Reinvention: Back to School

A time of optimism and possibility

Posted Aug 24, 2011

The end game of August is upon us and here is my back to school message.

What may have seemed like an endless summer is, well, more or less ended. Droves of college students are swelling college towns and campuses. Many are first year students who are eager, perhaps a bit nervous, but nonetheless full of promise.

The freshmen and women are not alone. New faculty members are also part of this educational migration. Wet-behind-the-ears in their own way, these new teacher-scholars are also eager and nervous. They worked hard in graduate school, sweated a tough market for academic jobs, and managed to land a post at a college or university. Like the first year students who navigated the rough seas of the college admissions game, they are ready for a new beginning.

I love this time of year because it is a time of optimism and possibility. New students and new faculty have the chance to reinvent themselves. By reinvention, I mean the chance to change, redirect, alter course, or otherwise do something new where education---whether one is a learner or a teacher---is concerned. If you get thrown from the proverbial horse, you simply have to get up, dust yourself off, and get back in the saddle again.

That simple advice is really the open secret of academic life: Reinvention every 3.5 months or so. In fact, the magic of the academic calendar is that anyone associated with college or university life can reinvent him or herself each semester or quarter. If a student did not do so well last term, he can study harder this time around. If a course did not go so well in its last iteration, an instructor can spice it up with new readings or fresh lectures or in-class activities-and in any case, new students will be there. Sometimes it's the collective personality of a class of students that makes it magical or deadly dull, not the material or the person teaching it.

These simple truths came to me again yesterday during a workshop I was leading on teaching writing to full-time and adjunct family at a regional university an hour or so away from my own campus. The forty or fifty colleagues who attended took time out of the waning days of summer to come to campus to share strategies for increasing the amount of quality of writing done by their students. Instead of enjoying a truly glorious day outside, they were with me and my PowerPoint slides-and no one seemed to mind. I was struck by their sincere and genuine enthusiasm to try some new things and to revise some of the things they had already done. The group asked great and critical questions, offered examples of what worked in their classes and what fell flat. Working in groups, they reinvented themselves before my eyes and came up with some terrific ideas that they will begin to use next week when classes begin. By early afternoon, I felt good and so did they; reinvention is a kind of redemption. Even yesterday's earthquake here on the east coast, which made itself known when the ceiling projector began to sway back and forth, did not wreck the pedagogical mood.

So, whether you are a new student or a new teacher (or experienced on both counts) there is still time to reinvent yourself. You can discard an old academic routine in favor of a new one. (For the parents out there whose offspring are heading back to campus, you might remind them that reinvention is always possible.)

Well, my syllabi are ready. My students arrive this weekend. My classes begin on Monday. I'm going to try some new things in my classes and jettison some old ones. Time to get back up on the horse. I can't wait.

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