On going back into the classroom (first week back – full report here!)

(First and foremost: a big welcome to any new students reading!)

Mid-September. Western University has been back in session for just over a week, and I’ve just finished teaching my first full week of classes. Some of my friends in the U.S. have been back in the classroom since mid-August (OMG! Sending sympathy…); others go back next week, along with my U.K. friends and colleagues. So, basically: it’s battle time, peeps, no matter where you are.


Which means it’s also the perfect time for a back-to-school report: how’d that first week go for us, anyway? I can’t speak for everyone (though I think I CAN speak for the people with offices near me, and for the others in my neighbourhood who teach at Western and have dogs), but I thought it might still be fun to report back on stuff I learned from the first week back, 2015, for the purposes of a) comparative fun, and b) mutual commiseration. Enjoy.

1. Man, am I tired. And hungry!

Yes, body. I know. Every year we go through the same thing. It’s been a decade of full time  uni teaching, and yet I never seem to learn: if teaching is emotionally and physically exhausting, the first couple of weeks back (aka “re-entry”) are especially so. This means a couple of things.

First, I will be hungrier than usual. Because, you know, performance at the front of the class = calories burned. This summer in India I scored a fabulous tiffin box after an utterly fantastic foodie tour of Hyderabad; this week I packed it to bursting both teaching days with snacks and lunch. Yet by the time I got home each day, I was ravenous once more. And last night – no word of a lie – after a huge dinner and a modest dessert I ate a small tupperware full of undressed pasta. Not because I wanted to, but because something in me dragged me to the fridge and made it happen.

Second, it may not be ideal for me to go, from a full day of teaching, home to walk the dog and then on to the lake to row 10km. The row is a fantastic antidote to a day spent in the cerebral confines of brain/classroom/computer, but the physical labour expended during the row simply increases the chances I’ll go home and eat two dinners. Which also, btw, produces restless sleep. (I think this is what They call a Catch-22.)

In other words: I’m working on readjusting to the physical realities of classroom labour. At least (for the first time in 10 years! Slow learner, me) I remembered to bring a full bottle of sparkling water with me to my lecture class both days this week. I even dropped a whole case of the stuff by my office last Friday. We’ll see if I can remember to keep stocking up. (And yes, environmentally conscious friends: I plan to ask Santa for a Sodastream.)

2. There are far too few students in my classes. Through no fault of my own.

I am at a record low: 26 students in my 20th Century Drama class (cap = 45), and 9 students in my Performance Theory class (this one because the program is still new, but still). This is not because students run away from me (they don’t, even though with the sparkling water spraying all over the place they’d have every right), but because our entire Faculty of Arts & Humanities is suffering from poor enrolments this year like never before, a trend seen right across Canada and beyond. The reasons? There are a few, but the number one is this: we’ve suffered for more than a decade now under a government that is plainly anti-research and anti-science, and even more strenuously and insidiously anti-arts, anti-culture, and anti-liberal humanities. My university, ever willing to play the princess to any prince bearing funding, is more than happy to toe government party lines, and is increasingly run by those who have no idea what Arts & Humanities is, let alone what we do. So we’re in a PR war – except that mostly we seem to be going down in flames.

Which is why, at our recent welcome-back department meeting, many of us were urged to put our marketing caps on, get out there on social media, and start selling ourselves. Should we be doing this? Arguably, absolutely: it is part of our jobs to tell the world why the work we do matters. But also, arguably, no. It’s my actual job to teach my students and publish my research, so that the latter may return to my classrooms in the form of developments in my thinking and innovations in my teaching, which might then (in the knock-on effect that is the basis of all university labour) produce thoughtful, critically-equipped citizens, workers, and (ahem) voters. Surely I don’t also have to be a whiz with Twitter? I mean (see #1 above): how much can one professor achieve without dropping dead from exhaustion and/or hunger?


(BTW, this post is not the place to go into detail about why the arts and humanities DO matter. Instead, I’ll direct you to a great, recent op-ed piece by my colleague David Bentley on the topic.)

3. That stuff I said I’d do back in May: so far, so good.

In particular, I’ve made a go of asking my students in 20th Century Drama to create, together, the 2015-16 version of the online supplementary course reader that my terrific T.A. from last year’s class pioneered. Madison came round to talk to the new cohort this past Tuesday about what the course reader is, and why and how she built it; I then asked everyone to sign up for two slots (one per term), offering both specific weeks and topics to choose from. Everyone signed up, and most selected a topic in advance; I’ve already had a few students come by asking questions related to preparing their first entries. And I decided that an example was in order, so I created the very first entry myself, including a few different modes of access (images; text I wrote; links to news articles) in order to demonstrate that the course reader is flexible enough to accommodate a lot of different kinds of material. I’m hopeful that this will be a success, and a truly effective way to get students to participate online while also working together to make a shared resource. I’ll continue to report back throughout the year.

I’ve also followed through on my plan to devolve more power to students around choosing deadlines. In my larger class I’ve made options the key: students must hand in their first paper at the same time, but then they can choose which of two live theatre events to use as the basis of their review assignments (and thus which due date they’d prefer), and – more radically – which of three due dates in March they’d like to commit to for their research papers. At first there was a bit of confusion around this (of the “Dr Solga, are all these dates a typo?” variety), but if anything that only served to demonstrate how entrenched the “prof says this is due on that day” model remains. For my part, I am hopeful that students will think carefully about what I’m doing here – inviting their input, via their schedules and their individual needs, on what deadlines will *really* work best for them – and choose wisely when our first research workshop in January comes around. And if they don’t, perhaps that’s even better; missing the deadlines they set for themselves will cause some anxiety, but hopefully lead to some real learning, too.

Because, you know, mistakes: university education is full of them. And thank god for that.

Hang in there, people!



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