Oct 01

Diary of a Visiting Assistant Professor: When a 4-course teaching load isn’t 4 courses (or, don’t shy away from a 4/4)

Last year was my first year as a visiting assistant professor, and I kept up this blog project all year, posting nearly every week. The idea behind the project: getting a Ph.D. from a big research university doesn’t necessarily prepare you for life as a faculty member at a small liberal arts college. I thought my own experiences might be of use to others in similar situations, or to those just leaving graduate school and starting short-term or SLAC jobs themselves. I’ve received positive feedback, so the project was helpful to at least some. (Side note: the most-read post, by far, is about clothing choices; I’m not sure what to make of that fact.)

I hadn’t planned to keep the project going this year, as I felt I’d said pretty much all I had to say. But, the second year on the job is slightly different, and so I will periodically revisit some topics I talked about last year. One of my earliest posts was about teaching. Graduate students typically teach just one or two courses a semester. Faculty, especially at a teaching-centered college, teach at least three. And a persisting fear among graduate students is having to teach four courses a semester.

I’m teaching four courses this semester, and I’m here to tell you: not all 4-course teaching assignments are the same. If you’re among the group who fears teaching four courses, here are some things to consider:

  1. Just because you’re teaching four classes doesn’t mean you’re teaching four separate courses. I have three sections of my Wikipedia class, and one section of my literature and science class. So that’s just two. (This will change in the spring, but I’ll still have two sections of one course, so only three different courses).
  2. Different colleges have different class sizes. If you’re teaching 2 classes of 35 students, that’s 70 students. If you’re teaching 4 classes of 16, that’s 64. (I have a B.A. in math, but I’m not sure I needed it for these calculations).
  3. You’ll find a schedule. I spend more time in the office this semester, because I teach every day. But I’m no less productive, I just work more from the office and less from home.

I waited until the first round of papers was returned before writing this, since that’s the task that would seem most daunting. But thus far, teaching four courses feels pretty much like teaching three. Others might have different experiences, and I know that among those teaching four courses, I’m on the privileged end of the spectrum. But the reality of the current job market is that nobody can afford to ignore a position just because the teaching load looks heavy. And just because it looks heavy, doesn’t mean it isn’t manageable.

What is the heaviest teaching load you’ve had? How did you handle it?

May 30

Diary of a Visiting Assistant Professor, summer edition

In the final weeks of the semester, as I submitted grades, prepared my summer syllabus, and bore down on some book manuscript revisions, I let this blog project slip. But since my summer course presents some challenges that fit my theme (i.e., they’re things that I, like many others, didn’t experience in grad school but did (or will) encounter as new faculty) I’ll extend through the summer — or at least through the end of June, when the course ends.

summer is finally hereThe biggest way in which why my summer course differs from fall and spring is its schedule. Because the time is short, the class is condensed. Versions of this vary by institution, and even here we have several versions: a Maymester course that meets every day for several weeks; a half-summer course that meets twice a week for 3.25 hours; and a full summer course that meets once a week (and, in December, an intersession in a similar format; I opted out this year).

I’m teaching a half-summer course, “Coming of Age Narratives” (syllabus here, iyi), which meets twice a week for 6 weeks. My first challenge was the syllabus: this is a theme that lends itself to long novels, but unless I want to devote the whole semester to one work, David Copperfield isn’t really feasible. We meet Mondays and Wednesdays, and especially for Wednesday classes I can’t really assign too much (most of my students also work full time, and/or have families). So I had to try some new things. My solutions were these:

  • I assigned only shorter novels, and more poetry. The longest work we’re reading is Huck Finn, which is manageable in a weekend (I assigned it over Memorial Day, so they really had a full week). The longest other novel is Frankenstein, certainly manageable in a weekend. I’ve also assigned more poetry (although, on a side note, I’ve been gradually increasing the amount of poetry I include on all my syllabi), short stories, and excerpts of novels than usual.
  • My syllabus includes a suggested schedule. I was clear, on the first day, that I expected about 6-8 hours of homework over the weekend, and about 2 hours for Wednesday classes. For Huck Finn and Frankenstein, I provided a schedule: which chapters to read together, and about how long it would take. A few students found it useful for Twain, some ignored it and set their own schedule (which is fine).
  • Students read more in class. In just about all my classes we read a poem the first day: I get students practicing the kind of reading I want them to do, and making notes on the text as they read. I’ve extended that idea through the shortened semester, and we’ll also read some short short fiction. One class is set aside to watch a movie (a paper is due that day, so they have that assignment rather than reading).
  • Students will write in class. This is something new for me, at least for a literature class. I’ve asked students to bring a laptop to class, and to decide which text they want to write about. They’ll start working on their paper the last hour of class, with me and each other as potential resources.

Have you taught a condensed course, in the summer or winter? How did you alter your syllabus to make it work?

Apr 18

Diary of a Visiting Assistant Professor, week 33: Wikipedia Pitfalls, Anticipated and Not

Last week I posted about an assignment in my Romanticism class, part of which requires students to add to Wikipedia’s glossary of literary terms, a potentially useful but mostly empty list. Thanks to my students, the list is now significantly less empty than it was a few months ago.

I’m generally pleased with the assignment. At minimum students have learned how Wikipedia works, and I’m convinced they now have a better understanding of the vocabulary of literary study — which was, ultimately, the goal. Nevertheless, I learned some things from this assignment which I’ll definitely apply if and when I use it again (and since I’m considering teaching a course on Wikipedia in the fall, it’s very likely).

First, the pitfall I had anticipated. While students use Wikipedia just about every day, very few had ever contributed. As every faculty member who has ever used any kind of technology in a class knows, just because students interact daily with a tool or website doesn’t mean they’ve ever thought critically about it. So I spent some time on basic editing: in class I showed them how to use the “edit” tab, and when we added citations (see below) I formatted the references myself and emailed them to students to copy and paste. A few still had questions, but the actual act of editing a Wikipedia page didn’t prove much of an obstacle.

What I wasn’t prepared for was that a user — “Green Cardamom” — had taken ownership of the glossary, policing it to ensure entries meet all the guidelines. I knew that Wikipedia pages require citations, but partly because I didn’t think glossary definitions really needed to be cited (all the terms already have their own pages, which don’t necessarily cite a source for the definition) and partly because it seemed an unnecessary step for students, I had told them not to stress about including citations. This was bad advice.

From the speed with which she responded, Green Cardamom must subscribe to the page’s rss feed. I created a Juxta a collation of the edits made on January 28th, the date on which the most students contributed. The histogram view clearly shows what’s happening (the blue bars represent differences, and the edits are in chronological order): histrogramAs you can see, the progress isn’t linear — edits are being made and deleted (you can see the specifics if you view the collation in juxtacommons). To my students’ chagrin, Green Cardamom was deleting their definitions because they lacked citation. After a brief exchange on the Talk page, I asked my students if they’d be willing to go back and add citations, which they already had (to create their definitions I asked them to consult at least two places.) This class had good rapport with me and with each other, and they were invested in the assignment, so they were happy to do so. It was a lesson for me, though: it had never occurred to me that a person would take responsibility for a certain page, especially a page that remained largely empty. From what I’ve read since, this actually isn’t uncommon, so maybe the real lesson is that I should have done more homework.

Have you encountered a similar roadblock in a digital assignment? How did you handle it?