Diary of a Visiting Assistant Professor, week 13: next semester

The academic cycle requires us to always be thinking about what’s coming next. Before I even interviewed for my current position, I knew the courses I would be teaching, both fall courses and spring courses. I signed up for teaching times way back in September (the department was helpful on that score, allowing me to condense my teaching on Mondays and Wednesdays so that I can travel later in the week), and book orders were due in early November, so I have been thinking about the spring semester for a while.

But as this semester draws to a close (our last week is the week after Thanksgiving, so classes actually end before November does) I’ve begun to think more deeply about my spring courses. My classes this past semester were new: I’d TA’d for a survey course before, but never put one together by myself (and I’d TA’d for a transatlantic course, rather than a British literature survey); and the senior seminar was something totally new. In both cases, I overestimated the reading load, and ended up trimming back the reading mid-semester. In my Dickens class I dropped Our Mutual Friend, and we spent an extra week on Uncle Tom’s Cabin and a week reviewing some passages from all of the Dickens novels we’d read — that last, incidentally, is something I will definitely repeat next time I teach a Dickens course: looking at all of his villains together, or comparing the different “change of heart” scenes, or putting next to each other the very different styles of Oliver Twist, Dombey and Son, and Hard Times, proved to be a valuable exercises, for me and for the students. And if I’m right, it will make for better papers (I’ll know in a few weeks).

Two of the three classes I’m teaching next semester, I’ve taught before, or at least versions of them. My “literature for majors and non-majors” course will take the theme “school stories,” repeating a class I taught at UVA with some slight variations (I’m thinking about blogging assignments). I’ve broadened the theme of my first-year composition course from “Disney” to “children’s literature,” but the structure and assignments stay the same: we’ll read three novels (I’ve chosen Peter Pan, Charlotte’s Web, and Harry Potter), and some articles, but the focus is on the students’ writing. While I haven’t yet gone so far as to entirely crowdsource grading, I will be crowdsourcing participation for my composition class — I did this last fall, and it worked great.

My third course is a Romanticism survey for intermediate English majors, and this is the class I’ve been thinking about the most. My big lesson from this semester has been to assign less reading, so that’s my strategy: I’m going to try assigning just a couple poems for each week (the course will meet once a week, at night), and asking students to write weekly, one-page papers. This means shifting slightly my goal for the course, away from “understanding the Romantic period” and towards close reading, especially of poetry. I dropped Scott and Austen, leaving Frankenstein as the only novel. I’m committed to bringing in some critical viewpoints, since I think it’s important for majors, but I plan to provide summaries of articles, rather than assigning them — I will put the articles themselves on the course webpage for students to read if they want to.

Registration began last week, and my classes are already at capacity (at least for the day students; registration for evening and continuing students hasn’t gotten underway, it doesn’t look like), and I’ve been getting the familiar “your course is full can I still take it” emails. Entering a second semester as a VAP doesn’t look nearly as intimidating: I don’t have to contend with moving to a new place, the students are familiar (some literally so — I’ll have at least a few students from this semester), and two of the courses are ones I’ve taught before.

Do you remember your first second semester (that’s what I mean, not a typo) in a new position? What was it like?

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