Teaching on my feet

When I was an undergraduate, I was told not to expect snow days. The rumor was classes hadn't been canceled in 20 years or some such. They were canceled at least twice in four years.

In graduate school, I was told the University never closed campus for bad weather. But they did. I recall a particularly bitter January day that classes were canceled because of the cold. I waited for a city bus that morning and my phone went dead because it got too cold.

My university now is pretty free with snow days. Nobody has pretended otherwise. We have a significant proportion of commuter students in addition to the residential campus, and when heavy snows hit, there aren't a lot of places to put the snowbanks that don't start crowding out parking spaces. We also have a "compressed" schedule - instead of skipping 8 am or 9 am classes, the entire class schedule gets reduced by 20% and starts at 10 am. I like that, instead of spreading the idea that classes aren't canceled, or leaving the decision to cancel or not to cancel a morning class solely with the instructor, folks on campus recognize that classes are likely to be canceled or compressed at some point. There are plans for it.

That doesn't mean I'm thrilled to lose class time when a snow day arrives.

By the end of the fifth week of the semester, we had two snow days and two compressed days. Both snow days were Wednesdays, and one of the compressed days was a Monday. My Monday-Wednesday-Friday class that has recitation Wednesday afternoons had lost about four hours of contact time (out of 20 scheduled contact hours up to that point).

As if that wasn't enough chaos, my daughter had a fever on the Monday of the third week of classes and couldn't go to daycare. My husband couldn't take that day off, and I didn't want to cancel more classes than I absolutely had to, so I brought Sweet Pea to campus with me for the morning. She didn't want to be far from me, and after a few minutes, she insisted on being held, so I lectured back-to-back classes with her in my arms. My first lecture involved a chalk talk derivation of an equation, and it was a challenge to keep her from grabbing chalk to eat or drop, or erasing my work over my shoulder. She fell asleep in the second lecture, becoming somehow heavier in that boneless way sleeping children do. Carrying a twenty-five pound weight in half-curled arms for two hours is quite a workout when you're not accustomed to it. My arms were sore for days after.

I was a little anxious about how I'd be perceived being Dr. Haas and Mama Haas in the same space. Dr. Haas aims to be put-together. Mama Haas often has snot smeared on her shoulder from serving as a toddler tissue, or splotches on her thighs from carrying a kid with muddy shoes. My students were very understanding. Some have even asked when she'll be visiting us again.

Meanwhile, I have been sick nearly every day since the semester began. Colds, possible flu, a stomach bug. Last weekend I got so sick I could barely sit upright, let alone stand. Sunday night, I had to rest at the foot of the stairs before going up, and then rest again at the top of the stairs before going down the hall to bed. I canceled my classes Monday. I needed to recover.

Tuesday, still feeling weak and wobbly, I taught lab, mostly sitting on a stool. Deciding what to do with a lab when you're sick is difficult. Most chemistry labs are about 3 hours long. Good luck finding someone else with those three hours open in their schedule to fill in for you. And if you cancel, the students in that section won't get that experiment. My Tuesday lab is for the same class that had already lost so much lecture time to bad weather. So I came in. (And by the end of the day, I did feel a lot more like myself.)

Every one of these cancellations (now 5 hours of missed lecture/recitation time) has meant changes to the course schedule, and some changes to the material. I moved quiz days and due dates. I cut most of a chapter that the non-majors are unlikely to encounter in their courses, and that the majors will get again later on in more detail. I dropped some of the material in the "you won't be tested on this, but isn't it an interesting application" category.

And then we got to recitation this week.

My students, like students I've had previous semesters here and elsewhere, are tripping over the math involved in the chemistry problems.

The next chapter in our schedule is kinetics, which I'd argue is the most math-intensive of our semester, and seeing my class struggle with calculations, I decided to disrupt the schedule and change the plan again: we're going to take a breather from new chemistry concepts for a day and practice general problem-solving strategies.

It feels counterintuitive to sacrifice another day of chemistry content when I've lost so many days already, but if I don't stop to help them now, I'm afraid I'll leave them behind, and that serves no one.

I'm dancing with my syllabus. A push here, a pull there, spinning at times, but trying to keep it all smooth, controlled, and, as often as possible, polished. All teaching, I think, is like this. You come into a classroom with some idea of what the course will be like, and it changes as you go. The students let you speed up, or necessitate a slower pace, or they show a spark of interest that sends you off at a new angle. It can be dizzying, and exhausting, but it can also be so much fun.