First Day of the Semester

I’ve been thinking a lot right now about prepared versus nimble, about what makes a good teacher and a good experience for the students. When I was first learning how to teach, I took a pedagogy course in grad school, and my professor told us to prepare 30% more lesson plan material than we’d think we’d need, but also, be ready to change the lesson mid-stream if students led the class in a more interesting / productive direction.

It’s good advice, and I’ve mostly tried to teach by it, but I’m now 15+ years into my teaching career, and I think in the midst of a pandemic, I’ve started really questioning the need to prepare quite so extensively.

In the past, every semester, I’ve put together a detailed week-by-week syllabus that I handed out on the first day. This year, I’ve largely abandoned that. What my students are getting now is:

– the course overview
– major deadlines for the semester

– a detailed plan for the first week

That’s it. I know some of them would prefer to see it all in advance, but the truth of the matter is that even in the past, every semester, I ended up telling them that the syllabus was subject to change, and in fact, it usually did change, week to week. I’m now thinking that it’s more honest to not pretend it’s a fixed thing from the beginning.

I have a pretty strong idea of what I’ll be doing, week-to-week, especially in classes I’ve taught previously. I’m hoping that’s sufficient preparation for the course overall, and that if I spend a few hours on Sundays planning out the next week, posting it that night, so they have the week’s plan first thing Monday morning, that will work at least as well for them as what we did previously.

It’ll be easier for me too. Kevin and I were talking on Friday, both of us a little stressed at not being done with our syllabi yet, and I think we both came to the decision that what the students really needed was to know what to do on day 1, and week 1, and the rest could follow on.

I’m teaching lit theory for the first time, and I last studied lit theory in grad school in 2002, almost 20 years ago. I admit, when my department asked me to teach this course, I had a moment of flailing panic, and may have sent them back a note asking if they were sure they wanted me to teach theory. They said they were sure I’d be fine. Nice that they have confidence in me, but eep.

My shelves still hold all the theory I read in grad school — Saussure and Lacan and Derrida and Foucault. I’ve only actively assigned the post-colonial theory (bits of it) in my post-colonial lit. classes. The rest of it — it shaped my thinking, twenty years ago, and I think informs much of how I approach the world. That’s true of the philosophy I read in college too — I took an entire course on Wittgenstein, but I couldn’t tell you in a sentence now what he’s all about. I’m sure he left traces, though, ghosts in my mind.

I admit, I didn’t really want to spend my break re-reading all my grad school theory to prep for this class. Instead, I bought three intro-to-theory books and compared them — one, I chose for my students to read (Upstone); the other two (Barry & Culler), I’ll likely dip in and out of (they’re a bit more challenging than the one I picked) to refresh my memory, to find new ways of approaching this subject, in case the students get stuck.

I’ve now read the intros to all of them, and started skimming the first chapters. There’s a part of me that still feels a little guilty, that hesitates to write all this, because it feels like admitting that I’m underprepared. I should “prepare 30% more lesson plan material than I think I’ll need…” — but I think it’s okay, really, that I do that week-by-week, rather than for the whole semester in advance. I’ll record my lectures that way too, probably Sunday nights.

And of course, I think we should all, teachers and students and everyone, be cutting ourselves a lot more slack while we still are dealing with the pandemic (not to mention the political stress in America right now). But it’s as if the pandemic has given me permission to modify my teaching prep in ways that will also work better when we’re back in the physical classroom.

I was raised a New Englander, and I’ve perhaps inherited more than my share of Protestant work ethic. But work for the sake of work is just pointless, and will drain you of needed resources. The right approach doesn’t have to be the most labor-intensive one. Funny how much I have to keep reminding myself of that!


Pictured: Me in my first day of teaching clothes — normally I wear something new on the first day, and even though we didn’t meet on Zoom today, I did anyway. This is a merino wool base layer from L.L. Bean because I’m cold all the time in winter, and it was a little pricey, but I really like it — it’s warm enough that if I wear a thick cardigan over it, I get too warm when I’m moving around. So I can wear a thin layer over it for times when I’m moving, and switch to a thick layer (or add a blanket) for times when I’ll be sitting for a while (and typing). Good, recommended.

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