It's a marathon, not a sprint

At the risk of being accused of stretching my metaphors a bit -- and what metaphor isn't stretched when applied? isn't that the very character of metaphors, which by definition transfer elements from one domain to another? -- it seems to me that the course of a semester is in many ways like that marvel of modern athleticism, the regular season of organized professional Major League baseball. One always hears that the regular season is not a sprint (at least, not until the last few weeks if division races are tight), but a marathon; the test of a good baseball team is not whether it can win a few games, even a few games in a row, but whether it can consistently perform at a high level over the course of a grueling six-month season and a schedule of 162 games.

Why is the semester like this? Because the true test of whether you're doing a good job is not if one particular day or one particular week goes well, but if the effect of the whole achieves the desired level of engagement. In the end it is the long term that matters far more than any individual session or encounter.

One can think of the regular season of Major League baseball as, in effect if not in deliberate design, a giant machine for discounting random fluctuations.1 Yes, a team may win any given game because of a bad call by an umpire or a ball taking a bad hop in front of the shortstop which leads to a two-run error, but over the course of the entire season such random happenstances will cancel one another out, and we will be left with some teams having a record better than others -- and we can say with a high level of confidence that they have a better record because they simply played the game better over the course of the season. The same cannot be said of sports with absurdly short regular seasons, or of competitions where the winner is basically chosen at random.

Now, classroom teaching is not competitive in the same way. One does not accumulate a record of success by defeating other classes; instead, one simply tries to go out and have a good season by performing well, and there's no reason why every class can't be succeeding at once. In a way, I think of it as playing against myself, or against other classes that I've taught -- can this semester of this course go in the record-books as roughly comparable to other instances? Is the experience rewarding for all concerned? Could it be better -- not necessarily more enjoyable in the short-term, which is a marketing question in which I am generally not interested, but richer, thicker, more challenging and generally more complex?

The semester is also like regular-season baseball in that the early days of both are largely about figuring out what you have to work with. In my classes this semester I tend to oscillate between the "pitching" and "batting" roles; I pitch when I lecture, and I bat when I am facilitating a discussion and basically taking critical swings at whatever someone chooses to toss out in an effort to get them to specify and defend their position a bit better. I find that I spend the first couple of class sessions just trying to get the feel of the class, to see who's a "free swinger" willing to take a crack at whatever I toss out there, who has "perfect-pitch-itis" and refrains from speaking up until they think that they can make the most exquisite point, who's aggressive, who's cautious, and so forth. Once we start to develop some sense of one another, it becomes easier for us to engage in a good discussion or other positive pedagogical interactions. But first we have to get through the initial couple of weeks.

Thank goodness it's a marathon.

1Don't get me started on how the scheduling in contemporary Major League Baseball is completely messed up and unbalanced. Largely because of interleague play, each team faces a different combination of opponents within a given year, and faces them under different conditions -- one can't be assured of having the same number of games against each opponent as the other members of one's division or league, and certainly can't be assured of having an equal number of games against each opponent at home and away. So in a certain sense things aren't fair by design . . . but it's still better in MLB than in other sports.

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