The trials of Spring quarter

I have not been attending to this blog as much as I would like lately, but I am confident I know why: the start of Spring term.

The Oregon University System is on quarters, and Spring, for me and, I gather, many of my colleagues, is the toughest.

There are a number of reasons for this, but I think that the most important is the fast turnaround from Winter. Yes, we have a break, but unlike between Spring and Fall where you have, essentially, three months off in between classes, or between Fall and Winter, where you have, typically, three to four weeks, the transition between Winter and Spring is only a week. Even if you can snag time at the end of Winter to begin prepping for Spring, it is still a challenge to find time both for a breather and getting ready for a new round of classes. I suspect that many faculty at my institution choose to either be ready for the start of the term or to take time off and turn the beginning of the term into a scramble to get set up.

In any case, Spring always ends up feeling like a grind. I know that right now, for example, I am reading two books as I teach that I would have finished and annotated in advance for either of the other two quarters.

At the same time, while I likely would support a move to semesters in OUS, there are aspects of the quarters system that I like. Having three terms with an option for a fourth to deliver courses every year makes it easy for a small department such as ours to carry a respectable major. If we had to reduce the number of courses we could offer each year, we would have to make some tough decisions about what to leave aside, and that’s in a context where I think we already have notable gaps. Our cartography offerings, for example, are the barest of bones.

And while it means more preps each year, I do like the variety of courses I get to teach. As an undergrad at Lewis & Clark College, that was also something I enjoyed about being on quarters (LC is now on semesters).

The quarters system at LC had a few quirks to it that I am sure helped to make it easier to manage than the one we have in OUS right now. Fall term started early in September, which set the beginning of Winter break at Thanksgiving, a luxury that still affects me when having to head back to classes the Monday after that holiday. The standard class was five credits, which meant that students rarely took more than three at a time, and, in retrospect, I am sure helped to keep teaching loads reasonable.

What I don’t remember is if there was one or two weeks at Spring break. But I often think that having a two-week Spring break would solve most of the problems I have with that term right now.

In the bigger picture, though, there are other compelling reasons for moving OUS to semesters. Most of the academic world in the U.S. is ordered around the semester, from standardized texts to conference schedules. One of the added stresses this particular Spring is my having chosen to go to the Association of American Geographers meeting in Seattle a couple of weeks ago. While people from semester schools also had to leave classes behind, they did not do so in the third week of a ten week term. I had to schedule my trip to be back for a film class I teach one day a week. When missing a class means missing a whole week, and I only have ten to begin with, I find it impossible to bring myself to cancel, regardless of just about any circumstance (this problem was compounded by a delayed train in Seattle which put me back on campus just thirty minutes before my class, when I had planned on having two to three hours; slim margins, which is my whole point).

These kinds of problems are why I try to avoid travel while classes are in session. There’s no question that a semester offers more “flex” for professional activity outside of teaching than does a quarter. Not to mention for semi-professional activities like maintaining a blog such as this one.

I still hope to get to some of the topics I’ve wanted to write about the last few weeks, including a reflection on the AAG, but I’m not sure what I’ll be able to get to before the time to discuss has passed.

Video from live preview

Last week I attended the Association of American Geographers Annual Meeting in Seattle, Washington. In a Geographies of Media paper session, I presented a live preview of about twelve minutes from the end of the documentary. This section features interviews with Dylan Meconis and Graham Annable, and a reflection on race in Portland that includes Meconis, the previously previewed Kevin Moore and Sarah Oleksyk, and Sara Ryan, as well as Carl Abbott, a professor of urban studies at Portland State University.

You can view the footage on

Comics documentary preview footage

A couple of days ago I posted rough preview footage from my documentary on comics creators in Portland, Oregon to my and YouTube pages. The footage features interviews with Kevin Moore and Sarah Oleksyk. The videos are “rough” in that I am waiting on animation and graphics work to be finished and still have sound editing and mixing to do.


Teaching updates: intro course and small classes

Before my Spring responsibilities become too involving, I wanted to check in here on the two main teaching issues I have writing about: my Introductory Cultural Geography course and managing my very small classes.

During and after Fall term, I was optimistic about the changes I had made to the syllabus to intro cultural geography. In Winter, I learned that my caution regarding the reasons for that optimism was well founded. My Winter class did not work as well as Fall.

My main index of this is how the students in the two classes made use of Question Time, which is a period I have every meeting wherein students can ask questions about the syllabus, about assignments, or about class material, both current and from prior sessions. I also have Question Time entries each week on the class blog. Participation in Question Time is a minor, one-tenth, part of the grade in the class.

In Fall, I had a number of students earn full credit for Question Time, and an even larger number who were one or two points away from full credit. In Winter, no students earned full credit, and while that came as a surprise, it was also consistent with the fact that many days, Question Time would go unused, and while some of that time was made up on the blog, most of it was not.

More to the point, is the quality of the Question Time periods in the two classes. In Fall, we often had lively, relevant discussions about class material, both from earlier classes and from what was due that same day. In Winter, students, rarely, if ever, used Question Time to initiate discussions about material. Virtually all uses of Question Time were directed at the syllabus and related issues like assignment deadlines and requirements.

In short, my Winter class was much less engaged than my Fall class.

On the other hand, what I learned from students is that my new book selections worked in both terms, if not quite to the same effect. In both terms, students conveyed an appreciation for the Anderson text in terms of its accessibility and ability to hold their interest. And in both terms students also found the secondary text I chose to be useful in better understanding how to use concepts from the main textbook. The main difference is that in Fall I also saw these findings in action, while in Winter I did not, at least not to the same extent.

Students also continue to indicate that learning by doing is preferable to learning by exam. Again, I saw this, as well as heard or read it, from students more in Fall than in Winter.

I am often surprised by what students will connect with in a course. What seemed like disaffection to me during last term, apparently was a very different kind of engagement from the perspective of many students.

Early into the quarter, Spring is more like Fall than Winter.

Last term I wrote additionally about a couple of very small, less than ten students, classes, that I decided to run like tutorials or readings courses. On balance, those experiments ended up working well.

Students reported to me that being fully responsible for completing the reading compelled them to engage more closely with class texts, and also encouraged them to make their own meaning of the material. I saw this reflected in the weekly work students had to submit related to the readings as well as in end-of-the-term assessments. Most students also indicated that they liked the freedom and responsibility of the tutorial format, even where they were not initially comfortable with having to manage their own work to the extent that they had to in these classes.

On the other hand, virtually all students expressed that they would have liked more frequet meetings of the whole to discuss the material and reconnect as a class. This seems consistent with my experience regarding how often individual students chose to consult with me about the reading. Early in the term this happened more frequently and with more students than it did later in the term. Student desires for more meeting times suggests a high degree of self-awareness regarding their work habits. Whether that awareness was cultivated during these classes, or these students were already aware that they would be less likely to participate in discussions absent regular meetings , I don’t know.

Next time I teach a course in this way, I will likely either build in more class meetings, or try schedudling consulations with individual students to address these kinds of concerns about feeling adrift or missing out on opportunities for discussion.

I am, however, not sure when I will next be confronted with having to manage a small class like this. I have one this term, but the material is too complicated, and the role the course plays in our major is such that I did not think that the tutorial or readings structure would be appropriate, so I am running it more like a traditional seminar.