Friday, July 31, 2009

Will August Never Come?

In the fall, I will be teaching a new upper level course, and I decided a while ago that I would do the major preparation work for the course in August. I did some preparation last winter -- enough to get all the required information online so that students could decide whether to register for the course.

I will have plenty of time to get things ready if I start next week (or the week after). I taught a similar course at my previous university, and I have taught pieces of the course material in more recent specialized seminars.

I think it is entirely reasonable that I not spend much time working on course preparation in the summer months, when faculty are not paid a salary by the university and when I need uninterrupted time (and effort) to devote to research. I want the class to be good, so of course I will devote some summer time to working on the material, but not until August.

All summer I have had students coming to my office and sending me email asking me about the course. I can give them basic information (the same information that is available online), but some of them ask me about things that I won't know until August, when I will focus on course preparation.

I tell them that I don't know/have these things yet, but I will in August. Some say "OK, that will be fine." but others say "But I need to know now." One student described his busy August plans and explained that he is getting organized for his fall courses now, in July, so August will be too late for him to get a more detailed version of the syllabus.

Too late? I think not. I suppose I should be pleased with the dedication and organizational skills of some of my students, even if the absence of detailed course materials indicates that I lack these qualities myself.

I give a polite but firm reply that I have not yet had time to finalize the course materials and that I will not have the requested information and materials until August. I am half expecting to get an email on August 1st asking for the course materials. Perhaps during the course I can dispel the preliminary impression that I am a disorganized and uncaring professor, or perhaps this impression is already deeply imprinted.

I know that most undergraduate students and even many graduate students don't know how things work in terms of the teaching : research : service components of faculty jobs (and salary in the summer), leading to some misconceptions and misunderstanding. As a result, I am thinking of starting the course in the fall with a description of the research I did this summer, some of which is highly relevant to the course material. Some students might be interested in the research, and some might be interesting in knowing what their professor did during the summer when not devoting herself to course preparation (in August).


Alex said...

Waiting until August is probably wise. I actually did some course prep in July, and then the state decided to furlough us. No firm announcements yet on what this will mean (besides reduced pay), but there's the very real possibility that we'll lose several lecture days. In a very tightly-scheduled quarter system, that just wreaks complete havoc on course prep.

If I were scheduled to teach the worst of our intro classes (12 hard chapters in 10 weeks, a pace decided by committee, not by me) I'd be hurling Molotov cocktails if they took away 5 lecture days. And, actually, with so much insanity over budgets and schedules, I might yet get an involuntary schedule change...

Time to Google on whether Molotov cocktails are shaken or stirred.

Hope said...

I’m planning to take a class in the fall, but I’ve resisted emailing the prof to ask for more details. I’ll probably contact her about 2 wks before classes start. I really don’t think you need to justify how you spent your summer to your students – I doubt most of them will care. I know I wouldn’t.

But here’s a question for you: are you the type of prof who, when assigning a paper or project, expects to see evidence (e.g. annotated bibliography, outline) of the student working on it weeks before it’s due?

Meadow said...

It appears to be common now for students to ask in the early summer about fall courses. I think it is best to wait till August to start preparing. I tried starting earlier and ended up wasting some time that I could have spent on research.

hkukbilingualidiot said...

Over here across the pond, my lecturers gets their course and exam questions approved during the summer months. So, by August we pretty much know what we will be taught throughout the entire academic year...however, it definitely doesn't involve the odd profs repeating their teaching packages from last year for a new set of students...either way, from my experience I always got taught the newest materials available fresh from print.

yolio said...

You have some very demanding students. How much detail do they really need before they decide they are taking the course? Haven't they heard of add/drop? I mean don't get me a wrong, I am an advance planner myself. But this seems excessive.

On another note, putting off your prep work is a great time management strategy. It's not flaky at all.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Students these days are so much more motherfucking annoying than they used to be. E-mail is the evil enabler. I refuse to answer any e-mails from students other than ones that seek to make an appointment to come see me in person. Make these lazy self-absorbed shits have to actually do something beyond typing on a keyboard, and all of a sudden their "critical issues" aren't so critical anymore.

When I was in college, I looked at the motherfucking course catalog, and signed up for the courses that sounded interesting. It would never in a million years have even occurred to me to go bother some busy professor with whiny-ass titty-baby requests for "additional information" about a motherfucking course.

lost academic said...

All I ever asked, and I only did it ONCE for each of these, was whether or not the class would be capable of adding students past capacity and if the professor would be considering it (since I knew very well the caps were usually set based on the chairs in the room) and if I could use the last edition of the textbook as I knew the questions in it would be different. My mom was a history professor and we were treated to plenty of stories of dumb things students asked - and some that were clearly important to answer even if impossible. (That, and the lesson that sometimes the textbook store is the problem, not the professor, for books not being available at the store.)

Unbalanced Reaction said...

Yeah, what CPP said. What is this, comparison shopping? Sit in on the class you are registered for, buddy. Maybe the student was just sucking up by trying to impress you with how motivated he is. But seriously.....getting ready in July? I just don't believe it. You have far more patience than I probably ever will.

biochem belle said...

I'm also with PhysioProf. I was a great student in undergrad (yes, I know, so modest), but I never emailed a prof to ask about what would be covered in a course, nor did I do that in grad school. There was simply no reason to. Advanced planning? There's only so much a student can do ahead without lectures and problem sets. Especially in science. It's not reading comprehension. Generally material covered in science courses builds on what was in earlier sessions.

