Applying a Fresh Coat of Paint

It’s a new day, yes it is. Summer has come and gone, and whether I or my students are ready, a new semester is upon us. On one hand, this is always an exciting time. Whether it’s the same U.S. survey course I’ve taught dozens of times or a class that everyone forgot was on the books  and is being dusted off for the first time in years, a fresh start always brings optimism. I spent my time off doing what most academics do: reading, writing, researching, and catching up on Netflix and pro-wrestling. It always feels like something is missing when I’m away from a classroom for too long, however. So, with my time away campus, a good chunk of the summer was spent reflecting on the things that worked last year and also strategizing ways to improve on the things that could’ve gone better. With the new semester now underway, I’m hoping to put a few of those ideas into practice and see what shakes out.

First, last year, in my “fresh out of graduate school and now I have a job” greenness, I think I took for granted that my enthusiasm for the course material would naturally translate into student enthusiasm and self-motivation. To my less-experienced self, I can now unequivocally say, not so. Not so at all. After spending years studying it, I may think something like the history of Jim Crow is the one of the most interesting topics in the world. To most students juggling half a dozen other courses, however, any topic is only as important as the amount of space it takes up on an exam. So, while I am still somewhat loathe to reduce every reading and class discussion subject to an arbitrary final grade percentage, I’ve learned that if I want a topic to be seen as important, it has to be accompanied with a healthy mix of graded assignments.

Another new plan for this school year is to take greater advantage of online resources.  I’m pretty far away from being a luddite, but whether it’s books or anything else, I’ve always preferred having tangible material. This semester, however, I am making extensive use of Blackboard across all of my classes. Course handouts, grade records, journal assignments, and essays are all being done digitally for the first time. As a person who can lose literally anything, hopefully this will cut down the amount of panicked searching of my apartment that I regularly do when I’m missing a student’s essay and can’t figure out whether I misplaced it or they simply never turned it in. Also, there is something to be said for the simple convenience of having access to course content without lugging around 50 pounds of paper everywhere I go.

So, those are just a couple minor, yet potentially significant changes that I plan to make this school year. I am sure when I’m in this position again at the start of next semester, I’ll have even more tweaks to make in the never-ending process of improving at this job. What changes, big or small, do you have planned this term? And how do you hope they’ll affect your classes?

2 thoughts on “Applying a Fresh Coat of Paint

  1. This is my 8th year teaching, and I’m also making changes. I’m using more digital resources and spending less time lecturing and more time introducing a topic, guiding students through researching a related topic of their choosing, then having several discussion days tying their chosen topics together and creating a cohesive picture with my lectures.

    I’m pleased that every year the students comment on my enthusiasm. Often I’ll hear something like “I might not like history, but at least Mr. Eldred didn’t make it boring.”

  2. I spent my summer much like you did. I also added in a revamping of my entire syllabus and then my class was cancelled. *weeps* Not only do students not find the history of Jim Crow as fascinating as we do, but they don’t think it’s at all interesting at 8 AM. That’s why my class was cancelled, not enough students. But it’s OK. I’ll be ready when the class is ready to be picked up again.

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