We have just completed our first week of classes, and I am tired. I always have this reaction -- I have taken a few weeks to catch up on sleep, mentally fold away the previous semester's content and challenging students, and opened the new books and the new brains (hah) to deal with the next semester's issues. But it always surprises me how tiring it is to stand on my hind legs and be a show(wo)man for an hour or three at a time. I need to be entertaining, informative, enthusiastic, and supportive in mentoring students through discussion of the answers to the questions they have. In some cases this means guiding myself through to a conclusion as well, as they ask questions I may never have thought to ask. Many of my classes are art history classes, with discussions and lectures delivered in the dark, right about lunchtime or just after lunch, and I feel I need to keep people awake, so I need to be awake and lively as well. Needless to say, after a few weeks of rest, it is exhausting, and last night I slept ten hours straight through and didn't move at all. Today I am more or less able to face the day, although I think I am going to get another cup of coffee in a few minutes!
This semester I had two classes that were "underenrolled" as we like to say at my university. They had limits of 25 students per class, and they ended up with 10 each (as of this morning, and yesterday was the last day of the add/drop period, so it should probably stay at that number). My normal teaching is three classes, two of them in the 40-45 range (I have one this term that is there), and one in the 25 student range. Plus a senior thesis class, each term, which ranges from 1-10 students, depending on the year. So this is new. And, I must admit, wonderful. It may never happen again, but I can already see the difference in how I am dealing with the class. Follow me below the coiled serpent of orange delights to see what differences I am noticing, and please add your observations from either a teacher or a student perspective below.
The differences I can see already in the way I am interacting with my classes are dramatic. For starters, I already know most of the students' names, and I am terrible with names! But there are little things I can remember. One student has as one of her languages Indonesian and that is something unusual, so I can remember that, and her. She is an international relations major. The student in the front row who is always willing to offer his opinion is interested in film. The tall, quiet one in the third row uses his middle name instead of his first one and he is interested in new media studies. There is a Japanese student who has a very heavy accent and always needs to be asked to speak up, but does offer his opinion occasionally, and he picked the introduction to interdisciplinary studies class, not because he wants an interdisciplinary major, but because he saw we had a Japanese book as a required text and that intrigued him. There is someone interested in LGBTQ Studies, and came to class with an article on Jodie Foster's speech at the Golden Globes as the article he wanted to discuss. There is the Biochemistry major who wants to apply her studies to the environment. I have details to attach to individuals, and they are all individuals already. I contrast that with last semester when two sisters sat in the front row of a class and I still couldn't keep them straight after a whole semester -- and worst of all, they were not identical twins -- there was no excuse!
In a discussion, they all are talking. It could be the classes, but it is a good way to start. Of course, the class that is sticking out in my mind is my interdisciplinary studies one, and I was told by people who have taught it in the past that the students would all be enthusiastic about the class, as they would all see it as relevant to their majors (we have only the Interdisciplinary Studies (IDS) frame for them to design their own program, so if nothing else fits, this is where they come, and no one is required to take the class, so they are all voluntary "inmates"). But even aside from the fact that they are there voluntarily, they are already learning about each other, and how to interact with each other. As for me, I didn't have to stop and say "person in the back row with the yellow tshirt -- what do you think?" which was a lovely contrast with the usual "seminar" class. I have taught our junior interdisiplinary seminar before and usually there are a couple who don't want to participate at all, but this class it is different. I hope it continues. I have tried to structure it so they are focusing on their own interests in a broad framework so I hope it is great for them. If it continues this way, I will indeed just open up the class, make some announcements, and then tell them at the end that the time is up. I will be a true facilitator. That is so cool. Wish me luck!
My other class is a bit different -- it is one of those interdisciplinary junior seminars that you have to take one of, but you may not get into the one you want. I am teaching a class on London this semester, and while I think it would attract a lot of people, it was very much a last choice for a lot of people, apparently (or a second choice, anyway, and they got their first ones). So it is small. But I know the names of students already, and they seem to have a sense of humour about London. I showed them some videos on Thursday to give them an historical sense of the city -- a video about the Great Fire of London (in 1666) and one very enthusiastic war propaganda one "we can take it" about what life was like under the Blitz, and one from the same date about "How to make proper tea" and I brought in tea for them on Thursday. Unfortunately it was Tetley's and a bit rot-gut. I will give in and bring in my Fortnam and Mason tea next Thursday so they can really taste the good stuff. I couldn't conceive of doing that with a class of 25, but with a smaller one they can have good tea on Thursday afternoons and I will still have tea left over for myself when I need it.
The one thing that won't change, no matter the size or number of students in the class, is the attention I give to their writing. But the smaller size does mean I can get that writing back to them in a more timely manner. I am looking forward to that. I know it is unrealistic, but I am fantasizing about a next-class-period-for-all-assignments turnaround time. hahahahaha. But it is at least conceivable with this size of class, whereas with 25 or 45 it is much more challenging (i.e. almost impossible for me, but not for others who somehow manage). Last semester with two of the large classes, and one that settled in about 21, it was a constant juggling act. Maybe this semester it won't be. It is a nice thought with which to start the term, anyway.
What differences have you seen when you suddenly get an unexpectedly smaller class? What are the challenges you have in the smaller classes? And how is your semester starting?