Confused at a higher level

The view from Carleton College's physics department

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Like a newbie

Posted by Arjendu on June 2, 2015

This year back in the classroom has been like being a newbie again. I was nervous about the content of the various courses (it really felt like almost 5 new preps for me). And being able to tell a coherent story, of course. The logistics of staying on top of assignments and assessments: the tests, exams, homework, projects, writing, labs — their creation and their grading — in Carleton’s notoriously fast-paced 10-week terms, and the physics department’s ultra-compact 5-week courses are also not trivial. My colleagues set a high bar for teaching performance, and I had to re-learn how to join the troupe.

My in-front-of-class teaching is done for the year. I just got through the last lab, and there are yet final project presentations left, and project reports to collect and grade. It’s as good a time as any to collect my thoughts for the year.

Short version: It was hard, I got to re-learn things I like to learn about, and re-think them, and to work on understanding new areas better, and old things from different perspectives, and to confront things I don’t like doing, and do them anyway because it’s needed for the course, etc, etc. In short, while it was very challenging, it was equally rewarding, and fun (that’s how I know I am happy with my gig).

Overall assessment of the teaching year: I’d give my performance a B+/A- average between the content mastery, excitement, engagement bit (pretty good) and the organizational/logistical side (could do better but not terrible). That’s consistent with the student evaluations I’ve had over the year. I feel qualified to grant my self enough self-assessment independence to call it not bad for someone feeling rusty and definitely aware of the cost of re-entry after 4 years away.

I can see ways of re-doing these classes next time through, of course. Next year, I have three repeat course: (1) Thermal and statistical physics in the fall [junior and senior majors and two curious chemists], (2) quantum mechanics [should be mostly junior majors, though I occasionally get seniors and math majors] in the winter, and (3) environmental (mostly energy) physics for the 2nd half of spring term [typically non-majors, mostly from the other sciences]. I also have scheduled two different variations on the introductory physics I taught for the the 1st half of the spring term, so overall, it’s almost entirely a chance to go back over everything. I’ve usually really enjoyed my second or third consecutive time through a particular course, so I am not half as worried about teaching next year as I was about this year.

An unexpected thing this year was discovering that I need a new teaching persona and voice. It’s quite possible the curmudgeonly absent-minded professor shtick present on Facebook is more real than I thought. But I’m trying to re-learn by re-starting my old habits. My teaching journal has been restarted. I have started writing a new list of ‘things I should be doing that I should probably confess I already know I should be doing but haven’t been doing quite as often as I now think I should have’ (For example: a periodic five-minute check in to see what people have understood that week and what’s missing, a five-minute map of the week ahead and the schedule, even it’s all on the syllabus, just as a reminder and to note the inevitable modifications/adaptations/scheduling things; I’ve tinkered the assignment prompts already where I saw incomplete communication — all this now because I know I’ll have forgotten my insights by this time next year.)

During this year I found that figuring out the extent of my post-Deanery service role to the college was important to my identity as well, of course. The ‘Future of Liberal Arts in India’ conference I helped put together was the major time-and-attention needing activity over the year, but I also served on at least one steering board for an interdisciplinary initiative, did some language testing, and served on an emotionally heavy but medium work-load college committee as part of my broader role at Carleton.

All this while try to re-orient and advance my research, the broader direction of which seems to continue to be on the right track, with promising and interesting results (assuming colleagues’ feedback on talks, posters, and other presentations isn’t only politeness), but is only limping along when it comes to finished products. In about a week’s time, it will be my highest priority again.

Ok, this is enough navel-gazing for now. To summarize this end of year teaching report to self: Survived the re-entry to the Carleton classroom, and happy for it.

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