My university starts classes in the spring the week before Martin Luther King's birthday holiday. So I have had a full week of classes so far, and so far they seem to have gone well. Which is good, because next week I am afraid I will completely lose control of my classes and it will be a challenge to get things back on track.
It is going to be that way pretty much the whole semester. One week on and one week a bit less coherent, as there are many many conferences this spring that I will be attending (one each month, pretty much), and particularly with my Tuesday/Thursday classes there are university events that lead to cancelling classes. The challenge is going to be making the experience as smooth as possible for the students.
Of course any course is a collaboration between the students and the teacher and in some of the classes I can see already that I have lucked out in at least two of the three lecture classes with enthusiastic prepared participants in discussions and emails that reflect they were doing readings more than 24 hours in advance (always a good way to start!).
A few thoughts at the beginning of the semester follow beneath the fold.
For the first few sessions of any class I call the roll, because it gives me a chance to know the names of the students, and get a general sense of where they sit. I am looking at them when I call out their names, and thus I do have a better idea of who is who. After the first week I have them sign an attendance sheet. There are several reasons for this. For the first decade of my teaching I did not take attendance, and I still don't really count attendance for anything. But we were asked to keep track or our students' attendance back when the first plans for how the university would deal with a flu pandemic were developed. Now I do it because it gives me a chance to see if there is a disease going through the ranks. Also, when we give a failing grade, we are asked to attach the date the student last attended the class (this is for compliance in association with federal grants and loans to students, I believe, and may be even more important in the case of foreign students who might have stopped attending class). Their choice to not come to class is going to be in the future, however. Right now, this first week, everyone is coming to class, unless they are already getting ill (in case you hadn't heard, the flu is already really bad).
Calling the roll every day this past week has also let me notice when someone has added or dropped the class. Add/drop extended to noon on Friday, a full week into the semester. Even if a student is allowed to add that late, he or she has already missed a great deal. So if someone adds this late, it is important for the student to contact the professor to get a copy of the syllabus and figure out the assignments he or she has already missed. In my lower level class it will be largely lecture and an explanation of the details of the syllabus and how to access reserve readings (there is a password the library requires that is specific to the faculty member teaching a given class). There is one student who has added that class after the last meeting of it on Friday, so someone who has missed the whole week. Next week there will be a video on Wednesday one I have explained in advance what I hope the students will get out of it. So when he comes into class next Wednesday he will have a visiting faculty member running a video, and will not be able to get information from me about what he has missed. I won't see him at all until the third week of the term. I don't know what sort of an experience he will get out of the class, but we will see if he wants to continue in the class. But he is a freshman and will have the opportunity to take the class again if he doesn't feel he is having a successful experience this semester.
I am more concerned with someone who changed into my upper level majors class, which meets Tuesdays and Thursdays. We chose topics for research in class on Thursday, and I have lectured both days on material not covered by the readings, but that provide a framework for the paper assignment (which is essentially an historiography one). The student has not contacted me, and does not show up on our course management system, although listed on the roster available online. The syllabus, readings, and other assignments are unavailable to someone who doesn't have access to the website for the class. Why is this student not listed? I don't know, but I do hope we can work things out on Tuesday. If not before. But there will be no one to provide tech support until Tuesday. The questions should have been asked Friday before business was over for the three day holiday.
These technological issues always arise at the beginning of the semester. It is just one of the joys of the start of courses. One of the other elements of the beginning of the semester is environmental controls. Particularly in January there will be problems with heat and water -- pipes froze during the "polar vortex" experience. Pipes burst in the basement of my building as well, and flooded the boiler room to a depth where hip waders were needed by those who were dealing with the disaster. We don't have hot water in my building and the heating system, which is a combination of air handling and radiators is compromised as there is no hot water to go through the radiators. And in my office the air handling thing has broken as well, and the temp has been in the mid 50s this week. It is too cold to really accomplish things with the normal alacrity needed at the beginning of the semester. I am just relieved the lecture room is warm enough for the students, but some of the other classrooms in the building are having temperature control issues. I am sure it is the case for other buildings on campus. It always is at the beginning of the semester -- in the fall it is air conditioning either broken or overactive.
Then there is the health thing. Already I have had students with the flu, and I have been very insistent to my classes that if someone has a fever he or she should not come to class. Both because it is awful for that person to have to try to concentrate when the headaches and body aches and fever just require sleep and also because you will spread your germs to others. So stay home! I am glad (if it can be thought of that way) that I got the flu at the beginning of the year -- from the 2nd to the 7th I basically did not get out of bed except to have a cup or coffee or a bowl of soup. Now I have had it, and will not catch it again, maybe, and can go about the semester without worrying about myself getting sick.
Which is good, because next week I am off to a college and university conference and the Executive Board meeting of an organization that overlaps with it (the focus is on undergraduate research and teaching, so it is something that in the long run, and even the relatively short run, will benefit students so I don't feel impossibly guilty about going). In February we have a day of classes cancelled (alternate assignments have already been made for my classes) for a high school recruiting event (this was cancelled completely last year because it coincided with a blizzard -- we are hoping things get to run this time!). Then I am off to a disciplinary conference in Chicago (several of my students will be going as well). Then in March, at the end of spring break, I have just agreed to give a paper at a conference in St. Louis. For that I will only miss one day of class, I think. I cannot wait until April, when I won't have to go to any conference that I know of, which is going to be a wonderful month! Of course that is the month my students will be attending conferences of their own.
I am looking forward to the semester, but I can already identify pitfalls I will have to be careful to avoid. I will have less time with my students than I normally would and I will work around that to meet with them individually and as I have time on trains and planes I will be able to have dedicated grading time I might not otherwise have. I like the material I am teaching this semester and I hope the classes go well.
How is your semester starting? Are you looking forward to it with glee or dread? How is the temperature in your office?