I’m always taken aback by the sudden change that happens at the end of a class period. What just seconds ago was an intense and heady environment is transformed back into an empty room. Something similar happens at the end of a semester. After months of running — of juggling course prep, marking, student conferences, faculty meetings, and any other work you want to get done — suddenly there’s stillness and quiet. Suddenly there’s time to do all of the things on your to-do lists.
Personally, I’m more than ready for that change. But before I submit fully to the saner pace of the summer months, I want to make sure I take advantage of still being completely engrossed in my teaching.
I can be sure that I’m not going to remember everything from this semester, when August rolls around. Most Mondays I can barely remember what I did the previous Friday (I have young children). So as much as I’d like nothing better than to walk away from my final class of the academic year and not think about my courses for weeks and weeks, the fact is that I’m going to have to teach these courses again — and I’m not going to remember all that I’ve learned this semester.
I’ve written before about the benefits of evaluating your own teaching at the end of the term, but today I’d like to advise that you take on a more forward-looking task: planning out your next semester at the end of this one.
I know, I know, next semester is just about the farthest thing from your mind right now. And I share the desire to put this term’s courses behind me — to embrace the luxury of thinking about anything but teaching for a while. But before you close the book on this semester, do yourself a favor that you’ll be grateful for in the fall. Having just taught them, you will never be better equipped to think through how your courses should change — or not — than right now. A few hours of work now will pay dividends in the future that can’t be earned any other way.
Start by getting organized. Go through your notes from the semester and catalog everything you did from the first class meeting to the last. For each class period, I keep a separate Word document with my notes and title it by the class date. At the end of the semester, I retitle these files to reflect their contents: For example, one document will be titled “Revision skills — Assignment 3 thesis workshop — Steinem essay.” That way, I can easily glance at a semester’s worth of class sessions and quickly remind myself of what I did. When I want to remember how I taught revision, I can easily find the appropriate notes.
Next, evaluate each class session. Which ones were the hits? Which ones flopped? Are the successful classes replicable? Do the failures indicate that you should try something different next time around, or are you not ready to give up on them just yet? That kind of work requires you to be self-critical and clear-eyed — you need an honest assessment of the semester’s progress that can be useful to you in the future. You can also do some big-picture thinking at this point: How did your overall approach to the course work? Should you rearrange some of the elements? Should you bring in a fresh set of readings? I wrote a few months ago about my discovery of Marilyn Frye’s essay, “Oppression,” and its usefulness for my teaching of feminism. Next semester I think I’ll assign it in the first week of class; I’m hoping that Frye’s metaphor of the birdcage will become a guiding conceit for the semester, and help my students see that the study of feminism is integrally connected to the critical-thinking skills I want them to develop. Those are thoughts I am going to write down now, before they slip away.
Finally, make yourself actually plan out the semester. Think of it as a first draft. If you had to teach the class again, starting next week, how would you teach it? Fill out the calendar with readings, topics, assignments, and in-class activities. Consider the arc of the semester, what you want to achieve, and how you might make the elements of the course best complement each other. Start by figuring out where the best classes from this past semester will go on the fall calendar and then fill in the rest of the course around them. You can certainly change this plan when August comes. But as with writing, it’s easier to revise a course plan than to create one from scratch.
It would be a real shame if you didn’t build on the successes you achieved this semester because you forgot how you achieved them. Just as important, drafting a plan now for next semester can help ensure that you don’t repeat your mistakes. In either case, your best bet is to act as if the future is now.