March 31, 2014 by Jean
For the past several weeks, I’ve been spending a half day each week sorting through old files in my office. Some theories of aging point to a process of “life review” near end of life, and my office cleaning seems to have brought on an analogous process of “career review” at the end of my academic career.
My old files include teaching, research and administrative materials. Teaching materials are the most voluminous and include binders of syllabi, assignments and class notes, old student papers, and file drawers full of photocopied articles that I have used or considered using as course readings over the years. The research materials include research instruments like survey questionnaires and interview guides, data in various forms, library research material, and drafts of research reports in various stages of development. Administrative files include minutes from the meetings of various committees I have served on, records of faculty searches, administrative reports and memos, and copies of personnel evaluations for those I supervised during my years as department chair.
I can make quick work of the administrative files. Although I have done a lot of administrative work during my years at Gettysburg (13 years as department chair and another 4 years chairing major faculty committees) and am generally regarded as very good at it, it has never been central to my sense of identity. Occasionally, I come across something that I think the college archivist may be interested in (for example, detailed records of a special task force that I chaired many years ago), and I set it aside. Sometimes I linger over a faculty evaluation or a particularly persuasive memo with satisfaction in a job well done. But most of my administrative files hold little interest as I leave the College and can go straight into the recycling bin (or, for material that should be treated more confidentially, into a box for shredding).
I’ve lingered a bit longer over some of my old research files. I do expect to continue doing research – although probably in a more informal way. Do I need the computer print-out of data analysis from the 1990s? Am I ever going to do anything more with that unpublished paper? No; I’m done with those research projects and interested in new topics now. Into the recycling!
The files that have prompted the “career review” are old teaching files, and this has made me realize that my retirement signals the end of my active teaching career and that teaching has been important to my sense of self. Old student papers, mostly undergraduate senior theses and many from the job I held in the 1980s, provide an opportunity to remember students I have worked with through the years. I have a good memory for names and faces, but occasionally I come across a paper from a student I have no memory of at all. Other times, I can remember the student, but had forgotten that I supervised that student’s senior project. I discovered that one project I remembered well had been associated in my memory with the wrong student. While it has been pleasant to get reacquainted with these forgotten student papers, I will not have a use for them in my new life, so they have been relegated to the recycling bin.
It has been my old syllabi and assignments that have triggered the most reflection on my teaching career. If you asked me about this before I began going through my old files, I would have said that my teaching has changed greatly over the years. And, in some ways, this has been true. My approaches to organizing class discussions, for example, changed many times as I adapted to different institutional learning cultures, dealt with a range of class sizes, learned about new techniques, and responded to shifts in students’ strengths and weaknesses. What didn’t change was my emphasis on learning through discussion.
Another constant was my approach to organizing a course, creating a narrative arc that would connect disparate topics. I was surprised when I looked at the syllabus for the Urban Sociology course I taught in the 1980s. I was happy to leave this teaching assignment behind when I moved to Gettysburg College in 1989 because I had always felt the course lacked coherence; but looking at it from a distance of more than 25 years, I can see that I had succeeded more than I realized in creating coherent flow of ideas linking those topics.
This continuity in my approach to teaching was even more striking when I came upon the materials for one of my first attempts at teaching the required research methods course for sociology majors, a two-semester sequence that I developed for the Bates College sociology curriculum more than 30 years ago. The conceptual organization of topics and research principles on the syllabus was virtually identical to my current syllabus for this course. At first, I was dismayed by this discovery; I had been telling myself how much I had grown in my ability to teach this material. Then I realized that I had grown. What had changed was not my sense of which topics were important or of the logical links that connect them, but my ability to help students grasp the material of the course. The assignments and class exercises that are so central to my teaching of this material now have few counterparts in that early version. Like much of life, my teaching career has been marked by both continuity and growth.