Saturday, May 10, 2008


OK, the top item on the "to blog list" is something about what I learned in a year on the colleges most important faculty governance committee, but that has to wait for a few others. However, you will see that this topic is not entirely unrelated to being on the major governance committee (where we don't get any release time).

Dean Dad had a great column this week about the "silly season", the last week or so of the semester when the entire campus (from students to administrators) go insane because of all of the things that must get done. (I tend to disagree with his premise, but more about that where you see the word "Christmas" in bold face down below.) My answer to his question about how to stay sane was a rather simple one:


Oh, yes, and a little bit of the "Grumpy Old Road Foreman" technique of keeping the rules the same from start to end.

But just saying "planning" is a bit of an oversimplification. The real answer is to maintain an even strain, the same advice I give my students about using weekends and "off" weeks to advantage, and avoiding the trap where cramming for one class creates the need to cram for another. But the only way to keep the workload steady is to plan ahead. It doesn't happen with wishful thinking or procrastination. Or even by making planning an end in itself. You can't have a recursive "to do" list that has "work on previous to-do list" as the fifth item from the top.

I can't take credit for this. I am an inveterate procrastinator who often thrives on the energy that flows when a job needs to get done. I've had to resort to false deadlines in the past to have an excuse to get started early enough to get some larger tasks completed.

I have to credit Mr. Algebra for being the wind beneath my wings on this one.

I remember my first semester. I'm in the mail room getting ready to send my syllabus to the central print shop, cutting it rather close to have it back by the first day of class, and he's collecting his first two hour exams. You read that right: He had printed the exams for the first month or so of the semester even before fall registration had ended.

Impossible. Even the other senior faculty thought what he did was nuts.

But is it really impossible? Now there are always some problems I come up with at the last minute based on something I decide to emphasize in class (or that the students decide to emphasize by struggling with a particular problem type on a previous exam to the point where I promise them they will see something like it on the midterm or final), but others are dictated by my "no repeat" rule that assumes last year's tests are public record.

More importantly, its not like I don't know what class I am going to be teaching. Heck, I even know the room and hour assignments for next spring! (Our college does a pretty good job of planning as well, a task shared by the administration and the faculty.) So why not put off until August the job of planning my course calendar for Fall? OK, other than the fact that this is the way I always did it, mostly because my earlier experience had been in a department where you sometimes didn't know what you were teaching until the day before you walked into the classroom.

And you know, Mr. Algebra always seemed so relaxed during the semester.

Maybe this is something to think about. What can I get done during the summer? Can I get the entire course calendar planned out, fine tuning it based on my "as built" notes of what I actually did each day last semester (and ideas on what I might change the next time)? Schedule the exams so there is plenty of time to grade one before I have to do the next one? Prepare the web materials? Update and copy what will be needed by the TAs in the lab I run, particularly things that rarely change? And if I have that done, then I can use August to think about the exams, and so on, paying it forward, as it were.

What got me started down this path was Christmas a few years ago. I see the winter "break" as the worst season of all, but then I don't have to go to any alumni dinners or other Dean-ish level duties that are timed to graduation. December is a nightmare. Not only do you have all of the final grading from the fall semester, you also have to prepare everything for the spring semester and go Christmas shopping and maybe even travel across the country to spend a week with relatives. A week where you can't possibly get much work done. And that year, we had a particularly tight window between finals and the start of the spring semester. There would only be a few days between getting back from the trip north and stepping into the classroom. My solution was to pull together the Spring schedules (and even the web pages, stuffed away in their own little stocking) in August while I did the ones for fall.

It worked better than expected. I had less to do than the year before, even with the travel. A solution exists. And just in time, since this past year I not only had to plan for a Christmas trip, I had to keep mental time free for what turned out to be an "interesting" year in the college governance business.

Now a lot of faculty at my CC teach a heavy summer schedule, particularly some of the younger ones who have student loan debt and maybe a new sub-prime mortgage to deal with. Some of the older ones teach extra classes to pay for a trip or prepare for retirement. I take a light load so I can clear my mind for another serious year of spending 16 hours a week (18 this coming fall) in a physics classroom. But that means I am going to work every day with only about half of a day's work to do.

So I am working, very gradually, on my plans for fall ... and spring. Right now the only hassle is that the college hasn't published the final exam schedule for fall, but that is only one entry in the calendar and the syllabus. (I think the admins are busy dealing with budget hassles.) I plan to spend a few weeks on the different calendars I need to develop, then do a rough cut on the web materials so I just have to fine tune them if I change something somewhere else.

And some extra time to blog, which translates into extra time to think about such things as what works (and doesn't work) when it comes to our labs and whether I can make more use of "active learning" methods this semester. My extra teaching load actually comes with smaller classes. Can I do something with that?

Finally, I'll interject here that I noticed Profgrrrrl mentioned doing pretty much the same thing last Tuesday (in "rethinking the course" if you want to read it while it is still available). She was planning all of the projects (in detail) and other assignments in conjunction with the choice of a new textbook while putting together the syllabus for her summer class. Now admittedly she appears to be doing this all in the last week before classes start, but she had her final assessments (and when they are due) in her plan from the beginning and was also thinking about how she might continue to evolve the course in the fall. That is driving the course, rather than letting the course drive you. Definitely a sign of experience, which means it is something that needs to be added to a list of things that should be passed on when mentoring new faculty.

I wonder if our formal system includes anything like this? It should.


plam said...

Seems like a good idea, once I know what I'll be teaching in the fall. No one knows that yet, though.

On the other hand, I should really be working on my research, so there's something to be said for delaying teaching prep until the last minute: it can help reduce the amount of time spent on teaching.

Doctor Pion said...

Research time is a crucial issue, but it is quite possible that the right kind of planning could increase the total time available for research over the entire year. It certainly had that effect for me when dealing with my extra service load this past year.

Or course, you can't do this without some planning at all levels of administration, including the individual faculty member. That is the only way it is possible for every prof to know their full schedule for both fall and next spring.

plam said...

I think the key to avoiding overplanning, which I was alluding to, is the general avoidance of analysis paralysis: it is probably more important to just make a decision than to make the optimal decision. In this context that would apply to syllabi, for instance.

In summary, it seems: Overplanning: wasted time due to unnecessarily revisiting decisions; last-minute rushes: wasted time due to gaps that could have been better employed earlier.

Doctor Pion said...

That is a really good point.

The luxury of time can easily lead to the kind of planning they illustrate over at! I have to fight that, since it is probably another way to procrastinate.

Ah, the value of blogging. I need to make a single decision about adjusting one of my calendars and be done with it. I'm probably letting that delay the hard work of creating a 3-day version of a 5-day class ... a tricky job.

Thanks for the insight.