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Back-to-back classes

During the week before spring break, I guest taught a week of TEC 154, the Evolution of Technology. I love TEC 154, both when I’m lead teacher and when I’m a guest speaker. It’s powerful to get students to think more broadly about technology [1] and to help them develop lenses through which they can consider technologies. I also like the format of the class, in which we regularly bring in faculty from across the College to talk about technology in relation to their scholarship.

But that’s not the subject of this musing.

Rather, it’s the side-effects of teaching the class. In particular, because I was teaching TEC 154 at 10:00 a.m. and my CSC 151 class meets from 8:30 a.m. to 9:50 a.m., teaching TEC 154 means that I was teaching what most of us call back to back classes.

Most students know the experience of taking back-to-back classes. You need to rush out of one class to make it to the next. You need to switch your mindset from thinking about the topic of the first class to thinking about the topic of the second. You need to somehow bring to your consciousness all the things that you need to know for the second class during the quick walk from the first class to the second class. It’s hard.

As you might expect, it’s even harder when you’re a faculty member. Students can gradually let their brain shift during the first minutes of class. When faculty members arrive in the second class, we need to hit the ground running, as it were. For people like me, who are accustomed to spending some time preparing mentally for class, it’s really difficult. Not only do we have to switch the topical thinking, we have to set aside the examples we’ve prepared for the first class and bring to mind the examples we’ve prepared for the second class.

I suppose it might be different if I lecture from a PowerPoint deck or from paper notes. But I try not to lecture [2]. Rather, I try to pull out key ideas and examples and get students to respond to them, either through discussion or structured Q&A [3]. That requires not only that the material is fresh in my mind, but also that I have some good questions to work from.

I know I’m not alone in teaching this way. I certainly watch my colleagues in the Humanities lead fascinating discussions that draw upon readings in multiple ways, and that requires having the material at hand [5].

Even when I’m teaching a lab that I’ve prepared in advance, such as in CSC 151, I like to make sure that I’ve thought about likely problems students will have and how I will respond to those problems.

So teaching back-to-back classes is hard. It’s even harder when they are in different classrooms and in different parts of the building (or in different buildings) and there’s travel time. This recent week, I also found it hard because I’m accustomed to talking to some of my CSC 151 students after class, answering followup questions or just checking in. But I had to rush from place to place and couldn’t do so.

Given that I’m teaching three 80-minute classes on MWF in the spring, I don’t think it’s possible to avoid back-to-back classes. Either I’ll teach 8:30-9:50 and 10:00-11:20 or I’ll teach 1:00-2:20 and 2:30-3:50 [6]. So I’ll almost certainly have to master the art of back-to-back classes. Still, I’ve done so in the past and I guess I can do it again. If I have back-to-back classes all semester, students will know that they can’t see me immediately after class.

In addition, it’s probably easier when they are all CS, even if they are different kinds of CS. I’ve taught all of my CS classes enough that I can ad-lib as necessary and it’s much easier to do the context switch. Oh. Wait. One of them is the new CSC 151 I’m developing this fall and at least one of them has a new syllabus since the last time I taught it [7].

Perhaps I’ll just treat the spring as an interesting challenge.

Postscript: I realize that high-school teachers have back-to-back classes all day. I’m not sure how they deal with it. Perhaps I’m just spoiled.

Postscript: How should I file this musing? Is it about teaching? Is it about overcommitment? Is it about something else? I first thought of it as a teaching musing because it’s about something that teachers encounter. But I’m not really providing advice on teaching. And the three eighty-minute classes per week, at least two of which have changed significantly since the last time I’ve taught them sounds like another one of those overcommitment issues. Of course, I’m not sure that anyone uses the topical indices in any case, so perhaps it does not matter.

[1] We often start with stone tools or agriculture, so we quickly break the mindset that technology means computers (or perhaps computers and engineering and biotech).

[2] I lectured more in TEC 154 than I normally do.

[3] Some people refer to the structured Q&A as Socratic Method. I don’t find that my approach is that refined. If we had to name it as such, we should probably follow the habits of two young men from San Dimas [4] and call it the So-Crate-ic method, with a long a.

[4] I always thought that San Dimas was a made-up name, since it’s so close to Sandy Mass. It turns out that I was wrong.

[5] Or at active neuron.

[6] I’d rather double up in the morning so that I can attend the Bowling class that meets in Spring Semester. I don’t like Ten Pin as much as Candlepin, but I’ll take what I can. And it’s fun to bowl with students I know.

[7] I say at least, because the particular details of my teaching this coming spring are still not set. I thought they were, but they’ve changed again. But that’s okay; I like all of the courses I’m likely slotted to teach.

Version 1.0 of 2018-03-29.