Wednesday, May 12, 2010

In between

There are two directions to look during an academic year -- backwards and forwards. This particular moment is poised on the cusp; it's time to look in both directions.

I spent the day reviewing the complete transcripts of everyone in our program. That's the essence of backwards-looking, and it can be quite enlightening. We all have an idea what happened among our student population in the last year, from our various perspectives and informants. But it's not until the data is available that we get a true global view. What's the truth behind the intimations of disaster or triumph that were whispered in the hallways? Who succeeded, who failed, and what was the overall trend line?

Grade review day, though, is also the beginning of serious forward-looking. We begin preparing to welcome the new incoming class. There are syllabi to be perfected. And everything we found out about our students' records triggers a set of actions and decisions that unfold for the next few months -- some need to enroll in summer school to bring up their grades, others rethink their majors.

There's no clear dividing line between what's behind and what's ahead in an academic year, although the definitive dates on the calendar give that illusion. Ideally, those syllabi you begin creating or revising around this time are built on a foundation ideas born of past experience -- maybe even the very recent past. Those incoming students got selected during the previous spring, based on values and processes invented in prior years. What becomes concrete in August is, in some ways, the manifestation of the past. We enjoy the renewal that comes with each academic year, but we shouldn't hope for a revolution. We'll always get the next year we deserve.

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