Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Double the pleasure, double the fun?

For only my second time at RU, I'm teaching two sections of the same class: Shakespeare's histories & tragedies. And until we hire a second Early Modernist, this is likely to be my future.

I don't wish to do this for too long, both because it hamstrings my schedule (preventing me from offering as full a range of classes in my specialty as I normally do) and because it isn't in our students' best scheduling interests, either (when only one person teaches Shakespeare, the sections get taught on the same day, usually back-to-back, and we aren't able to offer both Comedies & Romances and Histories & Tragedies in the same semester). In the short term, though, it's agreeable enough. I only have two preps, and one of them is a course that, at this point, is more like half a prep: after teaching Shakespeare every semester for seven and a half years, the class comes out of the box fully assembled. All I have to do is re-read the plays (and in a tough week, even that isn't necessary). And yet it's a reliably rewarding class to teach.

Despite these advantages, teaching two sections of the same class back-to-back is weird, at least for those of us who don't do it routinely (as I know many of my readers do). So far I haven't had trouble keeping track of where we left off in each class during our previous class meeting--that's something I make a conscious effort to remember--but I'm completely unable to remember any other differences in class discussion. Which section did I talk to about Early Modern sodomy laws? No clue. In which class did someone ask me about the origin of the title "Prince of Wales," and I promised to look up its history? Couldn't tell ya.

I'm also more likely to fall into that self-alienated space where I feel I'm watching some wind-up version of myself run through a predetermined series of rhetorical and pedagogical jumping jacks. And sometimes, auto-pilot takes over entirely: yesterday I began my second section, like my first, by saying "okay! now before we turn to the text, let me collect all your papers--" and only when half the class visibly blanched did I remember that, oops! My first section had papers due, but the second still had another week. (And then it took me many precious minutes to calm down the ensuing collective freak-outery.)

But there are also ways in which teaching two sections of the same class can keep one on one's toes. It's fun to see what two different groups of students will respond to in a given scene, and sometimes the readings go in interestingly different directions. It's also fun, in a way, to try to maintain the integrity of my lesson plan--which is to say, to make sure I hit a few of the same major points--in classes that may have wildly different interests or that move unevenly through the same material: one of my classes is always running long, which means I usually have to cut or summarize on the fly, while the other class often runs a little short and so gets spontaneous additional discussion. I like the puzzle-solving element of that: trying to keep both on the same reading schedule, covering the same big ideas, while responding to whatever arises organically in each one.

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Do you teach multiple sections of the same class? What do you see as the advantages or disadvantages?

10 comments:

Withywindle said...

My mom once woke up (so to speak) in the middle of a class and realized she had been speaking the entire time on autopilot, and wasn't quite sure what she should say next.

undine said...

I have done it in the past, though I always kept them on the same schedule with assignments so I wouldn't forget. I had the same kind of odd deja-vu-that-isn't experience that you describe: "Didn't I just talk about this?"

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

Last year, I taught three courses of our intro to lit class back to back. This year, I have two humanities classes, one at 9, and the other at 11. Two back-to-back (or almost) is better than three back-to-back. That poor third class last year got the dregs of my teaching, and I frequently thought I'd told them something that I hadn't. It was hell. Two isn't so bad when it's completely lecture (like Humanities), but when it's a discussion class, it's a lot harder. I'm teaching 1H4 in both of my Shakespeare classes right now, and it was hard to remember who I'd already told what to. But that is the only play I've got on both Shakespeare classes reading lists. The rest of the plays are totally different in the two classes.

I do think that if you teach multiple sections of the same class that you're asking for lots of trouble by having them on two different assignment schedules. My memory doesn't work well enough for that!

For those of us teaching a 4/4 load, having repeat classes is very important. If I had to prep 4 separate classes each week, I'd be losing my mind. Prepping three is hard enough.

Fretful Porpentine said...

