Thoughts by Richard Bleil
And once again, the endgame has begun. This has been a difficult semester, to be sure, but it’s almost over.
This might strike you, if you’re familiar with academic calendars, but this is due to Covid-19. See, the semester has been shortened, and made more difficult in the process. Normally, the autumn semester is a little more relaxed than spring because of several breaks throughout the semester. These breaks are important for the students. They act as mental breaks, keeping students mentally sharp, and alert throughout the semester.
This year, and for health reasons I do agree with the logic, the decision as made to shorten up the semester. Most of those breaks were canceled, save Thanksgiving Break which starts next Wednesday. After Thanksgiving, the remaining scheduled meetings (three lectures and finals week) are to be conducted remotely. As such, by Wednesday of next week, the campus will clear out.
Despite the shortened semester, the missed breaks are weighing heavily on student and faculty alike. Spring semester has no breaks, once classes begin, until about halfway though the semester for spring break. This makes the start of spring semester cumbersome and difficult. I do not know what the college plans for Spring semester this year, but this autumn has weighed heavily on us. I’ll be honest, I’m looking forward to a few days off.
To be fair, this has been an emotionally difficult semester for me as well. My regular readers already know that I lost my father just a few weeks before the semester began, and the healing has been delayed as I’ve dealt with technicalities over my father’s will. Since I am living with my friend, my only address is a mailing address at a mail company, but the financial institutions with my father’s retirement fund have needed a physical address, claiming this is because of federal regulations which I guess is true, but as I’m living with my friends, I don’t really have a physical address that is my own. This has led to complications and necessary additional documentation from my friend to prove that I am living with him, and he is living here. These complications have dragged on, keeping the loss fresh in my mind. The good news is that, finally, I think all of these complications have been resolved, but it has added to an already stressful semester.
There’s a lack of authority when you’re an adjunct professor like me. I’m working off of a syllabus that has been provided to me from a permanent faculty member, something that I do believe is important to keep all of the sections of this course more or less aligned with one another, but it also includes features that I myself would not have included had I had the academic freedom to design my own course. For example, we lost five days to review. In a three-day a week course, this is over a week and a half of lecture time, and to be honest, I don’t believe in review days. In one lecture you cannot cover everything done in a previous month or so, and as such, I prefer to encourage to ask students to ask questions as we go along. These precious days could have gone far in slowing the pace of the lecture.
The end of semesters are always difficult for me. After spending several months with students every week, they’re suddenly just no longer a part of my life. Oh, I’ll run into former students every now and again, and frankly, I adore it when they speak kindly with me (they don’t always, but often do), but they’re off on their own pursuing the next chapter of their education. Yesterday, we had our last lab of the semester, for example, and a group of twenty students are now done with me, unless they have some administrative clean-up like missing assignments. Today, I gave my last lecture to my principles of chemistry students, and in less than a week I’ll be losing them to remote-only classes, and about a week later their time is done. There’s another thirty.
My favorite course this semester has only three students. It’s physical chemistry, and I had the great pleasure of making them question everything that they thought they knew. There’s a practicality to science; the “knowledge” we teach can be used for predictions, and explanation of phenomena. But the reality is that, in science, we know, quite literally, nothing at all. Even the most fundamental concept, like the law of conservation of energy, is usually taught without giving the full picture (it should be the law of conservation of mass and energy) and is based on lack of any exceptions. It’s interesting that something so fundamental to science, this law that we take as fact, is only a law because we’ve never found an exception. Sure, it’s a little more than that; the predictions this law makes have been tested time and again which is strong evidence of its validity, but it’s still not as assured as you might think. Those three students will leave having learned what questions to ask, not what facts to present.
I’ll miss the students this year, as I have missed all of my students throughout my career. But I’m happy knowing they’re on to bigger and better things. I hope they’ll choose to keep in touch but it would only the choice has to be theirs.