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Looking Back on Fall 2019

I did not intend to abandon this site for months, but the past term was a busy one, and then the holiday break got even busier and more stressful in many ways. I’ve wanted to do some reflection on the past term, but now that past term feels very past, so I’m not going to do a long post about all that went well or badly. Instead, just some highlights, looking back…

One of my goals for last term was to really get a handle on the Introduction to Interdisciplinary Studies course that I teach. I decided to see the course as having two parts: Part 1 is rather regimented, but it is then that students do the work to create their individualized major. It’s best if they can get this in good shape by advising weeks, when they choose their classes for the next term. That’s a fast push, but do-able. Then the second part of the course is open, with lots of possibilities. I decided to emphasize the openness, and so the course schedule for those weeks simply read, “We will design this section of the course together.” I had done smaller versions of this in the past, but never the whole second half of the course. I broke the students into groups and assigned each group to be responsible for a certain number of class meetings (equally; but 1 section of the course met Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings for 50 minutes while the other met Tuesday evenings for two-and-a-half hours, so they weren’t quite alike). First, I had the whole class work together to create a “course manifesto” Google doc. I seeded it with some headings and the starts of statements, e.g. “MISSION STATEMENT. As a class, we will use our time to… By the end of the term we will have… We will know we have been successful if at the end of the term…” Other sections were GROUPS (for how they would mitigate the challenges of group work), CLASS (for the basic values they wanted us to share as a class), and END OF TERM (what we wanted to accomplish by the end). I told them they could wipe the document clean and format it in another way if they wanted, but they chose to stick to what I’d given them. Then, I told them I’d be leaving the room for 30 minutes while they worked on the manifesto. I did so.

My leaving the classroom proved liberatory for one section of the course. When I came back after 30 minutes, their manifesto was in good shape and they had had a really interesting conversation about what they wanted from our remaining weeks together. I couldn’t have asked for it to have been a more effective assignment. Excited by this triumph, I did the same thing with the other section of the course the next day. When I came back, I was full of optimism, and then I looked at what they’d done for the manifesto. Nothing. They’d gotten completely stuck. They didn’t understand what we were doing, didn’t understand why I had left the room, didn’t know what to talk about, and had mostly just given up. At first, I was angry! Didn’t they understand that this was a brilliant and liberating exercise?!? But then we talked about it, about why it had been such a flop. I shared my hopes and ideas and told them how the other class had done it. I stayed in the room and helped them work through the manifesto. Then, we moved on to figuring out what the groups would do with their time. And suddenly there were revelations. One of the groups even decided that they would create an event on campus with various staff (dean of students, director of accessibility services, student advocate/ombudsman) to talk about what it means to be an effective self-advocate.

Now, in hindsight, I can see ways I didn’t prepare students well for the exercise, but I also see that these two sections of the same course were really different, and that each ended up going in the right direction for that particular group of students. This taught me another benefit of an open approach. I can mess up as the teacher, and there’s still plenty of room for success, because the burden of any one class’s success is not on me. What I do as the teacher of the class is strive to create an environment that is flexible and accepting enough to allow any one of us (teacher or student) to have an off day. As long as we’re not all having an off day together at the same time, we should be okay.

I also realized that I want to shift where in the semester I put the majority of the difficult work in my classes. The Intro class works well now because all its hard and exhausting and stressful and frustrating stuff is in the first 7 weeks or so. Once students finish creating their majors, then we have a lot of flexibility, and there’s nothing that Absolutely Must Get Done. We can play around, experiment. It’s joyful. Whereas the other course I routinely teach, Interdisciplinary Studies Senior Seminar, really bothered me last term. I had great students, a lot of them did wonderful work, but I kept thinking: This should be so much better. These are seniors. They’re experienced in their work. They know what they want to do and why. And yet … a lot of the work they did by the end of the term seemed to me less than I knew them to be capable of. When that happens with one or two students, it’s probably something going on with those individuals. But when it’s the majority of the class, then I tend to think that the fault is with the course somehow.

That’s when I realized that the problem was that a Pass/No Pass course that puts all its big work at the end of the term is always going to suffer from students making a perfectly rational choice: They will prioritize their A-F courses. They will procrastinate or rush through the work for the P/NP course even if it’s the work they enjoy most and are most passionate about (generally the case for Senior Sem) because there is less risk to doing that with our course than with an A-F course that contributes to their GPA. I can lament that fact all I want, but it’s still a fact. And I’m a realist when it comes to these things. I think we should admit the circumstances we can’t change rather than bemoan them. Admit the circumstances, then try to think of a way to work with them.

I’m redesigning the course now with the goal of figuring out how to put more of the hard work of the course in the beginning and middle, when students have time and energy to do it. That will save the latter 1/3 or so of the course for reflection activities and fun, playful experiments. The students will have a bit less time to work on their capstone projects, but I’m hoping the time will be better used, so more productive. We will see.

There’s a lot else I want to do this term. It’s a unique term for me — for various perfect-storm-like reasons, I’m only teaching 1 section of 1 course (Senior Seminar), which means I have a lot more time for scholarship and service. I’ve already got myself signed up for probably too many committees (and being advisor to the student newspaper), so I’m doing great on the service part, but it’s a good time for me to work on exploring some new paths of scholarship, especially since I have a book coming out next week, so this is a great time to begin testing the waters and trying out new directions. I won’t have the same amount of time to do so until I get a sabbatical quite a few years from now (if we even still have sabbaticals then!), so I’m going to do my best to make the most of this opportunity. I’ll continue with the literary scholarship and writing of fiction and essays that are my passions, but I am also very curious to try to dig more deeply into the study of teaching and learning in a way that goes beyond the (useful! necessary!) basic ground that I feel like we often get stuck on when we talk about pedagogy. I have a hunger for newer, deeper ways of thinking about this stuff, and I have zero idea of what that might look like, so I’m excited to begin exploring…

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