Personally, I like my 4-4, four-prep schedule. I'm going to have two sections of the same class next fall for the first time in years, and I'm actually not looking forward to it. (I AM looking forward to not teaching Basic Comp, but that's a separate issue.) Prep isn't a great deal of work, especially in comp classes; grading is work, and I'd just as soon not deal with 44 papers at once. Plus, it seems like there's always a good section and a bad section, and I keep making comparisons between the two sections (not out loud in front of the students, obviously, just mentally) and getting frustrated with the weaker group.

Flavia said...

I only have them on different assignment schedules for the papers, because I really try to turn around papers in 7-10 days, and I can't do that (or don't want to try doing that!) with 50 papers. Everything else--exams, quizzes, homework assignments--is exactly the same.

Fretful, you make a good point: it really depends what the courses are, and where the "work" comes from. I also think there are many classes that I'd be bored teaching two sections of, and where I'd prefer the variety of an additional prep. Shakespeare is at a high enough level, and it's in my immediate area of expertise (and, heck: it's so easy to get the students to like the material), so it does feel new even though I'm doing the same thing.

Anastasia said...

I have seven classes and only two preps, so that's three of one course and four of the other. We don't lecture so there's no question of where I left off. Since I have a definite plan for every class period, it's just a matter of running them through the lesson and making sure I cover the important points. I do find myself asking them "did I tell you..?" and the like just so I don't repeat myself. I don't know. I find it pretty fascinating to see how they react. Since I'm assessing their participation pretty rigorously I have to focus on class dynamics and since I find people endlessly fascinating, it doesn't bore me even if the content is the same.

Noelle said...

Plus, it seems like there's always a good section and a bad section and I keep making comparisons between the two sections

I can't say anything about teaching, but a few semesters ago I did have an honors English class with a professor who told us that we were more responsive and generally better than the afternoon section, and that he was going to give them a little talk that day.

Flavia said...

Re: one section being "better": I've found this, typically, to be a false impression. Every time I've taught two sections of the same class (which I did both semesters when I was a lecturer, as well as a few years ago at RU), the class that *I* thought was better gave me much lower evaluation scores than the one that I thought was weaker.

This semester, I "knew" in advance which section was going to be better: it had a ton of great students I'd had before. The other had some weak students I'd had before, plus a bunch of new transfers and/or non-majors. And the first few weeks seemed to bear this presumption out. But then I started noticing that in my "strong" class, half the students participated very actively and said extremely smart things. . . while the other half virtually didn't talk at all. In my "weak" class, just about everyone was talking. And their average quiz scores were higher.

So I decided to officially erase those pre-emptive designations, and just enjoy what each class has to offer--and to start trying harder to do things to make the silent half of my one section more engaged.

(And Noelle: no offense to your professor, but I think it's scandalously unprofessional to TELL a class that they're better or weaker than another, even if it seems objectively and obviously true. It's like telling one of your children that he's smarter or more talented than the other, or that you love him more.)

CattyinQueens said...

I have two sections of Early Shakespeare this semester. I've done paper deadlines in various ways, sometimes getting both sections at once, sometimes allowing rolling deadlines, sometimes forcing students to turn in papers on staggered deadlines based on which play they were going to write about to ensure I didn't get them all at the same time. This semester I decided to collect a big project at the end and just have exams to grade during the semester. Not the best in terms of writing pedagogy, but that's what I went with.

I like having two sections generally. I do sometimes have to switch Blackboard pages several times before I can figure out which ones I need to enter stuff into, which is annoying and makes me feel senile. And I also have those moments where I wish the comments that flowed easily from one section were not so hard to elicit in the other. But I'm generally comfortable with the different dynamics and like you, enjoy the challenge of figuring out what each group will respond to.

I think I'm blessed this semester with what appear to be two very good sections--at least they're all chatty and enthusiastic in the best ways (I've had chatty and enthusiastic in bad ways before).

What I really do hate is when my chair gives me two of the same class but schedules one MWF and the other MW. Then I really have trouble organizing my discussions; between Wednesday and the following Monday, I forget the kinds of things I'm usually good at remembering, like the stuff you say about following up on questions or side-note conversations, because my Friday class did something entirely different.

Anonymous said...

Two sections are always better than one. After all, even if you do refer to something you actually said in the other section, the students will likely think that you DID say it--but that they just forgot.