Time to aim high, or low?

August 30, 2010

It is that time of year.  The semester starts off for many of us professorial-types.  Some of us may be full of noble aspirations for the classroom this year (I will write more interesting lectures; I will integrate a new service learning module into my course; I will never look like a slovenly sot in class; I will not crack lame jokes to which my students do not respond) while others (over here!) are settling into a year with lowered expectations (I will show more films in class; I will leave the lame jokes in; I will eliminate one writing assignment so I have a little less grading to do).

First, let me clarify that my lowered expectations are for myself, not my students.  I will still be holding them to the very high standards that make them narrow their eyes at me in rage.  Starting year 3 on the tenure-track, my lowered expectations for myself in the classroom stem from several realizations that have sunk in over time.  First and foremost, whether I spend 3 hours or 30 minutes preparing my class, the students seem not to be able to tell the difference.  They get as excited (or bored) by a lecture I sweated over for hours as they do over the ones I outline in 45 minutes.

Second, now at a point (temporarily) where there are no new preps (no new preps!) I am teaching courses with which I am more than passing familiar, and all of that cumulative preparation has paid off.  So no big changes, complete overhauls… the time has come to tweak, to finesse, and, though unrealistic, to perfect.  There will be some changes to my courses, but they are of the minor kind, requiring me to write two new lectures, to substitute a few readings for others, and to demand a wee bit more from my introductory students who I think are capable of producing more in my big ole lecture course.  And of course, to show an extra movie in each class (though I have recently learned from the very smart Schnauzer not to list these on the syllabus ahead of time and just surprise the students with them in class– it turns out they are more likely to come to class this way.  Who knew!)

The final realization that drives me to leave my courses as they are (more-or-less) is that in the third year I will face the dreaded gauntlet of the Third Year Review.  This is a common phenomenon at many institutions of higher learning in which junior faculty’s three years are evaluated in terms of their progress towards tenure.  In theory, my senior colleagues could decide that I am a miserable bet on the tenure track and choose not to renew my contract and send me packing.  In our case, the third year review also sets us up to be competitive candidates for sabbatical funds (pre-tenure sabbaticals are not guaranteed at Midwestern U.)  The take-home message of the impending review is that while teaching counts, research is what really matters.  I’d love to be tenured because of my teaching, but this is not the take home message of the institution for which I work.  So this year, I really have to put my nose to the ground, polish off promised manuscripts, and shove a couple of more things into the dreaded pipeline.  It will be dazzling.  It will be stupendous.  It will be utterly terrifying and exhausting, but hey, it’s what I signed up for… isn’t it?