Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Avoiding the Doldrums

Hey there! So I've enrolled in the Faculty Blogging Challenge here at Southwestern College. The idea is to share ideas about pedagogy and such. I'm sure I won't be able to stick to the topic most weeks....but this time I'll try to remain vanilla. 

This week's prompt is: "What are your strategies for maintaining focus and and motivation at the end of the semester?" As in all discursive endeavors, my first urge is to be sarcastic and unhelpful. "I try to remember that I don't work in a coal mine," "smoking copious bowls," and "thinking about the money," all immediately came to mind. But those aren't useful to anyone. 

Come to think about it, I've actually put quite a bit of thought into reducing that end-of-the-semester dragging feeling. I do it through creative scheduling, aligning my class with the national intercollegiate debate topic, and fun management.

When I first started teaching I was a big fat stupid procrastinator. We all hate grading, so I just applied the classic procrastinator pseudo-logic: Have them turn in everything on the last day of class. That way, the semester goes smoothly for 17 weeks then turns into a hellscape of desperation and fatigue at the end. Turns out this isn't the optimal way to run a class. So now I make my major written assignment due week 8. I spread the tests out a little more. I front-load the assignments to give myself a little wiggle room at the end. That way I never feel buried in paper. Now, I admit that this is easier given what I teach: Debate class mostly consists of in-class performances. There may be no way for English professors to avoid the hellscape.

I'm lucky to have a teaching gig that changes substantially from year to year. Unlike my cowardly anti-intellectual colleagues in the Parliamentary Debate community, I coach NDT/CEDA style debate. This means SWC students spend the whole year researching a single broad debate topic. So my students are making the same claims as the students at Harvard, USC, MSU, or any other NDT program in the nation. Over the course of the year I learn about an MAs worth of information about the topic. So last year I became an expert on Presidential War Powers. Previous topics taught me all about Gun Control, Agricultural Subsidies, International Treaties, Renewable Energy.....each year is new and exciting. This year the topic is about legalizing victimless crimes. More specifically we are debating whether the USA should legalize "marihuana, prostitution, online gambling, physician assisted suicide, or the sale of human organs." Pretty NSFW if you ask me. I'm terrified Dr. Nish will call me in for a meeting, "Mr Mills, we have some real concerns with your browser history. The weed, prostitution and gambling are all depressingly common amongst the male faculty here at SWC. But we have reason to believe you may have been trafficking in human organs." At least the students FINALLY get to argue the ONE thing they've been wanting to debate about for 15 years. Finally they can make their case for legalizing the sale of human organs. 

In the end, I find the most important technique for maintaining energy and focus has more to do with time spent away from work. It's hard to be Mr. Mopey Von Whiner-son at work when you have as much fun as I do on the weekends. I see a lot of live music. I travel extensively. I obsessively play board games with my friends. And I spend a few hours a week (never enough) on political activism. In general I find that people who hate their jobs don't enjoy their free time so much either. Feeling burnt out? Punk rock will wake you right up!  

 Hey, we all get tired at the end of the semester. Towards the middle of the semester I complain that I hate lecturing and towards the end I complain that student debates are killing my soul. But changing things up in and out of the classroom can help.


  1. Jordan, you're going to make us all look bad. LOLing all over the place on this one, it's so funny. Good to get to know you through this post. Game on!

  2. Good suggestions, Jordan. Using a different topic each year is a great way to keep your job fresh. In public speaking, and I would imagine composition classes, the topics can be pretty repetitive. Finding ways to push students toward novel topics is key. Also, unique assignments are harder to plagiarize from past students.

  3. I enjoyed the read, though I suspect you are correct about the impossibility of English instructors avoiding the paper piles. It just goes with the job.

    Sidebar: as someone who competed in Parli for years as a student and found it wonderfully instructive, I of course totally disagree that it's anti-intellectual. I've done both Parliamentary and policy debate, and am well aware of the cross-talk there, so I assume you're being sarcastic and are just polishing the robust history of in-fighting between debate camps.