Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Fundamental Laws

Right now I'm facing one of those marooned hours...just enough time to feel like I should really do something productive before yoga class, but I'm wiped and just can't seem to gather the willpower to fix some footnotes or grade some quizzes. Seems like a great time to blog, after I've killed some time at the Onion, of course. The weekly Monday-Tuesday punch has done me in. I teach a Monday night class, which is supposed to last from 6:30 to 10. Insane.

So that means a pretty late night on Monday and a quick turnaround before Tuesday morning's two classes. And the commute last night was rough... due to a light drizzle. The roads were all wet and shiny, SUV lights glared in my mirrors (when I run the world, you'll need a permit and good reason to drive one of those), and my damn windshield was, as usual, covered in some film that made it impossible to see. In dry weather, it appears crystal clear. Get it slightly wet and it looks all cloudy and opaque in spots. I drove slowly and kept my eye on the yellow line at the side of the road, and thankfully made it home. I came in the back door and started to cry. Now, I know I really should love my Reliable and Fuel Efficient Small Japanese Car, but it's always had some sort of windshield poltergeist that makes for crappy visibility in rainy weather, and the thing handles like a watermelon. And do you really want to be driving the same silver colored car that everyone else is? I swear that I'm either stuck in that scene from Office Space or trying to get into someone else's car in the parking lot.

So today I wandered into the auto parts store after work and bought the most expensive wipers in the place. Seemed like a good place to start, since one really should be able to operate one's motor vehicle in the rain. I bought a pair made by Bosch. I dunno. I figure since they make fantastic dishwashers they might make good windshield wipers (?). Tomorrow I will attempt to install said wipers and then clean the windshield but good.

Besides my griping, I've also been giving some thought to teaching and time management. It's a fundamental law of Physics (or some science-y) discipline that gases expand to fill the space available. I propose that this is also a fundamental law of teaching. On the positive side, this means that teaching is a profession that is endlessly new -- each day is a new challenge that you could prepare and prepare for, and then revise and revise after the fact. How could I teach this better? How could I design something that would reach this particular group of students in a more effective way? Am I really giving this same old crappy lecture again? Would taking the time to cue up a 4 minute film clip really make the point? I'm guessing that most teachers could think of a few things they'd really like to improve if time were not an issue.

The negative side of this fundamental law is that the expanding gas of teaching could be suffocating! How do you preserve your personal life, your family life, your physical and mental health in the face of a job that could be never-ending? And, more importantly, how do you find time to Be a Scholar? Scholarship for me requires taking off the teacher hat (let's hope my dissertation isn't written in the same lingo I use to boil down complicated historical concepts for my first year college students) and putting on the scholar hat. It involves engaging in a different discussion with a different audience. And it requires, quite simply, TIME.

After I came up for air -- which happened at some point in the second semester of my first year of teaching a 4-4 load -- I realized that, for me, teaching would always expand to fill the space available. And if I intended to make any progress on my dissertation, I was just going to have to shrink that time. So for years I've been shrinking and shrinking the time I spend on teaching. I believe that that quality of the output remains high since I made an initial investment in time before I put things In the Can. But it sure makes for some stressful mornings. I'll get up, work on my dissertation for an hour or so, then head for campus -- carefully calibrating to arrive an hour before class or so. And voila! I've got to prepare for class in that hour. Sometimes it's no problem, sometimes it's super stressful, and sometimes things just don't get done. But at least I worked on my dissertation.

And the only other Fundamental Law I can think of right now is that we should never, ever, assume we have any initial understanding of what our students do and don't know. This week my students in the night class were comparing statistics from the Virginia/Chesapeake Bay colonies and the Massachusetts Bay colonies. I asked them to work in small groups and focus on a few sets of statistics so we could develop a picture of the North vs. the South during this period. There was some confusion before I realized that some students didn't understand that Virginia is in the south and Massachusetts is in the north. Wow.

What are your fundamental laws?

8 Comments:

At 2:39 AM, Blogger Overread said...

sigh... were they at least embarrassed that they didn't know north from south?

 
At 1:29 PM, Blogger KJ said...

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At 1:31 PM, Blogger KJ said...

That's nothin'...in high school I took a Minority History class (actual title) and one student thought the Underground Railroad was literally a RAILROAD under the GROUND.

Also...as a librarian I often deal with the 'Why spend 3 minutes looking for something in a book when you could spend 30 looking for it online' syndrome, a rant for another day. One day, when trying to help a student with what was obviously an assignment that required his own opinions about some philosophical concept, I had occaision to show a student a philosophy dictionary or encyclopedia, and suggested he look in the index to see if his term was in the book. He looked at me like I had two heads, which led to me to explain what an index was, then look up the state standards online to discover that identifying the parts of a book is a SECOND GRADE SKILL. Sigh.

 
At 1:32 PM, Blogger KJ said...

Also, my Fundamental Law of Purse Size states that no matter how large a woman's purse is, it will always be full.

 
At 2:35 PM, Blogger HistGrad said...

Yeah, overread, they had the grace to be embarrassed (confessing that they were "geographically challenged") and hopefully I handled the situation with good humor while also clarifying the key knowledge they should have. But still... I guess I'd better find myself a good map to tote around with me!

 
At 9:21 PM, Anonymous New Kid on the Hallway said...

Oy...

Your fundamental law of teaching reminds me of my fundamental law of, well, life: Life (or, really, time) is like a purse. When you have a big one (i.e. lots of time), you fill it up with all sorts of crap that you think is indispensible. But if you have a little one (i.e. not very much), you pare down the essentials and manage just as well as with the big purse. Point being, we tend to fill up our time with stuff we don't really need and we can get by with much less if we have to.

If that makes any sense.

I've said it more coherently before, I think....!

 
At 6:30 AM, Blogger jo(e) said...

Your fundamental law about teaching is so on target. It's something I have struggled with for years.

 
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