Sunday, February 6, 2011

Uncluttering the desk and the mind

View of my desk today Sunday morning.
There is a saying that the state of a desk reflects the state of the mind. Yup, I agree. Before embarking on a new project I would always religiously clean up my desk, and my coworkers would roll their eyes at the piles of papers discarded on the floor. For me, it is an emotional need to get rid of the old stuff and freeing mental (and desk) space for the new stuff.
I went for a 1.5 hour run after taking the picture- a bit longer than I usually do, but I needed it. It was also a demanding one, up Cowles Mountain. I like the Mesa trail from the back- it is longer and less populated than the short trail that most people know. It has gentle switchbacks and shaded parts, but the final leg is very steep. At that point, the only thought in my brain was to  keep my legs moving and my lungs from bursting. By the time I was blasting downhill my mind was clear, and I even had a good idea for a written assignment- letting the students choose a scientist from a list in the beginning of the course and have them develop a wiki? Facebook profile? Keep adding more and more information as the course advances- see how their discoveries stand up to time or how they had been changed/challenged with newer discoveries. And have them submit it as their research paper at the end of class. I am always looking for new types of writing assignments, as I like the concept of "Writing across the curriculum." This idea, of course, will take me long time to develop...maybe for the Fall semester.
Disclaimer- I read something somewhere about students developing FB profiles of famous people, so it is not really "my" idea. But I have no clue where I read it...
Anyway, the reason for my wanting to clean up my desk and my mind is that in 3 weeks I start a new course, the second part of Anatomy/Physiology. For the first part (the one I am teaching now) I had the leisure of Winter Break. These courses are 8-week accelerated courses, and if I want them to run smoothly I have to prepare them well in advance. During the break I uploaded all the materials to the course website, prepared/updated all the assignments, instructions, grading rubrics, exams, quizzes, even the extra credit assignments! Thanks to that the course basics are running on autopilot, and I have time to teach more effectively. 
Just today I read a blog post by an instructor unhappy with too much technology. Her piece was balanced and objective, but the comments were rather telling. Many of the instructors who commented were quite negative towards online instruction and interactions. Some stated that maintaining a course website was a lot of work. 
When I started teaching online I was also overwhelmed by the up-front work setting up the course. However I was struck by the fact that I had to plan so well ahead- not only the materials but also the narrative of the course. I had to state my learning goals week by week, and decide how I wanted to achieve them. Yes, it was a lot of work the first time. However once a course is prepared, it can be copied and just modified.
Personally, I think I teach much better now that I use a blended system. Because all the information is available online, I only have to address questions about them instead of wasting valuable class time going over them. Assignments are submitted electronically, which means I don't have to haul around papers (and is more green). All written assignments go through Turnitin or other plagiarism detection software. My lectures are available as powerpoints and podcasts- that allows some to lecture less and spend more time helping students doing case studies for example. I plan to adopt in the future the "inverted classroom" model...
View of my desk Sunday evening
But back to the new class. I don't have the luxury of a break this time- one class ends on Saturday and next class starts Monday. So I need to plan ahead. And there are lots of fun stuff that I need to prepare better: Better cardio and respiratory labs, more dissections, and maybe some more engaging group activities. In summary, creative work. And creative work requires an uncluttered mind. So I spent a couple of hours after the run organizing my desk. I have 3 neat stacks for the 3 courses I am teaching now, and one extra stack for articles/materials I want to read for ideas. After finishing this post (which is part of my mental clutter of the morning) I will start with the lab schedule for the course...and then read...and hopefully get creative. Dear readers, do you have suggestions about developing new, fun activities for Anatomy and Physiology?

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