A Delicate Balance

I just finished redesigning my ENGL 1301, ENGL 1302, and ENGL 2333 syllabi again.

As most readers know, I always re-do my syllabi between semesters.  Even after nine years of teaching freshman and sophomore level college English (with a smattering of Developmental Writing here and there), I still have a lot to learn in regards to how to teach well.  Even though I had plenty of Education classes in preparation for my teaching certificate in Secondary-level English (received also nine years ago), I really didn’t know how to teach English until I was actually teaching it.

Being a student — even a grad student — in a classroom, working with one’s fellow classmates and professors in one’s discipline, is one thing.  Actually being the teacher and delivering the knowledge and skills and facilitating learning to students who may or may not give a damn in one’s discipline is another.  Plus, negotiating state-mandated objectives and one’s own academic freedom is also something that I didn’t really know how to do — until I had to do it as part of my job.

But, as I’ve found out for myself, the real balancing act has been the quantity of work assigned versus the the quantity of work graded and returned on time, all with the ideal of providing quality education.  It’s been tough.  For me, since I primarily teach Composition I and II, most of my grading duties are grading essays and research papers.  I have colleagues who are “maximalists”: That is, they assign a large quantity of writing assignments, also requiring multiple rough drafts (which they also assess).  Since they also have a life outside the classroom — married, children, and such — they are always behind on grading, in some cases a couple of weeks behind.  They come in early to grade, they stay late in order to grade, and even bring grading home.  The school terms are 24/7 work, and they crave the long breaks between the terms — Christmas and summer.

What compounds this non-stop grading is the usual course-load for a full-time community college professor (minimum five a semester, with seven not being unusual), along with the requirement of student service, community service, and institutional service (which also cut into grading time).

In my twenties, I used to be a maximalist, but early on I realized that I was heading straight to being burned out, at the rate I was giving work.  Also, being behind on grading, I was denying my students needed feedback so that they could improve in the classroom.  But I couldn’t stand being a “minimalist” — giving so little work (and also too-easy work), that students really didn’t need a teacher (or each other) to pass the class, only to find out that the class didn’t prepare them at all for the next class.  All it did was prepare them for failure.

But then I recall one of my father’s favorite aphorisms: “Work smarter, not harder.”

So, after a class has ended for the semester, I find myself tinkering with my syllabus, yet again.  I’m not a maximalist.  Afterall, after seeing my fall schedule (four sections of Composition I in three different modalities — traditional lecture, entirely online, and hybrid, one section of Composition II, and one section World Literature II), as well as planning and organizing the three-day Big Read program in October)… well, I can’t *afford* to be a maximalist.

Back in the 1999-2000 academic year, I assigned in Comp I seven essays (with two required rough drafts), two essay exams, daily journals, and pop quizzes on grammar and mechanics.  I could do that because I was only teaching one or two sections a semester as an adjunct, while being a full-time doctoral student. 

Now, for fall 2008, my four sections of Comp I will give me four essays, one short research paper, ten journal entries, “participation grade” online grammar and punctuation quizzes, and a final exam.  The essays are now spaced so that my students can take time to produce a quality product, we can have meaningful discussion and interaction in class, I can grade and return their papers back to them, usually by the next class session, and they feel prepared for Comp II, the “Research Paper” class.

My goal — for all of my classes, no matter what course — is to create a lean, mean, education machine.  Cut out excess busy work, and have what work we have build upon each other, culminating in some sort of “capstone” work.  Whether that “capstone” work is a final project (ike a research paper in ENGL 1301 and 1302) or an overall gestalt that has synthesized everything in the class (as demonstrated in a final exam in ENGL 2333), I realized that being goal-oriented has helped me to become a better teacher as well as guiding others to be better students.

It’s that delicate balance — quantity vs. quality — which, if one really cares for one’s discipline and students, never ends. 

Ironically enough, I *did* learn that from most of my Education professors, nearly ten years ago.  🙂

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