Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Predicting the Future

“In this world, there are two times. There is mechanical time and there is body time. The first is as rigid and metallic as a massive pendulum of iron that swings back and forth. The second squirms and wriggles like a bluefish in a bay The first is unyielding, predetermined. The second makes up its mind as it goes along.”
--Alan Lightman, Einstein’s Dreams

Last week, I finished constructing my syllabi for the fall semester. I put these things together for my writing classes knowing they’re going to change. Technically, the syllabus doesn’t (or shouldn’t) change; it’s the schedule that accompanies them that does. However, predicting what I’m going to do or how the class is going to unfold has yet to get easier. Sure, splattering dates & assignments on several sheets of paper gets easier, but spacing out due dates and anticipating the necessary mid-semester work remains tricky.

Even though an experienced teacher can reasonably anticipate the ability level of their students, writing classes run so fluidly that when you put together a syllabus, you really only assemble a semester outline. You’re not really dictating the daily course of the class. To some degree, this is true with any class, but I feel I can much more accurately chart a literature section.

When you put together a syllabus, you really are predicting the future, and in some ways you’re controlling it. I decide what papers students get to write, what assignments they get to read, and what tests they take. Though I feel neither Napoleonic nor prescient, I enjoy my roll as syllabus-maker. Putting them together allows me to get into school mode. The only real problem I have is that I know I’ll have to change them. Of course, a sense of freedom comes with knowing I can change them. Since the course material that makes up the class subject matter is not fixed, I don’t feel chained to a specific curriculum like I would if I taught high school. Even the developmental classes provide a surprising amount of freedom.

One of many good things about being a professor is that in a world that is so beyond our control, you do have a modicum of power over what you want to spend your semester thinking about, talking about, and reading about. With breakthroughs in every field of study, even the past is in flux. Knowing this provides a small measure of comfort when you sit down and think about how you can, in your small sliver of the universe, predict your future.