Reformatting: Summer School Edition

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I teach summer school a lot, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t like it. Students who take a summer school course mean business. Most of the time, they’ve either failed the course (or something similar and need the credit to graduate) or are fast-tracking their program. Either way, they’re hungry for the grade and will do just about anything to pass the course. After all, you have to have a good reason to show up regularly to learn about the humanities when the sun is shining, it’s 30 degrees outside and, especially in Montreal, there are a million beautiful patios where one could be sitting and sipping sangria instead of slogging through scholarly literature and listening to what can sometimes be rather abstract lectures.

So yeah, whenever I get the chance to teach summer school I jump at it. But every time I do this, I mistakenly think it will be “easy” to prepare for. It’s usually a course I’ve taught before, so there’s no prep, right? RIGHT?!?!? Wrong! Alas, it doesn’t seem to matter what format you were teaching in during the year – three 50-minute lectures, two 80-minute lectures, or a three-hour block – it never fits neatly into the summer format. Last time I taught summer school at university, I went from two 80-minute lectures per week to a summer school format that was 2.5 hours per day. Now, in CEGEP, I’m moving from a 75 minute format to one where I teach 2 hours and 5 minutes per day.

No matter how you try to slice those numbers, you’re never going to move seamlessly from a regular-term format to summer school without substantial revisions. This means trimming some lectures, expanding others, and probably outright ditching a few more – at least if you’re on the 4-week format, which is popular in Quebec. I tend to do this mostly based on my own sense of how important a topic is or isn’t (although I take the informal exit surveys that I give my students into account too). For example, if I can spot two topics that I want to discuss, but which I feel can be trimmed down, I do a little cutting and glue them together. But if there’s something that felt too constrained in the original format, I simply expand the talk. When teaching Western Civilization, I devoted a full 2.5 hours to different themes in the Industrial Revolution(s), adding a full 60 minutes to my original lecture. This summer, I will be doing the same thing when we discuss gender issues in Media Ethics.

This takes time, and for whatever reason, the job of reformatting never seems to get completely finished before you start teaching. Which brings me to the other thing that one always has to consider when reformatting for summer school: marking. Let’s assume that you – like me – are a mere mortal and you didn’t finish your lecture revisions in time. Don’t forget, that in summer school, you’re also likely to have assignments due or tests coming in every week or two, depending on whether you are on the 4-week or the 6-week schedule. This means you need to leave yourself time to mark all of these papers and exams, and revise your lectures and, of course, prep them before delivery.

The moral of the story? You’re going to have to reformat your assignment structure – and maybe the assignments themselves – as well. Remember, it’s not just that you need time to mark the stuff, but your students also need time to produce it, while still (ideally) keeping up with the readings. For a university history course, this often means stripping the course of its research paper component. This isn’t ideal, but the likelihood of students being able to produce a good research proposal and submit an A paper is not high. There’s simply too much going on and not enough time, even if they are only taking one course. Thus, when I teach history in summer school I assign a short primary document analysis followed by what I call a “researched book review” instead. The latter assignment requires that students read 2 articles related to the subject of the book in order to prepare their reviews.

This summer, since CEGEP assignments tend to be shorter and more numerous than university-level papers, I have simply removed one of the reflection pieces from the syllabus instead of altering the assignments. On top of this, however, I have still had to reduce the readings. In regular term, I only met with students twice a week, and they were assigned a mix of scholarly articles and newspaper articles. Since I meet them daily this summer, and we only have 4 weeks, I’ve had to remove about half of that literature. Some of it will reappear as in-class reading, but I was forced to part ways with one journal article altogether.

All this is to say that although I love summer school, it’s always a bit of a wild ride. So, to quote Jurassic Park: “Hold onto your butts, ‘cause here we go.”