Summer is a great time to sit outside. I remember when we were building a new patio. The contractors delivered a huge pile of rocks to our front yard. Big stones. Midsize stones. Some multihued and no larger than hefty pebbles. The patio was going to be at the back, and that massive pile of material, each piece important, had to be moved. It would have been great to move them all in one shot or in substantial consignments, but my exhausted self could not face the task. In many ways this is similar to the challenge encountered by educators this summer as we anticipate preparing for fall classes.
Like a good patio, a great class has many elements. Effective learning is the result of well-designed courses and a host of specific components for consideration. What should students be able to do by the end of the course? What should you cover? What are the best ways to know if your students have learned? How do you engage and motivate your students? Each of these components is important and heavy by itself, much like each paving stone for my patio was.
The reality is you need all the materials. Your class, like the patio, would be incomplete without any one of them. The good news is you do not need to lift the entire load at once.
It is easy to feel overwhelmed when you see the enormity of the task, the combined pile of stones. We often look at the task and think of it in its entirety. Not surprisingly, we often cannot even begin because it looks like so much work. We know we have to do it. We know we should do it. But the magnitude of what needs doing can be paralyzing. We find other things to do. Educators often walk around the metaphorical big pile of rocks sitting in our front yards. The big pile goes nowhere. It will not until you move it.
Even attempts to get started can, if not appraised well, be debilitating. Take the example of a summer teaching conference. I recently experienced a wonderfully organized conference designed for introductory psychology educators. It featured a keynote talk, short practical presentations, and a strong closing workshop. The keynote was packed with information, and the well-meaning speaker introduced the audience to many key elements of pedagogy and, together with a summary of student experiences during the pandemic, laid out key considerations for educators for the fall.
A lot of elements were put on the table. But just thinking about all the factors that should or could be considered in preparing for the fall, one could be exhausted. It was almost as if that pile of rocks grew into a mountain. But note an alternative way to look at it. Having a clear overview can be inspiring. Having a lot to pick from and having choice are motivating. In fact, the last talk of the day played up exactly this: start small. I’ll extend that: Start somewhere. Anywhere.
When we visualize the entire pile of rocks, it is easy to procrastinate on even starting. Zoom in on the pile and find the rocks you want to start with. Pick the ones that are lighter. Select the ones that are easier to carry. Yes, you will still need to move the heavier ones, but you do not have to lift them first. Perhaps you can get some help with those.
It is alright to not address challenges right away if you feel emotionally drained. The pandemic year’s wear and tear makes normally easy tasks a bit more difficult. Give yourself the time to recover. Telling yourself you need some time before you move the pile and that you will start at some specific time is different from not having a start date at all. Committing to rest, planning to decompress, is better than simply procrastinating under the guise of working.
Often you can inspire yourself to get going by taking a leisurely perusal of related material. Paging through patio designs may make you want to move those rocks sooner. For me, summer is a great time to reflect on elements of pedagogy that I am otherwise too busy to think about. There are some great summer reads for those educators rethinking grading (see this post). If you want to pull the camera back even more, perhaps use your hammock time to explore different imaginings of the art and craft of teaching; if so, see Gooblar’s The Missing Course or DiYanni and Borst’s The Craft of College Teaching. Such “fun” reads will give you a different perspective on your own course planning.
Many tasks in life are like that pile of rocks sitting in the front yard. Preparing classes for the fall is my current pile of rocks to move. Psychological science clearly maps out the way to go. Make a plan. Break down bigger tasks into smaller portions. Enlist support. Even if you dread it, think of the prudent suggestion made by early psychologist William James: do it as if what you do makes a difference. It does.
DiYanni, R., & Borst, A. (2020). The craft of college teaching: A practical guide. Princeton University Press.
Gooblar, D. (2019). The missing course: Everything they never taught you about college teaching. Harvard University Press.
Regan A. R. Gurung, PhD, is associate vice provost and executive director for the Center for Teaching and Learning and professor of psychological science at Oregon State University. Follow him on Twitter @ReganARGurung.