First Day Fragments: Spring 2023

I usually do “first day fragments” to mark the start of the fall semester, but here on the first day of the spring term I find that I also have a few topics rattling around that are also worth exploring. Only time will tell whether this is a one-off or a new spring-semester routine.

Course design is an exercise in omission. And the more of a survey the course is designed to be, the more this truism cuts close to the truth. This has been on my mind over the last week while preparing for the upcoming semester. Even before the pandemic I had begun adopting a “less is more” mantra in the classroom, and doubling down on core questions and fundamental skills. But I also like big and open-ended questions, both to structure the course and to set as assignment prompts.

This semester I will be teaching upper-division survey courses on Ancient Rome (Romulus to Romulus Augustulus, in theory), Ancient Persia (Achaemenid to Sassanid), and then a first-year seminar on speculative fiction. Enormous topics, all.

Adding material to these courses is the easy part. It would be easy, for instance, to have the students read Beowulf and Le Morte d’Arthur, skip forward to Lord of the Rings, and then do something contemporary. Or just watch the movies. Or I could have decided that we’re going to do an entire course on the thousands of pages in Ken Liu’s Dandelion Dynasty novels. But neither of these options fit with my objectives for the course.

The challenge is finding the right balance. The entire extent of Tolkien that we are going to read will be “On Hobbits” and two short pieces of commentary about Rings of Power. We’ll read Ken Liu’s brilliant short story “Paper Menagerie,” but nothing from his longer works. Ditto for N.K. Jemisin’s “The Ones Who Stay and Fight,” which I’m using both as a counterpoint to Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” and and as a way to close the semester on a note of optimism after an emotionally challenging set of readings.

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All three of my courses this semester are new preps. This is a double-edged sword.

On the one hand, new preps make for a lot of work. They require compiling materials as you go through the semester, writing presentation slides, and deciding on how you want to present the material, even when approaching topics that you know well. Some of the activities are going to flop, or maybe the scope of the course needs to be changed. The course wobbles a little, because it has not yet settled into its foundations. A graduate school professor told me once that he believes a course only reaches its mature form in its third iteration.

On the other hand, I sometimes find that certain in-class activities and readings work best the first time I assign them. This is in part because I am forced to spend more time with the readings and preparing the activities, which means that everything is fresher, but I also find something magic in the thrill of invention. The second and third time through I can adjust to how the students experienced the assignment, but this comes at a cost when the assignment becomes somewhat calcified or the pathways that the course discussion become a little more worn in.

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People have been talking on Twitter about when professors have an obligation to post the syllabus. My only thought is that the syllabus will go up when it is ready and the course website is minimally ready for use, usually a day or two before the semester starts. I’m happy to answer questions even when the syllabus is in the design phase, but there are a myriad of reasons why it is good to take right up until the last minute making changes even if the basic structure has been set for weeks.

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Most of my courses are what my university calls “Writing Enhanced,” which means that they fulfill the standards of that program—emphasis on product, cognition, and process. Nearly twenty years ago when I was an undergraduate student, a writing-enhanced course required a certain number of pages, some of which had to be revised, but my guidance here is more flexible. I have another course design post (yes, I know that this is turning into a teaching-heavy blog) in mind for the near future that engages with the models we use when designing new courses, but, every semester, I have a momentary pang of concern that I’m not having my students write enough. For instance, I have never assigned a long 15–20+ page final paper. Instead, my students write multiple shorter papers (5–7 page) that they revise to a high standard, with the thinking that learning to polish a concise argument in a short paper is a prerequisite for writing a good longer paper when taking research classes. Besides, even without a long research paper to conclude the semester, my students write a lot. By my rough tally, I find that many of my students write nearly twice as much as I did for any class I took as an undergraduate student. Which then sends a flare of concern in the other direction: how much writing is too much?

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I wrote about Chat-GPT last semester and stand by everything I wrote there. But the new semester has brought out another round of hand-wringing and panic about how this tool means for higher education. This semester I’ll be leaning into AI writing in some classes with an “AI-essay critique” exercise and otherwise just incorporating it into the conversations we have when we talk about writing. But as the topic du jour, I’m bored by the conversation now. Moral panics turn tedious in a hurry.

First Day Fragments: Fall 2022

Each of the past four years I have written a post celebrating the start of the fall semester with quick hits on various topics that I’m mulling over going into the new academic year. You can find the earlier posts in the archive: 2021, 202020192018.

