Adirondack chairs

August is the beginning of the end of summer, with back-to-school commercials playing on TV and Halloween candy on display at the grocery store. On Monday, I drove to Framingham State to help plan our annual retreat for first-year writing instructors: a time to come together and share teaching ideas before we put the finishing touches on our Fall semester syllabi.

Live to the truth.

I sometimes joke that my favorite time of year is August, when I’m planning my syllabi without any actual students around. When you’re ramping up for a new school year, absolutely anything is possible. All the practical problems you faced last semester are long forgotten, and a new school year offers the promise of a new beginning. This year, you tell yourself, you’ll engage your students with well-designed assignments; this year, you tell yourself, you’ll keep up with your grading and avoid the dreaded Dark Night of the Semester when both you and your students are tired and unmotivated.

Two chairs, no waiting

As soon as the school year starts, even a perfectly designed syllabus will be tested by practical realities: there’s never enough time, after all, to instill all the lessons you want your students to learn. As the late Mario Cuomo famously said, “You campaign in poetry; you govern in prose.” Just as political candidates promise the moon and stars, a teacher who is planning a syllabus sees the sky as being her students’ ceiling. There will be plenty of time later to revisit and adjust your actual expectations.

Bearded

Years ago, my former brother-in-law repeated a mantra he learned in the Marines that has stayed with me ever since. He called it the 6 Ps: “Prior planning prevents piss-poor performance.”

Modica way

Wikipedia lists other permutations of this adage, including the so-called 7 Ps of “Proper Planning and Preparation Prevent Piss Poor Performance,” but the six-word version is what I learned. Every Sunday, I spend a good part of the day preparing for the coming week, packing lunches and setting out not just one but five outfits, each coordinated down to the jewelry. On any given morning, I don’t have time to stand in front of my closet wondering what to wear, so it makes the day go more smoothly if I can simply jump in the shower, knowing that day’s outfit is at the top of the pile.

Tagged

Following the 6 Ps isn’t the most exciting way to spend a Sunday, but if a little preparation makes a hectic week go more smoothly, I’m all for it. When my Monday morning alarm goes off, it’s a relief to know I don’t have to think about packing a lunch, gathering my books, or doing anything else that requires an awake attention to detail. Instead, my teaching bag is ready to go, and all I have to do is show up for another whirlwind week.

Pots and pans

My Sunday nights are largely devoted to the mundane prep-work of the coming work week: in a word, housekeeping. I make sure my teaching bag contains whatever books and folders I’ll need, and I pack a week’s worth of lunches and plan a week’s worth of outfits. When I first started teaching, I underestimated the importance of mundane planning, thinking all I’d need to teach was a deep knowledge of my subject and the passion to share it. What I’ve learned more than 20 years later, however, is that a good teaching day depends on lots of little things, like having pens that work, a water bottle that’s full, and lots and lots of snacks, just in case.

Sleeping cat paw

While Stan and our other cats spent the day lounging and sleeping, I’ve been busy grading final projects from my online graduate students while designing the syllabus for my First Year Writing seminar at Boston College.

That can't be comfortable

A new online term starts on Tuesday, my new classes at BC start on Wednesday, and I return to teaching at Framingham State on Thursday. The next few days promise to be busy with teaching prep and other back-to-school tasks, so I leave you with these pictures of sleeping cats to entertain you while I’m otherwise occupied.

Heard me?

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.

Two Warhols

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.

El gato y el raton

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?

Bold

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?

Blue heads

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?

Leafy

Today’s Photo Friday theme is School, so here is an image of the Elliot Center at Keene State College, which I’d blogged this time last year.

Line 'em up

Today I’ve been busy with my online classes, responding to Discussion Board posts and grading a batch of student essays. This weekend, I’ll work on my fall semester syllabi for Keene State, once again taking the long view as I plan the path for another academic year. It’s been hot (in the ’90s) and humid this week, so it’s hard to believe that fall semester is right around the corner, but I know better than to believe the thermometer. The empty seats I photographed in Keene State’s Morrison Hall aren’t going to stay empty for long, so I’d better be prepared for the upcoming influx of students. Ready or not, here they come.