This semester seems to be ending in stages. We planned to send students home at Thanksgiving and teach the remainder of the semester online. Then a spike in COVID infections in the wider population and a state shutdown of schools and universities in response pulled us out of the classroom a week early. Some semesters build toward a final crescendo of exhaustion and, if all went well, a little satisfaction. This one sometimes feels as if it is gradually unravelling toward its final whimper. None of us are exactly sure what kind of reality awaits us as we disperse. All the more reason to be thinking consciously about how it will end.
I have been aware for quite a long time of the importance of beginnings for teaching and learning. On the first day of class, and in the first week of the semester, first impressions are created that can be hard work to undo. Students are consciously or unconsciously assessing how hard the class will be, what it will feel like to be in it, what kind of teacher I am, what kind of human beings surround them. I have labored in various ways to get the beginnings right. It has only been more recently that I have started focusing more intentionally on endings, and on what they might mean educationally.
The moment that really got me thinking about this occurred a few years ago, during a conversation with a colleague about liturgy and pedagogy. I had recently begun to think about time as something given shape in my courses, prompted by Abraham Heschel’s talk of an “architecture of time” in his book on The Sabbath, and by Jonathan Tran’s reflections on what happens when impose our experience of time on others in his book on theologies of memory.1 As my colleague and I felt our way round ideas about liturgy, time, and teaching, it struck me that there is quite a contrast in how church liturgies and college classes end. The church liturgies that I have experienced typically end with a blessing and a commission. The speech acts that bring things to a meaningful close are “the Lord bless you and keep you” and “go in peace to love and serve the Lord,” or some similar formulation. God’s favor is spoken over us, and the final note is anticipation that we will continue to walk and grow in faith in the days ahead, that the service is over but its trajectory is not finished. The college classes that I have experienced, on the other hand, typically end with a judgement and a dismissal. Even if there is sharing of food or stories in the last week of class meetings, the last thing that usually happens is students take an exam, a grade is posted online somewhere for them to find, and after that there is no further interaction. The notes can be recycled, the textbooks returned, the episode is over, and if students ever email me again they often begin with the distressing phrase, “You may not remember me, but I was in your class.” I already knew that I needed to worry about how classes started. I realized that I had not given enough thought to how they ended.
That conversation was provocation enough to get me to begin changing how several of my classes ended. I don’t believe much in a one-size-fits-all, “best practice” (best for whom?) approach to pedagogical design, so I am not about to offer a recipe, just a testimony. I’ll focus on a class than I have taught for many years and am now teaching again, a class on world language pedagogy for future teachers of Chinese, ESL, French, German, Japanese, Latin, and Spanish. My university currently has a 13-week semester followed by an exam week during which faculty are technically required to offer an exam, though permission can be gained for other assessment options if a rationale is provided. For more than a decade I have been using collaborative curriculum design projects and student presentations as the final assessment in place of a regular written exam. This lets me see students developing lesson plans and teaching in front of an audience of peers and invited local teachers, rather than just seeing them write essays, so it provides quite a rich basis for assessment. I send feedback alongside the grade. Yet thinking about liturgical endings led to some changes in how the end of the semester is arranged.
What I do now goes something like this. I schedule the final student presentations and the due date for their curriculum projects for the final scheduled class session. Though exam week is still to come, I make clear to students that this is the final assessment activity after which nothing further will contribute to their grade. I also make clear that it is not the final meeting. Since we have used the final class session for assessment, in place of the scheduled exam, they still owe me a class session, and we still have a time allotted on the exam schedule for the following week. I let students know that we will still use that time, and attendance is expected.
In fact, we usually end up meeting at different times, for two reasons. First, because of when this class is scheduled, it is generally one of the last exams on the exam timetable. It is often possible through negotiation for us to schedule the final class meeting at a time that works for everyone earlier in the week. That can help students with significant travel ahead to get home in good time for Christmas. Second, I have realized over the last few years that the final class session works much better if I divide the class into groups of six or so and meet each group separately than if I have the whole class meet at once. This commits me to some extra time, but also makes flexible scheduling easier and makes it seem more important to show up. The first time I tried this extra class meeting, only two thirds showed up, some having correctly divined the lack of consequences for not attending. I do not know whether it is the only factor (I hope I have also become better at explaining to students why it matters), but since I started organizing it more as focus groups I have so far not had a single student fail to show for the last meeting.
I currently use five questions to structure this final discussion:
- What was the most significant learning moment or process for you during the semester? Why was it significant? Why did it work?
- What is one thing that you learned this semester that you do not want to get lost in the bustle of life moving on, one thing that you want to be a permanent part of your thinking and your work? How can you carry it forward? What are your strategies for not letting it slip away?
- What is one thing that you are still working on, one thing that you still need to learn or more fully internalize? How might you continue working on it?
- What is one way in which the course could be improved pedagogically to help next year’s students?
- What challenges face you in the coming weeks and months? What makes you anxious about next semester? How can I pray for you?
Several intentions lie behind these questions. The course is about pedagogy, and the exercise gives us one last chance to think explicitly about the forms of teaching and learning in which we have been immersed and see if we can critique and improve them. The course is preparing students for a profession in which ongoing learning is going to be vital to their success, and so I want the course to finish with an emphasis on continuing growth rather than completion and banking of credit. Questions 1, 3, and 4 help me to review the course for next time. We do have written course evaluations, but in a conversation in which I ask students to think aloud about what they still need to learn, it seems important that I put my own need to continue learning on the table too. Students always have thoughtful and constructive suggestions that can help me teach better, and I usually find this discussion more helpful than the course evaluation forms. Finally, there is a faint liturgical echo. I want the course to end with a blessing and a commission, not with a judgement and a dismissal. After students have shared their responses to the fifth question, I pray for them, thank them for their work, and send them off into the break.
In The Sabbath, Heschel points out that in the Bible, time is not just a succession of intervals. It is shaped into significant ebbs and flows that shape experience of the world. As he puts it,
“Judaism is a religion of time aiming at the sanctification of time. Unlike the space-minded man to whom time is unvaried, iterative, homogeneous, to whom all hours are alike, qualitiless, empty shells, the Bible senses the diversified character of time. There are no two hours alike. Every hour is unique and the only one given at the moment, exclusive and endlessly precious…Jewish ritual may be characterized as the art of significant forms in time, as architecture of time.”2
I remain intrigued by the idea of an “architecture of time,” and how it might affect that way I plan courses as well as individual class sessions. It’s relatively easy to think of faith as affecting our words, our character, and our relationships. How might it affect the ways in which we shape time for ourselves and our students? I wonder how the overall university experience might be affected if classes typically ended with reflection together on how we have changed, how we still need to change, and how we might bless one another going forward. This year, as we improvise our way toward a digitally distanced finish line, the final conversation will in some ways be easier as we gather on a screen from wherever we are, unhampered by classroom schedules or flight reservations. I hope that we can use the time to lend weight to what we have achieved together in a difficult semester, to our need to continue to grow, whatever the future brings, and to our deep need for blessing. This year, ending well seems more important than ever.
(This reflection is adapted from a piece previously published in late 20193)
For more about time in CSR see: https://christianscholars.com/in-search-of-sacred-time-jacobus-de-voragine-and-the-golden-legend/