Myodicy, Issue 3, April 1997

End-of-Term Report
Winter Term 1996-97

by Theodore Plantinga

Courses taught. During the winter term, as usual, I taught two sections of Intro Phil (121). In addition I taught two upper-level courses outside my graduate-school training -- Aesthetics (248) and Asian Philosophy (236). The fact that these courses fall outside my expertise means that I can work less from my head and must rely more on books and sources. I have taught Asian with great regularity over a period of years. Aesthetics I had not taught since 1990. We had planned to hand off the course to a part-timer, but we never actualized the plan. Finally it was decided that I was to teach it again, which I did.

The workload issue. A big issue on campus this term was how many courses a prof should teach. In the natural sciences, where there are labs to consider, and in some fine arts fields, where performances and lessons complicate matters, a general pattern is hard to specify. In humanities disciplines the issue is relatively simple. Should a prof teach three courses per term or four? In many Christian colleges the pattern is four per term. At Redeemer it was three. There was the occasional exception in the past: I taught four courses during the winter term of 1993-94 (two sections of intro, plus Phil of Religion and Phil of History).

While some colleges have been talking of lowering the workload definition for humanities profs in order to free up more time for research and writing, Redeemer has been talking of increasing it. The discussion is not yet over, and so I have no decision to announce here. (Stay tuned.) But the new order of things has begun to be implemented already. Thus it appears that Redeemer humanities profs will generally teach three courses during a term, and sometimes four.

Needless to say, the issue arouses strong feelings in certain profs. I do not propose to debate the pros and cons here. But I believe a few words on how things went for me this term would be in order.

First of all, I cannot say that I found any significant difference in the way the intro classes proceeded. Indeed, I would say that intro this term was more successful than in the three terms that came before this one. Some adjustments in test procedures may have helped in this regard. In the upper-level courses I found that teaching became somewhat more perfunctory and "methodized." I stuck more to prior plans and allowed less for spontaneous deviations from the plan than I might otherwise have done. I felt more like a teaching machine than I have ever felt before.

I thought back to the days when I got started in university-level teaching, at Bishop's University in Lennoxville, Quebec (early 1970s). There I would have three courses to teach, each of them meeting two hours per week. I had considerable contact with students outside of class. Being new to the teaching scene, I did not have lecture notes from earlier years that I could draw on. I made a virtue of necessity, and my classes had a genuine flavor of spontaneity to them. When I look back today at the lecture notes from which I worked in classes and seminars in those days, I am surprised at how sparse they are. In those days I made much of thinking on feet -- and appearing to do so. Nowadays I suppose I give the impression of having heard this or that question before, and probably of giving the same answer to it that I gave the last time someone asked it of me. The shift to four courses tends to move me further in this direction.

Of course there is a distinct performance aspect to teaching. Part of preparation is getting in the mood -- convincing yourself that the questions you are taking up in a particular class are interesting, and even gripping. I find that the move to four courses tends to put on some pressure in terms of the performance aspect. In Intro, where I had to give the same lecture twice for the two sections, I seemed to myself more conscious of the performance aspect of teaching.

Can it be done -- this business of teaching four courses? Yes, many colleges have required it of their professors for years, and many of those professors have been able to make it work. I managed it this term, and I expect to do it again in the future. But the extra load does make it somewhat more difficult to participate in college "passivities."

In case this term is new to you, please be informed that passivities are events at which the College expects or demands that I be present but in effect asks me to do nothing. Perhaps I'm supposed to look intelligent. Some businesses hire pretty young women as backdrop for certain types of events; colleges ask their profs to be present. This sort of thing has its place, but it is harder to do when you are pressed for time because you are teaching four courses.

Another important difference between Bishop's University in the 1970s and Redeemer in the 1990s is that we have computers now. Certain aspects of teaching, such as keeping track of students and their grades, are now made much easier by the fact that we can use computers. There used to be secretaries in the old days, but you were still largely responsible for your own clerical work as it related to your courses. Just for the record, I do not use computers for any sort of marking of student work, but I do find them very helpful in the distribution of study material to students, contacts with students via e-mail, preparation of lectures, and keeping and calculating marks. In fact, I have trouble remembering how I used to perform some of these tasks before we had personal computers available.

Academic etiquette. So what needs tuning up and improving at Redeemer? Probably lots of things. One that I have worked at this term is academic etiquette. One pet peeve of a number of profs is the tendency of some students to hide under what many people call "baseball caps" and what Paul Fussell calls "prole caps" (see his wonderful book Class). You know the kind I mean -- I wouldn't be caught dead under one of them. Above the bill you may well find the name of the feed mill it promotes.

This term I took the bold step of forbidding headgear in my classes. A couple of students who are known to wear unusual and even snazzy headgear to class on occasion wanted to know why, but they complied. From time to time I had to issue reminders, sometimes even to a student who stumbled in late with prole cap firmly fixed in place. But we got through it with good humor. I think it's a good rule; I recommend it to others.

Other aspects of academic etiquette may be harder to improve. In the last year or two, the problem of students coming late to class has increased. Part of the reason for this problem is that we do not have synchronized clocks at the college. In theory there are independent, battery-run clocks in each room; in practice one wears a watch. Class begins when the prof says it's time. Perhaps the previous class did not let out in time (the prof's watch might be slow). I start right on time, but students regularly miss initial announcements because they were not there yet. The occasional student apologizes for coming in late and explains that the previous class regularly runs late.

Nowadays, the student who breezes in five minutes late may also feel free to leave early, or perhaps even to leave and return. Now, on a rare occasion, a pit stop may be called for, but in general I find it discourteous and a hindrance. I don't know quite how to formulate a rule regarding this sort of thing. I suspect that such conduct will not make things any easier for students who engage in it if they enter a competitive workplace one day.

To be fair, I should indicate that some students who need to leave early for what sounds like a legitimate reason do explain and apologize in advance. I always thank them for informing me. I wish their sense of etiquette were contagious.

Departures. He's not yet out the door, but the College is beginning to say farewell to William Smouter, who takes formal leave of us on June 30. Yes, I know, we usually call him Bill, but he always manifests himself in such impeccable attire that a more exalted title seems called for -- at least on a formal occasion. Mr. Smouter has served us for about twelve years in "advancement" or fund-raising. For most of that time he held the rank of Vice President, which meant that he also shared significantly in the overall responsibility for the College's weal and woe. He made his influence felt far beyond his primary sphere of authority. Ever the gentleman, he could be counted on to state his Christian conviction -- which might well be at variance with the thinking of some others in the College -- when the College's welfare was on the line.

Mr. Smouter is indeed a unique individual, and he'll be missed. He tells me that he plans to retire. This will be the second time: once before he "retired" from a career with the Bank of Montreal. During this second retirement he will remain active in the general area of financial support of charities. Some of his work will be in aid of the college, but without remuneration. The college will long be in his debt.

Also leaving us is Dr. Otto Selles of our French department, whose wife, Rita Vander Schaaf, was a student at the College during its very first year of operation. Dr. Selles has accepted a position teaching French at Calvin College. I'm not sure they need him more than we do, but we do wish him well in his new arena of service. [END]

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