Challenges and Opportunities of the Semester System
Posted by Kristan Morrison on Jan 08, 2010 - 07:58 AM
Like Alison Bagg Brink (see her latest blog post
), I, too, am gearing up to return to teaching after my university's winter break. Unlike Alison, though, I will be getting a whole new set of students this semester. Teaching at a university on a semester schedule in which classes start anew at least two times a year has both its challenges and advantages for a democratically-minded educator.
For example, I love getting to meet whole new sets of students each semester. I always get that "butterflies in the stomach" excitement of thinking about the possibilities of good things to come in terms of helping to create communities of engaged co-learning. But I also hate those butterflies, too, because they signal worries over class dynamics and over whether or not I can be successful in helping to create environments conducive to true learning. I suppose if I did primarily lecture then I wouldn't have that worry as much, but because I believe in the co-construction of knowledge, my classes are more like seminars, with small and large group discussions, simulations, and other hands-on-type activities. And as the leader of such classes, it's on me (at least initially) to make the environment inviting enough to draw the students' willingness to engage. After a semester such as I just had, in which I was lucky to have great classes of students who seemed to enjoy one another and me, I dread starting over. "Why," I ask myself, "after such a semester, can't I just keep those groups of students and continue learning with them?"
It's not every semester that I have such great classes, though, so another advantage to starting fresh every fifteen weeks is that I have a chance for a "do-over." I remember when I was teaching seventh grade that I had to wait a whole year before I could drastically change things (yes, I know I could have changed things mid-year, but as Ammerah has written about in her blog
, such massive changes throw off students and sometimes engender negativity, even though one's intentions are good). Now, as a college professor, if I notice an assignment, or reading, or activity, or general approach to the students doesn't quite work in one semester, I can quickly change things up for the soon-to-be-arriving semester. So, for example, when I saw this past semester that the students didn't seem to get too much out of the Pecha Kucha project (that I wrote about in an earlier post
), I could replace it by extending a more well-received professional development project that I had done in smaller scale earlier.
This "doing over" is a double-edged sword in some ways, though. While I get a new chance to implement activities and assignments that may work better with students, I also have to re-do each semester some drudge work that comes with trying to introduce conventionally-educated students to more democratic approaches to learning. For example, I am a huge proponent of allowing students "protest rights" (see Ira Shor's Empowering Education
for full details on this), and as I wrote about in an earlier post, I try to start each class asking, "are there any questions, comments, complaints, suggestions, etc.?" as a way to get students to enact their rights. Each semester, I have to help students understand the differences between positive and negative freedom and thus discourage them from the sorts of responses to my question that reflect more negative freedom.
Trying to help conventionally-educated students see the distinctions between trying to get out of work and doing potentially personally-meaningful work is so complex and uncomfortable. I am treading such a fine line in making these distinctions because being in a traditional university, I do
have the ultimate authority in the classes and the students know it. So, in trying to urge students to see that doing work for class can
be meaningful, I might tread into the potential hypocrisy of forcing students to do certain work only by virtue of my authority as a professor. I hate the position I am put into each semester of trying to help students unlearn ideas that are so ingrained in them from their past schooling experiences, yet doing it in a way that is not authoritarian (i.e., I worry that students will get this message: "parrot my democratic education philosophy or I'll ding your grade!").
Overall, I see the great opportunities I have with the rhythms of the semester system and the more frequent opportunities for renewal than when I taught at the K-12 level. But as a person who believes in a more democratic approach to education, I lament the fact that each learning community is essentially closed down each semester and has to be built from scratch with each new semester's groups of students. And I lament that it too often feels that I am alone in trying to help students unlearn the hidden curriculum of their conventional schooling. I wish that each new semester I could have the excitement without the worries, but then again, without the struggle, perhaps positive end results, such as those I had last semester, cannot be well appreciated.