Dear Mentor: How do professors prepare for a new school year?

Dear Mentor,

As a professor, what practices do you have to help you get ready for the new school year? Are there things you do to wrap up the summer? Are there particular ways you prepare for new classes, new students, new grads or postdocs? What have you found helpful in your years in academia? 

from guest mentor Lisa Diller

Here are a few of the tactics I use to get ready for the school year:
  1. Don't prepare before you need to. At the beginning of the school year, I put my goals for the summer into several categories, one of which is “Prep for Next Year” or “Teaching Goals” or something like that. These will usually be separate from department responsibilities or goals. After several years of finding my summer full of teaching prep at the expense of personal growth or research and writing, I have found that I need to put the list of tasks for teaching/school prep aside until August. 
  2. Start coming in to the office for a few hours a day/week to acclimatized. This is if I haven't been doing so already. This helps me remember items to do I had forgotten and it makes the adjustment less dramatic and emotionally draining.
  3. Start communicating with students. This is helpful to me as I think about how we are all re-entering this time of intense learning and mentoring. I contact the student leaders who are in charge of some of the department activities. I send emails to the students in my classes and my advisees.
  4. Prep new classes. If I am teaching new classes, I start on those earlier than my repeat classes, about a month out.
  5. Think about repeat classes. I can become too engaged in this and allow it to take up too much of my time. For my personal habits, I need to put this kind of thing off till the week before classes so that I don't do class prep instead of the other items on my list, since I find it so interesting. However, I like at least to make sure I know where my room is, that the books I've ordered are at the campus shop in sufficient numbers, and to see the composition of my students in the class. I do that three weeks out, and then in the week before all the beginning of year meetings/colloquium or whatall, I spend two or three days being really intentional about my syllabus and making sure of the dates and changing up assignments from pervious years if need be.
  6. Re-engage personal habits. About a week or two out, I start getting up earlier and making sure I have my exercise and devotional routine down for the year.
  7. Foster a sense of excitement. I like to allow myself to actually cultivate anticipation for the new year. I look forward o the new students and pray for them and my classes. This may only be a few minutes in all the rush, but I find that it does me good.
All of this is ideal and mostly we have to forgive ourselves for not living up to our highest expectations. Still, a school year is a wonderful chance to start over and develop new practices and we can have gratitude for these rituals of the new year.

from guest mentor Audrey Ellerbee

I’ll be honest, ever since I started graduate school, summer break just hasn’t meant the same thing. Couple that with the fact that my school is on the quarter system and it seems like summer break never comes soon enough! After the students have left and the grades are in, eventually it hits me that I don’t need to teach for several months. My mind slowly lulls into a less frenetic pace and peace eventually comes, occasionally interrupted by the needs of a summer undergraduate research student or a graduate student needing help to move their project forward during what is often their most productive time of year.

On the other side of summer, being on the quarter system gives me a bit of extra time — and fair warning — when summer is ending. For me the time to think about starting school again is when I see my friends at peer institutions going back. The thought usually evokes a bit of frantic preparation for new classes, prompts a planning session on last-minute summer goals and anticipated needs for the fall, and issues reminders to get in my best rest and exercise before life becomes too crazy for both. 

In the final weeks and days of summer, I begin to remember everything I love about the fresh start of the new school year, and I anticipate with joy the opportunity to interact with new faces eager to learn new things that I have the privilege to teach. I reorganize my calendar’s block schedule that dictates how I hope to organize my time each week, I set new office hours for my graduate students, and I settle to bed giddy with the thought of what I will wear for the first day of class.


from guest mentor Elizabeth Harper

Ha, I actually have a checklist for this! Here is a general version:
  1. Put EVERYTHING into Google Calendar, which I can access on my phone (I also copy everything into my paper planner so that I can see what the semester looks like)
    a. course times
    b. travel dates
    c. recurring meetings
    d. fitness classes
    e. breaks for my university and my kids’ school (these do not always match up)
    f. other times I want to reserve, such as research time on Tuesday and Thursday mornings, daily exercise, etc.
    g. anything I need to be reminded to do, such as calling a friend once a week, paying bills, or seasonal gardening tasks
  2. Finish writing syllabi.
  3. Create systems for each class:
    a. set up signups for any due date that is individualized (for example, memory work recitations, special presentations, etc) using Google Docs
    b. schedule library days, visits to computer lab, or film screening days if appropriate, including reserving rooms
    c. create calendar for each course on Excel, save as csv (Make sure “subject” comes first, then “start date”) so it’s easy to upload to Google Calendar
    d. upload it to Google Calendar
  4. Set up Excel spreadsheets for:
    a. attendance
    b. assignments that are brought to class but not turned in
  5. Print spreadsheets
  6. Set up Blackboard sites, including: 
    a. create links so students can easily contact me
    b. set up groups for different sections
    c. set up gradebook

It’s also important to build in time to socialize with colleagues, because everyone comes back from the summer break really friendly and ready to chat. This doesn’t happen after winter break, though I’m not sure why.


from guest mentor Diane Schanzenbach

When this question came in, I had an inbox full of emails from journal editors demanding that I turn in overdue referee reports, and one of my sons presented me with a long list of things — such as a trip to a water park — that he still wanted us to do this summer. I thought to myself, “Oh no! I’m still behind on my summer, don’t tell me it’s time to think about fall already!” I love the relaxed summer schedule, when I can hunker down and work on my research without interruptions of teaching and meetings, and can find time to sneak out for an afternoon bike ride or trip to the pool with my family.
Upon reflection, I do have some practices. The first is to try to not start the new academic year already behind! For me, that means setting aside enough time to clear out referee reports and get as much prepped for my fall teaching as possible. I’m fortunate that I’m not prepping any new courses, but I also find that preparing teaching expands to fill as much time as you will give it. As a result, I set aside only a week or two to update my problem sets, slides, and notes. To aid in this process, I’ve learned that I need to write up notes after each class session that I teach about things that I want to change next time for each lecture (e.g. ways to make particular concepts clearer or more interesting). I also make notes on the overall syllabus and its flow at the end of the term. I know if I don’t write it down, I’ll never remember the next time I teach it!
The second is to set goals or resolutions, and to help my graduate students do the same. This year’s resolutions include giving up my daily inbox zero goal (that’s just not something that works for me, and it makes me stressed out!)  and to not check email on my phone obsessively when I should instead by interacting with my husband or kids. I also set short-term goals for the year, and encourage my graduate students to do the same at the beginning of each quarter. Northwestern’s graduate school has a terrific tool to assist in this, which I use for my students and myself.
When the new students arrive, the day before class starts I always send an email to the students, welcoming them to class and asking them to send me a brief bio, including major, class, hometown, why they picked the course (or major), and another interesting fact about themselves. I think it is important to learn the students’ names, but I’ve found as my classes get larger (and perhaps as I get older!) it’s hard to learn everyone’s name without putting effort into it. Now I use a flashcard app on my phone and upload a photo, their name, and some of these facts to learn names. Since it’s on my phone, I can steal a few minutes waiting in carpool line or when I’ve got a bit of time between meetings to learn and review the names. It makes the students happier that I know their names, and is well worth the effort.


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