Fall is coming

Well, it’s actually already kind of here for faculty in the OUS. Classes don’t begin until next week, hence the title, but this week faculty were called back to campus for rituals (e.g., state of the university and college addresses), welcoming and orientating new students, administrative functions (e.g., committee meetings), and, finally, class prep.

I’ve been in a tenure-track/tenured position at Western Oregon for just over ten years now, and it has taken this long to have a fall where I’ve felt as if I’ve been able construct my courses in an efficient and minimally stressful way (most of the stress this week has come from having to work course prep in between other responsibilities, not from my upcoming classes).

One reason why I often start Fall term behind the curve, or at least feeling that way, is that summers are usually the only time I have for sustained progress on research and scholarship. I imagine that this is true for most who work at undergraduate teaching focused institutions like mine. This summer, though, I was at the dissemination stage of my current project, and while I had a book chapter to write, that was, more or less, a digest of the same project. Dealing with getting work out into the world has been its own thing, of course, but nothing like being in the field or at the editing station.

When I write above about ‘constructing my courses’, I mean mainly drafting the syllabi. Summers are also time to read and look for resources. Typically, I will defer this kind of work to attend to non-course related scholarship, which leaves me having to those tasks while teaching my courses. This year I had the luxury not to have to do that and was able to get my deeper prep done a week or so before reporting back to campus.

I am an impossible tinkerer when it comes to my courses. This year I was overhauling two of the three I am scheduled to teach in the Fall (one, I’ve already written about). What saved me this summer was not making any major changes to my introductory cultural geography course. That is an offering that I have been perpetually dissatisfied with, but for which I have finally found an approach that works for me, and seems to work for students, too, at least in the ways I would like it to.

One image that non-teachers have of teachers, at whatever level, but maybe particularly of professors, is that of someone who essentially coasts, working off of the same set of notes decade after decade, freeing them from actually having to work in their courses.

I’ve never met that person.

There’s no question that my current colleagues work harder at making their courses approachable, interesting, and appropriately challenging for undergraduates than did most, if not all, of the professors in my graduate department, but I think that’s understandable. Faculty who work primarily with graduate students and undergraduate majors can, and should, see teaching differently than should faculty, like myself and most of my social science and humanities colleagues, who teach primarily undergraduates and a significant number of non-majors. However, that difference hardly becomes the equivalent of ‘dead wood’. On the contrary, while, pedagogically, a graduate seminar is a graduate seminar, readings are always in flux. I imagine that this is also true for the advanced undergraduate courses tied to professor interests.

At present, I’ve observed that some of my more senior colleagues seem to have certain courses, ones that they’ve been teaching consistently for more than a decade or two, ‘down’, but there are also irregular courses, or newly developed courses, that require substantial preparation to work.

In short, I don’t think I personally know any college or university faculty whose courses are entirely static, which is why I find some of the other functions of the opening week to Fall, many of the administrative functions, to be frustrating or stressful.

One primary administrative concern right now is “assessment” and getting faculty to do it, but I think that it is fair to say, given that no one’s courses stay exactly the same, that class prep necessarily entails assessment and the kind of assessment that everyone is supposed to want: the kind that leads to improvements in the classroom.

The problem I’m not sure that anyone has figured out entirely is how to articulate the kinds of assessment that lead to actual changes in the way courses are taught and that also satisfy administrative imperatives for data that can be used in accreditation, or in taking to boards and legislators.

The data that I use to change and improve my courses are rarely the kinds of things that are captured in institutional evaluations or templates for reporting on assessment. The data is scattered, sometimes impressionistic, often open-ended and come from my experience of being in the classroom with students. Administratively, faculty are expected to make discrete a process that is almost necessarily ongoing and messy, rarely mapping neatly onto formulaic statements of outcomes or ‘themes’ (‘core themes’ are a recent turn in jargon, at least for our accreditation).

Our college’s administrators seem to have finally settled on a set of procedures and forms, so maybe there is an opening to establish a departmental routine that suffices for everyone, instead of having, essentially, two separate processes, one for real work in the classroom and one for bookkeeping. I’ve been told that this is possible, but I have yet to see it in action (nothing makes me more skeptical about the push for assessment than being given models from other departments that entail, essentially, standardized testing, not only because it puts a lie to all of the assurances faculty are given regarding autonomy and what kinds of instruments or data are acceptable, but also because I have a hard time thinking that the results of such tests are at all effective in suggesting what might work better in the classroom. Identifying knowledge gaps is one thing; figuring out what to do about those gaps is another).