About pacing yourself

This comment from the weekend has stuck in my craw a bit.  Aside from its slightly sanctimonious air, what’s puzzling about it is that it seems to assume that there are no costs to infinite creativity.   But that’s just not true.

This semester, I have 2 wholly new courses (the League course & the Digital Literary Studies course), and an extensively re-tooled one (the Victorian Age).  Next semester I have 3 new preps–one team-taught course, a topics course on cyberpunk (which has to be different from the last time I taught this, because of new rules affecting certain gen ed courses), the department’s intro to the major course–plus, again, a retooled course (the Victorian novel).  The next time I get to run out a largely set syllabus is when I teach the survey again in Spring 2009.  But, that semester I’m teaching a grad class for the first time, which I hear is prep intensive.

On the one hand, all these courses are pretty exciting.  I stay fresh; I get lots of repeat students; I’m pretty good at putting together interesting reading lists.

On the other hand, all this new stuff leads directly to my worst professorial habit: A wholly unjustified frustration, verging on fury, when some students turn out not to be all that engaged in the class.  When I propose the schedule, every time I think, “well, it’ll be a lot of work, but think how much fun it will be–and think of how much people will like the course!  We’ll all learn so much.”

Inevitably, though, not all students will like a particular class, and that dislike/indifference will be manifest both in their in-class affect (what I’ve sometimes called being “aggressively sullen”) and in shoddy work.

I react to this in a couple of different ways, all of them bad–the occasional outburst in class, holding on to papers for a r-e-a-l-l-y long time, depression–in effect, I mourn the gap between the class in my head and the actual class’s enactment.  I’ll find myself thinking, “you know, I could’ve just recycled the same old material semester after semester . . .”

But this isn’t exactly fair, and is just a product of being tired.  When rested, I’m perfectly capable of admitting, even encouraging, students in their different interests, and recognize that student disengagement isn’t always (often?) about me.  I even remember that the fact that *some* students aren’t interested doesn’t mean that some/many are.

So, I stand by what I said before: it’s not necessary to constantly re-invent everything about your classes, and, more than this, doing so can have unexpected costs.

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3 Responses to About pacing yourself

  1. Frothy McBaldman says:

    Last fall I radically reinvented a graduate course on the origins of the novel. I have my own take on the subject, of course, and I had game-tested my (somewhat idiosyncratic) approach at another university to great success. Students had animated debates and discussions, generated really accomplished written work on the subject, and apparently felt respected even when they disagreed with me. A good time was had by all.

    Last year, however, I thought I’d try to attune the seminar to the mission of our graduate program–I found myself working like a mad bandicoot outside of class to keep the forum open, to prepare for any direction our sessions might take. I was braced for feminist, Marxist, and postcolonial readings, loaded for bear every time out.

    And then we had those sessions, and all they wanted to talk about was biography: lots and lots of biography.

    Dissapointed though I was/am, I still appreciate all that prep time for my own sake. Though the gulf between the imagined classroom experience and the actual was wide and deep, I still feel as though they got something out of it. I had hoped more students would reach for the brass ring; even though they didn’t, I think they left the seminar believing it was there.

  2. Hi there,

    I’m designing a course on digital history for the fall and don’t know where to begin. I’ve read alot on theory, but my technical skills are pretty minimal. Help!

  3. I definitely agree that it’s not necessary to reinvent everything about classes all the time! It can definitely be counter-productive.

    (And by calling service “bureaucratic” in my last comment I didn’t mean to imply that it’s not important – it’s just that I think there’s stuff that it’s important professors do, and stuff that other people should do. I think there are a lot of things that professors can do that aid retention, for instance, but at the same time I don’t think that professors should be the primary people at an institution trying to figure out ways to improve retention. I think what’s frustrating is the fact that service is important and faculty should consider it important and do it well, but that at the same time the people who get (materially) rewarded when service is successful are often the administrators.)

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