Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Prepping for the Semester

It’s already been a long semester, and classes haven’t even started yet.

For one thing, despite repeated assurances that I would be full time this semester, it turns out that – for the second semester running – this will not be the case.  This is one of the drawbacks to the ad-hoc lifestyle: rank has its privileges, and when you have neither there is no particular defense – not even a signed contract – against someone who has both taking one of your classes to fill their load.  On the one hand, this is a tremendous drag – not only am I getting paid for one less class, but thanks to the salary structure of my institution (which leans toward full-time people) I’m also getting paid less for the classes I have left.  I’ve calculated how much that particular setback is costing me this spring and mostly it made me glad I hadn’t thought to do that last fall.  On the other hand, though, I’m still getting paid to teach history – there is no requirement that this happen at all, and I suppose I should be glad that I have the classes I still have. 

I knew the job was dangerous when I took it.

As for the classes I do still have, two of my three classes are undergoing major surgery at the moment. 

You’d think I’d learn.  You’d think I would simply find something that did the trick and just drag it out, year after year, while my notes yellowed and the world moved on around me.  But despite what you hear out there from the malcontents starving our educational system in order to fund their tax breaks for millionaires, such lethargy is in fact startlingly uncommon among teachers.  You don’t go into this field for the money.  You go into it because you love it, and because you want other people to love it just as much as you do even if they never take another class in your field again.  And this means constantly revising, tweaking, moving things about, adding new things and taking out what didn’t work the last time.  Because it can always be better, and it needs to be better so people will understand why this is the best of all possible things to study, that’s why.

Sometimes this simply means adding things onto the end.  I’m teaching the second half of the US survey class this semester (“Reconstruction to Yesterday”).  The first time I taught it was 1996.  After that I focused on finishing up my doctorate and then worked in public history for several years, so the next time I taught it was 2008.  There were two whole classes’ worth of material I had to tack on!

This time around it’s a bit more involved.  This spring will be the fifth different format in which I have taught that class (with a sixth coming up this summer), and every time you do that you have to rejigger where your break points are (because, for example, you can’t really start a discussion with 4 minutes left in the class period) and adjust your assignments and figure out what won’t work at all in this format and what to replace it with.

This, it turns out, is tricky.  And fairly intensive.  This class is going to look fairly different from my past renditions.  If it works, though, it will be a nice model going forward.

I think I’ve finally got that one mostly figured out now, which is a good thing since the first class is on Friday.

And I’ve gotten the Western Civ II class reshaped as well.  That was a class I had to put together in a hurry the first time I taught it – I was asked on 36 hours notice to replace a colleague who had fallen ill, and despite working full time elsewhere I said, “Sure!” – and I was never really happy with where some of the units started and stopped.  So this year I finally shifted things around to where everything makes a coherent story, and we’ll see how that works.

At least the third class is mostly like the last time.  It’s an online class, though, which means that there is a lot of work that you have to do that you wouldn’t have to do for face-to-face classes – a lot of the informal things that you would just do in a regular class you have to have formal processes for in an online class.  But at least I know the drill for those now.  Once you know how it functions, the rest is just work – the hard part is behind you.

Onward, ever upward.

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