Today was the last day for two of my classes (the third ended on Tuesday), and as burnt-out as I've been feeling for the last two weeks and as uninterested as I've been in planning classes for at least as long*, last night I found myself getting suddenly energized as I tried to figure out how to wrap things up today. And by "wrap things up," I don't mean "plan a final 1.5-hour-long class meeting"; no, I mean "come up with a sufficiently conclusory three-minute speech"--one that would tie together everything we'd done and send my students out into the future feeling they'd accomplished something (and possibly with some interest in taking additional courses in my period).
Sometimes I take the quick and dirty route, as I did with my Comp class--in 60 seconds I reminded them of the many things they'd done this semester and the specific skills I'd seen them develop; told them that this was only the beginning of their writing careers; encouraged them to take more English courses; and thanked them for being a great class.
But with others I try much harder. In the three semesters that I've been teaching Brit Lit I, I've gone to great lengths to create a meaningful conclusion that--as with the best written conclusions--isn't so much a recap as a graceful suggestion of why what we've done might matter, and where it might lead us. (I had a great bit that I did at Big Urban, where the class ended with Paradise Lost, but at RU the survey goes just a bit further, so I had to come up with something new.)
I know that these perorations are a little cheesy, and that they're more about theatre than about content. I remember the first class that I TAed for as a grad student, and how the students clapped for the professor at end of the final lecture. As they were clapping, I turned to one of my fellow (but older and more experienced) TAs to observe that there didn't seem to be a meaningful pattern to which classes got applause, and which didn't--I'd seen classes fail to applaud a wildly popular professor at the end of a wildly popular course, and I'd seen them applaud at the end of a fairly humdrum one. My friend half-smiled, shrugged and said, "if you end right, you can always make them clap."
I was puzzled by that when he said it, but I've since come to see that it's usually true: you slow down your speech and emphasize just the right words, widen your eyes and put on the sincere face, and if you hit that last sentence just right, and then pause--well, unless it's a small class, or unless applauding isn't part of the campus culture, the response can be almost Pavlovian.**
So I do feel slightly fraudulant when I swing (with all apparent naturalness, as if this were just totally off the cuff) into such wrap-ups, but at the same time I think that students both like them and benefit from them. No, it's not as if my students would have learned any less over the course of the semester if I didn't take the time to remind them of what they'd learned, and it's not as if sending them off with an idea to chew over or a nice frame to put around the material we've covered means they've learned any more, but I think students do feel that they've learned more, and learned something more meaningful, when there's some kind of take-away. As a result, I believe they're more likely to take challenging or unfamiliar classes in the future and to believe in their own intellectual abilities.
And anyway: if I'm a fraudulent cheeseball, at least I'm in love with my own cheesiness and fakery. They may be artificial, these perorations, but as I deliver them I convince myself of their truth all over again.
*Best solution ever? Student research presentations for the last three class meetings! Worst solution ever? Teaching a work I'd never taught before--and had only read once, long ago--over the last two class meetings. And yes, I did both of these things this semester.
**For the record: no, none of my classes this semester clapped. But there were lots of thoughtful nods, reflective looks, and smiles throughout.