I have now had the first class in each of my four classes. Also, today, I looked at my teaching evaluations (what little there were of them – we moved to an online format for course evals and only in this semester are we actually providing an incentive for students to complete them, so the participation in the evals of Spring 2010 was failing at best and abysmal at worst). (FYI: Tenured Radical has a really good post up right now about evaluations, so go check it out, if you’re interested in such things.)
I looked at those teaching evaluations because our chair sent out his annual email with the faculty activity report form (ours are done on the calendar year, not the academic year, which is dumb), where I need to talk about those evaluations. In truth, especially in the semesters following submitting my tenure application, I don’t pay a whole lot of attention to the institutional evaluation forms, in large part because the questions on my institution’s forms are pretty near to useless in terms of actually helping me to make my courses better, which is what I’d want an evaluation to do. I find that I get better information that actually contributes to my teaching by talking to my students and asking them for feedback at various points throughout the semester or after our course has ended.
(Note to teachers everywhere: your students have a lot of great things to contribute to your teaching, but perhaps when they’re worried about their final grade in the course isn’t the best time to ask them. Note to administrators everywhere: if you think you’re getting “objective” evaluation of courses at your institution in the two weeks before finals, you’re totally wrong.)
At any rate. I think it was actually excellent that I decided to look at those evaluations (what few of them there were) today. It was interesting to contrast that feedback with how I feel about my current classes, and to compare those classes, which I’d taught under lots of stress that got in the way of my teaching, with the ones that I’m teaching right now, which I’ve had significant time on which to reflect, to plan, to revamp, and to consider in a deliberate thoughtful way.
Teaching before Sabbatical
My teaching in that semester before sabbatical was not my best. I’d known that before I read the evaluations, but reading the evaluations was illuminating nonetheless. In one class (one of the ones with a substantial number of students participating), my evaluations were very good. Students praised me for helping them to understand difficult material, for my rigor, for my accessibility as an instructor. (Some didn’t think I was so great, but overall, the evals were more positive than not.) What’s interesting about that class is that it’s a gen-ed throwaway for most of my colleagues. The class that you teach when another course of yours gets canceled, a class that you teach when you get stuck with it. But it’s always been one of my favorite classes to teach, and I’ve taught it in a variety of incarnations. I didn’t actually think I did a very good job in that class last spring, or not as good a job as I might have done, but part of that had to do with my own boredom with the texts I’d assigned. I assigned them again, but I was bored with them. I assigned them again because I didn’t have time to think of an alternative. I didn’t have time to give as much of a shit as I’d wanted to give. What was sort of awesome about reading the evaluations was seeing that even though I felt like I was phoning it in, my students didn’t hate me for it.
In another class, the same was true – I was bored, the class needed to be revamped, and I phoned it in. Only four students wrote an evaluation, so who the hell knows what they all really thought. Whatever the case, I knew it sucked before I read what the students evaluated. Basically, the evals were middling, and kind of lame. And you know, I felt lame about that class. I didn’t do my best work.
In the last class, I did a terrible job because it was a class for another department and I hated it and I knew I would never teach it again after that section. The students’ comments were fair, and, although it’s probably unfair of me, I really don’t care because I will never teach that class again. Or, to be more generous to myself, perhaps I do care about what they think and that’s one reason why I won’t teach the class ever again. Whatever the case, I wasn’t upset by their less than ecstatic feelings about my teaching because I am ecstatic that I will never, ever again in my teaching career teach that class.
And I had a course release, so that was it.
Teaching after Sabbatical
The re-entry, it’s not easy. That said, I haven’t felt this sort of excitement about teaching since I started teaching as a graduate student. Except it’s better than that, because when I started teaching as a graduate student I didn’t know what the hell I was doing and also I had like zero confidence. But the excitement is similar, in that there was a build-up. I had months to think about what I’d do, about what matters, about which texts might inspire my students and which texts will challenge them, and about how I can teach inspiring and challenging texts in such ways that my students will engage with them and, I hope, come to own them. In contrast to the last time I taught, a year ago, I’m not burnt out, I’m not burdened by all the shit that goes with this job like jockeying for power in the curriculum and negotiating power plays and doing the grunt work of search committees and showing up at events and all the rest of it. I spent a lot of time during my sabbatical thinking about my teaching, planning for my teaching, and loving the process of developing my teaching. No, that wasn’t what I proposed in my sabbatical application, but that was work that happened because I care about teaching and because I work at an institution where doing teaching work during sabbatical isn’t going to be to my detriment. Yes, I did lots of work on my scholarship during my sabbatical, but as I return to the classroom, I realize that I return as a more thoughtful, energized teacher. Which, you’ve got to admit, is a really good thing since I teach at an institution with a 4/4 load.
But I’ve also realized this week that I’m not a different person just because I had sabbatical. The past few days have been littered with a lot of time that is all about procrastination, and I’ve had to deal with annoying requests, and I continue to lack patience with those, and, well, I’m still me. But I guess the thing that makes me excited about the possibilities of the coming semester – the coming semesters really – now that I’ve had some time to pause and to think deeply about what I want to do as a teacher – is that maybe I can actually get better at what I already do pretty well. Maybe this time has allowed me just a moment to stop running and to stop and think, and teachers need that time. Teachers need time both to think about the content of their courses as well as to think about their students and what their students need.
Look, I don’t think, and I haven’t thought, really, since very early on in this job, that a 4/4 load is a death sentence for my intellectual life, or for my ability to teach students well. Yes, I teach a lot, but the scholarship requirements for my job are very reasonable, and if those were the only two things in my life, I could do a very good job. What has gotten in the way, my sabbatical allowed me to realize, is “service.” Not that “service” isn’t important – I totally believe that it is. But at a certain point, those “service” duties – duties that increase the better that you do them – have diminishing returns.
What I feel right now is that good teaching, and good scholarship, never have diminishing returns. What I feel right now is that having some time to sit with my teaching and with my research has allowed me to envision both of those things anew. What I feel right now is that it’s just not worth it to sacrifice those things at the altar of my department, my college, my university.
What I feel right now is interested, excited, and intrigued by possibility, and that possibility is not so much the possibility of my scholarship – it’s the possibility of myself as a scholar-teacher, as a person who has a forum for and the expertise to make 85 students see the world in a new way through literature. Scholarship is great – I enjoy it – but it isn’t the thing that rocks my world, in and of itself.
Teaching after sabbatical, as much as I feel like I’ve had the shit kicked out of me after just two days, feels amazing. And I feel confident that I’m a better teacher after those months off, if only because I had the time to rest enough to return to the classroom with energy and enthusiasm.