When Organization Fails

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This post originally appeared on March 25, 2014.

I am both very organized and a complete organizational nightmare.  I am thankful that computers can easily and quickly search documents for key words.  I would never find old teaching material otherwise, because I am both a hoarder of the old stuff and a person who dallies with organizing systems, then tosses them aside.  (I did finally purge a large portion of my paper files last year, but I’ve still got a box of teaching files that I want to keep on hand.)

Now that I have about a decade’s worth of teaching files – some paper, but mostly now digital – I am terrified by this fact.  While I don’t want to be that straw man version of a professor pulling out the yellowed old lecture notes, I also know that I like to refer to my old notes as I plan to re-teach texts.  I want to look back at what I’ve done before and figure out what worked well, or even what didn’t work the last time I taught a particular work of literature.

This came back to me with some force as I’ve been preparing to teach Tartuffe to my world lit students.  I’ve taught the play a few times, but it’s been more than 5 years since I’ve done so.  I realized that I wanted to look at what I did last time I taught the course, even though I really won’t use many of those ideas.  I mostly just wanted to see what types of discussion questions I had asked last time around, to see if anything inspired me this time around.  Fortunately, I could find these by that search function, because I surely wouldn’t have found them just looking through the files on my laptop or my external hard drive.

But that really doesn’t get at the heart of the problem, which is that as college professors we tend to acquire a lot of stuff.  And we have to do something with that stuff.  I’ve got decent organizational patterns in place for my own scholarship and for any campus service that I do, but that’s mostly because I don’t repeat the same things over and over again – and because those files don’t serve the multiple purposes that my teaching files have to serve.  So I’ve been thinking about how to manage the files this semester from the get-go, something especially important to me because I’ve got four separate preps this semester (3 literature courses, 1 composition course).

As I’ve been thinking about organizing the materials, I’ve realized that I need to think about the multiple purposes of keeping teaching files and planning charts.  The first purpose is the more immediate one: I need to know what I’m doing class-to-class, and what I’ve done in previous classes.  The second purpose is to hang on to records over the long term, mostly for the possibility of future reference (something that digital storage makes much more possible, as I seem to occasionally move across the country for work).

In the past, I’ve had a tendency to just name things for the date that I did them in class, with the hope that I’ll go back and resort them later.  This means that I have a lot of files titled things like “February 20” – but with no reference to the course or to the material in them.  There’s also the problem of working on both my home computer and my office computer.  I use Dropbox for a lot of things, but that requires installation on a computer not my own, so this semester I’m trying Google Drive, which allows me to work at home and in the office on documents.  I’m also trying to keep titles descriptive, or at least numeric – a document titled 206Sept5 is the plan I’ve made for my world literature course for September 5, and I’m trying to do the same with titling any presentations (so a presentation titled 206Sept5 is a presentation relevant to that particular class period).  This doesn’t solve the long-term storage problem, but it does at least start me with a consistent system for titling things, something that has become a problem in the past with mini-lessons that I’ve used in PowerPoint or other presentation software.

On top of that, before the semester began, I spent a good chunk of time creating charts for each class that included the reading assignment, the relevant writing assignment, the relevant course objectives, and/or potential lecture topics (it totally depends on the course, but you get the general idea).  It’s something that I think will help me keep on track, and, perhaps most importantly, help me stay in control as I undertake this complex semester of learning the ropes of a new institution, teaching 4 preps (2 completely new, one  a course I’ve taught before with a textbook I taught in a very, very early version).

This is, I suppose, the lament of every person who teaches.  So I suppose I’d like to hear from you, dear readers: How do you keep yourself organized when it comes to teaching materials?  And should I just give up on the old stuff and simply create things anew and hope for the best?

About the Author
Emily Isaacson received her BA from Augustana College (Illinois) and her MA and PhD from the University of Missouri. Previously at Chowan University, where she was the coordinator of the Chowan Critical Thinking Program, Emily is now working as an assistant professor of English at Heidelberg University. She has presented her work on early modern literature and on teaching literature at meetings of the Shakespeare Association of America, the Renaissance Society of America, South Atlantic Modern Language Association, and the College English Association. She also frequently reviews books about teaching literature in the classroom.