Monday, April 21, 2014

13 - 5

Semesters are short here in Canada. Usually, the winter term clocks in around thirteen weeks if you count reading week. When you think about it that is not a lot of classroom time. This semester I was teaching the lightest load I have ever had: two classes with a total of about fifty students. I also had an independent study course with one honours student which met once a week for two hours. Still, compared to the times I have taught four classes and had a few hundred students this workload was a breeze... Sort of.

The 13-5 that makes up the title reflects the actual time I had with my students this semester. Thirteen weeks minus three weeks on strike, minus another week for a long-scheduled trip, minus a fifth for reading week, which was not cancelled at Mount Allison. Now I'm no math genius, but 13-5= not a whole lot of time. Eight weeks, to be exact. Eight weeks to teach one second year class their required literary periods course (Romantic, Victorian, Modernism, Post-Modernism), and the same eight weeks to teach a third year course on literature by women in English in the 20th and 21st centuries. Throw into the mix some unavoidable mid-semester travel (read: interviews) and that makes for one truncated term.

It's an unofficial tradition here at Hook & Eye to reflect on the end of the semester, and especially the end of the teaching year. Look back through the archives and you'll find posts on the post-semester tristesse that engulfs many of us, you'll see best laid plans for summer research and renewal, and you'll find that many of us are getting ready for the spate of conferences that come at the end of May. This year I find myself in a reflective mood, and one that is markedly different than previous years. For one thing, I've been on strike before. Without going into the particularities of negotiations which are ongoing I can say this: it was much harder than I expected. It was hard because the tensions did rise. It was hard because Sackville is a wee town, and there is no where to escape from something that consumes those affiliated with the university. It was hard because the students were stressed and I care about them. It was hard because my colleagues and I were stressed and standing up for something we felt was vital and necessary (hint: our was not a strike about pay raises, it was a strike over the core values of the academic mission). It was also hard because at the end of the job action--we are still in interest arbitration and will be for months--we all went back into the classrooms and tried to deliver the strongest classes possible.

It was a challenge to regain the momentum, but it wasn't impossible. In both my classes the students and I made a pact be be kind to one another. This meant I revoked the syllabus to drop some assignments, give them the chance to weigh in on the evaluation process, and everyone got more time to do the work that remained. Translation: I'm usually draconian about deadlines (unless there is a legitimate issue, obviously) and that went out the window. It wasn't useful for me or the classes to have strict deadlines when the students were cramming ten weeks of class into five. We made a deal to communicate about when things would come in on an individual basis, and we stuck to it. I will be grading until the last days of the month, and that's fine. The smallness of my classes allowed me to keep tabs on every student's process, and they, in turn, we're kind to me when I kept getting confused about deadlines as well. We laughed, and we are getting through it.

My reflections on the semester are these: things happen that are out of your control. Communication and being human with my students really worked for me as a means of managing my stress and expectations as well as theirs. For instance, for the first time I told students I was missing class (and they were having a guest lecture) because I had to go to a campus interview. I needed them to know why I was absent after the huge gap from the strike and reading week. They were understanding, and in turn forthright about their own challenges and constraints. We were able, too, to use the strike and the material conditions of my contract to talk about university governance and structures of labour in the academy. And yes, we did some amazing with with literature as well.

It feels strange to be at the end of another school year. I am as tired, but in different ways. I am as unclear about future work, but again, in different ways. The constant thing is this: I am as grateful for the privilege of being in the front of the classroom as ever. In the midst of grading, or the inevitable student apathy I am reminded of the incredible responsibility and privilege to stand in a room of people and teach and think together. We may have lost five weeks, but I know we got real and important work accomplished.

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