Worrying About What Matters

I’m at home with the flu today (I could have taught today, but the doctor was very clear yesterday that I should be fever-free to 24 hours before returning to work), and I’m missing being in the classroom.  Everything will be fine, as I’ll adjust the schedule and go on, but being out of class reminds me about what really matters.

Our school starts off each semester with a few days of meetings.  Many colleges and universities do this, so we’re far from the exception.  Some years those meetings are more substantive than others.  Right now, we’re going through the SACS accreditation process, so they’re clearly important, but they don’t actually impact me all that much.  Our of the four things we’re talking about, I already do a couple of them, and I was moving toward adding another.

In other years, we’ve had meetings about things that don’t impact me at all.  They may be things that change parts of the university rather drastically, but, as far as my day-to-day teaching life goes, I’ll never be able to tell the difference.  Honestly, most decisions that are reached around the university don’t change how I teach my classes or much of anything about my life.

Thus, I’ve made it my goal not to worry about such things.  If someone wants to change the design of the webpage (just for an example), it’s not worth my time to worry about, even if I think the move is an awful one.  We’ve been debating adding a football team for the past few years.  We decided against it, but I wouldn’t have been bothered if we would have added it.  My guess is that it would have added maybe one football player a semester to my classes.  I haven’t had trouble with our athletes in the past, so I’m not sure why I would worry about adding one more.

The only part of my academic life I can control is what happens between the four walls of my classroom.  I can dictate the type of work students will do and how they behave for that amount of time.  I can’t even control how much they will learn, though I can do my best to try to make my class significant in an academic sense (as well as a life sense, but I can’t even control that).

The faculty members I have known who were unhappy with their jobs have been people who worried about the things they had no control over.  They spend hours talking with people, maybe even writing emails or setting up meetings with people, about these issues that didn’t affect their lives or their classrooms.  They were miserable in their jobs, even though they had great classes, supposedly the main reason they were there.  They would even admit that they had great classes, if you pushed them hard enough.

I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t be aware of what goes on across our campuses and that we shouldn’t get involved in those decisions (I can understand how one could make the argument that having or not having a football team matters greatly, though I would still disagree).  I would argue, though, that the bulk of our attention and energy should go toward our classrooms (or research, if you’re at a place that values that).  If we’re doing good work there, our lives are generally quite enjoyable, at least our academic lives.  If we focus on controlling what we can control, we’ll spend more time on those areas that can make us most satisfied.

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Sometimes You’re Stuck (or, On Not Taking My Own Advice)

Just two weeks ago, I wrote about planning for the new semester, and one of my main points was that we should plan our classes and schedules to avoid having multiple assignments from different classes all coming in at the same time.  Essentially, I was arguing that there are ways of avoiding those awful weeks of grading that we’ve all had way too often.

Now, two weeks later, I’ve finalized all my syllabi, and I spent this past week handing them out.  Because of my planning, I don’t have a week of hellish grading.  No, I have two of them.  Good thing I have a blog to read to give me good ideas on how to avoid such problems.

So, what happened?  I know better than to do this, and I clearly had it in mind when I started planning my syllabi, so I should have been able to avoid this.  Essentially, I had three issues that prevented me from spreading my grading load out in the way I would want to do.

First, the spring semester is always more challenging than the fall at our school.  We have our normal week (we call it Convocation) where we’re not allowed to give major assignments (papers and tests) because the students have additional chapel services that week.  Then, just about a month after that comes Spring Break.  Then, just a few weeks later, we get both the Friday and Monday around Easter off.  For Monday, Wednesday, Friday classes–my two literature classes that lead to the heaviest grading load (due to the paper length, mainly)–that means that I just lost seven class periods.  That schedule tends to funnel all the grading toward the same spot.

We’ve all heard students complain about their assignments from different classes due at the same time.  I always joke that we have a bit meeting at the beginning of the semester where we actually plan those out, as it does seem to be well orchestrated.  Of course, it’s simply because the academic calendar pushes us toward that same schedule, and there is little we can do to avoid that.