Then again perhaps 'advanced planner' is planning a vacation and wants to see if it conflicts with an exam. In which case, he should be told to plan it for scheduled breaks in the academic calendar.

Hope said...

@Unbalanced Reaction: What is this, comparison shopping? Sit in on the class you are registered for, buddy.

At my undergrad school, we never registered for classes until 2-3 wks into the semester. These weeks were officially known as “shopping period.” Sitting in on the first few lectures is the best way to decide which classes are right for you – sometimes the catalog description and what the prof comes up with can be markedly different.

For all the annoyed profs out there: one way to keep students from emailing you with questions about your upcoming course might be to post something about it on your webpage. It can be last year’s syllabus, if you think that’s representative; or a note saying that you will update the page with current course info when it becomes available. Then you can just ignore course-related student emails all summer long….

Anonymous said...

I have just started class prep this past week.. and now face the fun process of buying everything for a lab this fall in time.. which is seriously hampered by a damn administrator not giving us an acct. number. Which we were supposed to have had in early June.

So, as annoying as students can be, I hate our admin more.

Alex - we also have furloughs but are not allowed to impact teaching. I have a teaching-only friend who literally had to take her furloughs on all of the off-school days (like spring break).

Doctor Pion said...

Our college has a great system where we can access a mailing list directed at all currently registered students soon after registration opens (which is in the spring). Since Blackboard does not get its rosters populated until the fee deadline (weeks from now), that makes it easy to broadcast a message like you appear to want to send.

The alternative is to put up a short web page that contains the FAQ answers you keep e-mailing, so you can send a one-line reply to those students. That FAQ might even explain that you are unemployed (as regards your university teaching contract) during the summer and legally required to put 100% effort into the research projects that are paying you right now.

Now since I have the opposite problem (a 110% heavy teaching load in Fall), I followed Dr. Crazy's suggestion and set the end of July as a false deadline for syllabi details and lots of other things that usually get done in the last week before class. That is the perfect for a procrastinator like myself. I can now take a true vacation before all hell breaks loose.

Doctor Pion said...


As I understand labor law in our state, it is illegal to overlap a "furlough" with paid vacation time or days (like spring break) when you are not required to work. Similarly, it is illegal to require you to do any work (like answer e-mail, grade, class-prep, or research) at home on a furlough day.

Kevin said...

I'm in complete agreement with the following statement:
For all the annoyed profs out there: one way to keep students from emailing you with questions about your upcoming course might be to post something about it on your webpage.

Since I am the defacto adviser for several undergrads and first-year grads, I need to be able to help them choose courses. It is not trivial to come up with the right balance of classes when choosing electives, and so it really helps to have more information than the course catalog. Our undergrads are required to take classes from at least 7 different departments, so that finding a conflict-free schedule is often extremely difficult. Students are often left with choices like taking classes that conflict somewhat (lecture of one during discussion section of another) or taking courses without one of the prerequisites. Trying to find the least-bad options requires more information than the course catalogs.

Our school used to have a 2-3 week shopping period, but courses have now gotten so overloaded that if you don't sign up in the first week of registration in spring quarter, you can't get into most science classes in the fall. The problem has been bad for years, and it is getting worse---it is now impossible to reschedule classes into bigger classrooms, as there are no empty classrooms. All the big rooms (>75 seats) are scheduled a year in advance, so no new big classes can be started.

Anonymous said...

FSP, you are tenured, right? Unless you LIKE teaching, why cannot you just do a decent job and be satisfied? If research is what you want to do, that should be a no brainer. What am I missing? :)

Anonymous said...

Sorry, but many of you are wrong. There might have been a time when by reading the course catalog or the class name you could've been able to guess more or less what would be covered and decide whether it was good for you or not. Today you just can't do that. Even with the same class, if different profs teach it you will get different syllabi. Or maybe the level is not what you were looking for (this goes on both directions, maybe too easy, maybe too hard).

Also, I don't know about your univs but the two universities I've been at in the US forced the students to register for a Fall class by the end of May. For undergrad courses, if in August you found out that the class was not what you were looking for you had no way of changing since all the other courses were already full.

Aside from this, I can think of many reasons why I would want to know more about a class ahead of time. For example, what if I HAVE to save money in books by buying used versions? If I wait too long (until the class has begun and then decide that it is what I want) there might not be more used copies available. What if my schedule is too busy that if I find out I don't want to take the class it will be very hard to move all my other commitments around to fit a new class. What if I can't move my schedule once classes being? As a lab TA once the semester begins I am assigned several sections to teach, the department is nice enough to give us lab sections that do not overlap with our courses, but they ask us to give them our next semester schedule with 1-2 months notice. My first semester in grad school I got stuck with a class that was a waste of time for me (way too easy, stuff I had already seen in a different class with different title and supposedly different scope) because the rest of the time I had to TA.

Anonymous said...

I've just had a similar experience (as a new junior faculty member) with potential TAs. They want to know what exactly will be taught, and how it will be taught, for a new course starting in the spring. Given that I was planning to start vague sketching out in September, and leave detailed planning until December, this was a bit of a shock. When I was a TA I would never have expected a full course description and teaching plan so many months ahead of time!