I spent most of this summer diligently making myself go out running several times a week. Like many of my summer goals this practice ended up being a mixed bag, and I ended up not hitting my arbitrarily-set target. Despite the aches and pains that have accompanied these runs, I have been pleased by my progress and consider this one of my best recent decisions. There is always another mile to run, just as there is always more that could be done. After a summer during which I neither got the rest I had hoped nor accomplished as much as I intended, it has been useful to just focus on the next step.

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The latest buzz about workplace culture is Quiet Quitting, aka working to contract. This is a radical concept that I have seen some of my friends who work in the UK talk about when they, *checks notes*, clock out for the weekend and take annual leave. In a general sense, this “trend” is a reminder that it often takes enormous amounts of uncompensated labor to make the current labor systems function.

This is no less true in higher education than anywhere else, and something that hits basically everyone involved. The diminishing portion of the overall faculty being tenure or tenure track means that the service burdens fall that much heavier on those who remain, while the low pay for adjuncts is sometimes justified by pretending that the hours spent working outside of the classroom don’t exist. At least in the former case there is a reasonable expectation that their job will remain semester after semester.

However, quiet quitting is especially disruptive in teaching. In some fields it means reclaiming one’s time from their employer, but in this one the consequences disproportionately affect the students. They might not exactly be customers, but they are paying for their education in some capacity, which is a difficult circle to square.

My situation is not nearly as bad as many people, and I have a department chair who is excellent about keeping most duties not in my contract off my plate. And yet, this trend of quiet quitting has been on my mind this last week of working (uncompensated) overtime to make sure that my courses were ready to go. Ultimately this is yet another reminder that the entire system needs to be reformed to make it more humane for everyone involved.

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One summer during college (summer 2007), I worked on the team that moved the college to a new learning management system. At one point we had a conversation about the functionality that allowed professors to track the time students spent on the website. As a student, I was stridently against making this function available to professors, or at least against highlighting it for them–I don’t actually recall the specific details of the discussion. My point at the time was that these tracking features were, but delicately, bullshit, and I didn’t want there to be any chance that such data would play a role in my grade when it provided, at best, a shoddy reflection of my engagement with the course.

I have modified my stance somewhat as a professor. I still strongly dislike the emphasis on time-on-task, even if I begrudgingly acknowledge that it can play a role in setting expectations. As for the LMS data, I never use it as a form of assessment but have found that I like having it as a diagnostic tool–one of several in my arsenal that can help me best help my students.

It was with this background that I read John Warner’s piece last week on the madness of productivity trackers. He excoriates these trackers as not only a bad way of assessing productivity, but also actively harmful to knowledge work that requires hours of work that can’t be tracked by these tools without rigging an artificial mechanism to keep the system occupied while you actually get the work done. As Warner puts it, ” we are more than our ability to produce according to metrics counted by an algorithm.” He also rightly points out how LMS policies in college can serve as a training ground to normalize this sort of surveillance. This makes me wonder whether the marginal benefit I gain in helping my students is worth contributing to our present dystopia.

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I found this semester to be particularly difficult to prepare for. In part my struggle was the growing pain of designing and preparing a new course that is unlike anything I have taught before while, simultaneously, having events conspire to keep me from get the amount of rest I had intended. Put simply, I was tired. But a substantial portion of my exhaustion was not so much physical as feeling emotionally drained from the fire hose of devastation that seems to be going on in the world, from historic drought to continuing pandemic, to vaccine denial bringing about the return of awful disease thought eliminated by modern technology, to the fever pitch of nasty politics, to the crisis of climate change. All systemic problems where the proposed solutions range from personal responsibility to nothing whatsoever. Not good.

In his book Radical Hope, Kevin Gannon writes about the importance of hope as a pedagogical obligation because this is not a job that one should do if they don’t have at least a glimmer of optimism about the future.

I spent most of this summer not feeling a whole lot of hope. I’m still not, in a lot of ways. But this is also not a job that one can do without hope and I often find that I can see that hope most clearly when I’m working with my students. This is very likely going to be a challenging semester, but one day into the semester and I can already start to see the glimmer of that hope rising like a phoenix from the ashes. The world might be burning, but that doesn’t mean we can just let it burn. Only by working together can we start to heal.

First Day Fragments 2021: A Fresh Start

Each of the past three years I have written a post celebrating the start of the fall semester with quick hits on various topics that I’m mulling over going into the new academic year. You can find the earlier posts in the archive: 2020, 2019, 2018.

