|(so if you assigned Das Kapital, because you|
had yet to read it; students may be a little
Friday, April 13, 2012
The Home Stretch
Trimester of the Semester
As my students handed in their second essays (either on what made the United States a “nation” from 1760 to 1830 or on what was the biggest weakness in the new nation-state), I reflected with my students on entering the “trimester of the semester.” My wife has just entered her third trimester with our newest baby boy (we’re hopeful and terrified at the same time) and the tiredness of it all was weighing on her. Students and faculty are tired too, typically, during the final portion of the semester. Final projects are due; final papers need to be written; there’s all that grading to do and the students who now beg for extra credit.
Given all these issues, I wanted to reflect on some overall teaching issues that come up near the end of the semester. First, how do we deal with exhaustion and the pressing amount of material due? I try to shake things up a little bit by shifting the routine of the class. If before I lectured the first half and then had discussion, I now do discussion first and then lecture. If before we got into groups of 4 or 5, I now get them in groups of 2. Anything to jolt them into a new feeling. But I make sure not to change things too much, because the rhythm of the class can be comforting too. Oh, and I take a few minutes to let them exhale at the beginning of class so they can get their bearings from racing around campus.
Second, how should we handle mistakes? I received a call earlier in the week from a friend with a “teaching question.” She noted that she had assigned, by accident, the wrong book for a course (intended to use an author’s first book, but instead ordered the author’s second book). The assigned book was not pitched to undergraduates. It’s dense, difficult, full of complicated theory and even more complicated sentence structure. What should she do?
I’ve encountered this problem before, but usually my error has been in assigning a book that I had not read before class (as a way to force me to read it). When I find the book miserable to read, I know my students will probably dislike it too. When I first started teaching, I approached it this way: some books are hard; some ideas are difficult – and we need to work hard through them so tough it out. And this is true; some books and concepts are more difficult to grasp than others. But what I didn’t realize then was that many (most) of my students would simply not read; they would ignore it, fake it, pretend. So for me, that strategy didn’t work.
I always try to make negatives into positives so now when that happens I turn to humility and humanity. I go before my class and say, “well, guess who didn’t read this book before the semester? Guess who had a really difficult time reading it? Guess who is really confused by chapters 1, 3, 4, 5, oh yeah, and chapter 2 as well?” Typically, my students have appreciated the honesty – I’m human just as they are, make mistakes, and it takes me time to figure things out as well. Then, I say, OK, we bought this book, let’s try to figure something out. What is going on in chapter 1? And we slowly work through it as best we can. If the class is small (like 15), I’ll then have a pizza party to “apologize” for them buying a book that really didn’t help them (so I’m willing to kick in some money to offset what they had to spend). This may seem like overkill, but I try to respect the money my students have (and don’t have, or would rather spend on glamorous phones).
(oh, and there will be a quiz on Monday; on lecture material from Wednesday and from Major Problems chapters 13 and 14. I would pay particular attention to Frederick Douglass's speech, Lincoln versus Douglas, reviews of Uncle Tom's Cabin, which historian argues what, Tally Simpson on Gettysburg, and artistic representations of the Emancipation Proclamation ... oh, and extra credit will be on who the co-editor of this blog is with me and why you should know about his first book and not just his textbook)