Course Reflection: Fall 2019

The end of the semester always hits me as a sudden stop. I go from the constant, frenetic scramble to prepare for class and grade assignments to few imminent deadlines and fewer set schedules. Work still looms and I still have jobs to apply for, but I find the schedule change abrupt and disorienting—particularly when the first involved teaching five classes and the second includes a snow-day and an imminent winter holiday.

Still, it occurs to me that I have fewer than three weeks until the cycle starts up again, and reflecting on what just happened is the first step in preparing for what comes next.

My reflection from this semester is simple: five classes are too many. That’s it, that’s the Tweet.

For no other reason than hoping to earn something that resembled a reasonable salary, I picked up one bit of teaching after another until I was teaching distinct five classes, three of which were functionally new, grading for another, and grading for an online class. I taught five days a week at two campuses a half an hour drive apart and basically gave most of my evenings and weekends to keep up with the prep and grading and, even then, needing to cut corners and falling behind in every class. In short, I taught none of these courses to my satisfaction.

This is not to say that these courses were catastrophes. They weren’t. Each had bright spots — an exercise, a reading, a class discussion — just that I was stretched too thin to give each class the attention it deserved.

Complicating this all further is the slate of classes I taught, with several falling outside my immediate areas of expertise. My Modern US History survey is serviceable, but shaggy, and, given the chance to teach it again, I need to spend some time thinking about the arc I want to follow because, right now, it is thematically all over the place. I had a similar issue in my Royal America class, despite the course being generally successful with document-based focus. However, Royal America is a course I took because of a unique confluence of events and I will likely never teach it again.

On the other end of the spectrum, my World History before 1500 class is shaggy and unmanageable, but for entirely different reasons. In my experience, this is the hardest course to teach, not because the content is particularly controversial or difficult, but because there is so damn much of it.

I had some successful individual source activities for this class, including a discussion of sources describing Cleopatra, but in making time for those I collapsed and condensed other topics, leaping to compare and contrast civilizations before adequately establishing each individually. What worked in theory ended up providing too little substance for the students to grapple with on assessments. Further, as much as the book assigned to this course (not by my choice) pushes a synthesis of world history, it does so at the expense of giving students a peek behind the curtain at the sources that create history, which is also in the course mandate. I structure my course and its assessments to emphasize the latter, but right now there is a disconnect between content and outcomes that is not easily reconciled without expecting quite a bit of extra time outside the classroom, and time is at a premium for everyone. I don’t have a solution just yet, clearly, but I’m thinking about ways to pare back the content so that we can give the material we do look at more substance.

I built the other two courses, both Honors colloquia with a large number of first-year students, around extensive class discussion and a course blog that supplemented traditional academic essays. The discussions went well, with the caveat that both had numbers that encouraged a few people to dominate the discussion, one because it was a bit larger than ideal and the other because it was a bit smaller.

The larger of the two, my Monsters, Humans, and Monstrous Humans, I designed originally as a Classics in a Cross-Cultural Context course. This time I pared by the cross-cultural theme and doubled down on the theme of looking at the intersection between monsters and humans to ask whether humans are the real monsters. The course is such that certain readings or assignments could be tailored, but I am quite happy with the overall structure of this course.

The smaller one was a new course called The Afterlives of Alexander the Great has more issues, some of which can be chalked up to having a small class in a large room, but others are inherent in the design of the course. The idea is to give students a two week crash course on themes and issues that surround Alexander before transitioning to discussing sources, and then moving quickly into the tradition of the Alexander Romances to trace the cultural memory around the globe and concluding with several film adaptations. The students found some of the readings interesting—or at least amusing—but the course reminded me of a similar course I took as an undergrad that I dismissively characterized as an interesting first two weeks followed by repeating those same two weeks again and again for the rest of the semester. Suffice to say that I would like to humbly apologize to that professor.

The issue is two-fold. First, coming into the course the students only had a loose understanding of Alexander and my crash course did an inadequate job of highlighting why the source tradition is so problematic. In hindsight, my discussion needed to have happened in conjunction with their reading large portions of the ancient sources and buttressed with discussions of where these sources differ. This would have eased, but not eliminated, the second issue, namely that this course required often subtle readings of sources that all tell very similar stories in wildly diverse contexts. Teaching this course again would require additional focus on those various contexts to help the students grapple with the significance of the changes. Put another way, teaching this particular course in this particular semester left me wanting another crack at doing it right.

My experiment with the course blogs for these last two courses had mixed success. Before the semester I set up a free WordPress site for each class and invited every student as an editor. Every week a certain number of students were lead bloggers, responsible for creating a post that responded to the week’s readings and then editing peer posts and moderating comments. Everyone else was responsible for reading and commenting on the posts. These blog posts took the place of reading response papers or a reflective journal.

Other than sending reminders and stepping in to publish the occasional completed post, I stayed away from the blog, reading but not responding, and grading based on completion rather than content because I wanted to create a forum where students had to write for someone other than me. As a writing exercise the blog posts generally worked pretty well, but my hopes of using these posts as an extension of the in-class discussion didn’t quite come to fruition.

Based on a survey distributed at the end of the semester, most students felt that the assignment needed a little more structure and that they wanted feedback letting them know they were on the right track. While none of them were blown away (5* on a 5-point scale), most rated it four stars and nearly every student mentioned that they appreciated the open-ended nature of the assignment. I also received a lot of good feedback, including from one student who astutely pointed out that the posts could get repetitive, in part because the size of the larger class meant that there were up to six posts per week on the same topic even with each student writing just three posts over the course of the semester. I would have liked the assignment to have been a bit more of a rousing success, but the overall positive response warrants at least one more experiment as an extension of a colloquium-style class.

In sum, I survived. This was a grueling semester that left me physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted and I am only starting to write again after largely giving it up in September in order to preserve my health. But I survived, and I have hope that I’ll be able to keep teaching so that the lessons learned don’t go for naught.

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