Saturday, December 20, 2008

Finished, Finally! Or: How preparing a new course is a lot of work

Whew! I have just finally completed putting together my reader for the second class I'll teach in winter (for those of you just tuning in, I'm taking on an emergency appointment that abruptly came up due to someone's illness.) This took a long time. In fact, it took more than a week, with full days of doing nothing but the reader. That was way longer than I had anticipated or could afford to spend. I'm trying not to beat myself up for it though; how could I know it was going to be such a project?

Having prepped only two new courses from scratch for next quarter, I'm amazed thinking of my friends who got jobs on the tenure track and had to deal with navigating a 3-3 --- no wonder it's so important to be filed before you start! No wonder people say you won't get any research done your first year! I hope my friends manage to finish and file over break (some of them have, others are still ABD and I worry about them).

My case was complicated by the fact that I'm doing something that isn't really my specialty and is very interdisciplinary (though I do interdisciplinary stuff, it doesn't map neatly onto this interdisciplinary stuff). And the reader's it; can't just throw together some books and have them show up for the class in time, can't use a textbook because I don't think there are any that cover this precise thingy (and man, I have been googling up the wazoo, if that's possible, trying to find materials. If I could have found a textbook and just photocopied half of it for the course, I sure would have.)

I think if this were a literature-only class it would have taken a fraction of the time to prepare --- if it were just a matter of choosing novels/books and arranging them in an order, that would be mainly a matter of dithering about deciding between things. For example, what I did in fall didn't take that long at all, and I had lots of fun figuring out who should go where in the syllabus --- hmm, go strict chronological or pair them to make contrasts? or by coteries? or by influence? How much should things be organized by genre? or geography? What if I have a certain major theme and four different texts that I want to discuss around it ... which text should I use to introduce the idea and which ones go later, considering I can't have them read all four texts simultaneously? --- Yes, considering this topic was right in my field and near and dear to my heart, it was like rearranging chocolate truffles in the perfect pattern and order for nibbling on, a pleasure contemplated and a pleasure consumed. Yum.

Even the class I was originally scheduled to teach (hmm, they may need names in the future.) didn't take too too long in making a reader; it could have been condensed more or made more protracted, depending on how much I wanted to stretch myself or do a good job. Not that I would advocate anyone doing a halfassed crap job of putting together a reader/syllabus, but I have been known to teach a plain vanilla version of "introduction to the major" while a grad student, rather than really use the opportunity to create something well thought out that would really showcase my talents and leave me with great sample syllabi for job search stuff. Some of my friends have created amazing courses showcasing their research under the rubric of their writing or intro to the major classes, whereas I usually went for quick-and-dirty, I've-got-to-do- the-diss, as my motto. So rule number 1 was to re-use as much stuff as I had TA'd (and had gone well) as possible. This time, I have expanded my reading list --- a fair amount of stuff I have taught before, another good chunk that I know well and like but haven't taught yet, and a few works that I have not read but really should have, so this way I can say I have breadth and teaching chops and whatnot.

But to go back to my earlier point, this other class ---- this Emergency Class ---- is, as I have said, interdisciplinary. And so I was a bit out of my element. With the fall class, I'd put two texts next to each other and then say, "Ah! I should have my students read X recent critical article, or Y historical document!" And then I would sift through my anthologies and grad school readers and find a clean copy. With Emergency Class, I would know that I wanted to cover Q concept or R major development, and then I would have to search and search and search to find some books and articles that talked about those ideas in the time and geography I am actually supposed to be dealing with. And all that crap is organized under other databases, which I had forgotten about and was using GoogleBooks to read a whole bunch of tables of contents without going into the library --- anybody else do this? Or am I being a bad scholar? :)

So when I would remember a scholar who was relevant, I'd go look him/her up, and then have to decide if I throw in an article about the right concept but totally different content, or if I should run all the keywords in this article's title through every database I knew. Then I went and pulled everything I could find remotely related to the concept off the shelves and skimmed everything to see if it actually worked, which ate up lots of time ---- it was kinda like cramming for my prospectus exam (although that did take longer than a week) as I was reading around and familiarizing myself with the field. And that was humbling and anxiety-provoking. Seriously, am I qualified to teach the course if I'm skimming through stuff going, "Oh, look at this entire area of research! News to me!" Of course, on several days I put in a full day, skimming about 6 books, and either didn't have anything for my week of readings or had only one article. This lack of progress despite putting effort also was demoralizing. Sometimes I'd have to admit that there just wasn't anything good published on this topic, but this would make me anxious too, as there might be something really appropriate (even obvious to the initiated) out there that I just missed.

And to top it all off, I don't think I have a good course here. I think when I'm done and have notes I'll have a really good draft toward a course, but right now things are glommed together without a clear "arc" on the syllabus and I have several places where I'm going to have to go "squint really hard and pretend that the case study for these concepts is actually topical" or "yeah, I'm sorry that this article is both boring and crappily written, but it exactly matches our topic." Well, we'll see. I've sent out the reader and still need to clean up the syllabus and make certain decisions about assignments and such, but the reading is mostly set. It took a long time but it was necessary --- if I had assigned some of these things based on the title without reading around, I would have had a major meltdown on my hands later, while teaching, and it's worth it to not look like an idiot or have a mass rebellion in the classroom ---- well, to not be an idiot in front of a raging public any more than I absolutely have to. I assume there will be disasters; I'm just trying to minimize them.

(wow, was this a long rambly post or what? Goes to show what happens when you lock a Cog up somewhere with no human interaction for a week. I'll update with other aspects of my life soon. As in, when I find that I have them.)


Bardiac said...

One of the advantages tt folks have is that we get to try things more than once. You run a course, and then the next time, you know how to teach it for real. That's especially true if you're doing a course that's not really central to your area of study.

And now you've reminded me that I still haven't ordered books for one of my spring classes :(

Anonymous said...

Agreed with Bardiac about the experiment thing. Also, re: load, it's not so much about number but preps (I normally teach 4/4 but only two preps with three sections of intro).

Once you've been out and teaching a bit you find, unless you're perfect or dense, that the most important thing is not what readings you assign but how you design and manage the learning process in the room. You can have a great course with crappy readings - figuring out why they're crappy together can be especially valuable - and a terrible one with great readings. You can 'cover' a whole lot where none of it 'sticks', or you can poke at one little thing that opens out in all sorts of unexpected and valuable ways and changes lives. It's all about trying stuff and seeing how it works out.

Anyway, we old hands at regional teaching schools always know the newbie syllabi because they're crammed with all sorts of unrealistic, densely and earnestly scholarly, lovingly chosen and balanced, inevitably ignored by most of the students readings. And the question is, will she be satisfied talking with the two geeks in the class who actually crack that reader? Or will she find a way to streamline the content while enabling engagement from students of varying abilities, dispositions and involvements? In that sense I think your vanilla intro syllabus sounds like a good platform for tweaking for interviews with my kind of school.

Awesome: my spam verification word is "fartoodi."

Anonymous said...

Oh, re: interdisciplinary teaching, being qualified, etc., there's something to be said for learning along with the students. You don't have to know everything, just more than them at any given point and enough to point them in good directions.

When I was at your stage I also taught all over the place - philosophy, sociology, human development, history - and it was all about learning curves and keeping my head in the game. Get some good stuff on the syllabus then use the class to work it through.

I remember talking about this with a trippy old woman who also hung out at my cafe in Oakland. She was mostly a neighborhood wise woman and storyteller at this point but she had taught in the schools for years and always been the one to say yes when a whatsit class would come open. The way she put it is that we "duck into the closet for a second," figure it out, then get down to business.