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Semisemesters or Septisepta or whatever we’re calling them (#1081)

Topics/tags: Teaching

The pandemic has led to many schools considering a wide variety of options for Fall 2020. Many small liberal arts colleges, including many members of our peer group, and likely including Grinnell, are looking at splitting our fourteen-week semesters into two seven-week units. Students will take approximately two courses each of these units. As far as I can tell, no one has quite settled on a name. They aren’t blocks, like those used at Colorado College and Cornell College [1]; blocks are usually 3.5 weeks. They aren’t quarters, like those used at the University of Chicago, Dartmouth, and Stanford. Quarters are traditionally nine or ten weeks long. Unit is too vague. Term, which I heard someone use yesterday, is often interchangeable with semester. So I’m calling a seven-week course unit a semisemester (half semester, which is arguable a quarter) or septiseptem (seven weeks, or seven sevens). But the name isn’t all that important. What’s the saying? A rose’s thorn, by any other name, would also draw blood. Something like that. In any case, it’s going to hurt.

The issue I’m hearing from most of my colleagues at Grinnell and elsewhere is how we are to convert our fourteen-week classes to seven-week classes. Many administrators seem to think that it’s not going to be that big a deal [2]. In some cases, that may be true. But I’m struggling to understand how to do the conversion, particularly if our goal is to provide online or socially distanced classes that are as close to as good as standard Grinnell classes as we can get. A lot of things change when you cut down to seven weeks.

There’s less time for students to pause and reflect. I know that for hard CS and math problems (and many others), you need to work on the problem for a while and then take some time away to let your subconscious work on ideas. Pushing ahead is a waste of time. But if your time between classes is cut down, and due dates are accelerated, when do you get to pause? And when do you get to pause for wellness? Most semesters have some ebb and flow. I’m pretty sure that we’ll be moving at a fast pace for the full seven weeks.

One of my offspring noted that this pace will be particularly problematic for students in these two-course septisepta. Why? Even though each four-credit Grinnell course is nominally 180 hours of work across the semester, you can usually identify one course that will take you a bit less work; perhaps you read more quickly than other students, so one of your classes is reading intensive; perhaps you seem faster at math, so one of your classes involves a lot of mathematical manipulation. You balance your three harder courses with that one less-time-consuming course. But that won’t work when you’re only taking two courses. And yes, I do think that’s a consideration when we convert our classes; at least for the time being, we need to be thinking about the 180 hours as an upper-bound, and not so much as an average. Can we do that? It will be hard, particularly since we won’t have a good sense of workload.

Faculty will need to provide feedback much more quickly, particularly for scaffolded assignments. If, say, I had a draft due on one Tuesday and the revision due the following Tuesday, I’d be pretty comfortable getting comments back to the student on Thursday or Friday. Now that we’re cutting the timetable in half, a draft due on Tuesday would likely have the revision due on Friday, which means that the student probably needs comments by Wednesday. I suppose we could have the draft due on Wednesday, provide the comments by Friday, and expect the revision by Monday, but that assumes that the student can work over the weekend, and considerations of equity suggest that we should not assume that students have all of their weekends free.

More broadly, we will have to figure out new rhythms for our classes and our assignments. I know that getting rhythms right can be hard; often what you think will work right doesn’t. Rhythms will also be different for students who are online. It’s complex. I expect most of us will need to make significant changes to what my assignments look like and how they build on each other.

Then there’s the question of how often we meet. At least at Grinnell, we haven’t been told. One of my colleagues suggested that the natural thing would be to double up each class, offering it in both morning and afternoon. For example, a class that meets at 8 am MWF in the fall would now meet at 8 am and 1 pm in the first fall block. A class that meets 10 am TuTh would meet at 10 am and 3 pm on TuTh. A class that meets at 1 pm every day would now meet at 8 am and 1 pm in the second fall block. And so on and so forth. There are some problems with this model; students won’t have much time between their two same-day sessions, so we won’t be able to expect them to get much work done. And it probably won’t work with labs. The other suggestion is that we will have most classes meet five days per week, possibly for a bit more time.

I worry about the math for the second model. Most of my classes meet three days per week [3]. Most of my introductory classes meet three days per week for eighty minutes each day. Fourteen weeks of three classes per week totals forty-two classes. Seven weeks of five classes per week totals thirty-five classes. What happens to the content of the missing seven classes? I don’t think I should teach about 17% less material; subsequent classes count on material from prerequisite classes. Rearranging the topics from forty-two workshop-style classes is a non-trivial task; I suppose rearranging materials from forty-two classes two thirty-five is a non-trivial task in most situations. I suppose I could teach on Saturdays (ugh) or assign the equivalent of a class as weekend homework (also ugh, and probably inequitable). I wonder what the best practices recommendations will be.

I also wonder about language courses. Latin, for example, meets five days per week. I don’t think they will want to cram seventy classes worth of material into thirty-five classes. I also expect that human brains need some time to process language. On the other hand, it may be that language becomes much more of an immersion-style experience. I don’t envy my colleagues who have to figure that out.

I’ve been told that we should talk to people who already teach in compressed periods, such as the folks at Colorado and Cornell Colleges. I’m not sure that it’s all that helpful to talk to the people who teach in block programs. In general, they own their students for the block. If they want to meet at 9 am and 4 pm each day, and give the students time in-between to work on problems, they can. If they want to hold the students from 9 am to noon and give them the afternoons off, they can. Or at least that’s how I understand block programs. Maybe they have some restrictions. In any case, our students will probably be taking two or so classes [4], so we will have to share them with others. And what I’ve heard from folks in block programs, at least those in some languages, is that the amount they could teach online in a block was significantly less than they could teach in person; in many cases, moving our semester-long classes online for half a semester had only a minor effect on the material we could cover.

