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Academic rhythms: the fallow period

posted: 12.21.12 by archived

The cycle of endings and beginnings is one of my favorite parts of the academic life, especially that period of overlap as one semester ends and the ideas for the next start emerging and clarifying, shifting and jostling in my brain.  As the semester wound down and my approach for the current semester started to bore both my students and myself, I’d been toying with the idea of something livelier. Although I do use some of the same assignments from semester to semester, I always seem to be shaking things up; there are clear disadvantages to this approach, in terms of prep time required and limited ability to refine particular assignments, but it has the great advantage of keeping me fresh and excited.

I had originally considered a composition course arranged perhaps around a series of objects-based assignments. I was particularly inspired by Susan Naomi Bernstein’s post “History of New York in 5 Objects,” Time magazine’s more recent “History of the Campaign in 100 Objects,” and Sherry Turkle’s book Evocative Objects, and soon William Carlos Williams’s “No ideas but in things” was drumming in my head. Then I thought people, places, and things (in some order) might be a workable if quite general framework—anything to prompt students to look more closely and think more deeply.

What I’m interested in thinking about and trying to record is this process of how simmering possibilities settle into some more definite plan as a course design starts to reveal itself. I’m not sure how it works for other teachers (feel free to share in the comments below!), but for me it’s a process of shifting my focus from ideas for assignments to course objectives and outcomes to potential reading materials until a critical mass of material starts to coalesce. My metaphors are hopelessly mixed: fitting together pieces of a puzzle, gathering up a ball of pie crust, identifying the pattern in a tessellated floor design, waiting for a disturbed path of water to calm enough that the reflection stabilizes.

My own interests guide this process, but also to a frighteningly large degree so does serendipity. In thinking about places, I stumbled on Orion magazine’s “The Place Where You Live” (which seems to me a great multimodal assignment) and thought about how landscape shapes a person, from my own comfort in the New England landscape of rolling hills and forests to my sister’s preference for the stark exposure and open spaces of the Southwestern desert. I remembered a New Yorker article that’s stuck with me though I’ve never taught it: David Owen’s “Green Manhattan,” about the environmental advantages of big city living. A colleague mentioned an assignment of mine that I haven’t used for a few semesters but that always drew some fine student work, in which I asked students to apply Paco Underhill’s theories to a retail space of their own choosing. I thought about the public art I’d appreciated in recent visits to Chicago, the new bike-sharing system and the old community gardens I’d noticed in Boston, and what I’ve read about the ideals of New Urbanism as manifest in a town like Celebration, Florida. Domestic spaces occurred to me as another possible angle; one of the books on my long to-read list is Bill Bryson’s At Home.

So as one crop of this semester’s students took a final, I sketched out a plan for next semester.  I’m not sure how things will develop, but in addition to the joys and obligations of the coming semester break—cooking real dinners more often and celebrating the holidays, organizing my stacks of books and going to the movies—I also hope to plan out this new course-incarnation and, if time permits, maybe to finally try out iBooks Author to collect up some old and new course materials. I’ll keep you posted on my progress.

I’d love to hear in comments below how you use your “fallow” periods to enrich your teaching or, more specifically, anything you’d like to share about germinating new course designs.





Categories: Holly Pappas
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