On Tuesday, one of my Keene State teaching colleagues remarked with amazement that it’s already the third week of the semester: didn’t the semester just start? Perhaps we’ve both slipped into the same time-warp, or maybe the short days of winter fly faster than other, longer days.
Already this year, it’s February; already this week, we’re turning the corner toward the weekend. I shot these images last Sunday, on a frigid morning walk before giving consulting interviews at the Cambridge Zen Center; already, Sunday morning seems a lifetime away, with so many teaching tasks, household chores, and other to-list items being checked off between Then and Now.
This semester is fuller than usual for me, as I’m teaching three classes that are new to me. My old “Expository Writing” class has been reborn as “Creative Nonfiction,” and the two Environmental Literature classes I’ve mentioned previously–the “Literature of Birds and Birding,” and “Rivers and Literary Imagination”–are keeping me on my toes as I teach a tall stack of texts I’ve read but never previously taught. When I designed my syllabi for this term, I knew I’d be scrambling throughout the term: it’s one thing to have read a book before, even several times; it’s an entirely different thing to teach that text. When you prepare to teach a text, you read it in a different, more attentive way than when you read (or re-read) for pleasure, and this kind of super-attentive re-reading is keeping me busy.
Teaching a semester on the fly is a delicate game of cat-and-mouse: you spend a good portion of your class-prep time simply trying to keep one step ahead of your students. It’s a challenging task that demands mental energy and focus…and like any sort of chase, it can be exhilarating. When planning the three new-to-me classes I’m teaching this term, I consciously chose texts I’d want to read and designed assignments I’d want to write. Preparing to teach a class you’d love to take makes a huge difference, I’m finding. When I look at my to-do list and consider the texts I need to re-visit, re-read, and review for this class, the next, and the next, I feel more excited than exhausted. When other than this semester would I be paid to discuss interesting, interdisciplinary texts such as Diane Ackerman’s A Natural History of the Senses, John James Audubon’s Ornithological Biographies, and Henry David Thoreau’s A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers?
Several semesters ago, the first time I taught a class on “The Frontier in American Literature,” I told yet another teaching colleague that I felt I was making the class up as I went along. “Maybe that’s the best way to teach about the frontier,” he noted, and I think he might be right. Once you’ve taught a class a couple times, you get settled in your ways; like Thoreau at Walden Pond, you find your feet have beaten a path from your cabin to the water’s edge. The first time you teach a class, there’s no path: you’re like an Intellectual Pioneer venturing into the Virgin Land of your own mind. What happens if we approach tonight’s class this way rather than that? And how about we try something completely different next week?
My inner Neat Freak–the part of me that makes to-do lists, color-coordinates class folders, and designs and distributes elaborately detailed syllabi every term–can’t stand the thought of teaching on the fly: spontaneity sounds too much like wild, wanton disorder. But my inner Artist–the part of me that thrills to look at Audubon prints and thinks it’s really cool to teach a class on Creative Nonfiction–loves the fact that teaching is always an experiment: what happens when you read this text alongside that one, and what happens when you ask your class genuine questions that you don’t have pre-prepared answers for?
Teaching a semester on the fly–teaching a semester when out of necessity you’re making things up as you go along–is an excellent reminder that in a good class–in the kind of class I’d want to take–the teacher often learns as much if not more than the students. Teaching a semester on the fly feels a bit like flying by the seat of your pants, but when other than this semester would I be paid to do something so exciting?