The slow drag of spring

It’s been quite some time since I did a teaching post here, but things have finally brightened to the point where I can see what’s been going on more clearly. I’m currently teaching two of my regular British Literature Survey II (late Renaissance to early Modernism) courses at Queens College as well as an elective in the Gothic Novel at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women. (The latter is a particularly fascinating and wonderful class, and I plan to post about just that one soon.) It’s more than I’m used to teaching, and quite a taxing schedule, with one of my surveys as a three-hour Monday night class ending at 9:20pm, two hours from where I live.

But this isn’t a pity party! Had I written this last week, it would have been. I’ve been absolutely exhausted by the schedule, the commute, and trying to remember what’s going on with each of my 80 students. I’ve been worried about not keeping up with the flurry of small interactions that make class much more pleasant for them. At both of these schools, spring break is at the end of April, due to Passover, two weeks before the end of the semester. We all need a break, now, and they’re as tired as I am. It shows. Conversation in class often dangles when it should be getting exciting, and the small irritations they have with me and with each other are magnified on their faces.

My friends who teach seem to be facing a similar drag. I’ve heard stories of friends waking up their night classes by suddenly throwing chalk at the ceiling or openly demanding to know what’s wrong with everyone. I find myself teasing my class about possibly not having done the reading for the day, which isn’t necessarily fair. Most of my students are either incredibly overbooked or they’re working professionals with day jobs, and they’re often tired because they were up all night doing the reading and are struggling just to do the bare minimum.

So this week I did what I always do at this low ebb in the semester. I asked them to write me a letter in the first seven or so minutes of class. In this letter (which I ask them to start with “Dear Carrie” or “Dear Professor Shanafelt”—cheesy, I know, but enforcing that sense of a personal communication makes their letters less rambling and more direct), they must address four issues:

1) How is class going for you, in general? (Is the pace reasonable? Are you enjoying the readings and discussions?)
2) What can I do to increase your happiness and productivity? (Would you like more group activities? Should we sit in a circle? Do you want more homework?)
3) How do you feel you’re doing in the class? (What are you struggling with? What do you think you’re doing well?)
4) What plans do you have to improve your written work and in-class participation over the coming weeks?

It’s not like an end-of-class evaluation, in that it’s not anonymous, and they also have to evaluate themselves, so I am aware that I am missing out on some of the more deeply structural criticisms they might have of me and the class. But, in general, I find they’re surprisingly honest about what they need and how things are going.

Over the past few days, I’ve learned that some of my students are shy in class because they’re intimidated by some of their classmates (many of whom, it must be said, would have intimidated me in undergrad, too). Some are quiet because they feel the readings are so difficult and they’re too tempted to just listen and take notes. Many asked that I give them specific questions to think about before they do the reading, as opposed to when they arrive in class. And yes, several asked for optional homework assignments (for practice, not for me to grade) and for more group discussion activities.

They often include notes about which of the readings they’ve particularly responded to, as well as the ones they struggled with. But all of them named at least one major aspect of their efforts they’d like to improve upon in the coming weeks. A few invited me to call on them even when they don’t have their hands raised, because they need to learn to be more assertive about their ideas. Several offered a few thoughts on what they think they’re learning that will be useful to them in other classes, and even a few anecdotes about the ideas from class that they’ve applied to outside reading.

I’m really impressed, every semester, by their bravery in response to this activity. Their criticisms are extremely productive for me as a teacher, never the sort of crass “LESS READING! LESS HOMEWORK!” sort of stuff one might expect from such an activity. They don’t give excuses, either, though I do often learn some personal reasons why they’ve struggled recently. I often don’t know which students can emotionally handle being pressed on a bit harder, and many of them invite me to do so. I’d say only a small percentage exclusively said positive things, but even those were productive. (“I really enjoyed our group activity on Wieland. Can we do a few more of those?”)

I always read these things with one eye closed, waiting for someone to really blast me on something, but they never do. I’m quite positive that some of them aren’t the world’s biggest fans of my class, and that will come out in official evaluations and on, but on this activity, they’re pretty productive and courteous. I come away learning a lot about how to be a better, more responsive teacher, and they make various vows to become better, harder-working students. All this stuff about their goals might just be lip service, but it’s lip service that’s worth doing anyway.

In the past, I’ve seen post-evaluation classes take a remarkable turn for the better. What I thought were petty resentments turn out to have been mild grievances that are easy to address, or, even more frequently, expressions of self-doubt and exhaustion. Spring has been pretty relentless for all of us. After this evaluation day, we all seem to come to class with a slightly better attitude and a renewed sense of what we’re doing all this work for.

How about you? Do you face this same kind of mid-semester slump? What do you do to combat it? Have you tried a class evaluation day? How did it go?


One response to “The slow drag of spring

  1. What a wonderful idea! I teach courses that span 8 weeks, and courses that span 16 weeks — and those longer courses could really use a battery recharge like this halfway through. The idea to invite a student to reflect on their own performance and participation in discussions in this way is simply brilliant. Thanks!