Reflections on a Teaching-Free Semester

I started teaching at Brooklyn College eleven years ago, in Fall 2002. Since then, I have taught a varying course-load per semester, ranging from an onerous three to a manageable two and once, a luxurious one. But I’ve never had a semester ‘off’. Till this one: Spring 2013.

Last year, anticipating the birth of my daughter, I applied for a union-negotiated paternity leave. I had two options: take eight weeks off from teaching or take two classes off. Initially, I applied for the eight week option, figuring I’d rather take a complete break to attend to childcare duties. But once I found out my assigned courseload was two classes–I had, over the course of my three-year workload cycle, taught enough credit hours to make this possible–I changed my application to the second option. I would still be on administrative duty (meetings, student advisement, programming events at the Wolfe Institute for the Humanities) but no teaching, no grading, no class preps.

A teaching-free semester is sometimes made out to be the academic’s most exalted dream, a chance to pursue one’s research undisturbed by the demands of pesky students and their  ungradeable assignments. Well, I certainly enjoyed not having to grade papers or encountering a class that had not done assigned reading. But this semester also made me realize how much I miss teaching.

Most straightforwardly, I missed those things that are the lifeblood of teaching: the interaction with students’ questions and responses; the acquisition of a new perspective on supposedly familiar material: the pleasurable learning of new material; the encounters with the varied backgrounds and inclinations of a diverse student body (especially at Brooklyn College). And the intellectual awards of teaching extend and reach beyond the hours directly spent teaching and preparing for lectures. For instance, I often find myself thinking hard–perhaps while walking to and fro from my office or riding a train–about how to explain a difficult passage in the assigned readings.  At these moments, I am confronted with the realization that an argument or a concept that I thought understood quite well, needs instead, further clarification before I could explicate to someone else.

But most central in the blessings of teaching regularly, I think, is the ferment that the acts of teaching and preparing philosophical material generate in my mind; I learn new connections to philosophical doctrines not on the syllabus, of course, but also to other material that I might be reading. That is, teaching primes my mind to critically engage with all I read and write, not just the material I teach.

My academic work came to a standstill this semester; I did very little reading; I did very little writing; I was often exhausted and sleepless and distracted, and I did not have as much contact with my colleagues at Brooklyn College as I might have had in a regular semester,  so this failure to perform is perhaps not too surprising. But a significant contributing factor was the absence of the classroom experience.

Next year, I’m on sabbatical. An interesting challenge lies ahead.

5 comments on “Reflections on a Teaching-Free Semester

  1. Marcelo Finger says:

    Hi Samir

    Sabbatical is a different beast altogether, if you manage to remove yourself from your “usual” environment. I have had one semester without teaching, but soon enough I was involved with so many other things that I hardly noticed I wasn’t teaching (by the way, I love teaching; it is my therapy. But I hate grading exams).

    But my sabbatical has been a lifetime experience, and a good one for the whole family too. I’ve never read so many papers, and I ended up solving one problem I didn’t even existed before I came to Cornell.

    A sign of times: in this whole year, I have take only one book out of the library. Don’t take me wrong, I have read more than a dozen books, they just did not come from the library, and I have read a few in electronic format only.

    Plan for your sabbatical. And then enjoy it.

    Regards

    Marcelo

  2. Satadru Sen says:

    Having been through something similar, my take on this is that (i) a break refreshes one’s enthusiasm for teaching, especially at the CUNY colleges, where teaching isn’t always pretty and we get pretty bad burnout by the end of the semester, and (ii) it’s important to find the time to do some reading/writing, even if it’s only an hour or two every day. My crabbiest days are the ones when I’ve been totally unproductive.

    • Samir Chopra says:

      Satadru,

      Agreed. The break has been great; it’s made me feel better about teaching. I’ll be raring to go when I return. I’m now on my second day of taking care of the baby and its hard work. I need to use her nap time more efficiently!

      Cheers,
      Samir

  3. Samir Chopra says:

    Marcelo,

    Tudo bom! I will be here on sabbatical. I’m hoping I can just spend long hours in a nice library. I don’t think I can do fulltime babycare – it’d drive me nuts (and the baby too!). Glad your sabbatical went well – you’ve definitely set the standard on that one.

    Cheers,
    Samir

  4. […] recently, some daycare. I’ve become infected with a version of cabin fever, and as I noted in a post a while ago, I do miss […]

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