One recent addition to my podcast lineup is Self-Compassionate Professor hosted by Dr. Danielle De La Mare. The podcast as a whole is aimed a little bit over my head (I’m neither a mid-career nor a recovering academic yet) and I am somewhat ambivalent about the emphasis on entrepreneurialism, which often leans toward career coaching. But I like listening to people talk about how they navigated their academic careers, if only because that is something I’m just starting to do.

The recent episode with Brandy Simula was particularly good.

Dr. Simula talked at length about pandemic burnout and suggested that professors identify what tasks need to be done at 100%, which ones can be done at 70%, and which ones can be let go. I was already feeling exhaustion tug at the corners of my awareness when I listened to this episode, but I also know that my students are living through the same world events at an even more tumultuous time in their lives.

A useful reminder going into this semester.

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I have spent a lot of time going back and forth about what I want to do for pandemic contingencies this semester and how much I need to front-load that information in my syllabuses. I am working at a university that made it through last year without interruption, is requiring masks when indoors, and has a good rate of vaccination, but the Delta variant is all-but guaranteed to take some students out of class this semester. Right now I am encouraging students who are experiencing symptoms or who have tested positive to remain out of class and will offer alternate assessments for them to make up what they have missed.

Zoom is a wonderful tool for some purposes and I am looking to offer virtual options for office hours, but trying to teach students in the classroom and on Zoom simultaneously was so exhausting last year that I would like to avoid a repeat of that experience if at all possible.

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On a recent road trip I found myself working through the archive of the Fake Doctors, Real Friends podcast. In one episode, Zach Braff dropped a line attributed to the eminent screenwriter Lawrence Kazdan:

Being a writer is like having homework every night for the rest of your life.

This is a catchy aphorism, though I couldn’t find a source in a few minutes of poking around online. I think its spirit is correct — writing often gets done on top of other employment because writing alone won’t pay the bills, for one thing, but writing also involves hours spent thinking about writing and deadlines that superficially resemble school. But I also think that comparing writing to homework trivializes writing in some ways. Writing is work, full stop. The fact that it takes place at home and sometimes off-hours doesn’t change that.

I am a little bit behind on my work right now, but I’m hoping that the structure of a semester will help motivate me to sit down at the computer and plug away at my projects. This is work that I want to do, I just don’t like the implication of calling it homework. Then again, what I really need to be more disciplined about is reading.

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I am officially one week into my new position at Truman State University — a full-time non-tenure-track position teaching world and ancient history. The result is that today has a little bit more than the usual first-day jitters.

So far, the students are enthusiastic and I like my colleagues, but, selfishly, I am most looking forward to having all of my classes at one institution that is invested in me as a teacher. This is a welcome change after several years of hustling for classes at a bunch of different institutions all of which made their decisions on different timelines.

These are all good changes and I am thrilled to be here. I am just also still in a little bit of disbelief and for this year at least feeling a measure of survivor’s guilt.

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I’m not as prepared for this semester as I would like to be, but I am looking forward to it quite a lot. For now, that will have to be enough.

First Day Fragments: reflections on ZoomU 2.0

The title is a little bit misleading since I actually started teaching on August 12, but my final class started this week, so, in a sense, my semester is now fully underway.

Despite cultural narratives about getting the summers off and short working hours, neither of which are actually true, teaching has a way of taking up every moment that you give to it. I often tell my students that wise teachers don’t give busy-work because that work redoubles back on the teacher when it comes time to grade. Teaching is a time-intensive job.

My experience as an adjunct instructor teaching classes at multiple institutions simultaneously over the past few years has me again reflecting on time. There are obvious constraints here: multiple commutes and teaching above what most universities count as “full” employment without full-time pay, benefits, or the advantage of teaching multiple sections of the same class.

But there are also other considerations. Monitoring three separate email accounts and course management systems takes more time than tracking just one professional email, even if the total volume of emails that need to be actively responded to is only marginally higher.

I have also started to believe that teaching on multiple different academic calendars is a hidden time cost because mismatched breaks erase most of the intended rest and recovery. COVID threw academic calendars even further into flux, and one of my calendars moved up the start date and eliminated all breaks in order to fit the entire semester in before Thanksgiving and minimize the exposure of students leaving campus.

I’m already exhausted.

