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Pausing for breath

Back when I started at Grinnell, I learned the following useful technique from a colleague [1]: When designing a course schedule, insert a day that you call pause for breath every few weeks.

Here’s how it typically works in practice: Some time during the few weeks leading up to a pause for breath, you’ll find that you want to spend more time on a topic. Rather than worrying about what to cut, you spend the extra time on the topic and allow topics to shift over into the pause for breath day. As soon as you hit that day, you’re back on track.

What happens if you don’t find that you need the extra day before you reach the pause for breath? My colleague usually finds a new topic to discuss for that day. But the pauses for breath get eliminated more frequently than you’d think.

In the end, what seems most important about the pause for breath days is that they force you to limit the amount of work you put in the course. And so when something goes wrong, you don’t have to worry about what you drop. Rather, you sometimes worry about what to add. Amazingly, adding a topic is a lot easier than dropping a topic.

I was better about pause for breath days when I was a young faculty member. But at some point, I seem to have convinced myself that I had now taught a course enough times that I had built in appropriate pauses by giving topics multiple day and so didn’t needs pauses for breath [2] or I became less good at teaching myself to limit topics. Or maybe I’ve succumbed to the academic version of creeping featurism: I want to add more and more to a course, but don’t really want to cut anything.

Nonetheless, if you add and don’t cut, you will eventually find that you have to cut [3]. A few pauses for breath help me do so sensibly.

I’ll try to keep that point in mind when I next write a syllabus. Perhaps I should also keep it in mind the next time I plan my time [4].

Postscript: Don’t worry! I’m not taking to pause for breath and break from my musings. This musing is primarily intended to be about a good syllabus design technique. But, as I said above, I should also think of it as a life design technique. Perhaps I’ll be able to report back soon on how I found a way to add a pause for breath to my life.

[1] The colleague probably prefers not to have their name posted to a public site.

[2] I do tend to make each semester’s syllabus follow what really happened the previous semester, rather than what I had hoped happened the previous semester. But it’s a lie to myself if I say that adapting to the previous semester means that I don’t need more pauses for breath.

[3] More precisely, if I add and don’t cut, I will eventually find that I have to cut something.

[4] I am more likely to do the former than the latter. But I’ll try.

Version 1.0 of 2018-02-24.