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

Last August I posted some assorted thoughts going into the new academic year. One post does not a tradition make, but I liked the reflective practice.

Going into my third year of teaching post-PhD, I have been reflecting on the mismatch between the stated learning objectives and the way many, though certainly not all, history courses are taught. Lower-level surveys particularly suffer because they often have higher enrollments as students are required to take them by outside forces that agree in a general about the importance of history, but have little idea what that actually entails.

The result is that the students are tossed into a lecture hall where they receive an information dump from a knowledgable person and (maybe) some time talking about primary sources. In a perfect world with a good lecturer, students who do the reading, and invested TAs, this system offers a way to scale up the mandate for students to learn some history.

But the world we live in is not perfect and these courses can resemble an information dump that students recall just long enough to take the exam.

There are a number of guides for how to improve the “dreaded survey course” that often boil down to “do less” so that the students can do more. This is good advice that I start the semester following and invariably end up clinging tighter and tighter to the sound of my own voice as the semester spirals beyond my ability to adequately manage a full discussion every day.

Nevertheless, I have be changing the format of my lectures to better model historical practice. For instance, I have begun thinking about my classes in terms of narratives and arguments, both in the big picture and in individual classes. The overall syllabus has a trajectory and each individual class has its own thesis. In the slideshow I will often include the thesis at the outset and then use subsequent slides to lay out the evidence for that thesis, taking the time to explore the consequences of this evidence as a class.

Thinking about the class in these terms also embeds a structure that both focuses the content to prevent sprawl and allows it to build on itself as the semester goes along. The further my classes are from my field of research, though, the harder it is to articulate these narratives ahead of time.

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Since around midsummer I have noticed a marked improvement in my mood, and even commented on it with regard to my writing. Since then, I have written a few #AcWri threads on Twitter about approaching writing as a discipline and a practice and equating it to physical workouts.

For years now I have been making sure to prioritize my physical wellbeing, using the basketball, running, lifting weights and other exercises to work out stress and stay healthy. My workouts change periodically (recently I’ve been working on flexibility with regular yoga routines), but I make a point of staying active even when the semesters get busy. This year I added mandatory downtime, resolving to take at least one day entirely away from work each weekend.

With this semester poised to be even busier than usual, I need protect time for writing for reasons that go beyond professional output. The hard part will be doing it in a way that preserves balance; simply adding one more obligation to my already full dance card is a recipe for burnout.

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I teach five courses this semester, two of which are entirely new and a third that is substantially overhauled from a summer course to a full semester. As a result, I teach everything from the first half* of the world history survey to colonial America, to a survey of American history after the Civil War, to two seminars on Classical Reception.

(The colloquialisms for these surveys are ludicrous. To call all of human history from the earliest civilizations through Columbus’ voyages “half” is patently absurd, even if it is half of the class time dedicated to the world history survey.)

This many classes, and particularly this many *new* classes, takes an enormous amount of time and energy, but they also provide me opportunities to indulge my interest in times and places I don’t usually work on. I may not be the best qualified person to teach every course going into it, but beyond knowing how to craft assignments, find readings, and help students develop their analytical skills, I hope that my own curiosity proves infectious.

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The weather in Missouri turned hot and humid just in time for classes to start. The heat index currently sits at 106 at the end of the first Monday of the semester, making it hard to believe that summer has ended. But time flies and I have a lot to do, so here we go.