The Countdown 5/6/20

Thoughts by Richard Bleil

This has been an unusual year to be sure. However, despite unexpectedly teaching from home, we are approaching the end to yet another academic year.

From a professor’s perspective, it’s kind of like a countdown. Whether or not students are aware of it, teachers and faculty look forward to their summers, too. Oh, don’t get me wrong; it’s kind of a bittersweet time when we say goodbye to our students for the year. I’m always keenly aware that it’s the passing of another year, and most students are so much fun to work with. Of course, there will always be those students that you look forward to moving on, but there are also excellent students that you wish you had more time with, and for the most part, you know that you won’t see them again except maybe around the campus, but saying “hi” in passing is not really the same as speaking with them before class, or working with them when they struggle.

Still, though, the year is finally over, and you’re winding down. Teaching is a difficult job (as many parents are learning this year) with many hours of preparation time, grading, and behind-the-scenes work just for the fifty minutes a class in front of the students. But try not doing that; the students will call you on it if you fall behind in grading or aren’t prepared for the lecture, trust me.

This time of year for me is like a countdown. I become keenly aware of the work that remains. Between yesterday and today, I wrote a last quiz, a practice exam for the final in-class section exam, the in-class exam that they will take, a practice final exam and the final exam they will take for my lecture and a written practical for my lab class. Usually I would be thinking about grading but this year everything is done online and graded automatically. That doesn’t mean no grading at all; I do look at the results for questions that a lot of students miss, and if it was input incorrectly, or if it wasn’t as fair a question on reflection as I thought it was writing it then I’ll go through and correct these automatically graded exams. Still, it’s not so bad. I worked for one institution that had a 24-hour turnaround time limit, meaning once students took the final exam, the faculty had just twenty-four hours to assign the final grades for the class. That was harsh, but it certainly helped keep you motivated as your energy begins to exhaust itself.

Assignment countdown is one method. I’m done writing mine so it’s almost like coasting from here on out. Naturally there’s also day countdowns. I taught my last lab day yesterday, and this week I’ll teach my last Wednesday and Friday lecture. Well, kind of; these days are soaked up with quizzes and exams, but still, I have to be there. Monday I will teach the last class of the semester, well, normal academic year truthfully since this is the second semester. But I’m also aware of the assignments for the students that are left. Today I give the lab practical. Wednesday my students take their last in-class quiz, and Friday they take their last in-class exam. Monday they take the final, the last thing they will do.

And that’s it for me. Kind of. Actually, I just signed a contract to do the same for the summer session. Our summer session starts mid-June and ends towards the end of July. That means I’ll have a few weeks “off”, but this is a relative concept. See, summer classes are not less material (they’re not allowed to be actually), but rather less time. I have to figure out how to cram about four months of material into roughly six weeks. Once the class begins, it starts with (I kid you not) three-hour lectures, although this year those lectures will be online. Basically, we will cover an entire week each day we’re scheduled to meet. But it does mean that I have to do some creative syllabus writing to prepare. It’s an interesting year, though. Normally, I would stand in front of the class, one exhausting day after the other and talk for three hours. This is not a good delivery mechanism since people can basically focus only for about forty minutes at a time, and in chemistry it’s difficult to get them to focus for only three of those minutes. So, maybe I have an opportunity here since the pandemic will have be teaching remotely. I’m considering creative ways so I can still meet with them on a regular basis (as is required) but present the material in ways that they have the same amount of work but in smaller blocks. I’m considering prerecording my lectures, and only meeting for a short time each day to cover what they should be learning, answering questions and maybe revisiting a few highlights. I don’t know, but it should be interesting either way.

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