Lessons From a Bad Semester

A confluence of events kept Kevin Brown out of the classroom for almost a month last semester. Here's what he learned about his students, his colleagues and his teaching.

April 3, 2015

I should just admit at the beginning that I’m obsessive and serious about organization, especially when it comes to my classes. Students make comments on their course evaluations, praising me for not changing the syllabus. I had no idea professors ever did that, as I never had. 

Then came this semester, when my classes have not gone at all as I thought they would. Early in the semester, I missed a day because I had the flu. Then we had snow -- more snow than we normally get (nothing like Boston, of course, but Tennessee does not know how to deal with snow). On top of that, my father died, which was expected, but I missed more days than I had planned. I also took students to a conference in New Mexico, causing me to miss almost another full week.

How bad was the effect on my classes? I didn’t see my freshman composition students for a solid month. Needless to say, my syllabuses have changed this semester. While this semester is not over yet -- and I have learned that more can always come -- I have already learned a few things from the past several months.

Classes (and students’ lives) will go on. When I was not there, other classes continued to meet, my students went to work or home or their dorms or wherever they typically go and life continued apace. This realization should not be surprising, but we often forget that our classes are not the center of the universe. Most of my students said, kindly, that they missed my being there and missed having class, but, most of the time, they didn’t think about my not being there. They and my colleagues had other work to keep them busy, not to mention families and their personal concerns. I hope I will be more humble about the place of my classes in people’s lives in the future.

Technology can help, but it can’t really replace. I use a bit of technology in my classes to begin with. We use the learning-management platform Moodle, and I have students post comments in an online forum that I can use to prompt discussion. When we missed a week for the snow, I had students emailing me papers I thought we needed to take care of to prevent falling farther behind. When I was home for the funeral, I was reading short responses and sending feedback, a good distraction from dealing with family and practical matters surrounding the funeral.

In a junior-level literature course, we were supposed to discuss a couple of sample papers on one day I missed, so I had students make comments on the forum and I posted my comments on the papers for them to look at. All of these adjustments allowed class to continue, more or less, though I knew that it was a lower quality than I had hoped. I’m glad I had the technology to help me, but I would have preferred the face-to-face interaction.

Colleagues cannot merely help, they can replace. Most of us are hesitant to have our colleagues teach our classes, even when they might be the better person to talk about a particular subject. We’re trained throughout graduate school to think of ourselves as the experts. When I needed to leave rather quickly, I had several colleagues step up to cover classes for me. When they told me what they did in class, I thought their ideas were great. Their approaches were different from mine, so students got to see a different approach to talking about literature, not to mention a different pedagogical style. 

I have no doubt that the classes where my colleagues filled in benefited from my absence more than they would have from my presence. I’m not going to start skipping classes and asking my peers to do extra work, but I do hope to find ways to bring in additional voices in the future.

Students can also help, and possibly even replace. Since I had known for over a year that I would miss class to take students to this conference, I was able to plan for that absence in a way I wasn’t with the other ones. I used a practice I began a few years ago where I have students fill in when I’m gone. I use students who have had the class with me before, then divide the current class into smaller discussion groups. Most undergraduates (we don’t have graduate students) are not comfortable speaking before 25 to 30 students, but they enjoy leading 7 to 10 in a discussion.  We have a number of students interested in education, so they enjoy the chance to get some teaching experience, while I get my classes covered by students I trust.

While I certainly do not hope I ever have another semester like this one, I can certainly say that I have learned a good deal from the experience. I know I’ll miss more days in the future, so I’m going to keep these ideas ready to go in the hopes that I can give my current students a worthwhile learning experience when I’m away.

I might use technology in ways that don’t provide as meaningful a class or assignment as I might like, but that at least gives them more than I could in such situations.  

I might trust my colleagues to give them a different point of view than the one they typically hear from me or I might give upper-level students the chance to gain valuable teaching experience. 

I’ll let go of some of my control, rearrange the syllabus and know that significant learning will take place.


Kevin Brown is a professor of English at Lee University.


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