August 07, 2006

It's a bird! It's a plane!

I wrote my syllabus this morning, complete with assignment schedule. THREE WEEKS BEFORE THE FIRST DAY OF CLASS. A major accomplishment.

I usually wait until the very last minute to do this kind of thing. In fact, I can think of only two other times I've done my fall prep ahead of time. In the year 1994, I was expecting a baby, my fourth child, in the middle of the semester, and I knew that I wouldn't have a whole lot of energy after the heat of August sapped the strength out of my hugely pregnant body, so I did all my class prep in May, while I was in the happy high-energy phase of pregnancy and the weather was still cool. And last year, I was planning to spend two weeks on a whitewater raft trip and needed to get my work done ahead of time.

This year, I have neither a new baby or an exciting raft trip in my future, but we weren't able to go to go to camp this weekend – we stayed close to home to field phone calls from my mother-in-law and help her make the transition to her new living arrangement – so I figured I might as well get some work done so that I can relax and enjoy the rest of my summer.

One disadvantage of doing my fall prep way ahead of time is that I tend to be a bit unrealistic about fall semester. I'll look at the first week of October and say to myself, "Let's see. I'll have the students hand in this paper on Monday, I'll grade them on Tuesday, and I should be able to hand them all back on Wednesday, and I'll have Thursday to write." Because yeah, it is totally realistic to think that I will be able to grade 65 essays, writing careful inspiring comments on them, in a matter of hours on a single Tuesday at home.

On lazy summer days, though, I have this vision of myself turning into superwoman once the cooler fall weather gets here. I convince myself that a simple drop in temperature will turn me from sloth to overachiever. Sure, I will be turning papers back the same week they are handed in.

And I haven't met my students yet, so of course I imagine them participating in amazing discussions and writing fantastic papers. It's fun to write a syllabus for imaginary students and an imaginary superwoman teacher.

But once I finished the syllabus, I stopped to do the numbers. I will be assigning five formal papers, and 21 short response papers. Yes, I am sure 21 short papers seems like a lot, but I assign a short paper to go with every single reading. My official reason is that all that writing is good for the students. Mostly though, I don't have the patience to hold class with students who haven't done the reading. I hate when they do stupid things like try to discuss the title all class because yeah, they think somehow the teacher won't know that they haven't gotten beyond the title. It drives me nuts when I am prepared for class and they aren't.

Forcing students to write does force them to do the reading and to think about the reading. It also means that this fall I will read and respond to 2665 pages of student writing. I like to calculate these numbers so that I can repeatedly toss them into conversations with the academic dean. He's a scientist, and numbers are what get through to him. Those kind of numbers help stop anyone who has ideas about giving me another section to teach.

But they also serve to bring me back to reality.

And now I am going back into summertime sloth mode before I think about it too much.

16 comments:

jackie said...

My first day of fall classes is three weeks from tomorrow, and I just realized it this weekend! I need to write a syllabus and new assignements, since I've added a new textbook and a new theme to the course.

When you say "short papers," do you mean 1 page, or 2 pages? I have, in the past, made my students keep response journals, which I would check every other week, in which they had to write one page about each reading. But I had the same problem you mention-- this is a great idea for a superheroine teacher who keeps up with her grading all semester! Are the short papers due at the beginning of class? typed or hand-written?

Raehan said...

I used to be the same way with assigning short papers, though 21 does seem like a lot.

The last class I had had bout 120 students. I was pregnant at the time. I just didn't feel like I could handle that type of class again with small kids.\

Maybe one day.....

jo(e) said...

Jackie: Short means one full typed page, single-spaced although double-spaced between paragraphs. They can write more if they want but most students will keep to the one page.

They have to be handed in at the beginning of class. That's the only time I will take them.

I read the response papers right away, and I date stamp them. It's surprising how important the date stamp is to the students. I don't put grades on the short pieces: I only grade the five formal papers.

I don't actually write anything on the short papers, just read them and date stamp them. I save my long comments for the five formal papers. But often I will ask a student to read a short paper aloud or sometimes I will bring a quote from a short paper to class as a topic of discussion.

The students are responsible for keeping both their formal and informal papers in a manilla folder. I collect it at midterm and grade the whole folder. And then collect it at the end of the semester and give them a grade for the class.

Mona Buonanotte said...

Forcing folks to write is an excellent idea...that's one of the reasons I started blogging...sometimes good stuff comes out of HAVING to write.

I'd love to take a class from you, jo(e)...would you give me an assignment?

Pilgrim/Heretic said...

That's one of the things I love best about the academic year, that sense of hope springing eternal - that this semester all the students will be brilliant and engaged, I'll get all the grading done by the next class, there'll be oodles of time to work on this new research project!

cieux autres said...

I took a break from designing my syllabus to read this. My short papers have shifted from the one page typed to emails, blog entries and posts to Blackboard. They are still formal pieces, I give them a quick grade of 1,2,3 and then rarely comment on them after the first couple of times. The 1,2,3 grade gives them a sense of where they stand and the electronic aspect gives me the chance to cut and paste quickly and/or type comments quickly when I need to.

I don't think I've ever calculated up the pages I have to read. I really doubt my psyche could handle it.

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

People often think that teachers have it easy, what with the summers off, but I could never do what you do! And not just the grading of the papers.

Linda (FM) said...

That's a lot of reading! I think you really need to take it easy now, you know, to really help you get ready for the semester. If I had that much to grade I think I'd quit before I got started.

Yankee, Transferred said...

As I send OD off to college, I pray to the goddesses that she has an instructor like you.

cloudscome said...

Me too! I am sending my first darling boy off to English 101 and I pray he gets a teacher like you.

I think it's great you don't grade all the short papers. Collecting them to grade as a folder is an excellent idea. Do the students complain about it? In my experience there tends to be an unhealthy focus on the immediate grade. Maybe the date stamp gives them enough recognition to get over that, once they get used to the idea.And I imagine the possibility of having an excerpt read & discussed in class is stimulating.

I can't believe you did all this work in August! I haven't admitted to myself that summer will end. If I did any work this early I would probably go so far off on tangents I would end up having to do it all over anyway. I'd probably want to throw out all my old curriculum and get a whole new book list...

Sally said...

thanks you have spurred me on to get to work on my summer school stuff

BeachMama said...

I wish I was going to school this fall, and I wish you were my prof. I loved my English classes and miss them a lot. I don't' think you are unrealistic asking for a short paper after a read. There is nothing worse than students that don't do the required reading all year, not just for the professor but for the other students who do do their work.

henna said...

It must feel great to be so on top of things. I just had a teacher that assigned us thoughtful papers in a New Ventures grad class and it reminded me how much fun it is to write. She really emphasized how important it is to write well. What I really noticed in my class, though, was the number of graduate students who were almost incapable of writing a paper, about their own thoughts no less. I realized what a gift it is to be able to write with confidence. There may be a lot of pages to read in your future, jo(e), but your students will surely be better for all of their efforts...

Leslee said...

Enjoy your last few days of relaxation!

Mary Stebbins Taitt said...

Aieee--you're making me tired, jo(e)!!!!!

I'm sure your year will be wonderful!!! Meanwhile, enjoy what's left of summer--and thanks for a great time last night. Loved the fountain and the reading and best of all, talking to YOU!!!

Mary :-D

Kristen said...

I agree - if you don't assign writing projects with each reading assignment, you'll have a solid, consistent group who won't be prepared in class. I'm not a professor, but I've been a frustrated fellow student with enough of those, and I always preferred the classes where more writing was required - even though it was a challenge.