It took all the willpower I could muster to leave my cozy dorm room and make the snow-crunching slog across campus for my 8:00 a.m. Latin seminar. Minnesota winters are no joke. To entice us into attempting the trek, my professor began each class session with an etymology game. “Can you guess who this guy is and which modern words are derived from his name?” she asked, holding up an image of a two-faced Roman god.
He was Janus, we soon learned, the god of in-between spaces, of passages, of both beginnings and endings. His association with doorways gives us janitor; his namesake month, January, is—fittingly—poised between the past and the future. I’ve since adopted Janus as my personal teaching mascot (and not just because he has eyes in the back of his head). Janus reminds me that the best time to plan next semester’s iteration of a course is while I’m teaching it this semester. Not after, but during. Here are his tips.
The quick-and-dirty recap
During grad school, I daydreamed about the after-dinner ritual that my future self, the Very Reflective Professor, would establish: a leisurely hour writing in a Moleskine journal about my teaching practice; a cup of tea (or something stiffer); a fireplace crackling in the background. I would chuckle quietly to myself as I distilled the day’s lessons into pithy takeaways like a pedagogical version of Doogie Howser, MD.
Aw . . . how precious. Long-form reflective writing is critical, but for me, it’s mostly reserved for holidays and summers. In the slipstream of a busy semester, I recommend the quick-and-dirty recap instead.
Complete this recap after each class session ends, ideally in the one to two minutes after students have filtered out of the classroom or logged off. You’re now in Janus Standard Time: the class that you just taught is in the past—poof! gone forever!—but what did you learn that can help future iterations? I’d argue that a record of what actually worked is more useful than the most meticulous lesson plans, so don’t squander these moments.
Pull up your file (I keep a Google Doc titled “q&d recap: [name of course, year]”) and start dashing off notes to your future self. Don’t fuss over grammar, punctuation, or spelling; use those time-saving acronyms that you’ve developed over the years.
As you can see by these examples from my “q&d recap: brit lit 1, spring 2023” file, some entries have to do with pacing:
CT WOB pro felt rushed—2 classes not 1 [The Wife of Bath’s Prologue in The Canterbury Tales felt rushed. Spend two classes on it instead of one.]
Some are reminders to implement teaching strategies that I’d read about but had forgotten to put into practice:
2nd day sonnets—top of class—try retrieval practice Pet. conventions per lang small teaching [At the beginning of the second class period devoted to sonnets, practice retrieval practice with Petrarchan conventions. Review James Lang’s Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning.]
Some have to do with technology:
Rem board in PAC also projector. If showing clips, put agenda on sides [Remember that the computer in Piper Academic Center projects onto the middle of the whiteboard. Put your handwritten agenda for the day on the far right or far left.]
Then, naturally, some are more visceral reactions to classes that soared or tanked:
DOTR rocked. Def keep foll. BW.—good contrast with pre-xn and xn stuff [“Dream of the Rood” rocked. Continue to assign it following Beowulf to contrast pre-Christian and Christian worldviews.]
Ugggggh…grrrr!!!!!!!! doing something wrong with pope EOM. They hated it. Painful. :-( figure out before next time [A general lament about my students’ apathy toward Alexander Pope’s An Essay on Man]
Remember, the focus here is not on sweeping reboots but on tiny, incremental improvements for next time. Did students generate a provocative new angle on Hamlet that you tracked on the whiteboard during discussion? Great! Snap a picture before you erase and insert it into your recap document. Streamline the process by using voice dictation on your phone. Your objective is to make this recap so low maintenance that you’ll actually complete it after every class. The quicker and dirtier, the better.
I’m reminded of a colleague who, before retiring after 27 years, began her farewell speech by saying (in her signature Southern drawl), “I would have quit teaching earlier but, gosh darn it, I wasn’t done tweaking my classes yet.” That’s the spirit. Those tweaks add up over time, but only if you take a couple of minutes each day to jot them down.
At the end of the semester, this recap will become just one piece of evidence that you’ll consider—in addition to your end-of-term student evaluations and global, “big picture” reflections—before you teach this course again.
By the way, you can also create a “q&d recap: cv” file to note scholarly activities throughout the semester that you may forget when it comes time to update your vita properly.
Hunt for models
Up for an apocalyptic thought experiment? Imagine that a virus threatens to corrupt all—except one!—of the teaching files on your computer (or in your cloud). Which do you save? That’s a no-brainer for me: my archive of student writing models.
