Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Guest Post: The First Day of a Spring Semester

by Glenda Denicolo, Ammerman Campus Coordinator, New Member Mentoring Program
Editor’s Note:  SKG here -- hoping that you're all doing well and that you're not half as discombobulated by the snow day and first week of school as I am. For instance, this morning I tried to convince my class that it was Thursday, not Tuesday. Also, I thought the smart cart computer was broken but it turned out to be a matter of *shudders with embarrassment* not turning on the smart cart power button. Oy.

Why would I out myself in this manner? In the hopes that you remember, when you're having your own confused, rushing-around-to-get-everything-done-but-accomplishing-very-little days (or weeks) that . . .  you're not alone.

Thus is the message we get from the fun, fanciful little story below.
It is early morning and a familiar sound wakes up the instructor. “New e-mail alert”, he reckons. Just one more to be added to the 107 unread messages received in the last 24 hours. “Must have coffee”. He quickly goes through his morning routine and gets in the car. Wishful thinking. He gets out of the car again to scrape ice off the windshield.

Somehow, on the way to SCCC, a song on the radio reminds him of a TLC talk he wants to attend this week. The song’s title, Aerosmith’s Dream On, was a presage of the week ahead. “But before that talk, I must share my idea for a new class assignment with Peter….and Mary – I only see her momentarily on Wednesdays. Ah, I need to ask Paul to photocopy more course outlines. Wait. Perhaps I can do that myself, Paul is too busy this time of the semester. What are all those e-mails about anyway??” The instructor proudly believes his course outlines are infallible this semester. After a long time strategizing, he doubts the students will find any loophole.
One more endorsement for "Feeling and Form:
Collages, Prints,and Drawings"
by Meredith Starr and Richard Mack
(Lyceum Gallery: Thurs, Jan 30, 4 pm.)
At school, the corridors look relatively calm, with the occasional lost newbie. The instructor is blessed with no computer problems, and so there is enough time to deal with some of those e-mails. “Where’s ‘select all’?…ok, now ‘delete all’.” He feels a brief moment of self-reproach, and hesitantly moves the mouse away from the delete button. Too many e-mails from people he never heard of. Sometimes he cannot figure out whether the messages are important or not. He speed-reads, decides to save some just in case, and probably delete all when the inbox reaches the storage limit (quite often…). He takes notes of several events and meetings in his Google calendar – a fantastic advice Mary gave him in his first semester. He remembers her saying “the record will be there when you write your promotion Form A”. She hasn’t done that herself yet, though.

It’s show time! The corridors are now full with faculty and students, and you can smell the nervous energy in the air: it smells like baloney sandwich mixed with a French perfume. On his way to class, the instructor is focused, making detailed mental notes on the class he is about to teach. Right then a student approaches and informs him that her cousin’s wedding is next Tuesday, and that she won’t be able to come to class that day. She would like to photocopy his class notes in advance. The instructor’s detailed mental notes are now in disarrange (it was a feeble attempt anyway; he knows he can always rely on his written notes). No, he is not completely sure of what is going to happen next Tuesday; he just wants to start the class.

He explains the course outline to the kids, and secretly braces for more stories of cousins’ weddings and other unpredictability ahead. The toughest policy in his course outline is no curving of grades, by his personal choice. The instructor quickly learned in his first semester the importance of emphasizing such major policy on the first day of classes. “Besides,” he reflects with a smile, “I never heard objections on the first day.”

The class goes well, he feels ennobled, with a sensation of a job well done. He gives his best, and is now exhausted. The smile of glorified self-satisfaction disappears from his face when he realizes that it was just the first of three classes, starting in five minutes. Also, 43 new e-mails arrived.

After all classes are over, the instructor finds it a bit difficult to speak and think clearly. He has an office hour in the afternoon, and crosses his fingers that it will be a calm one. Perhaps chatting with his colleagues will help him focus again later.

Prof. Anne Smith enters his office. She is full of enthusiasm, and asks whether he will submit his travel form for a very exciting conference this coming March in Anchorage, Alaska. It is going to be 1,499.99 dollars; just what he has available for reimbursement (minus 1 cent). She sent him an e-mail about this super conference. Suddenly he is worried he will be left behind if he doesn’t apply. Now he is franticly browsing the web, and applying for that conference.
On his drive back home, the instructor realizes a few things. He cannot go to that conference he already applied to on the account of a family wedding! He also missed a meeting he wanted to attend today, and left several e-mails unanswered. Bottommost, he is worn out.
“What a strange day...”, he thinks. “But it gets easier.”
Welcome back, everyone!!

