Philip Guo (Phil Guo, Philip J. Guo, Philip Jia Guo, pgbovine)

Logistics of Teaching Large Courses: Part 4. dealing with start-of-term chaos

Day One of class is about to begin. You've set up your course calendar and policies as best as you can. Now what?

Prepare for chaos during the first two weeks of every term; you probably won't get much research or other work done during these two weeks, so don't stress about it. If you focus on setting up your course well at the outset, then it won't be nearly as much effort to maintain throughout the rest of the term.

My folk theory of why start-of-term is always chaotic, even if you've taught this exact same course before, is that the surrounding environment has changed in the past months or year since you last taught it. For instance, university policies might have changed, details about how classroom are assigned might have changed due to on-campus construction, university I.T. systems for enrollment, grading, and other logistics might have changed, or custom software you use to run your course might have changed. I'm continually surprised by something new each term, and then I get surprised that I'm still get surprised because I should really be expecting the unexpected by this point!

Here are some ways to manage this inevitable chaos.

Classrooms and software: You first need to make sure that you even have a proper room to teach in! For instance, during my first year at UC San Diego, some of the classrooms I needed were still under construction, which was scheduled to finish in the summertime but delayed well into the fall term.

  • Talk to your department's administrative staff in person to set up logistics such as section scheduling or classroom allocations. They receive tons of emails, especially at the start of each term, so email requests may fall through the cracks. It's also more personable (literally!) to drop by and see them in person and develop good rapport with them. They're experts at these sorts of course logistics, so it's really important to work well with them every term and show your genuine appreciation.
  • Check that your classrooms are equipped with what you need (e.g., a projector) and that the university hasn't changed-up your assigned rooms at the very last minute (yes, this has happened before!). If your staff needs door access codes or keys for any classrooms, request them ASAP and test them out.
  • Set up automatic classroom lecture video recordings with your university (if available) so that students can later review your lectures. This is good for accessibility and special needs, even though it might decrease in-person lecture attendance.
  • Be extremely wary of trying new course management software, even if it seems shiny and promising. If something worked reasonably well in the past with hundreds of students using it, then just keep it! Don't rock the boat. It's a nightmare to discover software bugs that suddenly pop up during the term.

Alternate enrollment mechanisms: Be aware of the nonstandard ways that students can enroll in your course, such as waitlists, part-time extension school programs, exchange programs, or students on academic probation. Again, talk to your department's admin staff about these logistics. Will you be willing to sign their paperwork to let them into your course late? How will you handle early assignments that they might have missed?

The easiest way to manage late enrollments is to simply not make any assignments due until after the Add Deadline (usually at the end of Week 2 or 3). However, that may not be feasible for your particular course. But if you have team projects for your course, at least don't make any team-based assignments due before the Add Deadline since teams may still be in flux during the first few weeks as students are enrolling and dropping.

Logistically, you'll need to keep track of all of these students in your grading spreadsheet, so find out what unique identifier you can use for everyone. (Names aren't good, since students often use nicknames and multiple students might have the same name.) Do all students get a school-issued ID number? What about exchange students? What about those who aren't enrolled through the regular mechanisms but still need to receive an official grade? In a large course, just keeping track of all students can be a challenge.

Next part: Logistics of Teaching Large Courses: Part 5. lecturing in front of a large classroom

(see all parts)

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Created: 2018-12-22
Last modified: 2018-12-22
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