Reflecting on how the start to the semester has me feeling sped up beyond my comfort level has me thinking back to a lecture Randy Pausch, better known for his “Last Lecture,” gave on time management in which he talked about creating a time budget. Easier said than done, but he was on to something.

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Part of the reason I feel sped up right now is that I did not feel prepared for the semester. In part, I spent the last set of months as a knot of anxiety. After the start of the pandemic, I watched the jobs I had applied for evaporate before my eyes. I spent most of the summer facing unemployment, excited about the possibility of time to write and terrified of what came next, all the while going into hustle mode to see if there were any places I could pick up classes for the fall.

At first the answer was no, but then I got one course, then an offer for another, and then, less than a month before the start of the semester, I was offered three more courses. The final tally is that I’m teaching five courses, three of which are entirely new to me. For two of those three I only collected the books about two weeks before the start of the semester, leaving me in scramble mode to offer my students the best experience I can under the circumstances.

I still don’t know what the future is going to bring. I am still only on one-semester contracts and while I have been fortunate thus far the constant uncertainty and last-minute contracts, to say nothing of the amount of energy that has gone into applying to full-time jobs, limits the attention I can give to the semester currently in progress.

All I know is that I am going to be exceedingly busy at least through Thanksgiving.

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There is something comfortable about being in a classroom in person, but find the emotional drain of teaching to a room full of masks exhausting. Beyond adding one more thing to police in the classroom and general muffling of voices, the masks make it hard to read facial expressions that offer real-time feedback to what is going on in class. Then add in the anxiety of face to face contact, classrooms that give more “six feet” than six feet of distance between attendees, the challenges of facilitating small group discussion at a distance, and the juggling act of teaching to a room full of people and a set of people dropping into the classroom on Zoom. We’re making it work, but it is both less effective and more exhausting than usual.

Online asynchronous classes, by contrast, keep everyone on the same level, but have always had challenges in building a community of learners. Discussion boards can be great, but are only as effective as the participants make them. Certainly, there are things the instructor can do to encourage engagement, but they put a lot on the learner. I remember this being the case too when I did one of the more popular MOOCs a few years ago, Programming for Everybody’s Python course. The professor was an effective communicator and had many office hours and meetups to go along with the various assignments. The course had an incredibly active discussion board and yet I only ever went to it when I needed help with a specific question.

Then there is ZoomU 2.0, the online, synchronous class. This keeps everyone the safest, but exposes the whole class to technological issues and internet inequality. I am teaching an intro survey course in this modality, but the prospect of delivering 80-minute lectures to my computer fills me with dread. My aim is to break up the class into smaller chunks with lectures interspersed with discussions, break out rooms and in-class writing assignments to break up the monotony.

I don’t love any of these modalities, to say the least. Right now my fear is that whatever is gained by the intimacy of online video classes and then some will be given back by making it easier for people to get lost in the wash. I think there is virtue in keeping the classes at least partly synchronous, but prefer shorter and/or more infrequent virtual meetings because the costs of staring at a webcam for hours on end are real.

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The fountain of words bubbling beneath the surface back in May trickled away once I had to go into overdrive to prepare for the semester and I’m currently being reminded of why I had to abandon writing almost altogether last fall. Preparing for class will take up every last minute that you are willing to give to it, so they tell young academics to jealously guard their writing time.

I can find time to write most days. What I lose during the semester is the time to read. Writing is, in a sense, a meditative activity where I can shut down Twitter, email, and other distractions in order to play with words for a while. But those words don’t just magically appear. They develop through reading and research, both of which I find harder to carve time out for during the semester both because it requires a different type of focus and because if I’m reading scholarship, a little voice is whispering to me that I should be reading for class.

I’m still writing, just not as swiftly as I perhaps hoped. I finished a book review over the summer, as well as an article that I’m currently shopping and have begun work on roughly eight other projects of various size and imagined outputs. Focus is not necessarily my strength.

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Despite concerns over COVID and everything else that is going on, I must say that playoff basketball in August has been quite the treat to have on while working on classes. I don’t always love watching NBA basketball stylistically, but some of the offense are simply spectacular and the games have been a lot of fun.

And yet, before I finished this post, the NBA postponed games after a wildcat strike by the Milwaukee Bucks after yet another police shooting and subsequent violence against protesters. I love basketball, but my favorite thing about the NBA is the number of prominent socially-conscious people who play and coach in the league. They aren’t perfect, to be sure, but I fully endorse prominent individuals leveraging their positions for good causes. I hope it works.