Compounding my problem, though, is the size of my classes this semester.  Last semester, I did have a 400-level class with 27, but my 300-level class only had 11.  38 papers would be manageable for me.  This semester, though, my 300-level class has 23, and my 200-level class has 30.  53 papers sounds much more daunting than 38.  Normally, people would try to comfort me by reminding me that some students will either drop or not turn assignments in (why professors are happy about this news deserves a blog post of its own).  However, the past few times I have taught the 200-level class, no one drops, and they all turn in their major assignments, which is great.  The 300-level class is one for majors, so they should all be responsible (and, knowing most of them already, they are).

The last problem is one of my own making.  I’m on the Board for Sigma Tau Delta, and our convention is this spring.  I normally would have taken students to the convention, but the Board meets the day before the convention, which means I’ll leave on Tuesday, not Wednesday, effectively causing me to lose that entire week (my classes will still meet, as I have people to guide them while I’m gone).  Even more problematic is the fact that the convention meets the week after our Spring Break.  Thus, we’ll all be gone for a week, then I’ll be gone for almost the entire next week, which pushes us toward the end of March.

So it seems I couldn’t take my own advice, but what it really means is that, sometimes, we don’t have much room in our schedules to adjust matters.  There are issues that are out of our control, such as when breaks are scheduled or how many students we end up having in our classes or when a conference meets.  Our job is just to work around those the best we can, then dig in for those weeks where the grading load seems overwhelming.  It never is, of course, but we like to pretend that the work will likely kill us.  It won’t do that, either.

Content Where One Is

I’m in my thirteenth year at my current institution, and I taught and worked as a librarian at private high schools for four years before that, so I’m nearing the mid-career mark.  When I was younger, I spent a lot of time thinking about taking on certain roles or even moving up the ranks.  It wasn’t that I was unhappy with the people who were already in those positions; I simply thought that I wanted to be there, as well.

For example, when I was a librarian at a private school in Washington state, I was at a conference where someone talked about accreditation.  I knew about that from my work in higher education, so I was intrigued at how it worked at a lower level.  When I learned about how it worked, I wanted to get involved, to be a part of those teams that did accreditation.  Note that I had three years of high school experience at that point.  I remember going to the headmaster of my school, who was quite encouraging, to talk about this opportunity.  I never pursued it, though, as I left the school to return to higher education.

Even when I came back to the university level, I kept thinking about moving up the ranks.  Thankfully, our department chair has been in her position for a long time, and she does a great job, so I never thought about serving in that role.  However, there were other opportunities.  Because our department is so large (relative to our school; we have about 20 faculty members, which I know is quite small for many colleges and universities), we have people who coordinate parts of it.

A few years after I came back, I worked with those coordinators on a project or two, and I began to think I was being groomed to take a role at that level.  That didn’t happen.  Then, a few years later, our department chair clearly included two more of us in that group, so I was sure I would be taking on more of a leadership role.  That didn’t happen, either.  Both times, not surprisingly, I was disappointed, as I wanted to be seen as a leader in the department and the university, at large.

Now, several years later, I’m glad that neither of those situations worked out.  In fact, I now have no desire at all to ever serve at that role, and I certainly don’t want to ever serve as an administrator (I know that could change in ten to twenty years, but I’ll deal with that change if it comes).  I was recently in a meeting about undergraduate research, which we’re trying to improve on campus.  The woman who put us together said that we need a chair and that that person will probably get a class release time, if not now, soon.  I thought about volunteering, but then I realized that I would be shifting my emphasis from the classroom, which I love, to meetings, which I hate.

Similarly, last year, a friend of mine who just moved to a new university told me that there was an opening for a Dean there.  I’ll admit that I took a couple of days and looked at the school and the job description.  I even did some research on the town to see if it’s a place I might want to live.  What I realized, though, was that I kept looking at the English curriculum, as if that’s where my focus would be.  As with the meeting early this year, it dawned on me that I would be spending much more of my time in meetings, not the classroom, which would be an awful trade for me.

