In the 1993 movie Ground Hog Day, weatherman Phil Connors (played by Bill Murray) finds that he must relive the same day over and over until he gets his attitude and his life straightened out. At the beginning this is a horrible thing, but by the end of the movie Phil masters his own fate (and secures the love of Andie MacDowell!) by making use of the opportunity he has been given to learn and grow.
Wouldn't it be wonderful to have that kind of chance to repeat our efforts until we get something perfect? In fact, a large part of the professor gig involves just such a pattern: Every sixteen weeks I get to start new classes with clean slates. No matter how bad I messed things up in one semester, I rev up my pedagogical engines with a revised syllabus, more effective structures for class activities, and a new bunch of students. (Some students, of course, have me for two semesters in a row, so the slate isn't entirely clean. But I've found students to be very forgiving of my shortcomings as long as I try to improve.) I also start each new semester with the knowledge that I don't need to be perfect—I just need to show some increment of growth and then look forward to the next semester.
I've been at this profession for about thirty years, two semesters each. When I factor in summer and interim teaching and subtract three sabbaticals, that's about 73 "ground-hog" chances to reflect, reinvent, rebuild, tweak, tinker, and/or trash. I also take some time to celebrate whatever triumphs I've had (e.g., no lawsuits...) . Of course, just because I had these opportunities doesn't mean I took advantage of all of them, or that all my attempts at improvement were successful. As George Kelly wrote in A Theory of Personality: The Psychology of Personal Constructs, "There is the case of the veteran school administrator, described by Dean Arthur Klein of Ohio State University, who had 'had only one year of experience—repeated thirteen times."' Some semesters are eerily and drearily similar to previous ones.
But I try. I'm in the habit now of making notes during each semester of changes I need to make next time. Thus, immediately after a semester ends I begin thinking about what might have been, and what will be. Some revision is technical, such as adding a few points to the "needs improvement" column of my grading rubric for short papers. Thus, my grades will more accurately reflect intellectual quality and reinforce students for taking chances in their thinking. Part of my reflection always includes use the filter of ethics, so technical concerns fall under my ethical obligation of competence.
Sometimes I consider it a luxury to spend my between-semester time trying to actualize my highest ideals and prevent problems rather than having always to be putting out fires. (It feels like even more of a luxury when I'm pondering while on the beach in Florida or Mexico.) I can think carefully and deeply about all kinds of possibilities: How do I avoid the pedagogical and ethical mistakes I've made in past semesters? How can I revise my policies so that they reflect more respect for students? For example, for a long time I have been utilizing Student Management Teams in my courses to give students a stronger voice. I also grade finals anonymously to eliminate even the appearance of bias.
If the water is too cold to go swimming, I may get to more personal reflections and actions: How do I process whatever resentments I've accumulated over the semester so that (a) they don't develop into bitterness or hatred, and (b) I face my new classes with the eagerness and optimism I would like them to show towards me? And, perhaps my most important question after so many years in the business: How can I make this teaching thing more fun while I'm making it more effective? In the past two years, for example, I have given up lecturing in my classes (more on this in a future post), instituted rubrics, and taught a first-year seminar for the first time.
Sometimes I don't think of such reflecting as a luxury; rather, it is an obligation. I am grateful for the opportunity to teach, which can be a noble profession with far-reaching impacts. Part of the implicit deal I've struck—with myself, with my parents who paid for 95% of my education, with the State that pays 9% of my salary, and with my students—is that I will use my "ground-hog" opportunity to professional advantage. Right now, though, I'm going to re-read this blog post and see what I need to do to make the next one perfect.
Mitch Handelsman is a professor of psychology at the University of Colorado Denver and the co-author (with Sharon Anderson) of Ethics for Psychotherapists and Counselors: A Proactive Approach (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010).
1 - Murray: topfantasymovies.net
2 - Ground Hog: simpleweight.com