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Welcome Back, Inclement Weather!

I don't know if you've noticed, but it's snowing outside.
I'm sure your students have noticed. I'm sure the four students who were missing from my 9:30 a.m. English 102 will use it as an excuse for missing the first class of the semester, even though the snow didn't really become snow out here until about 11 a.m. As of noon today, the college has officially cancelled activities after 5 p.m. -- and those students with evening classes aren't worried, anyway, because evening classes don't begin at SCCC until next week.
How did I know about the cancellation of activities after 5 p.m., you might ask? The SCCC homepage. THEN, because I'm on campus, I received a voicemail message from the President's office. If you're not in the office yet you can also check with News Channel 12 if, for some reason, you can't check the SCCC page -- but I have a feeling that if you can't check one, you're probably not going to be able to check the other, either.
This post isn't about finding out about cancellations, anyway. It's about what to do once your ambitious course schedule for the semester -- the one you agonized over during the break, the one you balanced down to the minute -- becomes ferkockteh and you find yourself fermisht.
If classes are cancelled at SCCC -- or if you find yourself forced to cancel classes on your own because of illness , etc. -- or if you're non-teaching faculty and it isn't a classroom schedule that's disrupted but rather a project -- try to take a deep breath and remember that deadlines can and should be flexible.
For teaching faculty, I think we worry sometimes about making sure we cover enough material. We worry that if we have cancelled classes, we won't be able to fulfill our obligations to our students and SCCC within the time remaining.
One way to help yourself adjust or revise your course outline after a cancellation is to revisit the course description and learning outcomes as established by the college for your courses. Technically, we're all required to include these course descriptions and learning outcomes in our course outlines, but if you weren't aware of that requirement, don't worry -- you can begin including them next semester.
Where might you find these course descriptions and learning outcomes? Here, under Academics on the SCCC web site. Enter in the course number, and you'll be given a link to a document that looks something like this:
Stunning, isn't it?
These syllabi are part of a recent undertaking on the part of the College (spurred by the Middle States commission) to centralize and make available the syllabi for all of the courses offered at our institution. Their creation means this: the college course syllabus is a syllabus -- NOT the paper that you hand to your students on the first day of class. I know -- shocker, right? Rather, the description of your course as you teach it -- complete with your schedule of assignments and classroom policies -- is considered a COURSE OUTLINE.
On a related note, were you aware that your course should not list objectives? Because objectives are things that one intends to attain. OUTCOMES are definitive end results -- and even though you have no control over variables such as your students' intelligence or their individual work ethics -- if a student completes the course (READ: "Complete" equals a grade of D or higher), in the language of the course syllabus, "students WILL BE ABLE TO . . . "
No matter who they are. No matter how smart they are. No matter how good of a student he or she turns out to be.
Oh, the English Language! We. Have. Fun.
Anyway, pet peeves such as GroupThink and Institutional Language aside, it is useful for our students to see that a course being taught by several different instructors across three different campuses will have commonalities. It also helps when they try to transfer credits they earned here to  four-year institutions.
So . . . back to keeping your Grand Semester Plan chugging along! I find that these course syllabi are useful to instructors, too, particularly when you find yourself short on time and long on material to cover. The syllabi act as good reminders: there are very particular aims for each course, and those aims as detailed by the college rarely include specific material. As long as you can ensure that your students have met, in some way, each of the outlined outcomes, you've met your obligations as an instructor.
Do we meet our obligations more thoroughly and more efficiently some semesters? Sure. But that's the ebb and flow of an academic's life.
And I guess that's my point. Your career, and our students' education, occur within the context of lives. We all know that our students aren't going to die or suffer or become impoverished because they don't get to read Marlowe's Doctor Faustus. In fact, some English majors can go their entire academic careers without ever reading it. (*Cough* RIGHT HERE *Cough*) So don't worry too much over whether or not you get to accomplish all of the brilliant lectures and group discussions and writing assignments you laid out before your students when the semester was bright and shiny and new. Your students will think of your class as bright and shiny even when it's no longer new to them if you remember to relax, breathe, and allow some flexibility in your classroom.
OH, and now classes are cancelled as of 3 p.m. today. So some of us will be adjusting those class assignment schedules sooner rather than later . . .
* * *
p.s. Check out this press release about New Members Meredith Starr and Richard Mack! (Or better yet, go see their show!)