For some reason, we seem to believe that we need to move up the ranks.  Some people have that gift (often not the people who pursue it, by the way), but some people are better suited to the classroom.  Allison Vaillancourt writes about this idea in a post for The Chronicle of Higher Education, which is what inspired my post.  Since she’s the type of person to want to take on higher positions, she has trouble understanding those who don’t.

What I’ve ultimately decided is that I love the classroom way too much to ever want to make a trade, even for one class, to take on more leadership.  I’ll serve where I’m needed, but I will not seek out such positions.  Instead, I’ll spend my energy and time trying to be the best teacher I can be.  That’s stood me in good stead so far, so I’ll stay right where I am for the time being and, possibly, for the rest of my career.

As with article (https://chroniclevitae.com/news/848-does-there-need-to-be-a-next), I’m now content to be where I am doing what I’m doing, and I’ll probably be so for the rest of my days

Planning for the New Semester

Now that the new year has come, it’s time to start thinking about classes for the spring semester (or quarter, for those few of you who are still on that system).  For most of us, the spring doesn’t entail a significant change in our classes, given the shorter break between fall and spring semesters.  Most of us simply tweak our classes rather than overhaul them completely (should they need it).  If we’re teaching a new class, we get through the best we can for the first time, planning on how to improve it the next time around, once we have a summer to work through it.

In this post, I want to talk about scheduling and how that can help us manage the work load for classes and help us avoid stress and those awful weeks of grading that always seem to surprise us.

First, then, after planning out individual courses, I would suggest coordinating those classes to see if there are places where you have major assignments (or even drafts, for those of us who teach writing-intensive courses) coming in at the same time from different classes.  Most of us tend to think of classes as individual entities, forgetting that we teach all of them.  I always cut-and-paste my course schedules into one document (I hang this above my computer, so I can easily see all my classes at one time) to see how assignments (and even reading loads) match up.

I teach four classes every semester, and, this spring, all of them will have around 25 students.  Two of those classes are first-year writing classes; the other two have three exams with an essay on each exam, plus a major paper (there are several smaller writing assignments, but those are much easier to deal with).  If I don’t plan properly, I could have around 100 papers coming in all at the same time.  With a bit of foresight, though, I can stagger those papers/exams to avoid a week (or two or three) where I have a stack of papers and/or exams on my desk to grade, which, as we know, will only discourage me from getting to them in the first place, leading to more trouble.

I taught for years before I figured this out, but, now that I have, my work load (and life) is much better.  I do still have a week or so near the end of the semester that is unavoidably busy, but I know when it will fall.  Just knowing it’s coming actually makes it more manageable.

That relates to my second idea, which is also scheduling major events or conferences on the course schedule ahead of time.  All of us put breaks on our schedules, but we forget to list those annual events or conferences that will also lead to a pile-up later in the semester.  Even if we don’t hand that version out to students, we should make it for ourselves.

For example, one I always forget is the day we work on senior portfolios in our department.  All morning classes are cancelled, so we can have a norming session, then read and score portfolios for graduating seniors.  Every year, I leave this day off until it’s too late, and I have to find a way to cut a day of material, leading to more complications.

Even if you aren’t sure you’ll be attending a conference in the spring, if you think you are, build in an extra day or two.  You can call this a day to catch up, or you could put in material that you know you could cut, if you needed to.  Then, if you do go to a conference, you won’t have to worry about that material.  If you don’t, you’ll have a bit of breathing room later in the semester when we could all use it.

The same is true for significant committee work.  I served on our university’s promotion and rank committee for a couple of years and learned this lesson.  The committee only meets once or twice during a year, but the week or two leading up to that meeting (or meetings) is intense, as we have to read all of the paperwork for those going up for promotion.  If you’re on a committee like this, building that in to the schedule will enable you to focus on that committee work for a week or two without having to manage a serious grading load at the same time.

Planning ahead makes all of our lives easier.  We don’t have to change assignments for students, so they can stay on schedule more easily (students almost always comment on the fact that I don’t change the schedule, which confused me for years until they started telling me stories of professors who change them almost weekly).  We can also have more manageable work loads, so we can focus on the teaching itself, which is where the real enjoyment comes from.