“We were hoping you weren’t going to show up.”
That was my greeting as I entered class on a cold and rainy day last week. I should have known it was coming. It always does.
I find the beginning of each semester thrilling. Really. New faces. New shoes. The perfect syllabus. All the jokes are funny. All the old stories received as revelation. I’m exaggerating of course. The pathos of new beginnings.
My current theory is that the relationship between my students and I develops inversely over the course of a semester. That is, it seems like my sense of them as compelling and interesting people, and writers, increases throughout a term just as their sense of me as a compelling and interesting teacher decreases over the three and a half months we work together. In any case, it seems like at the end of every October, or February as the case may be, the pace of the semester slows, effectively and affectively, to a grinding halt. Is it natural or has it become a self-fulfilling prophecy?
Here are some observations:
It’s the grades that do it. For as many students who claim that they don’t like writing or that they’re not good writers, most students at the beginning of a semester don’t hate writing. My experience is that many like journaling, they like talking about stuff, and they don’t mind writing when we can find ways to make topics interesting and doable. What turns many students is that first batch of grades when the specter of evaluation finally rises. Many students are shocked to find that writing that used to get an A or high B now gets a C. But I want to be a doctor! This tendency is particularly troublesome for those students who are used to getting A’s for good work rather than exceptional work. But I did what you asked! For many undergraduates, grades turn instructors from allies into enemies and courses from journeys into bus rides. How do you like my metaphors?
It’s the workload that does it. By the middle of the semester, things have started to pile up for instructors and students. For instructors, mid-semester is when things start to get hairy. Everything is overlapping. We’re teaching new projects; we’re teaching revision of old projects; we’re grading everything slowly and aunts and uncles nationwide are coming down with pneumonia. For students, things are also getting crazy. Many of those who achieved good grades in high school without working too hard have started to realize, many with their first exam grade in BIO 1510, that college is not going to be easy. That makes a lot of people cranky and it can add tension to any course. For students who are struggling, mid-semester is also when Early Academic Assessment (EAA) notices start arriving and when the early stages of panic set-in. It’s around Halloween when skipping the first two projects starts to look like not such a good idea. And for some students, mid-semester is when life really does start to break down. Financial aid has still not arrived. Gas money is gone. Sometimes aunts and uncles really do get sick.
So the mid-semester blues are here. What to do? Some thoughts:
Revisit the big picture. Take time in class to revisit the course objectives. What is the course designed to accomplish? What are the primary skills and habits that we are trying to develop? How are we doing? What needs to happen between now and the end of the semester to meet our goals? Students generally appreciate taking some time to reassess course goals, progress, and methods.
Connect, or reconnect, with students as individuals. Mid-semester is a good time to cancel class and conference with students one on one. It provides a break in the monotony of class meetings and reminds both instructors and students that both parties are persons with real lives. Ask your students how their lives are going. Ask them how their classes are going. Provide a safe moment for them to reflect on where they are as students and people.
Get out of the way for a bit. By this point in the semester both you and your students are probably getting tired of hearing your voice. Trust that the first half of the semester has introduced and developed the primary skills and habits that students need to work. Visit the library. Show a film. Visit the DIA (Fridays are free!). Let students work in pairs or groups. Let students write in class. Be around. Be visible. Watch for students who need help and keep things on track. Give the class some room to work.
I have come to expect the mid-semester blues but I think I’m getting better at both recognizing their onset (“we were hoping you weren’t going to show up”) and redirecting that malaise and tension to make sure they don’t derail the course. The blues are natural and structural, but they can be generative, especially if you can prepare for them.
Thomas Trimble is a Senior Lecturer in the English Department. He is also a recent Ph.D. graduate of the department, whose dissertation “Rhetorical Outcomes: A Genre Analysis of Student Service-Learning Writing” used genre theory to theorize writing assessment issues in service-learning courses. Thomas is currently teaching ENG 1020, and has taught ENG 1010 and ENG 3010 previously.