Thursday, March 25, 2010

Invaluable and Useless at the Same Time

I keep my teaching notes in my office file cabinet. The top drawer is folders for specific texts, authors, or teaching topics. The next drawer is not as full, and is for composition assignments and such. I also stuff committee notes in there.

Last week, I couldn't find one of my teaching files, the one for "The Nun's Priest's Tale." Fortunately, I'd worked through the notes for the library series, so they were fairly fresh in my memory. And I had a handout (computer file). But I didn't have my actual notes, so I had to reread some extra stuff and put things back together again to teach it.

And then, of course, I found it hidden behind the notes for "The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale" earlier this week. It had to have been there the whole time. I'm relieved to have it back.

If I were smart, I'd alphabetize or organize the notes by author, class, or something sensible. But I just stuff them in there. (My office books, on the other hand, are alphabetized in groups: Shakespeare, Theory and Crit, Med/Ren lit, and Modern Lit.)

It occured to me as I was searching for the NPT file that my teaching files are pretty much invaluable to me. I use them every teaching day. I depend on them. I make up a new file for each text, and try to make it good enough that I can use it again.

But they'd be absolutely useless to anyone else because the value of them comes in large part from having worked through how to teach the text (or whatever) and put things together for myself. So even if I handed them to someone teaching the text for the first time, they wouldn't be that helpful.

When I retire, of course, I'll toss my teaching notes. But if I die before I retire or clean out the cabinet, someone else will have to toss them all.

If I do it, I imagine I'll take my time, thinking back over times I've taught the NPT or WoB, looking at the thick Lear notes. But if someone else does it, they'll probably just grab armloads as big as they can and dump.


  1. The only class for which I have notes peerlessly organized is ancient civ. Every topic has its own folder which is filed in perfect order because I prepared to within an inch of my life for that completely new subfield.

    It pays off and now I'm trying to move my medieval and early modern teach notes into a similar state of organization. I'll fail, of course!

  2. Anonymous9:54 AM

    In the last 15 years I've had two colleagues retire, and clean out their files: I BEGGED them to allow me to dig thru first. They are priceless.

  3. Hey, maybe you should write about teaching that material???

  4. Earnest, I'm not quite sure exactly what the "that" in your comment is. Do you mean I should try to talk about teaching Lear or such?

  5. ALL of my teaching notes are on computer, for the most part with one monster document per major work (as in, a document 30-50 pages long for, say, The Scarlet Letter). It's a good but not perfect system.

    A colleague of mine, on the other hand, makes a point of destroying his teaching notes every single year so that he'll have to re-think the text each time. I'm all for keeping things fresh but don't find reinventing the wheel a good use of my time, so I have no intention of copying that particular strategy!