” is just good – whereas in other semesters, you have those classes where something is just “off.” And there’s no rhyme or reason to it, as far as I can tell. I mean, you can do your best to construct a good course, and to be high energy yourself as an instructor, but if the “vibe” in the class is lame, it’s going to be lame, no matter what the professor has planned.
But to give myself some credit (for I do think I deserve some) I think I am finally bearing the fruit of insisting a couple of years ago that I must under all circumstances have a consistent rotation of courses. I’m not scrambling to do the reading, to prep assignments or to figure out what I’m going to do each day in class. I am deeply familiar with the texts that I’m teaching, and I have an arsenal of activities and assignments that I can just pull out of the file for each course, and that means I can spend my time on engaging with my students as people, and on improvising based on their needs. It’s a hell of a lot easier to deviate from one’s plan in a tactical and effective way when you know the plan inside and out. It is so much easier to be energetic and happy when you’re not exhausted by reinventing the wheel each and every class period, each and every semester. Yes, I teach four different preps each semester. And no, that doesn’t work if I’m not repeating courses regularly. That kind of schedule can really make you a bad teacher.
[Aside: that makes me think of the report that came out about how students do better if they had their first course in a field with an adjunct. I think it's a dumb study, generally, for lots of reasons, but on the other hand, I am totally willing to accept that if I were teaching 4 sections of the same class, semester-in and semester-out, even if I had a shitty office and even if I had to do it at 4 different campuses, that might be better, for students, than what I was doing when I taught something nuts like 16 different courses (some online and some face to face) over a three year period. It's difficult to be an effective teacher and to be on top of things with your actual students when you're just trying to keep your head above water with course design, reading, and assignment design. Yes, under those conditions, you start to phone it in, if you've got tenure. Because something's got to give.]
But really, who the hell knows what’s going on this semester and why I keep getting these positive reviews (from grad students, majors, and gen ed students alike). Whatever. It seems like I’m doing something right. I’ll take it.
Oh! And in other strange but good news, I agreed to participate in a pilot program with our library where I have a librarian imbedded in one of my courses, who is familiar with the research assignments that I’ve designed and who is going to proactively initiate contact with the students about things that might be helpful, blah blah blah. This hasn’t entirely gotten off the ground yet (as I said, it’s early days), but I’ve explained what is going on to the students, and in one course I just returned their “topic proposal worksheets” (where they had a selection of 10 broad topics related to the course, and students actually went for 8 of the 10 topics, so that was shocking and amazing too!) for their annotated bibliography/lit review assignments. I suggested to a few of them directly in comments that they could contact our imbedded librarian for help, and I also announced to the class when I returned the worksheets who our librarian is and that they can feel free to contact him. This was this morning. BY THIS AFTERNOON ONE OF THEM ALREADY GOT IN TOUCH WITH THE LIBRARIAN!!! WHAT STRANGE WORLD IS THIS?!?!?!