Thursday, January 20, 2011

Overcoming Post-Traumatic Semester Syndrome

Another semester is upon me, and I'm jumpy.

Those of you who followed this blog last semester know that I totally revamped my approach to my undergraduate courses. I added some more challenging assignments, but compensated by putting in a lot more scaffolding and a replaced a few of my lectures with one-on-one tutorials in the upper-division classes. And it had exactly the opposite effect from what I was aiming for: low performance and (more recently) the lowest evaluation scores I've ever gotten in over ten years of university teaching. To add injury to insult, one of my bread-and-butter classes was, for the first time ever, canceled, as a result of catastrophically low enrollment. The fact that students are staying away in droves may not have anything to do with my new approach. On the other hand, it might.

It has been, to say the least, demoralizing. This is made worse by a quirk of my own personality: I'm such a freak about personal accountability that when something like this happens, my first internal response is "What am I doing wrong?" Part of me simply refuses to consider that it might not be (entirely) my fault.**

fig. 1: temporarily empty seats ≠ Professor Notorious sucks and ought to give up

But you know what? I've looked at it from every angle, and even consulted with other people in my department, and I've reached the conclusion that I did it right last semester, perhaps righter than I've ever done before. So what if I got handed the utterly-grueling-for-everyone-concerned boot camp course two days ago in order to replace the underenrolled course? You know what? I'm going to go into that course and kick some instructional ass. I will not listen to the one colleague who I know will tell me that I'm expecting too much, and ought to give up the research paper requirements, because I know that having my favorite courses fill is not the point: it's about what the students are learning, rather than the ego boost that comes with having popular courses. I'm going to be the best classroom teacher I know how to be, and if that's not enough, then fuck it. Because I can't do any more than that.

Watch out, semester: I'm going to take you down.

**This applies to areas of my life other than teaching, but that's a post for another day -- or more probably, never.


Anonymous said...

Good luck! I recovered from my unaccountably bad semester from hell with flying colors.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Thanks, n & m! That's inspiring. I'm going to hope for a phoenix-like semester myself.

Spanish prof said...

Good luck! A few years ago, I was assigned to teach a Business Spanish course, a class I have a particular moral problem with (considering the long and complicated history of the US in Latin America). As a result, I prepared a course that tried to be a mix of language, history and politics. It was neither, everybody was frustrated, and half the class dropped out. I learned my lesson (refuse to accept that class if you can), and so did the Chair of my department (I never taught the class again). The next semester, I had one of my best semesters ever

This semester, I started my upper level course with a particular tough reading (in Spanish). As a result, three students drop out and one showed up in my office panicking. On the other hand, the day they had it assigned, I probably gave my best lecture in years (and I hate to lecture for 75 minutes in a row), and the next class, students seemed more relax. I think it will go well.

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

The worst semester of teaching that I ever had was the spring of 2002. Horrible. Tons of plagiarism and had to fail eight out of 25 comp students. Ugh. The school asked me to teach a junior-level five-week summer course, starting in June. It ended up being one of the best classes I ever taught. It's a good thing, too, because after that grueling spring, I was ready to quit teaching forever. Sometimes one bad semester can really get you down. Hope that this spring will be restorative to you!

Belle said...

Changing things freaks students out. All kinds of things can be done to mitigate their freak-outs, but the fact remains that some still don't listen. They are used to X, Y and Z. And even when you explain why you're doing 8, 9 and 10 vs x, y, z... they don't get it.

It takes time to percolate through the student body. I changed things three years ago, and am just now getting students who know that things are different in my classes. Thankfully, I have the support of my dept and college. I think.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Sometimes you gotta go backwards to some extent as a prerequisite for moving forward. You had mastered your old style of teaching, and now you've changed and you need practice with the new style. It's just like when a baseball player alters the mechanics of his swing. He hits worse for a while until he masters the new mechanics, but can ultimately hit better than would have ever been possible with the old swing.


WorstProfEver said...

Ooops...'take', 'read', don't know what's up with the missing verbs today!

Anonymous said...

good luck! And as a current student, I agree with Belle - it takes a long time for students to pick up on new teaching styles, and students follow strong trends in papers: the papers I love taking are entirely unfashionable at the moment, but it means that I get almost one-on-one teaching sometimes!

I hope it all goes on okay this term (I'm English, so I'm not a "semester" person).

Historiann said...

I find it hard to believe that in one semester word on the street about you went from "awesome!" to "totallysuxxdon'ttakethatclass." I'm not saying there's absolutely no connection between your teaching innovations and your low enrollment numbers. Was it just that class, or did all of your classes fail to fill?

I'm glad you got some perspective from colleagues and that you're going to stick with your new style of teaching. Internallydisplaced is right in that in my experience anyway, students are extremely conservative and fearful of the unknown or unexpected. In some ways, it sounds like they're reacting to you as though you're new to the institution rather than a seasoned vet. Because in some ways, perhaps, you ARE a very different teacher. So give yourself a break, and give it at least two or three semesters to declare defeat, if you must.