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Naming week 14 (the last week of classes)

Given that it’s week 14, it’s hard for me to muster up the brainpower to write one of my more complicated essays, such as those that speak to a Grinnell liberal arts education. One of my students said that I should write about this week instead. That seems to be a good idea.

For as long as I’ve been at Grinnell, a substantial number of students have referred to the last week of classes as hell week (or sometimes hell week; whoops, sorry Sam, I know you don’t like profanity). That’s what I called it when I first came to Grinnell, too.

A few years after I came to Grinnell, a few folks in Student Affairs started to suggest that we give it a different name, because names have power. Ever obedient, I started to refer to it as Happy Exciting Liberal Learning week (try saying that ten times fast). That is, I didn’t take the suggestion seriously, primarily because I thought (and continue to think) that week 14 is very hard on most students. (I also called week 13 purgatory week and the week before fall or spring break heck week, but those are separate issues.)

But a few years ago, people who I very much respect told me that there is good evidence that naming this week hell week actually makes it worse. Apparently, expectations of unpleasant times leads times to be less pleasant. Now, week fourteen is always likely to involve a lot of work; after all, most of the faculty like to leave culminating projects until this week. But that doesn’t mean that it’s impossible. It might be that if we referred to it as hard, but survivable week, we’d all feel a bit better about it. (No, I am not seriously suggesting that we call it that.)

In any case, since I respect the people who’ve raised the issue with me, and given me a good rationale, I ask people not to call this h week. Perhaps some day we’ll make a difference.

A more troubling issue, and one that I might address in more depth in a future essay, is how we might make this week less difficult for students. Since most classes have work that builds across a semester, it makes sense that the work culminates at the end of the semester, whether it takes the form of an exam, a research paper, a presentation, or a combination thereof. But there are perhaps ways that we can help our students.

One problem is that students often wait to the last minute to start a large project. But faculty often assume that students are making gradual progress across the semester, gathering resources, reading the resources, formulating a thesis, outlining the work, drafting paragraphs, and so on and so forth. Some of us explicitly ask students to do this scaffolding along the way, but many of us assume that students already know how to scaffold. I think we can help by explicitly scaffolding. However, at some point, students need to learn to scaffold for themselves.

Some of us contribute to the difficulties by making multiple things due during this week - a paper and an exam, a presentation and a report, or whatever. Since most big things are already big enough to cause students some stress, perhaps we should limit ourselves to one. (I very much try to do so.) Perhaps we should gently remind our colleagues that this is a hard time for students, and that we should try to keep workload reasonable.

We should also consider whether there are times that we can make larger projects due earlier in the semester, and choose smaller end-of-semester cumulative activities. In Tutorial, one of my favorite approaches (which I adopted/adapted from Roger Vetter) is to have the major research paper due around week 12, and ask students to write a short introduction to a compilation of the research papers for week 14. The intro is a relatively short work, but requires students to pull everything together. I think that’s a good compromise.

But sometimes things really have to be due week 14. In CSC 151 I usually have a take-home exam due at the beginning of this week. It’s hard to avoid the late due date because the final is optional, so if I want to cover material through the end of the semester, the exam needs to be relatively late. Sometimes I adjust by distributing the exam a bit earlier, which gives students some time to spread out their work or to find a good time to do the majority of the work.

I wonder if the Recommendations from the Task Force on Residential Learning address these issues?

Students might be interested to hear that week 14 is also hard (but survivable) for the faculty. Often, we are catching up on grading. (Okay, I know that I’m always catching up on grading at this time; I think many colleagues are too.) Most of us are also getting things in order for our summers (or winters) … lining up research materials, planning visits to archives or collaborators, making plans with family, etc. And committees are wrapping up, trying to finish that last little (or not so little) bit of work. So we have to be on top of those things, too. I know that I have at least four times in the next week or so in which I have two or more recommended meetings scheduled at the same time. I also have to fit in peer educator interviews and exit interviews with my twenty or so graduating senior advisees.

And yes, it’s equally hard on the staff. It’s particularly hard on the staff who have to support the students and faculty who are not necessarily coping well with this time of the semester.

So, let’s all take a deep breath, tell ourselves You can do it!, and remember that we enjoy learning and using our knowledge, even if it’s sometimes stressful.

Boy, this essay really ran out of steam, as it were. Oh well. You can’t win ’em all, particularly not during hard, but survivable week.

Version 1.0 released 2016-05-10.

Version 1.0.1 of 2018-05-02.