HEADACHE: BEGINNING A NEW ACADEMIC YEAR

My tension headache is back after the summer break and only one week into teaching. I feel as if someone is pulling my head into my neck as the typical head band pressure mounts on my forehead. Painkillers are no use, as I know, only trying to relax, something hard to do when one is, as I am, a control freak that needs tidiness and perfect order around. And right now, my teaching is a bit of a mess. Why? The usual reasons with some added twists.

Our semesters run for 18 weeks, of which 15 correspond to teaching. Someone decided to advance one week the end of the first semester to 31st January. Then they counted backwards and the beginning of week 1 materialized on 9 September. Until 6 years ago, semesters had 13 teaching weeks, and we would start the course between 25th September and October 1st. This year, our classes started earlier than primary and secondary school (14th September), with the added problem that the previous course had not even ended, as we have all those MA dissertations to judge until September 18th–an overlap, which, interestingly, does not show on the official calendar. And what baffles me is that the second semester seems to run for about 20 weeks, as we start teaching on 8th February (only one week between semesters) and assess the BA dissertations in early July. All in all, this leaves us with two weeks for research and preparing new courses in summer. For we do have a right to enjoying a four-week holiday like all other workers, don’t we?

Three sessions into my course, then, when I am about to start discussing the first book (the corresponding exam is on October 14) I find myself facing this situation:
*students don’t have said book, nor the handbook on which they need to take a quiz on the same day because even though the syllabi are published in early July they don’t check them nor order their books in advance
*I opened our virtual classroom on 10th August with a welcome message, the complete programme week-by-week and a warning to get the books; they checked this information 24 hours before the beginning of the course, and, as I could show them in class, some of them had not even entered our virtual classroom yesterday
*then, during the first weeks of teaching, we see a stream of Erasmus visiting students move from classroom to classroom deciding what to sign up for. Even supposing they make up their mind soon enough, they only have access to virtual classrooms once they register, which might be as late as the end of September. Logically, they start emailing teachers asking for the Syllabus–yes, the same one available online since July…
*Even more puzzlingly bureaucratic red tape prevents our returned Erasmus students from registering in July, as they should, because their official student records are not updated in time. Why? No idea–it seems that all European universities have very lazy admin workers, or at least, this is the impression I get.

So, basically, although officially there are 39 students in my Victorian Literature class, I may end with 55 (as usual), God knows when… Deep sigh… My class list shows different signatures for every of the three initial sessions.

Then, as usual, I have been given yet another terrible classroom. I teach at 15:00, it is still summer, our walls are made of concrete and keep all the heat in. A kind colleague worried last Monday that I was going to catch a cold seeing my light summer dress but the truth is that I ended up my lecture drenched in sweat. Both blinds were broken, one could not be raised, the other could not be lowered and, thus, let the sunshine stream into the middle of the classroom. This annoyed me royally, as I had asked the Facultat specifically to see to the blinds over the summer–a very kind, concerned janitor explained to me the blinds had been revised but had already broken down, on the very first day. Too old. Since the screen was also broken and I needed to use PowerPoint I sought refuge in another classroom which this embarrassed janitor found for me. I am, yes, occupying a classroom as a teacher-squatter. Yesterday my students, poor things, took pity on me when they saw that the projector was malfunctioning and cutting the left side of my PowerPoint presentation; also that there was no eraser for the whiteboard. By the way, I took a member of the Dean’s team to visit my official classroom (I have asked to be placed elsewhere) and she was appalled by the smell. Oh, yes, the smell.

All these minor disasters would be stuff for stand-up-comedy if it were not for the fact that my university boasts of being an international excellence campus. Of course, as you can imagine, I am very well-known in my Facultat for my constant complaining. I have been told that our institution is poor and this is why we cannot have better classrooms and equipment. I do know we are poor, but, then, how can we also be a campus of excellence? Is it, in short, too much for a teacher to ask that students come prepared to class on the first day, that registration is completed during the first week at the latest and that classrooms are nice and well-equipped?

Am I a nagging witch? I might be but, then, if I don’t upload my Syllabus in July, set up the virtual classroom at some point in summer, and get all ready before my course begins, then I am a bad teacher. This is what annoys me: I am fulfilling my side of the deal but I am the only one and there is no way one can produce good teaching without the collaboration of the students and the institution. Hey, I have just let go a very deep sigh… literally.

Please, don’t commiserate–this is not really about my personal situation but about the distance between reality and the ideal in my university and possibly in many other big, underfunded universities all over the world. I have been writing more or less the same post here at the beginning of each semester and not much has changed (or very little).

As far as I know, pedagogical treatises do not contemplate the factors I stress here, at least I have never come across advice on how to deal with an ugly space and the mysteries of registration. Somehow, the supposition is that teaching operates on an smooth basis and that you need not concern yourself about the state of the equipment or whether you’ll be too hot or too cold in class (will sweat stains show should not be part of a teacher’s worries). Yes, this is part of our teaching and I find that even the best-prepared lecture can collapse if the conditions are not what they should be.

Nagging witch…

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