The beginning of the semester is one of my favorite moments of a course. I walk into a classroom full of students who are curious and occasionally slightly frightened or intimidated. What they don't know--one of the greater open secrets of teaching--is I am usually experiencing those exact same feelings. Just this morning, I stepped into a tiered classroom. Now I have to confess: it's quite small. It can fit 25 people comfortably, but certainly no more.
But this is what it looked like to me:
Huge. Cavernous. Impersonal.
I've never taught in such a room before, so the strangeness of the environment only intensified my nervousness. And that's a good thing.
That sense of being overwhelmed is a useful experience, because it reminds me of how my students are feeling. This particular course is a sophomore-level writing in the disciplines course, so I am dealing mostly with students who are fairly comfortable with being in a college classroom. But I can look at their faces and know which ones are feeling anxious about being in yet another writing class and the ones who are irritated that they are in yet another writing class and the ones who are somewhat excited because they are in yet another writing class. Anyone who has taught, no matter their field, has seen all of these expressions and more.
The academic calendar and its divisions, whether into semesters, trimesters, quarters, or any other conceivable ways of dividing time, provide instructors with the chance to start over, to try again, to test new ideas. That's what is most exciting to me about the beginning of the semester: Everything is still possible. I could be walking into what I will, in years to come, think of as one of the best courses I ever taught. More likely, I'm walking into a class that I will look back on and think, well I could've done worse. But that forward gaze, that burst of pedagogical optimism, is potent.
Instructors are always experiencing new challenges, big and small. A classroom with a different layout is merely a physically felt challenge, so it's easier to notice. This is also, for instance, the first time I am ever teaching a class quite like this. (You'd think I'd be more nervous about that.) I am incorporating technology in ways I haven't tried before. I am putting more trust in my students to work with one another than my control freak nature typically allows. I designed a lighter schedule so I have room to adjust to the rhythm of the course without feeling like I'm behind. I am working with a textbook that I've used before and rejected, practically out of hand. Newness, newness, newness!
And that sheen of newness--a phrase I just used when introducing myself to my students to explain why I couldn't answer a reasonably simple institutional question without looking for an answer--spills over into all my endeavors.
Suddenly, I can see my research agenda anew. I am in the process of rethinking how to best use my time and where to focus my energies. I have dreams, big dreams, but some of them are less attainable as a brand new scholar. So while I work toward those bigger projects, I can work on smaller projects that help me to establish my presence in the field and in my university.
Likewise, I see departmental situations somewhat differently than I did in the heat of my very first semester as a TT faculty member. Things feel less pressing, because if there is one truth about human organizations, they are slow to change. I ain't just going to fix the world in a semester. And I shouldn't want to. Since I am a historian of higher education, I should in fact know better than most that what I see as "problems," others see as traditions and best practices. Tread a little lighter, new guy. More institutional knowledge means a more informed perspective. Imagine that!
(Don't get my wrong: My fundamentally quiet nature means that most of the struggles were going on in my head anyway. I wasn't exactly shaking the foundations around here. But even my head could benefit from a little more quiet, thank you very much.)
So while the rest of the world in January talks about resolutions, I am thinking: I get to try it again. It isn't so different, except that I get to experience this feeling of renewal more often. I'm embracing this feeling of optimism as I start my twentieth semester as a teacher. After all, if things don't work out the way I want them to, there's always next semester.