Speaking of moving online, there’s the whole issue of the software needed to teach online. I don’t know what issues my colleagues in other disciplines are considering, but I’m worrying about collaboration, particularly collaboration for software development. Pair programming is a core part of what I do in my introductory classes and small-group work is core to most of my upper-level classes. I’m not as worried about small-group work; it looks like Microsoft Teams or the Blackboard Collaborate breakout feature will work. It may be that Microsoft VSCode will suffice for some situations; I’ve been told that professional programmers partner while using it and appropriate plugins. That approach may work for CSC 161, which uses C, and CSC 207, which uses Java, but it won’t work for CSC 151, which uses Racket. I think screen and keyboard sharing in Microsoft Teams might work if we can work out the complexities. I hear from colleagues elsewhere that is nice for quick discussions. However, Grinnell has imposed very restrictive policies on software. We need to go through a sometimes cumbersome process of an unknown length [5]. I understand our desire for technological minimalism, but technology is integrated into my discipline, and I think we should understand that it’s appropriate to expect a bit more than minimalism for computer science students.

I know my colleagues who teach CSC 161 are reflecting on the other significant change for that course. Thousands of hours have gone into developing a curriculum centered around simple robots. Some of the time was on the software to support the robots and curriculum, but a lot was also on the daily labs and readings. Without the robots, almost every bit of that curriculum has to change. Would you want to design a new framework for the class and write however-many labs in a highly compressed time period? I would not [6].

I also don’t want to think of how my colleagues in the lab sciences are going to adapt. You learn things differently when you work directly with your equipment and your subject matter; one of the strengths of our science curriculum is how it provides such opportunities. I’ve been impressed to hear some of the things my colleagues are considering for remote learning, ways they can send lab materials home [7]. But teaching two labs per week, rather than one? That’s intimidating, particularly if they are going to happen in person. Who is going to be able to get the lab spaces and supplies reconfigured quickly enough for that turnaround?

The arts present another set of complex challenges, both in terms of dealing with online learning and an accelerated time frame. It takes time to learn a technique, to experiment with the technique, to create something, to create something better, to create something good, to critique it, and so on and so forth.

I suppose everyone will face some challenges, or at least almost everyone.

Let’s return to the broader picture. Folks in every discipline are going to have to reconfigure their courses for septisepta [8]. It’s going to take a lot of effort. You know what’s especially frustrating? It’s effort that’s unlikely to have long-term value. In a half year, or year, or two years, we’ll return to semesters. The time spent restructuring courses? It will have only been for this short period.

When I’ve talked to colleagues about these issues, I’ve found that everyone has these kinds of concerns. But I’ve also been impressed at how committed my Grinnell colleagues are to providing students with the best classes they can, even though the preparation time is, in effect, uncompensated labor [9,10].

I look forward to working together to figure out practices that we can share and that will help us develop courses we can be proud of.

Postscript: I grew up in the quarter system. That is, my college used the quarter system, and the first institution I taught at also used the quarter system. With quarters, students usually have between ten and twelve different courses each year and forty-two over their undergraduate career. That makes Grinnell’s eight courses per year and thirty-two over four years seem a bit slim. Part of me wonders whether there might be some benefits to restructuring Grinnell’s curricula around septisepta, with perhaps three courses, rather than two in each septiseptem. We’d have to teach less, but we might be able to bring more variety to students’ experiences.

I was going to say that that approach would be an enormous amount of work. But it’s not clear to me that redesigning classes to fit a seven-week model with about two-thirds the work is any harder than making them fit a seven-week model with the same work. Of course, we would also have to spend additional effort to restructure majors and other expectations.

Perhaps the only one who would want to consider that approach.

[1] No, not Grinnell College. Not Cornell University, either.

[2] That’s not quite true. There has been some discussion of providing course releases to aid with the conversion.

[3] I believe the vast majority of Grinnell classes meet either three days per week for fifty minutes or two days per week for either 80 or 110 minutes.

[4] Maybe an additional 2-credit class, or PE, or music lessons, or ….

[5] I’ve probably mentioned this policy before. It is vague and comes with too little ancillary information, such as which software is currently approved. I feel bad for my colleagues in ITS who must plow through the many requests for software and the complaints from around campus; it does not feel like the policy stems from the folks who must implement it. I’ve also found the folks I’ve dealt with in ITS quite cooperative.

[6] While I would not want to do that, I have, on occasion, put myself in a situation in which I need to write large numbers of labs in a relatively short time frame. But that time-frame was a semester, not a semisemester.

[7] Only materials that they’ve determined students can work with safely at home.

[8] If I’m calling a seven-week unit a septiseptem, multiple units become septisepta", right?

[9] Faculty have a nine-month contract that runs from the start of fall classes to the end of spring classes. We are not paid for this kind of summer work. That doesn’t stop people from showing up for meetings and discussions about teaching, or from spending time restructuring their classes.

[10] Although they are doing class development and some additional administrative work without compensation during the summer, many faculty, at least many Grinnell faculty, are in significantly better shape than those in other positions, particularly those in the host of essential, but poorly compensated, jobs in our area.

Version 1.0 of 2020-06-03.