My first year students are pretty happy. Well, as happy as they can be, having to hand in their final papers today, and having to prepare for a final exam on new media studies next Friday. They’re not panicking, at least, because they’ve been working steadily through the various stages of the essay for four weeks already–they had full drafts finished a week ago, and they’ve been editing and finalizing since. And I know they’re better prepared for the exam than they think they might be–we’ve had five substantial online quizzes across the full breadth of term, and in class I’ve had them write up their feedback on their own learning for most units, that I’ve collated and taken up in class. There’s someone from this class at my office hours every time I hold them. There was a six person lineup in the hall when I got there on Monday. I read everyone’s drafts.
They’ve be coached and coaxed and assessed and guided the whole term.
It’s almost killed me.
The cap on my course is 40 students. I finally learned all their names by Halloween (I’m really bad with names, I admit). We had a photographer who came to take photos to use in the University’s promotion and we were all so squashed into the classroom that he took everyone’s coats and bags and put them in a different room–he even took the overhead projector away.
The course is running the best it has ever run. After running this four times, I’ve finally got it right, for students: substantial attention to and development of their voice and skills and engagement as writers, and a strong grounding in new media studies content, both historical and theoretical.
What “getting it right” has meant for me is adding a bunch of assessments to support the course’s learning objectives. Getting it right means a ton more grading and feedback for me. And I think I’ve hit peak grading. For two years in a row, they complained that the textbook didn’t matter, and I tried to link the in-class work more heavily toward that material. I made speeches and lit more scented candles. It didn’t work. You know what did work? Adding six new assessments to focus their attention on material only death with in the textbook: five quizzes and a final. Add that to the six writing assignments, and it’s pushed me over the edge.
I’m so proud to say that pedagogically I think this course is rock solid: we use class time really productively, the students are engaged, all the work comes in on time, attendance is high, the writing is visibly improving, the thinking is getting more sophisticated. But I haven’t written a word on my book in months. And I’m behind on my email and admin work, and I’m getting up at 5:30 every day.
The best solution would be to lower the cap on the course–25 would be reasonable. A smaller cap would mean that the professor could still bring her A-game but cut the grading of each of the 12 assignments in the course in half, a substantial savings. But it’s too expensive to do that, maybe. And the course is a draw for majors, so reducing the number of students taking it might be a mistake. Running two smaller sections is even more expensive!
If we take instructor time seriously–the in this case tenured professor is also supposed to be writing a book–we would instead, perhaps, suggest something different. Cut the number of assignments in half, and the same savings in grading could be achieved. In this scenario, the pedagogy is compromised, and the professor may see her teaching scores decline, because of cuts to content.
I’m no noob. I know how to spend a mere 40 minutes prepping for an 80 minute class. And I grade FAST. I think I’ve found all the efficiencies in the process it is possible to find.
My discipline is English. I think it’s always got to be writing intensive, and doing that right is going to involve a lot of writing assignments and a lot of grading. I don’t think that can be skimped on. As I use these last two days before the final papers come in to catch up on the straggler grading I haven’t had time to do, and frantically put together the text of the final exam that I guess I’ll be grading all next weekend, I am just really struck by these structural constraints: the number of students conflicts with the kind of pedagogy which undermines balance in my work life. And how to fix it–FEWER STUDENTS IN EACH SECTION–seems like the one thing we’re not able to do.
Maybe someone will invent an app to solve all these problems. But I don’t think so.