Your ASAP List

The fall semester is fast approaching. Rob Weir suggests steps for the new instructor to take now to avoid chaos later.

August 11, 2010

It’s just a matter of weeks before fall semester sneaks up on us like a thief in the night. Bad analogy; I actually love the dynamism of fall semester — the students scurrying about, the bustle that returns to campus, the optimism…. But it’s true enough that "first week back" and "chaos" are synonyms. You’ll hear college officials deliver pep talks using the phrase "smooth opening of school." Those wacky administrators! They should go into stand-up comedy. Don’t believe a word of it — a “smooth” opening is the academic equivalent of hunting snipes.

Below is a checklist of things you should do right now — as in yesterday. Copy it, do everything on it, and thank me later. These things won’t make the first-week chaos go away, but if you dispatch these details you’ll increase your odds of arriving to week two in possession of partial sanity.

  • Syllabus sent to department secretary for copying.
  • Parking sticker and campus ID obtained.
  • Checked with bookstore for an update on my order.
  • All necessary paperwork completed at HR.
  • My office is stocked with supplies.
  • All necessary keys are in my possession.
  • I have visited each of my classrooms and have tested the equipment in each.
  • Library specialist meetings scheduled.
  • Needed AV equipment has been reserved.
  • I have jumped through needed IT hoops.

The first few things on the list seem so basic that many people wait till the last minute, only to discover how complex the mundane can be. Copying syllabuses is more time-consuming than you might think; chances are that if you don’t give the files to the department secretary at least a week in advance, that individual may literally not have the time to get it done for you. After all, secretaries have other duties besides accommodating procrastinators.

If you think getting a parking sticker is the most routine thing in the world, boy are you deluded. Many colleges have online systems that require you to print a form, mail it with a check, and then wait for processing and mailing. Allow at least two weeks. Your alternative is far less savory: park your car in the campus garage, stand in line for several hours with students who didn’t register by mail, receive a sticker for a lot in an adjacent time zone, and pay a king’s ransom for your day in the campus garage. Once you get your sticker, drive to campus and get your ID card — you’re nonexistent without it. Do this before school opens and you zip in and out; wait until the first week and take a three-digit number.

Have you assumed that the bookstore will let you know if there are any problems with your order? How charming! They won’t, and, because Murphy’s Law is a force more powerful than gravity, whatever you needed for the first week will be the item that’s "temporarily out of stock." (And the one that the bookstore will tell you they were promised would be available by November 1 at the latest.) My advice is that even if they say they’ll have it no later than September 1, be on the safe side and prepare alternative lessons.

I’ve written before about the maddening nature of college paperwork for new hires and adjuncts. The longer I’m in education the more convinced I am that black hole theory evolved from studies of college human relations departments. Seriously, folks — get to HR now. Do not be surprised if you make several more trips before school opens. Take your passport and a second photo ID with you. If you’ve never had a TB test, get one now. (Most campus infirmaries can do it.) This stuff is crucial for adjuncts. One year I didn’t get paid until mid-October because of HR paperwork issues. For adjuncts, delayed pay means more mac and cheese, so take care of this stuff.

Small things can mean big annoyances. Make sure your office is ready. There’s usually just one person who has access to the supply closet and you do not want to hunt down that individual every time you need a stapler, paper clips, sticky notes, a printer cartridge, etc. And for heaven’s sake, have some pens floating around — you’ll sign your name on more forms the first week than in the rest of the semester combined.

Consider keys as part of the basic office setup. You’ll need one for your office door, of course, but there are many more you’ll need to obtain — building keys, classroom keys, department office keys, mailroom keys, and equipment cabinet keys. Most colleges lock machines and computer setups in metal cabinets so that projectors, amplifiers, adaptors, and TVs don’t end up on Craigslist. Like parking stickers, colleges often have online procedures for obtaining equipment cabinet. Get them now so you can…

Test the equipment in every classroom in which you’re teaching. Do not assume that the same equipment will work the same way in every room, or that the room will actually contain the items it’s supposed to have. Pay a visit and make sure there are no blown projector lamps, missing equipment, or glitches. Be especially wary if any of the rooms has had an "update." That may mean you have to alter your laptop’s settings to be able to connect to the Internet or to a projector. Moreover, unexplained weirdness simply crops up. My department owns four portable projectors for laptops — all the same brand. Last fall I found that only one of them worked in a particular room. Nobody knows why. By all means visit each assigned classroom if for no other reason than to make certain it’s appropriate for your needs. You’re just a slot to be filled for the academic scheduling office, not an individual with a particular teaching style. Changing classrooms takes time neither you nor that office will have to spare in the first week back.

If you plan to use a library specialist (and you should), schedule times now. A single liaison often serves several departments, so it’s first-come, first-served for face time. It’s especially crucial to jump early if you’re teaching in academic prime time. At my school, class slots in the Tuesday/Thursday 11am to 5 pm are in high demand, which axiomatically makes these peak hours for library specialists as well.

It’s not a bad idea to schedule now all AV or special equipment you’ll need to have delivered to your classroom during the semester. I doubt I’m speaking only for myself when I say that remembering to call or fill out an online form several days in advance is one of those details that’s easy to forget once the semester is in full swing.

I saved the most difficult for last. This will ruffle some feathers so let me say that some of my best friends are in the info tech field. (No cliché — it’s true.) You need to get in touch with the information technology office right now, as it’s likely to be the single most frustrating fiefdom with which you’ll deal. Get your network password, have them post your course website shells, and get upgrades to your office computer. These things will take time because — and I’m being brutally frank — college IT departments frequently operate according to their own rules. (Quite a few behave as if the rest of the college is an annoyance.) Leaving voice mail messages is a waste of time surpassed only by trying to make sense of IT websites, most of which are written in Geek Speak and bear no resemblance to English, and the interfaces are designed by people who need to get out more so they can experience real-world language and logic. There are probably forms for everything you need somewhere on the IT site, but good luck finding them (especially if they’re basic). Once you do find a form you need, bookmark that sucker or you’ll never find it again.

You may need to haul your butt over to IT, demand some face time, and sit down with an IT person as they set up things that should be simple. Count on the fact that you’ll need a tutorial on whatever classroom support software is used and be proactive in making them show you what you will use, not what they find to be the most interesting “robust features” of the software. Make IT explain every single acronym they use and complain to the right people (your chair, your dean) when IT doesn’t follow through with promises in a timely fashion. If I sound like I’m on my high horse, guilty as charged. I confess a belief that many colleges coddle IT prima donnas and that these units need to be forced into the same “service” models that faculty are told we must emulate. So there … a little fodder for those who want to tell me that I’m nuts. But the rest, I hope, is common sense.


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