Our campus has a May term, an early summer school term that starts up soon after graduation and offers students the opportunity to pick up one class rather intensively over the course of the next four or six weeks. I've never taught it; every May I just feel grateful to have made it to graduation unscathed, and I usually take a few weeks to decompress before I return to my research projects and to planning my fall semester courses. Usually during May all that I'm good for is clearing off my desk and reacquainting myself with the file cabinets whose contents are currently strewn around my office, in ever-higher stacks.
This May, the stacks of paper remain on my desk; my file cabinets have things on top of them rather than in them. The last batch of papers I graded still sits on top of another pile of papers — notes for my last class? Ideas for a paper I'm writing? I'm not quite sure.
This May, as I've no doubt mentioned before, I'm in faculty development bootcamp — a series of workshops for faculty preparing to teach in our First-Year Seminars. So this year I went into May term before May term even began. Indeed, I'll be half-way done with this project by the time the real May term gets underway next week.
For four consecutive weeks, in four separate sessions with different faculty members in each session, I have the pleasure of my colleagues' company as we work together to think about what it is we mean when we talk about "rigor" and "challenge," how we'll encourage "critical reading and thinking," how we'll design and assess writing and oral communication assignments. It's hard work, but it really is a rare pleasure to sit and talk with colleagues about teaching — it's something we don't often have time to do when we're in the thick of it. Last week, in the first session, folks from all over campus found out how much we have in common in our commitment to our students, and how different we are in the way we approach the production of knowledge, or even what counts as a good question. These are crucial questions for us to be asking, even if (as so often happens) we find we can't actually answer them all.
I'm not sure what faculty development looks like on other campuses — I've spent most of my professional career here, in a relatively small liberal arts college, where teaching is both central to our mission and often (perhaps therefore) under-discussed. We came in as teachers, most of us, and we already know what we're doing when we stand up in front of a class, or sit down among one. But as we are revising our curriculum and adding this one new course, we decided to pause and talk about what our goals for it are, and how we intend to achieve them. It's a rare opportunity, then, to reflect on our teaching publicly, to share our best practices and worst mistakes (often just as informative!). Lunching together we talk about whether we tolerate late papers, or why we do or don't have laptop bans in class. It's in these details that we begin to make common cause, to focus on the "whys" of our decisions rather than just the "whats" and "hows."
So the filing and the cleaning will have to wait. It'll still be there in June when I get back.