If My Teaching Career Were Keats, It Would Be Dead

T minus 10 days and Spring Semester 2013 officially begins for me (I know many people have started already, and no, I don’t know why our classes begin on a Friday this year).  When I turned in grades for Fall 2012, I officially completed my 25th year of teaching at the college level.  When I started in 1987 at age 22, I was not particularly good at my job, but I was enthusiastic. My skills are solider now, and my enthusiasm…well, it’s pretty solid for the part of my job that takes place in the classroom.

As I approach the beginning of my 26th year of teaching, I find myself wondering about metaphors for semesters.

Of course, it might be better not to have a metaphor for a semester at all. It might be more productive to be the Kings and Queens of Denotation (say what?) and simply proceed, understanding that a semester is a unit of time. But that’s not how I roll.

The rooms we teach in affect how we teach: Nancy Van Note Chism notes “social constructivists point out that the social setting greatly influences learning. Picture the limitations of the standard classroom or study carrel in terms of these ideas. The decor is sterile and unstimulating; the seating arrangements rarely allow for peer-to-peer exchange; and the technology does not allow individual access to information as needed. Rather, the room supports a transmission theory whose built pedagogy says that one person will ‘transfer’ information to others who will ‘take it in’ at the same rate by focusing on the person at the front of the room.”

I think metaphors affect us in much the same way. If our metaphors don’t match our pedagogy, we will find ourselves asking students to balance buckets of water on their heads whilst also spinning on a merry-go-round (one of those old-school ones that are really dangerous and hard to find) without even realizing the impossibility of what we’re asking.

(But wow—wouldn’t that be hilarious? Everyone would just be soaked and dizzy and puking and miserable and laughing like crazy.)

Here are some metaphors I’ve been mulling:

  • Train trip
  • Garden
  • Party
  • Game
  • Business meeting
  • Battle
  • Swimming pool
photo by stingberd on Flickr (available through Creative Commons license)

photo by stingberd on Flickr (available through Creative Commons license)

Pros and cons:

  • Train trip

+ Destination clear. Class schedule much like itinerary. Professor as engineer and conductor.

– Rigidity. Students are simply passengers (passive unless they take over the train, which feels like a bad western).

  • Garden

+Aesthetically pleasing. Students as gardeners. Learning outcomes as harvest

-SLOW. I always plant more than I can manage. Weeds.

  • Party


-Learning not always fun

  • Game

+Clear objectives. Fun.

-Competition is stressful.

  • Business meeting



  • Battle

+Goals, outcome and timeline clear (if Colin Powell is in charge).

-Someone has to lose (die).

  • Swimming pool

+Professor as swimming instructor, coach, and lifeguard.  Fun. Immersion implied (the Baptist in me loves that part). Stakes are high.

-Some people show up with rocks in their pockets and WILL NOT FLOAT.

Think metaphors don’t matter? What about this:  One of my grad school professors said once, while erasing the board from a previous class, “Not erasing a board when you leave a class is as bad as not flushing the toilet when you leave the bathroom.”  It’s hard to get that out of your head, and it’s made me awfully sensitive to this particular sort of professor-etiquette (or lack of it).  But, yuck, for the image, and YUCK to saying what we write on the board is POOP in need of flushing.

As I’m working on syllabi for the spring (notice how I imply the work has already begun), I’m mulling the garden and game metaphors most.

Perhaps croquet the way we used to play at Gran’mommy and Gran’daddy’s… We must have used several sets, because I remember way more than six or eight players. And there was no standard set-up. We put the wickets in the trickiest places–one favorite was on the edge of a steep slope from the yard down to the road. If you missed that one, you were in the road, trying to hit your way back up. And I remember my Dad and my Uncle Ferrell just WHACKING (pardon me, I mean ROQUETING) each other all the way across the road, into the corn fields…

Or maybe not.  Would we actually get to the appropriate learning outcomes in a game like that?

See? That’s why I struggle, every goddam semester I’ve ever taught, with making it all the way through the semester using the week-to-week schedule I pass out on the first day. I have the best intentions of hitting each train station on the appointed day and time, but I’m just not very good at it.

I want to explore what it means to balance train-like, business-assed precision with game-like, adventuring fun.

Meanwhile, what’s your favorite metaphor for a semester? For any other unit of time? For any other job?

6 responses to “If My Teaching Career Were Keats, It Would Be Dead

  1. Contributed metaphors thus far: nesting and plant succession. More?

  2. I never thought of semesters in terms of metaphors. I always thought of them as being another row of crochet or knitting, one layer building onto one another, eventually cultivating into something beautiful and unique. The semesters I enjoyed the course material and developed a rapport with my professors were the best ones. The ones where I was bored to tears or could careless about the course material were living deaths. There were several professors I took every class they taught because I liked them and the course material they taught. Those were the classes I remember the best.

  3. Hiking w/ prof as trailguide. I’ve hiked the trail before, but there are new and exciting things to see each time. I might miss some wild violets that a student might point out and we may take a side trail. It will be a lot of hard work, but we eventually reach the summit. And yes, I have a terrible time sticking to my lovely chart of assignments and due dates too…and that’s okay.

    • Thanks for the “that’s okay” at the end of the comment–I’ve always felt bad about it. I think I’m going to do it differently this semester. I’m going to log in the major essay deadlines (somehow I’m good at sticking to those), but then organize everything else into units & just tell them we’ll be doing these things in this order, but I’m not sure exactly when. Then we’ll spend a little time each week, either in class or online, checking in about where we are.

      I like the trail metaphor, too.

  4. Never thought of it before, but maybe a riding instructor? Instructor has the knowledge but student has to figure out how to take it and use it in a way that makes sense to hir horse. Not all horses behave the same way or respond to a stimulus in the same way. Some are eager to please but dumb as posts, and have to have everything broken into micro-lessons. Some are stubborn but smart. Some are just right and will do whatever is asked of them, once they understand what you want. Only a very few are exceptional, and touch your heart in a way you will never recover from. There. Now I’m crying.

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