This Week in My Class Prep: Details, Details!

Sometime Sunday afternoon it really hit me that in just a few weeks I will be right back in the midst of teaching. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! I’m looking forward to it, as I’ve said before. But I also need to be ready for it, and while I’ve been thinking about and in a general way preparing for next term since the beginning of my sabbatical in January, as classes approach the specifics get much more important. I have colleagues who refuse to do things like syllabi and Blackboard sites before the end of August–or, another way to put it, refuse to put aside their research, deferred (more or less) throughout the teaching year, until they must. I understand this attitude, and if I were in the midst of a deep, specialized research project I might feel the same. But I hate doing things at the last minute, and this year in particular I feel I need to be well organized in advance because I leave for England on August 29, not returning until September 5–with my first class of the term at 9:30 on September 9th. Imagine working on Blackboard sites while jet-lagged! No thanks. I want all the logistical stuff in order before I leave, so that when I get back I can get on with the readings and other actual content for the first class meetings. I’m sure I’ll miss (or need to change or fix) a few odds and ends, but here’s what’s on my to-do list:

  1. Blackboard sites. I’ve just completed one of three, for Mystery and Detective Fiction. This is the one that required the least revamping, since I taught the class not long ago and plan to use the same assignment sequence. Still, I’ve changed the reading list, so a lot of links had to be taken out or put in (I include a selection of links to related online content, such as author interviews or sites, topical blogs, etc.). Handouts needed to be updated – and in fact I still need to add new sets of discussion questions for the books now on the list for which I have no back-file of teaching materials. I haven’t put entries for each class meeting in the calendar tool yet (that’s an incredibly laborious task, but I think it’s probably worth it since it helps provide prompts to everyone, including me, about what we are supposed to do when). Basically, though, it’s up and running, and I’ve put in a request for the registered students to be given access to it, in the hopes that this will divert some of the inevitable emails about  the book list and so forth, and help students make up their mind about whether they want to stay in the course. (There’s a waiting list.) The two other sites are still pretty jumbled, but I can’t sort them out until I finish my work on …
  2. Course syllabi. Again, one of three is completed, but the other two are still in progress, because I’m still having debates with myself about which assignment sequences to use. Note that expression “assignment sequences”–this reflects my effort to think of course work as a set of interrelated tasks or projects, rather than as discrete exercises or displays, which is more or less how I approached things like term papers when I began teaching. I like to use small, low-stakes assignments (like in-class writing, journals, or question sets and responses) that let students learn and practise the kind of analysis that they will be expected to do in their larger, weightier assignments (papers, presentations, and/or exams). I wrote before about the letter exchanges I’ve used in my 19th-century novels courses. I am almost certain I will use it again this year, but based on the discussion on that post, I think I will give up on doing them electronically and revert to old-fashioned paper. I think. I’m reluctant, only because I had made a real commitment to going paperless and had appreciated many things about it. But I can see that in this particular case, having letters in hand might solve several of the logistical and technological problems that arose last time. Once I settle this for sure in my own mind, I can finish that syllabus up and get the Bb site sorted accordingly. I don’t think I have big decisions left to make for the upper-level seminar on the ‘woman question,’ but there I’m still sorting out the schedule so that there’s a reasonable rhythm between long and short texts, and a reasonable pattern for group presentations. Details, details.
  3. Course materials, research. Not everything has to be in hand by September, but the more notes and handouts I have filed away the less panic I will experience as the term rushes by! For books I have taught before, I have folders already stocked with old discussion questions, group exercises, lecture notes, and PPT slides. But this year I have added several all-new texts to the mystery class, so there in particular I feel I need to do some more advance work. I’ve got some articles downloaded on Walter Mosley, and I’ll read those as I reread Devil in a Blue Dress and work up some draft study questions. I also want to look around at the scholarship on Ed McBain, and on Sjowall and Wahloo, for The Terrorists. For all of these, I have some ideas already, of course, but I know I have more to learn. I may also need to read (or at least read about) Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely, as Devil in a Blue Dress has been described as “a suggestive inversion (and perhaps an intentional critical parody” of that novel, at least in parts.
  4. Paperwork. Every year it seems I let myself be taken by surprise by administrative paperwork: attendance sheets and records, grade sheets, evaluation forms, sign-up sheets. Not this year! It’s true that the long add-drop period makes it desperately annoying handling attendance for the first two weeks of classes, but I can at least have the spreadsheets ready to paste the latest versions of the Registrar’s class lists into, and I can make some advance decisions about how to track and record those “little” assignments.

I have set up a ‘task list’ on my Google Calendar to get the anxiety under control: this kind of work is so cluttered, because it involves so many small and often moving parts!

Of course, before I leave for England I also need to have my conference talk prepared. I’ve been working on that, using Prezi, and I am really appreciating the way that Prezi lets me brainstorm and conceptualize the topics I want to cover and how they can be connected without committing me to the more elaborate and inflexible design process of PPT. And, last but not least, I didn’t get my Richard III-and-gender-and-genre piece in order for the August issue of Open Letters…so if I can, I’ll get that done before I leave as well. Oh, and the Ph.D. thesis chapters keep on coming in, and I’ve also agreed to be third reader on an M.A. thesis, expected to land in my box August 15. I feel the anxiety going up again…so it’s time to stop planning and start doing.

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