As an English instructor, giving students formative feedback on their writing is the most time-intensive part of my job. I don’t look at every draft, but I look at quite a few. My students also keep online portfolios that include outlines, notes, graphic organizers, peer feedback, and revision plans. And because all work is submitted electronically through our learning management system, I have access to many, many easily-downloadable samples that could help future students.
During the semester, am I utterly invested in my current students’ growth as writers and thinkers? Without a doubt. But . . . am I also, Janus-like, scouting for student work that could serve as a model for future students? Definitely.
Like most students, for example, mine often struggle to engage in rigorous peer review, so it’s helpful to ease them into it. In my experience, students give more honest and critical feedback on student writing when they know the writer’s not in the room. So before asking them to evaluate their neighbor’s writing, have them use a rubric to evaluate some anonymous samples of student writing from previous semesters.
To be clear, I’m not looking for student texts that are “perfect” exemplars of certain genres; rather, the most instructive are those that approach the same writing task in radically different ways. A writing assignment on Shakespeare’s sonnets, for example, inspired one student to write his own sonnet sequence; another to incorporate sonnets into her script for a speech team competition; and another to submit an analytical essay. And guess what? All successfully fulfilled the criteria for the assignment. Choose models that will expand your students’ imaginations of what is possible rather than box them in, and hunt for portfolios that show how messy, nonlinear, and idiosyncratic the writing process is.
It goes without saying that you’ll want to obtain permission from your students before you share their work, and please make sure to redact any identifying information.
Save your feedback
Quick question: Would it be professorial malpractice to save your written comments on a student’s essay and use them again next semester? Asking for a friend.
OK . . . it’s me.
Each semester is unique, but teach a class enough times, and you can predict which topics and texts will catch fire with your students. Irony in The Canterbury Tales. Feminist readings of Lady Macbeth. The English Civil War and Paradise Lost. Like clockwork.
To be sure, these are all viable lines of inquiry, and there’s plenty of room for variation in students’ approaches to them. But a few semesters ago, while I was typing comments into a draft of a student’s King Lear essay, some serious déjà vu kicked in. Hadn’t I already compiled a list of these film clips for a student last semester? And the email I was composing about pre-Christian themes in Beowulf . . . Why did that feel so familiar? Oh, right. I’d sent a very similar one to a student last time I taught that class. And so on.
Enter Janus. These days, just before I send typed comments to a current student, I do a mental check-in: Are these generic enough that I could recycle them in the future? The answer is most often no, but if it’s a maybe, I cut and paste my feedback into a new Google Doc in my “Feedback to Students” folder, which I also organize into course-specific subfolders. The title is usually something like “List of sources on medieval anchoresses” or “Sir Gawain and Arthurian legend.” When I get a new batch of student proposals or drafts, I scan the titles of that course’s subfolder to see whether there’s anything I can reuse.
This system, of course, does not replace the kind of personalized, bespoke feedback that our students need (and deserve). And when I reuse material, I often preface it with a comment like “Here’s a list of resources that students have found helpful in the past,” just so I’m not misrepresenting myself. The goal is to observe a brief pause before your feedback disappears forever into the ether. On those days when you’re grinding through a mountain of student essays, not having to retype comments feels like you’ve won the lottery.
My concept of Janus has evolved since that snowy February morning. He’s my efficiency coach, sure, but these days he also serves as a visual representation of the temporal liminality of teaching.
Time, after all, is peculiar for us. We use backward design and end with commencement. We pour ourselves into each class with such intensity that you’d think it were our last, yet we know that we’ll get another crack at it next semester. The predictable, concrete rituals of the academic year belie the ephemeral nature of our work. And the soothing rhythms of our teaching lives—days become semesters; semesters become years—sometimes lull us into forgetting that our primary goal is to engineer our own obsolescence. If we do our jobs well today, our students will no longer need us tomorrow. And that’s just how it should be.
Remember my Latin professor? She sensed my fascination with Janus, so one day during office hours she plucked a round, laminated magnet from her filing cabinet—a replica of a Roman coin that bears Janus’s image—and gave it to me. I still have that magnet; it lives in my teaching bag, nestled among my dry-erase markers. Sometimes, on my way to class, I run my thumb over its well-worn, fissured surface and think back. Then, the future beckons. There’s work to be done.
Nichole DeWall, PhD, is a professor of English at McKendree University in Lebanon, Illinois, where she teaches Shakespeare, medieval and early modern literature, drama, and composition courses.