end-of-semester teaching and redemption

I suppose this happens every year, but it feels more ridiculous each time. Although it’s not a true disaster, as I face the plunge into the final week of coursework I tell people that my classes feel like a massive pileup on the interstate. They laugh. I chuckle feebly with them. It’s polite.

But truly I have this image of rollovers and crumpled hoods. There’s a tire rolling down the pavement on its own trajectory in the northbound lane. As I’m standing there on the shoulder there’s this feeling of despair and disbelief. I light a safety flare and arrange the cones to guide people around the wreckage: ungraded assignments and a triage kit to figure out how to get students to make sense of energy and matter’s fundamental properties.

Or sometimes it feels like a football play where the quarterback makes the option pitch to the running back around the right side, and at first this seems like a good idea but then there’s no longer a path forward and instead of making the best of it the running back makes this split decision that’s garnished with a delusion of grandeur. That’s me, changing the course as I realize that this new lab format isn’t doing what I’d hoped, or I’m just generally losing students’ interest, or maybe I’m simply falling behind in course notes because I didn’t think they understood some nuance in week 11. So I pivot and run back behind the line and to the left. Everyone scrambles and tries to pick up blocks, even though our inept hero is not just running laterally, but ever backwards. And then a linebacker starts charging through and we see the never-give-up (or just stupidly stubborn) attitude really start to rise up, again doubling back, doubling down, running still more negatively and away from the pursuing defense. By now the blockers are scattered all over the field and tacklers are closing in from multiple sides and we truly wonder if there’s a way to just go back in time and start the play all over again.

We know how this ends. If only the band would charge the field. But that won’t happen, and we can all see how it could have been so much better if the running back — if I — would have just run the play the way it was designed.

This is the time of the semester that I find myself looking looking for redemption. I’ve seen this enough times that I know, in all likelihood, that it will be okay in the end, if a little messy and scattered as we cross the finish line. I’d like to make sure that all of the teachers I’m visiting have a full set of my observation notes transcribed and back to them before the last day of class. I’d like to make sure that my physical science class has a project that they can design for their final lab activity. I’d like to make sure that the pre-meds in their last physics class get a chance to understand how we know that neutrinos can’t be massless. I just have to put those hazard cones around those things that are a mess and direct traffic forward, hoping that students don’t rubberneck too much as they move by.

Also, in this classic sitcom episode theme of poor timing, I need to remind my students that they should turn in course evaluations.

For now, my optimism is directly proportional to coffee intake and some brief recharge after each weekend. I just need to sustain that. Also, I need to buckle down, plan for Monday morning, grade some exams, write up some notes, and just generally brace for finals. Keep running in one direction or another, just faster. This isn’t a miserable pursuit. On the contrary, it’s energizing and joyful. But I do need to fix things, and I will need more coffee.

The other day, I got my hair cut in a quiet corner barbershop in an old historic building in the old historic section of town. The barber used a straight razor on my neck, cleanly shaving out the errors of my genetics, the random distribution of hair that extends from my head to my back. Someone else was fixing everything, just making what was wrong, right. A warm towel on my head and a splattering of some cool fluid sealed it all in for the moment.

That easy solution won’t happen here. So I’ll medicate with ongoing doses of dark caffeine and occasional shots of warm towels, long trail runs and 15-minute naps. In between those, I’ll just use the impending end-of-term and end-of-tasks to motivate faster work, maybe cutting things short and making them not quite what I intended them to be at the outset — including this essay. My own inadequacy to catch up will get bundled and confounded with the realization that I’m responsible for getting myself into this mess. So I’ll just drink more coffee and see how much redemption I can eek out of the semester. And then I’ll start over again in January.