Belated Blog: What I’ve Learned This Semester

At the end of each semester, I tell students that any class worth its salt should give them something they didn’t have before they began it.  Since I ask them to think about and name a few of those “somethings,” I figured I would ponder and write about a few of my own!

I was supposed to post more than a week ago, but it’s been one of the more hectic Decembers in recent memory; something that definitely affects the subject matter here.  If you’ve ever seen the fabulous Disney movie Meet the Robinsons, there’s a recurring line: “I’m just not sure how well this plan was thought through.”  Well, no matter how well I feel I have planned my semester and prepared for every contingency, there are always a few snags that bring that line to mind!  Thankfully, those snags generally balance out with a few pleasant surprises I hope to repeat.  So here, in no particular order, follow my top ten.  May you avoid my mistakes, and have a few pleasant surprises of your own!

1)    I need to explain what I mean by “revision.” How could I have forgotten, after my years teaching composition, that most students consider “revision” a slightly more involved form of spell-check?  Foolish Kelli.   Also, when I allow revisions, I need to specify that previously incurred late penalties still apply.

2)    I need to be careful about what I assume is “basic knowledge.” I taught a freshmen-level course this semester, and simply assumed that most of my students would be familiar with various literary terms and forms, like I was by the end of high school.  Not so!  Most of my students had never discussed the characteristics of epic poetry, or written anything in iambic pentameter…not even a sonnet.  Some students had, and they could help the others, but I was surprised more than a few times into backtracking.  I didn’t mind doing this; it just showed me that I need to question my assumptions.  Or perhaps I should do a little survey at the beginning of the semester to determine what “gaps” I need to fill.

3)    I like giving final exams (not merely final papers).  Tried it for the first time, and I think it exercises the brain differently, and involves a healthy fear-factor. 🙂 Students actually study for finals, whereas papers usually get written at the last minute.  Plus, my end-of-semester grading goes faster—that is, it would have, if I had finished the essays students gave me after Thanksgiving….see #s 4, 5, and 6.

4)    I must consider how assignments I give to students translate into MY workload. This is my first semester teaching this many classes and trying to get my own work done—at least since 2006—and I did not achieve balance.  All those assignments I designed sounded SO awesome when I put them on my syllabus!  And I do think they facilitated some good learning…but they swamped me with grading!  Though it’s part of my job as a teacher to accept the responsibility of grading and offering helpful feedback and critique, I’ve resolved to consider my own time and abilities as well.  Time, energy, and mental stability are factors that must be respected.

5)    I should automatically double the amount of time I think it’s going to take me to grade assignments.  I should also never make promises about what day papers will be returned.  And, I should become a better time manager, and faster essay grader, so as to hand papers back before students start asking about them…but that’s the top of the mountain, and I’m still in the foothills.  Baby steps.

6)    I will never again specifically ASK for papers to be emailed.  Electronic documents are convenient in many ways, but hey DO NOT save time!!  Just opening all the darn attachments takes at least as long as grading half the paper—and then finding all the right tools to leave comments in the way I want to is a huge time-sucker as well.  Then emailing back the new file with comments means more filing on my computer desktop, and taking the time to find all their email addresses and write individual “here you go!” notes is another time sucker.  Never again.

7)    I love teaching texts I’m encountering for the first time. Teaching familiar texts certainly has a  lot of advantages, but teaching fresh, unfamiliar ones is exciting and invigorating!  I just have to be careful not to monopolize discussion.

8)    I really like pairing texts, both for in-class study and for assignments. This semester I paired Wordsworth’s The Prelude with The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano.  It led to some great discoveries about how similar subject matter (autobiography) can be treated completely differently through use of different forms (poetry and prose), and how those forms might link to the author’s audiences and agendas.  I had students choose a passage from each text, and “translate” it into the form used by the other author—and I was so pleased with the results!  I did learn that The Prelude is incredibly challenging for students, and probably needs close study on its own, rather than in conjunction with something else.  Next time I get to teach this particular course, I will pair Frances Burney’s Evelina with The Interesting Narrative, since they represent completely different social and geographical perspectives, but still contain stories from roughly equivalent time periods of how relatively powerless people learn to navigate and succeed in their worlds.  Sound cool?  I think so.

9)    I need to figure out how to be tougher.  I think I’m a pretty tough grader and I don’t go easy on student essays, but I also give a lot of points for attendance, and I accept late papers for partial credit.  Maybe I should stop doing that, since I ended up with a LOT of As and Bs, and still got an email from a student (a week after the final) asking if there was anything he could do bump up his grade to an A, because he felt he had worked hard enough to deserve one.   Aargh.  I’m a sympathetic softie by nature, but would like to have a flinty enough form of authority that I don’t get questions like that.  Still pondering how to achieve this.

10) I still genuinely enjoy teaching. Yep, it’s always a relief to discover that fact, especially in the stressful crunch at the end of the semester, when my patience and sense of humor run out WAY quicker than usual, and I randomly burst into tears when looking at my stacks of ungraded finals and piles of dirty dishes (in separate rooms, of course).   Those are rough days.  Yet when the grading is all done and my house is clean again, and it’s Christmas Eve, and I’m looking forward to a new semester and a new course to create, I think I’m pretty lucky to get to do this for a living!  It’s not glamorous, but it’s creative and challenging and interesting.  Most of all, it helps me grow, which is what this little inventory is all about.  Thanks for indulging me.

Happy Holidays, Everyone!


2 thoughts on “Belated Blog: What I’ve Learned This Semester”

  1. Kelli, thanks for writing such a thoughtful blog! I bet just the process of listing specifically what you learned was helpful in itself. I should get on the train and do the same!

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