Saturday, March 8, 2014

Teaching on auto pilot

This is a weird semester, teaching-wise. Two sections of Intermediate Spanish I, and my good-old friend Latin American Civilization I (it covers from Pre-Hispanic civilizations until Independence). In a sense, I feel like I am teaching on automatic pilot. I know this sounds bad, or like I don't care, but it is not exactly it.

I put as much effort and diligence as usual. I plan my classes, adapt to the need of my students, and have devoted a lot of time trying to bring one particular section of Spanish 3 up to what my standards are, since they are struggling. So what do I mean by teaching on autopilot?

This is the fourth time I teach Latin American Civilization I. Both the major and the minor requires that students take one of the following courses: Latin American Civ I, Latin American Civ II, or Spanish Civilization. Because of rotation issues, students end up taking whatever is offered the semester they decide to take that requirement. Therefore, in Latin American Civ I, I always end up with a majority that has little or no interest in the colonial period. The three previous times I taught the course, I spent a considerable amount of energy trying to design a course that was both challenging and attractive to my students (and to me, since it is not my field of expertise). I revamped the syllabi, changed readings, spent a lot of time trying to find resources, etc. The results were usually the same. Some students liked some readings, others liked different ones, but I never got students fully engaged in the course. My students evaluations were good but not outstanding (in the 3.8-4.2/5 range for the numerical part). Comments were usually something like: "The professor is good and shows enthusiasm, but the topic is dry". This time, I gave up. I accepted that I will not create a course that my students like and respond as well as Latin American Civ II or other upper level courses.* So the syllabus is almost identical to the last one (ok, I changed a few things, but that is in my nature). I am my usual enthusiastic self, but I don't stress if students seem disengaged at times. Whatever they get out of the course is fine, and if they don't like it...well, too bad. So I spend less time prepping for it, and stressing about it, or trying to make it attractive. I teach on autopilot, in the sense that I already know most of the material, have class notes and lectured prepared, as well as assignments. So far, the course is going well, with no surprises but no deep insights either.

Regarding Spanish 3, last year one person revamped it with no input from the rest of the faculty (long, unbloggable story). I hate the results, the book chosen and the course design. Last semester, when I had to teach it for the first time, I had anxiety attacks for almost a month regarding it. Until I realized that I had tenure, so if I didn't want to assign the prescribed online homework for day X (yes, that is the level of micromanagement that one person designed the course with), well, nothing was going to happen. So, without changing the book, I did my own redesign and guess what? Nothing happened. I was confronted once about not following the syllabus to its last comma, I stood my ground, and the person backed off. I am not saying that my version of the course is great, just more...rational. Last semester, the section I taught was exceptional, to the point where I was afraid I was going to be accused of grade inflation. That's how good they were. This semester, one section is struggling and the other is OK. They take it because it's a gen ed requirement, not because of their deep love for Spanish. And it's OK. I am stuck with a book I hate and a course design I try to make the best out of. I know I am doing my best with what I was handled, but I stop spending hours online to complement the really awful material (particularly the cultural sections) the book has. That's what I mean by teaching on autopilot.

I will be curious to see my students evaluations this semester. Usually, I can predict what a particular class will say. This semester, I have no idea.

*I got the best evaluations of my career last semester in my "Introduction to literary analysis" course where I used the novel Plata quemada as the starting point to teach narrative and critical theory. Those of you in the field will understand what a challenge that is (for the professor and the student).


  1. Auto pilot... I've been there)

    1. It actually feels OK after a pretty intensive, teaching-wise, semester (last Fall)

  2. I'd be curious to hear an update on results (and evals) now that this course is over. I have taught on autopilot for various reasons before and dreaded evals at the end, but I found that they didn't vary at all from evals in classes for which I spent lots of time preparing (and that I thought were going phenomenally). Lesson learned: to many (most?) students, it's all the same.