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.


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